The Big Project has been great for making us visit pubs we might not otherwise have got to, such as The Prince Alfred in West London.
With a couple of hours to kill between hotel check-out and westbound train last Friday we searched for pubs nearby rather than rely on our old favourite, The Mad Bishop & Bear. Google turned up The Prince Alfred which immediately rang a bell for Boak: ‘It’s in Geoff Brandwood’s book – it’s got rare surviving snob screens. We have to go.’
We wandered through Little Venice, up one street after another of white stucco and genteel dustiness, until we found the pub sparkling with Victorian cut-glass glamour.
Challenge one: finding a way in. The obvious door led to the dining room and lounge – rather bland, hovered over by a smiling waitress. There was a Hobbit-sized door under the partition leading to the cosier spaces around the central island bar but they surely couldn’t expect us to duck under, could they? Health and safety and all that. No no no.
So we went back out into the street and walked round. Was that a door on the corner? It was hard to tell. Further round, we found what was definitely a door and barged in. We found ourselves in a snug, trapped at the end of a table, where two blokes who looked like TV antiques experts were chuckling over their pints.
‘Fucking hell! I didn’t even know there was a door there!’ one of them boomed, startled by our appearance.
‘It’s fucking cold! Shut that fucking door!’ said his friend, laughing, but meaning it all the same.
Rather than prolong the awkwardness, this time, we did the duck, crouching to waddle under yet another screen to pop up in what we guess you’d call in old money ‘The Public’ — built for beer and boot leather, not port and posteriors. (This is where the doubtful middle door would have brought us if we’d given it a shove.)
The sun was flooding through the high, ornate, Nouveau-inflected windows and we took a seat to bask while we waited for a party of expensive-anorak-wearing business blokes on expenses to finish a complicated order. Then we watched with delight as, one after another, they crouched and huffed through the hatch towards the far snug. It looked ridiculous, undignified, and comical, like a ‘bit’ from a Charlie Chaplin short, especially as each was carrying a brim-full pint glass.
The screens themselves are original but varnished and painted in that gaudy orange tone London pub proprietors seem to favour. The rest of the pub is all John Lewis, mid-00s boutique hotel, Notting Hill Set chic, but pleasant enough. Just don’t go expecting a lights-down-and-brown Sam Smith’s experience, or anything as all-round charming as The Red Lion in St James.
If the fun of the architecture wasn’t sufficient, the beer was great, too. Young’s beers, now brewed in Bedford by Charles Wells, are a notable example of products universally acknowledged as Not What They Used To Be. But we’ve observed Young’s Ordinary improving for the last few years and now Special seems to be going the same way: here it tasted fresh, leafy-green, full of English hop character. Spring shoots and rising sap. Truly great.
The only real disappointment was the lack of Ram Rod in bottles, and thus the impossibility of concocting the sacred Ram’n’Spesh mix. Instead, there was a selection of (not very exciting) definition 2 craft beers in cans and bottles. But some things must change, we suppose, even in elderly pubs that miraculously still have their own teeth.