We were in London last week to pick up an award, see friends, work in the library, and look at pub architecture. That didn’t leave much time to drink beer.
When we passed the Red Lion on Duke of York Street at 6 pm it had burst its seams, spilling suited drinkers all over the pavement and road. We returned at 9 by which time it was quieter and we slipped into the coveted back room. It’s an amazing pub, the Red Lion — really beautiful, full of cut glass and mirrors and warm light. There’s a reason Ian Nairn gives it a whole page of soupy swooning in Nairn’s London. The woman behind the bar pulled the first pint, paused, and said, ‘I’m not serving you that. It doesn’t look right.’ She turned the clip round and suggested something else. Impressive. Oliver’s Island, pale and brewed with orange peel, continues to be decent enough without igniting any great passion on our part. ESB, on the other hand, seems to get better every time we have it — richer, more bitter, ever juicier. Same again, please. It gave us hangovers but it was 100 per cent worth it.
After several hours tramping in the midday heat and travelling on buses we stopped at the Bridge Hotel in Greenford, a huge pub built in 1937 and acquired by Young’s in 1959. It’s now attached to a modern hotel building and sits under a concrete flyover but the pub itself is a reasonably well preserved example of the ‘bigger and better’ style of the early 20th Century. We weren’t quite the only customers — there was a bloke in the beer garden putting away pints of lager — but had the already spacious interior to ourselves. We’re fond of Young’s Bitter even though It’s Not the Beer It Used To Be and found it decent enough, if not as zinging and pleasingly dry as last time we tried it. Special, AKA Spesh, once Boak’s favourite, has been a sad, flabby thing for the last half-decade or so, but here it had all the fruity marmalade flavours of old — a more sessionable take on Fuller’s ESB. If we hadn’t had a Wacky Warehouse to visit we’d have happily stayed for another round or two.
Negotiations with a large group of friends narrowed down pub options for Friday night like a game of Guess Who? Near a mainline station serving south London (clack, clack, clack); not too expensive (clack, clack) but not too grotty (clack, clack, clack) and definitely not ‘That awful Cask place where all the beer smells of hairspray’ (clack). We ended up at the Windsor Castle (formerly The Cardinal) behind Westminster Cathedral in Victoria. We used to drink there frequently and only stopped because it used to get so unbearably crowded. The recent refurbishment doesn’t seem to have done any harm and if anything, it feels cosier and more old-fashioned than before. Old Brewery Bitter was in caramel Windsor soup mode rather than tart and tangy but we were delighted to find Imperial Stout on offer, a beer that used to be strangely elusive in London. (Expensive these days, mind.) We took another pass at the new kegged India Ale and concluded that, yes, it’s a good beer, as long as you know to expect something more like Marston’s Old Empire than, say, Thornbridge Jaipur. Then at closing time, the lights went up and we were politely harassed out the door by security — something we’ve not experienced for a few years now.
Finally, we got in a couple at Fuller’s Mad Bishop & Bear at Paddington Station. London Pride was same-again good, as if pepped up with a fresh grating of orange zest, and we couldn’t resist trying the new version of Past Master’s 1910 Double Stout. Lovely as it was (molasses, wood smoke) it didn’t seem quite a magical as the first incarnation but perhaps it needs a few months to improve. We look forward to following its development at the MB&B over the next year or two, at any rate.
Perhaps with another day we’d have broken out of our comfort zone and gone somewhere hipper and drunk something more adventurous. Or maybe not.