Portsmouth seems unusually well stocked with interesting independent pubs and we tried to hit the classics during our four nights in the city.
Combining intelligence from various sources our hit list was:
- The Lawrence Arms
- The Hole in the Wall
- The Barley Mow
- The Apsley House
The first place we actually visited, though, was The Brewhouse & Kitchen in Southsea, which happened to be a handy place to wait for check-in at our hotel. We’ll write a bit more about that in a separate post.
Then that evening we ended up at Huis, a Belgian bar, which we’d forgotten was in Portsmouth. We were impressed at its air of authenticity, its impressive beer list and reasonably priced house beers brewed by Huyghe in Ghent.
And as it happens, the first proper pub we visited was off list, too. Something about The Pembroke just appealed to us. Perhaps it was the open door breathing cool, beer-scented air on a hot afternoon. Maybe it was the glimpse of a Bass pump on the bar.
The Bass was decent, if not quite as exciting as Bass can be at its best, and we enjoyed the atmosphere. Thick carpet, brown wood, local gossip and the sense that a guv’nor with a nautical past was somewhere just out of shot.
The Apsley House had an afternoon buzz, Timothy Taylor Landlord, and Summer Lightning – a good start.
Unfortunately, though cosmetically perfect – clear gold – the Summer Lightning didn’t hit the spot.
It tasted how we’ve often found it to taste over the years, with its ups and downs. Funky in the wrong way. Musty and rubbery.
The fault of the beer rather than the pub, we think, but, not feeling it, we left after one.
The Barley Mow was next. What an interesting pub. It felt almost like a village community centre with people coming and going on various missions.
The cask ale line-up was extensive but conservative – seven brown bitters, one stout.
Jess enjoyed Ringwood Forty-Niner and London Pride, both clear and in good condition. Ray, suffering the luck of the draw, got a faintly hazy, dirty-tasting Bass and a fainty hazy, dirty-tasting Gale’s (Fuller’s) HSB – abandoned halfway through.
Our first attempt to visit The Lawrence Arms and The Hole in the Wall was scuppered by the fact that both are closed early in the week.
When we returned to The Lawrence on Wednesday afternoon, it was still closed: APOLOGIES OPEN AT 3:30 PM. As it was 3:18, we stood in the sun and waited, like several other thirsty nerds cluttering the pavements nearby.
“Sorry about that,” said the person who eventually opened the door. “We varnished some tables yesterday afternoon and it turns out one-hour varnish doesn’t dry in one hour.”
Inside, we found a large, somewhat sparse, utterly immaculate pub with an impressive line-up of cask ales. We latched onto Oakham Citra, of course, which was in astoundingly good condition and, we think, the cheapest thing on the beer list at £3 a pint.
Quiet at first, the pub got livelier as the afternoon wore on and people popped in on their way home from work, or on their way out.
It was hard to leave and hard to resist the urge to come back the next day, but there were other pubs to visit yet.
Saving for last what we’d been told was the best, we visited The Hole in the Wall on our last night in Portsmouth.
It’s certainly the type of pub we like a lot: low light, lots of clutter and greebling, and a mixed crowd.
There were four cask ales and three local beers on keg. Here, the tendency was towards golden ales, but our attention was grabbed by Marble Lagonda.
Now, we might have mentioned this before but we’re not mad about dogs. In fact, Jess has something bordering on a phobia. Here, they seemed to be coming at us from every direction. One stuck its head through a railing and tried to stick its tongue in Ray’s pint. Another came running along the bench, yapping at Jess.
Two others started snarling and barking at each other, putting us a bit on edge.
It says something about the quality of the beer and the venue that we managed three round before muttering, “For fuck’s sake…” and sloping off.
For us, then, the clear winner was The Lawrence Arms. It might even be a contender for the master list of great pubs, though we probably need another visit to confirm that.