Passing Through Brentford

Inside the Magpie & Crown, Brentford, on a Saturday night.

For reasons too boring to explain, we spent the last night of our holiday in Brentford, West London, where we set out to satisfy a craving for Fuller’s beer.

There are two Fuller’s pubs on the high street — the Beehive and the Six Bells. Though both are ornate palaces to booze c.1910, we chose the Beehive for the perfectly sensible reason that its exterior tiling and lettering is the more eye-catching.

The Beehive, Brentford.

Inside, we were bumped back down to earth by football on the telly and bright, functional lighting. It’s what you might call a community local — that is, people who actually live nearby drink there regularly enough to know each other and the staff by name — and we did get stared at just a little bit, even after we’d retreated to a table in Billy-no-mates corner with the lone crossword puzzle solvers and plastic bag clutchers.

The beer? ESB tasted good, though not as good as at the Jugged Hare on Vauxhall Bridge Road earlier in the same week, and the Pride was very decent, too. It is also the kind of pub that has Fuller’s Pale Ale in tiny brown bottles (we’ve not seen this since the Plough in Walthamstow c.2007, now a convenience store) and something we couldn’t resist trying: keg Chiswick bitter. We can’t recommend it, but that probably won’t surprise you.

When we Tweeted about keg Chiswick, we got into a conversation via private messages with a local expert who told us that (a) he’d been told never to go into the Beehive if he valued his life and (b) that the Magpie & Crown just up the road was a must-visit pub.

Now, here’s a thing: we’d instinctively taken the fact that the M&C is a freehouse in London as a warning sign. If it was anything other than on its last legs, wouldn’t a brewery or pub company have snapped it up by now? And it does look a bit tatty from the outside — has any item of pub livery aged worse than those Watney Combe Reid roundels? But we took our correspondent’s advice, left the Beehive, skipped the Six Bells, and went to the Magpie.

* * *

We found something that looked like a classic ‘real ale pub’ — resolutely un-trendy and, like the Pembury Tavern in Hackney, with shelves full of paperback sci-fi novels. Metal-band-T-shirt-and-pony-tail rather than ironic-moustache-and-no-socks territory. The clientele seemed to be made up mostly of Brentford’s hidden middle-aged, middle class, with the odd walk-in pub-crawler.

At second glance, we noticed a dangling sign advertising ‘Craft Keg’, as well as a decent lot of Belgian and American British bottles. We were after cask-conditioned beer, though, and loved what happened when we scanned the pumps: the chap behind the bar said, “Hello!” and then, pointing at each in turn, “This one’s good; this one’s very good; this is good but will be better tomorrow; good; very good.” This bit of showman’s patter found the sweet spot between a know-it-all lecture and complete indifference — much more helpful than (shrug) “They’re all nice.”

All the beers we tried were in good nick and well-made, and if we didn’t especially like a couple of them, it was purely because they weren’t to our taste. (We weren’t taking notes, hence no specifics, but there were beers from Thornbridge and Hardknott among others.) It’s certainly no surprise that the local CAMRA branch loves the place.

It won’t appeal to everyone — pubs with personality never do — but it might just be your new favourite. If you find yourself out West, it’s surely worth a bus ride and the price of a pint to find out.

* * *

We got another pass at Fuller’s on the way out of London with our now traditional pre-train lunchtime session at the Mad Bishop & Bear at Paddington, where we can report that cask Chiswick tasted better than ever. What a great beer.

21 thoughts on “Passing Through Brentford”

  1. Was genuinely shocked when I spotted Chiswick bitter on keg for the first time. I mean, what’s the point?

    It’s pretty much a perfect cask beer, but just doesn’t work on keg and isn’t flashy enough to attract pure craft keg drinkers. I don’t understand who it’s aimed at.

      1. That’s what we guessed — this keg font looked as if had been installed in about 1985. I guess it would be fair to say it’s not exactly a flagship product for Fuller’s…

        1. You should ask if anyone whose name rhymes with Bohn Beeling might have a current list of offerings including all forms off dispense and bottle size. Were the wee pale ales there as chasers?

    1. *Googles* Ah — not read any Robert Rankin. I don’t even like Terry Pratchett’s books (I realise this may prove to be the most controversial statement ever made on this blog) though the other half is a fan.

      1. You are the only person I’ve ever heard admit that. I’m not keen on Pratchett’s books either and my experience from saying so had more or less convinced me I was alone.

  2. We had keg Chiswick Bitter here in Virginia and it’s decent enough when you live in a barren wasteland when it comes to ordinary bitters, though as has been mentioned, not a patch on the proper cask stuff. Polishing off the keg so that Session 42 would be on all the sooner, I wondered why British brewers would bother sending keg bitter to the US when it really does nothing to enhance their, or the style’s. reputation.

  3. Interesting fact about Robert Rankin: he started out by studying UFO sightings, urban legends & contemporary folklore generally (see Magonia* for more), before branching out into creating urban legends: the Brentford Griffin was largely his work (or was it?). By this stage he’d already established Hugo Rune as an alt-historical protagonist/mythical anti-hero/alter ego, and the rest is history. (And a lot of work, obvs.)

    *Was going to add a link here, but you can always google – there’s only one Magonia.

  4. Blimey misread the title as passing Brentford, which sounded very painful. Don’t care for Pratchett myself either, Tommy Cooper vs Tolkien and no one wins. As for keg Chiswick, I’m reminded of K-tel. Sorry John. 😉

  5. You should’ve said you were in the area – the M&C is my local. I could’ve brought my Brew Britannia over for signing… Were you in the Holiday Inn or summat?

    Are you sure you saw American beer in the M&C, by the way? I was in there on Monday and the subject came up, and the barman said he’s never seen American beer on sale there, and thinking about it neither have I. It’s British, Belgian and German in the main.

    Incidentally, the Six Bells was done up a few years ago – it used to be a right formica-riddled dump – but the best Fuller’s pub in town isn’t on the High Street, it’s the Brewery Tap just a few years off the south side, by the canal.

    (It was the Tap of Gomm’s Beehive Brewery, which if I remember the story rightly moved down there from where the Beehive pub’s car park now is.)

    1. Er… Now you say it, maybe we just assumed we saw American beer in bottles. British, American — they all look alike these days, at a glance…

  6. Is the plough a convenience store now?! I had my 18th birthday party in the back bar 10 years ago – drank mostly Fullers Honeydew if I remember rightly

  7. Criminal. Suppose the gentrification of walthamstow came that bit too late to save it? Always seemed to be heaving the last few times I visited for live music events, no idea how it’s general trade was though. Was it owned by Fullers or did it just have some kind of deal with them? Only ever saw Fullers/Gales on the taps, seems a long way east for a Fullers pub though?

    1. Not sure, but looked like their corporate décor. We used to go quite a lot but it did seem to just… dwindle. Beer got worse, so less people came, so the beer got worse, and so on. Became rather tatty inside, too, in the final year or so. Suspect it lost some customers when the Nags Head became the default middle class pub in the area.

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