Meeting up with friends at the weekend we decided that, instead of trawling round the usual haunts from our post-student days, we’d take the opportunity to test out another section of Green & White’s Guide to London Pubs from 1968.
With a plan to catch the last train out of London back to Bristol we didn’t want to stray too far from Paddington and so picked the section entitled ‘Chelsea’ which includes The Victoria not far from the West Country terminus. Based on a review of the pubs’ own websites, and previous experiences with this kind of exercise, our expectations were fairly low.
We went first to a pub we did know, The Star Tavern in Belgravia, where we used to drink occasionally even before we started blogging, when we both worked in Westminster. Green & White say:
The Star Tavern… is one of the handsomest pubs in London, both outside and in, contemporary with its surroundings. It is a fine Georgian mews pub (a rare Fuller’s house in this part of London) built on generous lines and – being away from the hurly-burly of the main roads or business areas – free from that maddening tidal crowd which packs more central pubs at lunchtime and evening opening.… The Star is the kind of place you might expect to run into James Bond, and if he is not familiar with the pub, he should be.
Approaching The Star is still magical, through a stuccoed arch and over cobbles, and into the pub’s warm tractor beam glow. Inside it felt approximately (runs calculations) 32 per cent less ‘authentic’ than we recall it, having apparently had a visit from Fuller’s corporate style police. But there were still plenty of normal people knocking back pints (“They get a lot of butlers and doormen in,” someone said at one point) and the overall feel was of a secret refuge, especially in the implied snug by the counter. Fuller’s ESB tasted as good as we’ve ever had it, with the quality of the London Pride not far behind.
Next, we made a brief detour to The Antelope – not in the 1968 book but also in a mews and with similar ‘classic’ status – to pick up another of our mates. This pub, too, was stunningly cute. In this part of town, in 2017, it ought to have gone full grey-paint-gastro but, no, it was dark, well-worn, sparkling and intimate, all corners, cubbyholes, ale and gin. The beer (more Fuller’s) was great there, too.
Back on track we pushed on to The Nag’s Head which upped the ante considerably. How is this pub real? With its Adnams ale and creaking floorboards it feels as if it’s been transplanted from Southwold or perhaps more specifically the Southwold of 1985. Or maybe it’s a film set? It is tatty in the best sense with an eccentric layout which means you can find yourself sitting below the level of the bar staring at a rack of knives under a sagging union jack, or next to a vintage end-of-pier penny slot machine by a roaring Victorian range. NO MOBILE PHONES say the signs but nobody – not the couple snogging intensely at the bar or the moustachioed bloke in mulberry-coloured waistcoat and bow-tie doing a crossword – looked as if they particularly wanted to.
The Wilton Arms a few doors along was a comparative let-down being too bright and too Shepherd Neame, with Spitfire at its nail-polish-remover worst. Even so it was rammed and rowdy with more genuine pub character than many others in London – a miracle considering the sterile acres of pristine mansions for absentee millionaires that surround it.
Sadly The Grenadier, the classic of classics, was closed for public order reasons (there is a Christmas fair in the park nearby and the authorities are apparently concerned that people will stagger to the pub from there and cause trouble for the well-to-do mews dwellers) so we finished with one more in the Star. There the whole party sat in quiet amazement.“I can’t believe I’ve never been to any of these pubs before,” said our mate, a born-and-bred Londoner who has been to Italy more times than he’s been to Belgravia.
It is odd, given that these pubs are recommended in the 1968 guide, the 1973 edition, many editions of the Good Beer Guide, Roger Protz’s 1981 rarity Capital Ale, and so many others. Perhaps it’s because we’ve all been trained to assume the worst – that what was good 30 years ago must almost inevitably be either gone or gone to rot today, and that London in particular Ain’t Wot it Used to Be. But here, in these mews pubs at least, protected from the real world by the sheer weirdness of West London, there’s some kind of persistence.
If you haven’t been, and especially in the run up to Christmas when twinkly and twee is in order, do treat yourself.