Historic Pub Crawl in the City of London

Map of pubs in the City of London, 1968.

Having accumulated a nice pile of old pub guides, we decided to use them as inspiration for a pub crawl in the City of London last week.

Though the 1986 East London and City Pub Guide put together by the local branch of the Campaign for Real Ale is an entertaining read  (among other signs of its age, it notes which pubs are ‘popular with gays’), we found it too comprehensive for our purposes.

Instead, we turned, once again, to Tony White and Martin Green and their 1968 Guide to London Pubs. A compact paperback, for each region of central London (the authors weren’t much interested in anything beyond Zone 2) it offers a map and a short list of recommended pubs.

Those suggestions are based on the atmosphere and character of the pubs rather than the quality of the beer, which is just as well, as most of the brands listed are long gone.

There are 12 pubs recommended under City, and we decided to tackle four: the Black Friar (or Blackfriar) at Blackfriars; the Horn on Knightrider Street; the Olde Dr Butler’s Head; and the Cloth Hand and Shears. Each pub is between five and fifteen minutes walk from the next.

The Black Friar, Queen Victoria Street

This flat-iron corner pub is now run by pub chain Nicholson’s. It is much-loved for its quirky art nouveau architecture and décor (though Ian Nairn didn’t like it), though on our visit, most of the drinkers were there, we suspect, for reasons of convenience. Back in ’68, the clientèle was, according to Green and White, ‘business, journalists, printers’. The printers and journalists are gone, but, thanks to Nicholson’s commitment to cask-conditioned beer, there is still a ‘wide range of draught beers’. We enjoyed Great Heck Citra, but wished for the Younger’s Scotch Ale listed in the book.

The Black Friar, or Blackfriar, at, er, Blackfriars.

The Horn, Knightrider Street (aka the Centre Page)

One pint down, we took a five minute walk along Queen Victoria Street and then turned left just before the College of Arms.

The Horn, which dates back to the eighteenth century, is referred to by Dickens in Pickwick Papers… Later on, after the Great War, it employed ten barmaids; today, after a slight decline, it is rapidly gaining in popularity. Ladies are very welcome (not true of all City pubs), coffee is available at all times and there is a plentiful supply of food… One of the most unpleasant and unspoiled of City drinking haunts. (G&W 1968)

Well, it’s bloody well been spoiled now. At some point, this back street pub near St Paul’s was renamed The Centre Page to fit in with a Fleet Street theme. It would be hard to imagine a pub with less soul, every vestige of character apparently having been thrown in a skip to make a large, wipe-clean space for the crowds which descend between 6 p.m. and 7:30 on most week-nights.

We drank Moorhouse’s Blond Witch which was very nearly off but not quite, and warm to boot, and left feeling deflated, wishing we’d ordered coffee.

The Olde Dr Butler’s Head, Mason’s Avenue

Green and White — journalists, not historians — tell this story about the ODBH:

The original Dr Butler prescribed a cask of his medicinal ale for King James I’s sciatica, for which he was made a Court Physician and given an honorary degree in medicine… He founded the inn, which takes its name from him, some time before 1616… [and] it was here that he used to sell the medicinal ale which he brewed himself.

Like Ye Olde Mitre on Hatton Garden, it feels like an invention of Peter Ackroyd — a small piece of Old London lost up an easy-to-miss pedestrian alleyway between hulking, grey modern buildings. Inside, it was pleasingly dark and cosy, though less charmingly decrepit than similar Samuel Smith-owned pubs.

Leaning on a shelf, we tried to enjoy pints of Whitstable Bay Pale Ale, but it was barely drinkable — that ‘distinctive’ Shepherd Neame character made yet more ‘distinctive’ by being allowed to become stale and warm. Again, not actually off, but not at all good. Even if we’d wanted to take it back, we’d have had to fight through a crowd of well-oiled blokes in ‘insurance, banking, stock-broking’: this pub is certainly as popular with that crowd today as it was back in 1968.

