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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
A snippet in February’s What’s Brewing about Chiswick becoming a seasonal. The tastes they are a changing… pic.twitter.com/TvrmpNIW48
— Simon James (@Gueuzel) January 31, 2016
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?