Pub History: Field Work in West London

Tap on the Line, Kew.

After spending an afternoon reading about pubs in the National Archives at Kew we were keen to actually visit some and so decided on a crawl through the West London heartland of Fuller’s.

We started, as the sun began to set, at The Tap on the Line which is, handily, right on the platform at Kew station. A converted railway buffet bar inspired we guess by the Sheffield Tap, it’s also a bit like a mini version of the Parcel Yard at King’s Cross with which it shares a tendency to vintage tiling and scrubbed wood. There was lots of eating, not much seating, and a row of keg taps on the back wall. The ubiquitous Edison bulbs were also present and correct. It’s easy to admire the good taste with which it’s been put together, and pubs at stations are A Good Thing, but it did feel, frankly, a bit like drinking in the kitchen department of John Lewis.

Window at the Old Pack Horse, Chiswick.

On the tube to Gunnersbury we pondered what we did like in a Fuller’s pub and, rather to our own surprise, found ourselves thinking, wistfully, that we hoped the next one would be one of the mid-2000s refurbs with shiny orange wood and the full range of cask ales. With that in mind, The Old Pack Horse on Chiswick High Road was a sight for sore eyes: a grand, vaguely-art-nouveau exterior from 1905 with frosted windows full of gleaming light, advertising Public and Saloon bars. Though the interior was spacious there seemed to be lots of corners, cubby-holes and screens making it feel quite intimate. An antique metal sign advertising The Empire Bar lurked in the shadows above the bar evoking the period of pomp when the pub was built. The beer offer was cask-led… just — a new craft beer menu (mostly in bottles) was in the process of being rolled out, and was being pushed fairly hard by staff. The Thai restaurant at the back was a genuinely pleasing reminder of a decade ago when every pub in London seemed to have the same.

George IV, exterior view.

A little further along the busy main road was the George IV — just the kind of between-the-wars Improved Public House we’d been reading about for the preceding few days. Palatial in scale but plain in appearance, it was the first pub on our crawl where Saturday night really seemed to be kicking off. People were in party clothes, beards oiled and nails painted, and the bar was a three-deep scrum. It seemed a bit of a barn with its one big, echoing space but we reckon that’s original — the work of frock-coated pre-WWII licensing magistrates insistent on full supervision, with the central bar a kind of panopticon from where the publican could play the part of policeman to make sure no-one was having too much fun.

Duke of York, exterior view.

After this we cut into the back streets where we stumbled upon the Duke of York. It couldn’t have felt more different to the George despite being of a similar vintage. Another 00s refurb of a between-the-wars pub, The Duke retains two bars, public and saloon — and not just the suggestion of two bars, mind you, but an apparently genuine segregation, with solo gents seated at their crosswords in the latter while the former was standing only, football on the telly and pool underway. Snatches of conversation in various accents rose above the chatter now and then: ‘Now, you know I’m a patient sort of bloke, but I told him…’; ‘After you, dear boy, after you, ha ha, jolly good!’ We were conscious of being strangers — a couple of curious glances came our way — and yet also felt the most comfortable we had all evening. Whatever magic makes a pub feel right, this seemed to have it.

With some sadness we pushed on heading through a spotlessly clean underpass beneath the Westway and into the shadow of Fuller’s Griffin Brewery. There we found The George & Devonshire, another big, smart, bright pub that open but almost empty. A couple on a date fed each other pasta while an elderly regular sat at the bar making conversation with the friendly woman behind the bar, who was puzzled about where everyone was. (At the George IV, apparently.) It wasn’t unpleasant by any means but was a bit of a comedown after the warm buzz of the Duke of York.

Salutation, Hammersmith.

After a wander along the riverside and a failed attempt to get through the door of The Dove, full to bursting with singing rugby fans, we ended up at one of the most beautiful pubs in London: the extravagantly purple Salutation in Hammersmith, a last gasp of peacockish Victorian gin palace extravagance before brewers began to tone it down in a search for respectability. The interior suffers from a corporate makeover with boutique-hotel-style wallpaper and nowhere to sit which isn’t exposed. As on a previous visit, we were struck by the cheery good humour of the bar staff, which made us think that it must be a pleasant place to work.

