Things have changed

ushers

Egon Ronay’s 1990 guide to pub and bar food is a fascinating read, having become something of a historical document.

For each pub he includes, he lists the beer available, and many of the brands have now disappeared: Ind Coope, Watneys, Charrington, Usher’s and Eldridge Pope crop up repeatedly.  And whatever happened to Fuller’s K2 lager?

One the whole, things seemt to have improved. Even the best pubs in the 1990 edition seem to be there largely because they offered two real ales rather than one, and there was a lot of Webster’s Yorkshire Bitter on offer. The White Horse was rated as the best pub in London but, by current standards, sounds pretty run-of-the-mill.

But this passage from the introduction still rings true:

Have you ever walked into a pub full of people and immediately felt totally isolated? This can happen when most of the clientele already know each other and may have unwittingly sat in old Joe’s favourite chair by the fire. Fine if you are a member of the ‘club’ but not so pleasant if you are a stranger… On their travels, our inspectors are invariably strangers and gauge a pub on how well they are received and looked after as such. There is no point in recommending an otherwise lovely old inn somewhere in the wilds if visitors to the area are not going to feel welcome once inside.

The Good Bierkeller Guide

biergartenbook

There are quite a few guides in German aimed at people who like beer gardens, but we think we’ve found the best.

Frankens Schoenste Bierkeller and Biergarten by Markus Raupach and Bastian Böttner is a weighty but handily sized guide to the most attractive gardens and pubs in Franconia. Even though our German is rudimentary, we found it easy to follow. For each city, town and village in Franconia, it suggests between two and twenty decent places to drink. It lists the beers on offer; gives details of how to to get to each boozer on public transport; and offers special tips for each one (Excellent asparagus menu in season! Particularly nice dunkel! Wonderful panoramic views from the terrace! And so on).

If you’re a regular visitor to Franconia, we’d say it’s a must, and a bargain at €16.95.

And its endless photos of green, sunlit beer gardens aren’t a bad way to cheer yourself up after a journey home from work in the rain, either.

More ale in literature: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Courtesty of Anne Bronte:

‘I don’t take wine, Mrs. Markham,’ said Mr. Millward, upon the introduction of that beverage; ‘I’ll take a little of your home- brewed ale. I always prefer your home-brewed to anything else.’

Flattered at this compliment, my mother rang the bell, and a china jug of our best ale was presently brought and set before the worthy gentleman who so well knew how to appreciate its excellences.

‘Now THIS is the thing!’ cried he, pouring out a glass of the same in a long stream, skilfully directed from the jug to the tumbler, so as to produce much foam without spilling a drop; and, having surveyed it for a moment opposite the candle, he took a deep draught, and then smacked his lips, drew a long breath, andrefilled his glass, my mother looking on with the greatest satisfaction.

‘There’s nothing like this, Mrs. Markham!’ said he. ‘I always maintain that there’s nothing to compare with your home-brewed ale.’

‘I’m sure I’m glad you like it, sir. I always look after the brewing myself, as well as the cheese and the butter – I like to have things well done, while we’re about it.’

Nice to see that a good head was preferred on a pint even back then (although Anne was a northern lass, of course, so she would be that way inclined).  It’s also a good reminder of the fact that making ale was women’s work until comparatively recently.

Boak

Text courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

Drinking in Elizabethan London

The Elizabethan Underworld by Gamini Salgado
The Elizabethan Underworld by Gamini Salgado

Gamini Salgado’s The Elizabethan Underworld is a fairly obvious attempt to follow the success of Kellow Chesney’s The Victorian Underworld, which itself was an update of Henry Mayhew. Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating read, especially for those interested in London’s pubs.

The first thing to note is that, according to Salgado’s sources (all fully referenced and quoted at length), Elizabethan pubs were full of con-artists, thieves, pimps and whores. A ‘cony’ was anyone new in town, usually an innocent looking bloke from the countryside, who could be preyed upon by these criminals, therefore known collectively as ‘cony-catchers’.

In short, the Elizabethan pub was a kind of trap for bumpkins.

Salgado says:

There were different grades of ordinary and tavern into which the cony was lured by the cony-catchers, ranging from the fashionably expensive to the squalid.

He lists:

  • twelvepenny ordinaries — posh pubs for fashionable chaps to play dice or cards
  • citizens ordinaries — where skint professional types hung out, from bedsit dwelling bachelors to stingy lawyers, ‘the price threepence’
  • low ordinaries — ‘where eating and drinking was largely incidental to more dubious occupations’
  • alehouses — ‘often… the back kitchen of a mean dwelling, standing on some obscure back street, and… frequently unlicensed’.

A woodcut of an Elizabethan tavern scene

The latter sounds interesting, with more beer being consumed than wine, unlike the other types of establishment. According to Salgado, alehouses proliferated in the 16th century because people got fussy about their beer and were no longer keen to drink nasty homebrewed ale. Bigger brewers would sell commercial beer to amateur back-room landlords on credit, who would then only need to find a few tables a and chairs to make a bit of cash on the side.

Sadly, no mention is made of Pimlico Ale, which continues to intrigue us.

This is another in our series of pub guides for time travellers. See this post for info on London in the 1960s.

London pubs in the 1960s

The cover of the New London Spy (1966)
The cover of the New London Spy (1966)

Beatles biographer Hunter DaviesNew London Spy was published in 1966. It’s a travel guide aimed at cool people, and an excellent window onto the city at the height of its hipness.

In his lengthy section on pubs, Davies makes some interesting observations:

Pubs are what other countries don’t have. In England, country pubs are perhaps nicest of all. After that come the London ones.

Pubs change character as you tipple down from the top of Britain. In the dry areas of Skye you have none at all. In Glasgow they are just drinking shops. In Carlisle they are cheerless and state controlled.

But in London, there are pubs for all men and for all seasons.

He then goes on to classify London’s pubs into six categories:

  • rough pubs
  • posh pubs
  • arty pubs
  • pubs for unaccompanied men (“not queers”)
  • pubs for unaccompanied women
  • pubs associated with crime.

His descriptions of various posh pubs and of some of the pubs he recommends for women suggest that gastro-pubs had their genesis in this era — “serves very decent food, far better than the average pub meal (though naturally priced accordingly)”; “both setting and clientele are almost exaggeratedly decorous”.

A London pub, as illustrated by Kaffe Fassett for the New London Spy
A London pub, as illustrated by Kaffe Fassett

It is the so-called rough pubs that sound most intriguing, though. Dirty Dicks opposite Liverpool Street had dead cats, cobwebs and sawdust for decor. Charlie Brown’s (the Railway Tavern) on West India Dock Road housed a “collection of Curiosa” from all around the world (sadly sold off in the late 60s). And of the Steps (the Custom House Hotel) on Victoria Dock Road, Davies says: “It is not unusual to see somebody almost kicked to death outside.”

The illustrations in the book are by world-famous knitting pattern designer Kaffe Fassett. You can pick up a copy of the New London Spy for next to nothing at abebooks.co.uk if you want to read more.