Classic Pubs in Posh London

Meeting up with friends at the weekend we decided that, instead of trawling round the usual haunts from our post-student days, we’d take the opportunity to test out another section of Green & White’s Guide to London Pubs from 1968.

With a plan to catch the last train out of London back to Bristol we didn’t want to stray too far from Paddington and so picked the section entitled ‘Chelsea’ which includes The Victoria not far from the West Country terminus. Based on a review of the pubs’ own websites, and previous experiences with this kind of exercise, our expectations were fairly low.

The book's map of Chelsea.

We went first to a pub we did know, The Star Tavern in Belgravia, where we used to drink occasionally even before we started blogging, when we both worked in Westminster. Green & White say:

The Star Tavern… is one of the handsomest pubs in London, both outside and in, contemporary with its surroundings. It is a fine Georgian mews pub (a rare Fuller’s house in this part of London) built on generous lines and — being away from the hurly-burly of the main roads or business areas — free from that maddening tidal crowd which packs more central pubs at lunchtime and evening opening…. The Star is the kind of place you might expect to run into James Bond, and if he is not familiar with the pub, he should be.

Approaching The Star is still magical, through a stuccoed arch and over cobbles, and into the pub’s warm tractor beam glow. Inside it felt approximately (runs calculations) 32 per cent less ‘authentic’ than we recall it, having apparently had a visit from Fuller’s corporate style police. But there were still plenty of normal people knocking back pints (“They get a lot of butlers and doormen in,” someone said at one point) and the overall feel was of a secret refuge, especially in the implied snug by the counter. Fuller’s ESB tasted as good as we’ve ever had it, with the quality of the London Pride not far behind.

Door at The Antelope.

Next, we made a brief detour to The Antelope — not in the 1968 book but also in a mews and with similar ‘classic’ status — to pick up another of our mates. This pub, too, was stunningly cute. In this part of town, in 2017, it ought to have gone full grey-paint-gastro but, no, it was dark, well-worn, sparkling and intimate, all corners, cubbyholes, ale and gin. The beer (more Fuller’s) was great there, too.

Back on track we pushed on to The Nag’s Head which upped the ante considerably. How is this pub real? With its Adnams ale and creaking floorboards it feels as if it’s been transplanted from Southwold or perhaps more specifically the Southwold of 1985. Or maybe it’s a film set? It is tatty in the best sense with an eccentric layout which means you can find yourself sitting below the level of the bar staring at a rack of knives under a sagging union jack, or next to a vintage end-of-pier penny slot machine by a roaring Victorian range. NO MOBILE PHONES say the signs but nobody — not the couple snogging intensely at the bar or the moustachioed bloke in mulberry-coloured waistcoat and bow-tie doing a crossword — looked as if they particularly wanted to.

The Nag's Head.

The Wilton Arms a few doors along was a comparative let-down being too bright and too Shepherd Neame, with Spitfire at its nail-polish-remover worst. Even so it was rammed and rowdy with more genuine pub character than many others in London — a miracle considering the sterile acres of pristine mansions for absentee millionaires that surround it.

Sadly The Grenadier, the classic of classics, was closed for public order reasons (there is a Christmas fair in the park nearby and the authorities are apparently concerned that people will stagger to the pub from there and cause trouble for the well-to-do mews dwellers) so we finished with one more in the Star. There the whole party sat in quiet amazement.“I can’t believe I’ve never been to any of these pubs before,” said our mate, a born-and-bred Londoner who has been to Italy more times than he’s been to Belgravia.

It is odd, given that these pubs are recommended in the 1968 guide, the 1973 edition, many editions of the Good Beer Guide, Roger Protz’s 1981 rarity Capital Ale, and so many others. Perhaps it’s because we’ve all been trained to assume the worst — that what was good 30 years ago must almost inevitably be either gone or gone to rot today, and that London in particular Ain’t Wot it Used to Be. But here, in these mews pubs at least, protected from the real world by the sheer weirdness of West London, there’s some kind of persistence.

If you haven’t been, and especially in the run up to Christmas when twinkly and twee is in order, do treat yourself.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 18 November 2017: Fenlands, FOBAB, Froth

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the past week from pastry stout to cask quality.

First up, Canadian beer historian Gary Gillman has done something that, for some reason, nobody in the UK seems to have thought worthwhile, and looked into the history of that most controversial of widgets, the sparkler:

The sparkler was invented and patented in the early 1880s by George Barker. He advertised the device for sale in 1885 and identified himself as from the “Crown Hotel, Ince, near Wigan”.

(As always the mention of a sparkler summons Tandleman to the comments which are worth reading for additional context.)


Dunwich sign.