After six pubs covering various stages of architectural history, as well as several phases in Fuller’s attempts to stay With It, we left with a faint anxiety. We’re not sure this particular brewery need be so obsessed with getting involved in Craft Beer, especially if it’s at the expense of what they do best, and what makes them almost unique in London: brilliant cask-conditioned bitter, best bitter and strong bitter, served in great old pubs. Yes, it’s good to see the odd guest beer; it doesn’t do much harm to have bottles behind the bar; and a keg IPA is no bad idea. But, still, it’s worrying that we only had one really great pint of cask Fuller’s beer all evening — Bengal Lancer IPA at the Duke of York — and, in one case (The George IV) were served London Pride that was almost headless, completely lifeless and even a bit hazy.

This news, which landed while we were finishing on passable but un-exciting glasses of ESB, only compounded our gloom:

But, then again, the pub with the worst beer was heaving, even if everyone was drinking wine and lager, and the pub with the best beer was kind of quiet for a weekend evening. So what do we know about anything?

16 thoughts on “Pub History: Field Work in West London”

  1. You should have said – my office is just around the corner from the George IV (which was closed for a full refurb not long ago, by the way), and I’d have welcomed an excuse for a pint!

    1. It’s a shame you didn’t find the Mawson’s Arms open – I’ve never had less then good beer in there. Not too surprisingly, given that the brewers drink there. Another good one I found recently by chance was the Cross Keys on Black Lion Lane – Chiswick/Hammersmith borders, I guess.

      1. We were sort of heading towards the Mawson Arms when it occurred to us to check the opening times. We’ll get there one day, maybe when we finally get round to doing the brewery tour.

        Finding pubs by chance is our favourite way, to be honest — a bit of a gamble, the slight thrill on walking through the door, etc.

  2. Sounds like a good crawl! I do find Fullers pubs to be really hit and miss, especially in the West End where they pander to tourists. However I think that in terms of embracing a craft offering Fuller’s seem to be doing a lot better than a lot of other regional/family brewers. I love that the Parcel Yard stocks Orval for example – not just focusing on the pale and hoppy end of the spectrum. Not a lot of other regionals are making this much considered thought over their range.

    My absolute favourite Fuller’s Pub is The Holly Bush in Hampstead Village. All polished wood and leather upholstery and hidden away down a little back street. Have you been? You really should the next time you’re in town.

  3. Chiswick has been on the endangered list for a few years despite being one of the favourite tipples of John Keeling; I recall being told 2008 perhaps that they were considering axing it. I also recall a similar conversation in 2000 with the then Adnams head brewer who was going to axe their mild — he said it was all very good mild types wailing and ripping their hairshirts in anguish but if the beer wasn’t selling there was no point in brewing it. I always enjoyed Chiswick and am glad it is at least a seasonal. Walked past the Salutation several times last year when visiting the brewery never had time to go in; the Dove is marvellous and I have fond memories from 1990 of the Hollybush when it sold Benskins and had gaslights, me and my mate watched Crystal Palace vs Liverpool in the FA Cup semis there, good match I seem to recall. I think Fuller’s do a great job and ESB is one of my favourite beers, but then I might be seen as biased, so I’ll say no more.

    1. I guess it also ties in with Fuller’s realisation that these days, variety sells. Pride’s there for the many who want “a pint of the usual”, but for the rest, it’s “what’s new on this week?”

          1. It’s not really been on our radar. We’ll give it a go with open minds next time we see it.

    2. Generally speaking we are Fuller’s fans which I guess is why we watch them all the more closely. In the last year or two we’ve had some pints of Chiswick, Pride and ESB that have really knocked our socks off — most often at the Jugged Hare on Vauxhall Bridge Road and the Mad Bishop at Paddington, perhaps surprisingly — which is why it’s so disappointing to find their cask ale in lacklustre condition in their own pubs, only miles from the brewery.

  4. There are quite a few terms to describe a pub crawl, but “field work” is a new one on me! I’m not sure how it would go down at Bailey Towers if I was to tell my nearest and dearest that I’m off for a spot of “field work”, the next time embark on a CAMRA outing!

    Some nice looking, and nice sounding, pubs, and regrettably I’ve only been in a few of them. Shame about Chiswick being relegated to a seasonal ale; I much preferred it to Seafarers.

    1. We were genuinely looking at the pub architecture although less carefully by the end of the crawl than at the start…

  5. Nice piece, I really need to make it over to the Salutation one day soon. I’d also recommend most if not all of the Fuller’s pubs in Ealing should you want to try a similar field visit again. And yes it’s a shame about Chiswick Bitter, a really good thirst quencher to start the evening on, I much prefer it to Seafarers.

    Also just a small geographical point, that spotlessly clean underpass goes under the A4 and not the Westway which is the A40.

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