Not the Hand & Shears

After two mediocre pubs in a row, we were beginning to run out of steam, and then got lost trying to find a pub near Smithfield which Green and White inform us was once known colloquially as the ‘Fist & Clippers’.  As we walked past a Fuller’s mega-pub — The Butcher’s Hook & Cleaver — and saw a full bank of cask ales and Bengal Lancer, London Porter and even Golden Pride on keg, we crumbled. The crawl ended there.

The Butcher’s Hook is in the West London brewery’s corporate style — shiny orange wood, lots of glossy promotional material — but the bar staff were the first all night who took the time to chat to us, and Golden Pride (at something like £4.50 a half…) came in suitably swanky brandy snifters. Pints of ESB were in tip-top condition, too, restoring our faith in City cellar-men.

So, a failure and victory all in one.

Reflections

It might not seem it from the above description, but this was a fun exercise. There was a little enjoyable detective work in locating the renamed Horn, and plenty of interest to see between pubs.

What made us sad (apart from duff pints) was the sense that pub companies and breweries seem to have lost the knack of preserving, or even faking, character: three of the four pubs we visited seemed too polished, too thickly varnished, and lacking a real sense of place.

Some pubs on the 1968 crawl, such as the Printers’ Devil on Fetter Lane, have disappeared altogether, becoming offices or shops, and perhaps that offers a clue to where the character of some of the surviving pubs has gone: the diverse trades pushed out of the City in the course of the last forty years have left behind them only a generic kind of ‘office worker’.

Who wants to drink at the Laptop & Blackberry or the Olde Risk Assessor?

A final tip: if you’re tempted to tackle this or a similar crawl, try to reward yourself by finishing at a pub you know is half-decent. The Black Friar, we decided, was the best pub of the night, and we should have crawled in reverse order.

15 thoughts on “Historic Pub Crawl in the City of London”

  1. “the sense that pub companies and breweries seem to have lost the knack of preserving, or even faking, character” – as I have blogged in the past, character and tradition in pubs seem to be valued much less now than they were a couple of decades ago. Some people, such as those who think Wetherspoons are great because they sell ten cask beers, give the impression of being completely blind to that aspect of pubs.

  2. Funnily enough myself and Mrs Lord Egbert Nobacon did a similar crawl recently based on some of my old haunts when I worked in Fleet Street and came to much the same conclusion as you.
    We started in The Tipperary on Fleet Street – now I remember this place as being a superb pub but now it’s basically a dump. Dirty,smelly with a crap beer selection.
    Next up the Blackfriars – it might have been the overpowering smell of puke that initially put us off but a couple of pints of very tired ale ( sorry,can’t remember which ) didn’t help – and then a slow realisation dawned on us.
    Hardly anyone was drinking beer and hardly anyone was over the age of 40.
    We too tried the Horn next and again the beer was really not very nice and the crowd of shrieking secretaries and their Marks and Spencer-suited paramours were becoming hard to take.
    After that we gave up and went for a bite to eat
    Once the journos and inkies left Fleet Street the character of the pubs in the area changed – from all day and all night drinking the pubs basically have an hour at lunchtime and a little longer in the evening before the bridge and tunnel crowd head home. Beery sessions just don’t fit their remit any more.

    1. In 1968, Dirty Dick’s was one of a chain of fourteen pubs bearing the same name across London, would you believe.

      1. I remember those pubs – as in, I’d forgotten them completely until this minute. They must have hung on a bit beyond 1968, though. As I remember it, from an under-age drinker’s perspective Dirty Dick’s had a real “kids in the year above you” vibe – lively, accessible & not too grown-up, but with the glamour of being a bit adult and forbidding; nobody was going to look after you if you went there, and you’d probably end up getting drunk!!!. Very much the kind of vibe that Firkin nailed a bit later.

  3. Bad beer is far more common than good beer in The City. If your client base is mainly middle managers swigging Peroni it’s not hard to see why. At least The Pelt Trader’s opened give local worker drones like me somewhere reliable to drink.