Dave S, a regular commenter here, lives in Cambridge and has been pondering  The Psychogeography of Fenland Mild. As well as some rather lovely prose evoking the landscape of East Anglia he offers this incisive suggestion:

My advice to a brewer wanting to make beer with a ‘sense of place’ is that they should stop worrying about where their ingredients come from and look at where their end product goes to. They should sell locally, and drink locally themselves. They should see what people respond to – what makes sense for their local drinkers, in their surroundings, with their climate – and adapt and evolve to the place where they’re based.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 18 November 2017: Fenlands, FOBAB, Froth”

Cask Ale: a Kind of Magic?

“[Modern] beer is little more than a symbol. What would a pint of ‘mild’ taste like except dishwater if it were poured down the rural and metropolitan throats anywhere but in a public house?”

‘Y.Y. ’, New Statesman, 13 March 1943

Y.Y. was the pen name of Belfast-born writer Robert Lynd (1879-1949) and coincidentally it was a conversation with a barman from Northern Ireland the other night that got us thinking about the effects of magic upon the perceived quality of beer.

The barman we spoke to rolled his eyes at the suggestion (not from us) that Guinness is somehow better in Dublin: ‘It’s just because they pull through so much. And because, you know, you’re in Dublin, on holiday.’

It’s often been observed that particular beers that taste bland or even bad at home gain a certain glamour in a bar in Barcelona. Here’s Zak Avery on that subject from back in 2010:

In my memory, Cruzcampo was my holiday beer par excellence – cold, snappy, crisp, and perfect to wash down plates of jamon or gambas. In actuality, Cruzcampo is an ordinary mass-produced lager, tasting slightly oxidised and having a faintly sweet yellow apple note, neither of which are appealing or refreshing.

So, if Spanish sun makes bad lager taste good, and being in sight of St James’s Gate makes Guinness taste better, could it be, as Y.Y. suggests, that the pub itself — that romantic, almost sacred institution — is at least part of what gives cask ale its appeal?¹

The Grey Horse, Manchester.

Let’s put that another way: we’ve asked several people over the years exactly why we might prefer cask ale to keg² and the answers we’ve received have tended to point to gentler carbonation, lack of filtration and/or pasteurisation, and slightly warmer serving temperatures. And perhaps those are the tangible reasons, but isn’t it also to do with the paraphernalia?The brass and porcelain hand-pump, for example, could just as easily be (has been) an electric push-button if everyone was being coldly logical about all this. But those pumps add something.

We have a theory that a mediocre pint of, say, Timothy Taylor Landlord in a Victorian pub full of cut glass and dark wood, or a country pub with a crackling log fire, would register as tasting better than a technically perfect one in a laboratory. Or, indeed, that a pint of keg bitter would taste better in that ideal pub than a mediocre cask ale in the lab.

There are limits, of course: at a certain threshold, the spell is broken, and a bad beer will taste bad whatever the occasion or setting.

The point is, it’s complicated, and most of us aren’t coldly logical, and that’s fine: if you’re susceptible to being bedazzled, as we are, then let it happen.


  1. Not to everyone — we know.
  2. We do, on the whole, but of course that’s not the same as saying cask is better. Subjective, innit?

H.E. Bates Evokes a Country Pub, 1934

It must be forty years since my aunt began to keep the pub of which I am writing; and less than five years since she ceased to be the landlady of it… It was not prim, and I am pretty sure it was not always proper, but it had about it a kind of austere homeliness. The floors were of polished brick, the tables were scrubbed like bleached bones, and the lamps shone like alter brasses. There were three rooms — the bar, the smoke-room, and the parlour — and they had characters of their own. And just as I see my aunt in perpetual black, so I never think of that pub without remembering the mild beery smell that all her scrubbing could never wash away, the odour of lamp oil and the faint fragrance of old geraniums sun-warmed in the summer windows.

From ‘A Country Pub’ by H.E. Bates, New Statesman, 25 August 1934

News, Nuggets & Longreads 11 November 2017: Morrison’s, Magic Lanterns, Mental Health

Here’s all the news, opinion and pondering on pubs and beer that’s seized our attention in the last week, from old London pubs to Mishing rice beer.

First up, from Richard Coldwell at Beer Leeds, what we think counts as a scoop: a branch of the Morrison’s supermarket near him has installed a cask ale line in its cafe. Supermarket cafes are one down the rung from Wetherspoon pubs in terms of hipness but are, at the same time, extremely popular, offering competitively priced, unpretentious meals. Adding draught beer to the mix is an interesting if unexpected move. “I wonder how long it will take before a supermarket café gets in the Good Beer Guide?” Richard asks.


Pub interior.
The Widow’s Son, Bow.

The always absorbing Spitalfields Life has another huge gallery of archive photographs of London pubs, this time sourced from a newly digitised collection of glass slides once used to give ‘magic lantern shows’ at the Bishopsgate Institute.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 11 November 2017: Morrison’s, Magic Lanterns, Mental Health”