Secret Bars of Westminster

largeblm.gifI recently spent a night in a bar in Central London where you can always get a seat, which always has at least three real ales on tap (one of which is always a mild) and where a round of two drinks costs much less than a fiver. Sadly, it’s not somewhere I can recommend to everybody — it was one of the several members-only Civil Service social clubs hidden around Westminster.

These are some of the few surviving working men’s clubs in London, and that is exactly what this one felt like. I was reminded of Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights; of the railwaymen’s club my Mum and Dad joined a few years ago because the beer was a pound a pint; and perhaps a little of the club that Mr Mackay opens in the basement of HM Prison Slade in Porridge the Movie. In other words, it was rough around the edges, and maybe a little bleak, despite being a stone’s throw from both Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament. But, for all that, the beer was half the price it is in the Rake, and just as good.

I drank Crouch Vale Blackwater Mild, which was in perfect condition, delicious, and reminded me of Anchor Porter (more hop aroma than is usual in a mild, perhaps?). But is it named after the sinister American “security” company…? They also had Crouch Vale Brewer’s Gold, and a couple of other beers whose names I didn’t write down.

If you know any civil servants, ask them if they can get you into their “social”. You’ll either love it or hate it, but either way it will be an experience.

More on the old Combe brewery

brewersyard.jpgTo quote former Prime Minister John Major, “It’s there! It’s still there!”

I discovered on Friday morning that the “hulking old brewery” that my Pevsner said was in Central London is, at least in part, still standing.

The area where the surviving buildings stand is now a somewhat trendy shopping district, but in the 19th century, it was filled with warehouses, most of which were there to supply the nearby fruit and vegetable market at Covent Garden.

It’s because of that that all the streets around Long Acre have such beautiful Victorian industrial designs, even though they’re now boutiques and bars.

combe2.jpgIf you want to see the remains of the Combe brewery yourself (there’s not *much* to see) head for Long Acre and walk around the block of buildings facing out on to Neal Street, Shelton Street and Langley Street. The brewery itself was in the middle of that block (where “Old Brewer’s Yard” is now, round the back of Marks and Spencer). Surviving buildings are at numbers 6, 7 and 8 Langley Street; 24-26 and 34 Shelton Street; 3-7 and 17-19 Neal Street.,+London,+Greater+London,+WC2E,+UK&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=46.226656,117.421875&ie=UTF8&z=14&iwloc=addr&om=1&ll=51.519746,-0.120163&output=embed&s=AARTsJoZzNHtatba3ebVAADNW4TRCRCFug
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Old brewery building in Central London

41xxnzzymml_aa240_.jpgI’ve read before that Central London was well stocked with huge brewery buildings in the 18th and 19th centuries, but most of them were knocked down or blown up in the Blitz. Reading Pevsner’s guide to the architecture of Westminster, however, I noted this line:

Londoners also needed vast supplies of beer and from the late C18 breweries became the first civilian factories to be built on a giant scale. The chief survivor in Westminster is Combe & Co.’s hulking 1830s premises of plain brick, N of Long Acre.

Now, I’ve walked up Long Acre twice in the last week without noticing a single “hulking” brewery building. I’ll have to look harder next time. Nice to know that these relics of the great age of industrial brewing are still there to be found, though.

Nice place (singular) to drink near Paddington Station

On my way down to the West Country last night, I ended up stuck at Paddington Station for a few hours. London stations are generally horrid, and pubs in London stations are both horrid and depressing. The Mad Bishop and Bear at Paddington made a refreshing change in that it was actually pretty good.

Not just “good for a station”, but better than a lot of other ordinary pubs in London. It’s not the kind of place you’d want to spend a long Sunday lunchtime — the noise and smoke from the station are annoying, and the music is too loud — but it’s fairly big and comfortable, unlike the usual cupboard with three chairs (viz. the Mash Tun at Victoria, if that’s its name).

Perhaps part of the reason why it’s a cut above is that it’s a Fuller’s pub, with the full range of their beers, all in tip-top condition. Like Maieb says, the stuff in bottles looked a bit cold, but the stuff from the cask was great. I had a very pleasant pint of Seafarer (“fake” Gales, 3.8% — malty, dark, and very different to Chiswick, Fuller’s other session bitter) but was excited to see St Austell Tribute on the pumps too, and Brooklyn Lager in the fridge.

Perhaps most importantly, though, there is an enormous departures and arrivals board hanging over the door, so rather than join the scrum on the concourse, I could just sup my pint and wait until the last possible moment to board the train. Lovely.

I say “fake” Gales because the brewery doesn’t exist anymore, and Gales never brewed this particular beer when it did exist. Odd.

Nice places to drink in Westminster, London

There are no nice places to drink in Westminster.

Joking aside, Westminster is one of the biggest tourist destinations in Britain, so most of the visible pubs are tourist traps selling “traditional fish and chips”. But there are a few gems, mostly full of gossiping civil servants and political types.

1. The Sanctuary, 33 Tothill Street — that old reliable, a Fuller’s pub. It gets heavingly busy between 5-7 most nights, but the beer’s always good.

2. The Buckingham Arms, Petty France and The Royal Oak, Regency Street — two cosy (small) Young’s pubs. As with all Young’s pubs, the range isn’t quite what it used to be in either pub, but there’s still enough variety to have something different on every round.

3. The White Horse and Bower, Horseferry Road — a Shepherd Neame pub which has always been good, but horribly smoke-filled. That shouldn’t now be a problem. A range of SN beers on tap, including the seasonal special, and a few more in bottles. The last few times we’ve been, the bar manager has been a very cheerful chap who will wax enthusiastic on the beer, if given the chance.

4. St Stephen’s Tavern, Bridge Road (Westminster Bridge approach on the Parliament side) — the beer’s usually a bit rough, to be honest, but it’s one of the two Hall & Woodhouse (Badger) pubs in London, and very “historical”. It’s the one with the bell that rings when it’s time for MPs to get over the House of Commons to vote. Great Victorian interior, too.

5. Westminster Arms, Storey’s Gate — a pub which has cleverly sub-divided into a hole for civil servants to drink real ale in, and an upstairs to fleece tourists. There are usually two or three guest ales on, all well kept, and not the usual suspects. Don’t expect a seat; do expect to see lots of famous politicians walking past the window.


6. The Speaker, Great Peter Street – probably the best place for real ale if you like variety. It’s the traditional haunt of old-school civil servants with a fondness for liquid lunches, and the windows are full of passive-aggressive signs (”This is a real pub! We don’t have music…” and so on). But for all that, it’s rather charming, with surprisingly friendly staff, and a deep commitment to serving a variety of interesting real ales from around the country.

7. The Old Monk Exchange, 61-71Victoria Street. It’s a bit of a hole in the ground, and can be very busy, but it’s got a large range of foreign lagers and other bottled beers — fruit beers, wheat beers, that kind of thing. They also seem to be improving on the real ale front. We didn’t used to like it much at all, but it’s growing on us.

Here’s a another post about it.

See also our guide to places to drink in Victoria — it’s only a short walk from Westminster to, say, the Cardinal (Sam Smith’s pub near Westminster Cathedral)

Link to Google map showing all of the above, including the Cardinal.