  4. I found myself feeling really sorry for you that you never made the Hand & Shears. It’s superb and well worth hunting out (the Olde Red Cow is very close by, too, a wonderful one-two of pubby charm and swanky craft beer bar).

  5. Lord Nobacon has the matter precisely right. I worked on Holborn Circus from 1978 till the mid-80’s, and once Fleet St departed, the whole area changed. None of the pubs round there are anything like they were in those days.
    For what it’s worth, I feel like you about these new-ish Fullers banking hall conversions – rather soulless, but they are very popular with office workers, who don’t seem to miss the old pub atmosphere, if they ever knew it.

    1. I can’t count the pints I’ve had in London – every part – had that were similar to your average experience. This is discouraging, but it’s the same here too (where real ale so-called is served). No one cares enough unfortunately, so that the successes seem ever more intermittent. I know it is not like that everywhere and people can cite their preferred local where the beer is reliable. But you should be able to walk into a pub anywhere, depleted Fleet Street, Old Street area, Hackney boho chic, Knightsbridge, Harley Street/Marlybone, anywhere, and get a decent pint of bitter. This issue reaches beyond that of pub styles and atmosphere. For gosh sake if the beer isn’t the stock-in-trade of every pub in the land, what is? No wonder CAMRA had to be created, and it is still needed if it is not to go all keg (even if some of the keg is better today and has a grapefruit taste).

      Gary

      1. I correct: it is not that “no one cares enough” of course. It is that relatively few care enough. Fuller is a shining light here, they get it and that is why their legacy is huge in this area. Almost every Fuller pub I’ve been to is reliable. Star Tavern, Belgrave Mews it may be, or Jackson’s old Doves, or the corporate-banking looking houses in the City (and elsewhere) – doesn’t matter, the beer is almost always tops. Young’s was in a similar category before the loss of independence, and today I am sure you can still get a drop of good Young’s but the last one I had was cloudy and dull. Maybe it was just bad luck.

        Gary

        1. Which gets us back to Curmudgeon’s point about Spoons. Apart from being places where you can get out of the wind, pay sports club prices for a good range of well-kept cask beer, and (if the mood takes you) have a Garfunkel’s-type meal for half the price, there’s nothing to recommend JDWs’ – by and large they’re dreadful soulless barns. But those points in favour are pretty big ones. I’m not going to start enjoying dull and badly-kept beer because it’s being served in a pub with lots of character.

  6. the Black Friar is a good pub IMO, it does get very busy post office hours certainly always struggled for a seat whenever Ive visited after work down there,and with Shaws booksellers & the Cockpit just round the proverbial corner, serving decent cask ale as well, there is choice/competition, its not quite like the identikit wine bar feel from up around St Pauls area, or through lack of choice people are there. there can be a bit of a niff sometimes,but I think thats because the drains block up quite easily, its not the fault of the pub. actually the biggest issue is most of the pubs round there shut at weekends or have shortened hours, which does make planning a pub crawl tricky.

    shame you missed Dirty Dicks out, its always been highly recommended to me. even though Ive yet to visit it myself 🙂 but I always find pubs near Liverpool St hard to visit as Im always either arriving to go somewhere else, or rushing back and cant spare the time

  7. ODBH is shep neame not ss as you eventually mention 😉 suspect the hoop & grapes is a better shep neame pub in the vicinity, although its quite small?

    the bell on fleet st is *half* decent, another nicks house I think, and as I’ve mentioned before, I have a very soft spot for dirty dicks for no explicable reason, there’s just something very pubby about it…

    1. Actually, the best chain pub I went to in central London was the Nicholson’s owned Wellington in The Strand. Had a nice pint of Brain’s The Reverend and a half of Old Leg Over with a ploughman’s. The salad was shockingly good. Pomegranate seeds and edamame made it feel like someone had put some thought into the matter. I can’t say I was massively impressed by the American family down the wall who all ordered fish and chips, but it did look fried nicely. Nary a one used vinegar.

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