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 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.
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.