The Blackhorse Beer Mile at Twixmas

Between Christmas and New Year we finally had chance to do most of the craft beer crawl that has emerged in my home town of Walthamstow, East London.

I say ‘finally’ because one of the last blog posts we published before the COVID lockdowns was about the number of breweries in Waltham Forest. Four years is a long time to leave something like that unexplored.

Before diving in, though, I just want to reflect a bit on how weird it was for me personally to be exploring this part of Walthamstow.

The illuminated sign for Signature Brew against a grey sky.

The overlooked island

I grew up in E17 and felt I knew it pretty well but I only came to Blackhorse Lane for the first time on a work trip a year or so ago.

At the time, I found it astounding that I had never walked this way before on foot, or explored the wider Higham Hill area at all.

The landscape and architecture are rather striking, with some huge Art Deco factory buildings and acres of post-war housing, alongside the occasional row of pretty Georgian cottages.

It’s an endangered landscape, too, with many 20th century buildings slowly disappearing to be replaced by vast new high-rise housing developments.

But when you look at the geography, it makes sense that I had overlooked it.

The area is bordered by reservoirs on two sides and you don’t go through it on the way to anywhere else. It’s almost an island.

Nor were there any ‘Walthamstow Wetlands’ to visit when I was a kid – only the Marshes, with a few paths, and lots of brambles.

Old industrial buildings plus new residential developments might be the perfect recipe for a beer mile, though.

Just think of all those young professionals itching for something to do at the weekend, and property developers keen to establish that this is A Place rather than a dead end.

A tumbler of clear golden IPA with the Hackney Brewery logo.

The crawl

Our exploratory walk took place on a grey Saturday before New Year, which is always a weird time for hospitality. But there was a surprising amount of life to be found.

We began our crawl at the top with a visit to the Tavern on the Hill rather than the Wildcard Brewery. We do, in theory, prefer pubs after all.

It was quiet but welcoming and we found both cask ales decent enough. (Ray was more critical than me, though.)

We’d be interested to come back when it is a bit busier; it felt like an inviting community space, only without much evidence of the community.

At the Hackney Brewery we had our standout beer of the entire crawl. Millions of Melba (4%) was a wonderful peach-raspberry sour that tasted like a Fruit Salad chewy sweet with a dry champagne-like finish.

The space was small but not busy, and overlooks a much bigger room crammed with brewing equipment.

It’s also a handy place to get a pizza delivered from round the corner – but do remember to use the free delivery discount code in the small print on the menu.

Exale was closed, which seems fair enough.

Beerblefish felt quietest of all – we were the only visitors for most of our mini session, but enjoyed their Rauchbier.  It’s cool that lots of breweries seem to be able to turn out decent versions of this style now, which is fun and show-stopping in a different way to pastry stout or super-hoppy IPA.

At the Pretty Decent Beer Company we were charmed by No Not the Buttons, a 5.5% Gingerbread Stout which smelled like a German bakery and tasted like liquid Printen biscuits, even down to a subtle herbal note. It had a proper cake-like finish which felt warming on a miserable day in a fridge-like tap room. You could almost sense crumbs on your tongue. I could Get Better at Tesco – what a great passive-aggressive name! – was a decent standard 4.5% session IPA. 

The space had a few more punters than previously, although this was mostly a couple of large families meeting up to coo over each others’ babies, so it felt a bit like we’d crashed a private party. (That’s on us, not the families.)

The Big Penny Social Club (formerly the Truman Social Club) is a hell of a space. It looks as if it ought to have X-Wing fighters parked about getting ready for an assault on the Death Star. But we struggled to work out who actually brewed the beer we were drinking, and where, without Googling. There was a very impressive Table Beer, branded Big Penny, which was a mere 2% and had a zingy sherbet flavour.

This was the busiest venue yet, with exhausted parents trying to entertain their kids with ping pong, arcade machines and various other games. The space is big enough to handle all this and still handle groups of drinkers of various sizes and ages.

Finally, we visited Signature Brew, which is another location where the actual brewing is segregated from the tap room. The latter sits in a temporary-looking cube. It was warm and cleverly lit with fairy lights, and felt the most like a pub of any of the taproom venues.

Black Vinyl Nitro Stout (4.5%) by Signature is clearly designed to fill a Guinness shaped hole in a hipster East London bar and, actually, does that very well – much more so than Camden Stout.

We will be back

The problem with doing a crawl is that you can really only do a couple in each place, and most had pretty lengthy beer lists, so we definitely need to come back.

Ideally in spring when it’s lighter and warmer, and we can enjoy walking around the area rather than rushing with heads down through the drizzle to the next covered space.


Fairytale of Sheffield: the annual check in

It looks as if we might end up visiting Sheffield every winter – why change a winning formula?

Last December we made a point of only visiting new pubs. We also sought out traditional carols in a pub, which was a profound and magical experience.

A couple of things were different this year, though.

First, Ray was unfortunately unwell, so this ended up being a solo trip for me.

Secondly, it turns out I can’t come to Sheffield two years in a row and ignore The Rutland Arms, even if that does break the new-pubs-only rule.

Meeting up with Martin

Martin has handily written up the first part of my weekend. (Yes, I am the mysterious “guest from Bristol”.) He suggested a few meeting spots and I went for The Old Shoe, on the grounds that it was central and promised a good range of beer.

It’s always interesting to see how a newly-opened pub can compete in a well-established drinking culture. I’d say based on a short visit that this is a great addition to the city centre.

It had two casks, three ‘real’ ciders, and a thoughtful selection of 15 kegs covering a range of different styles, both local and from far away. I got chance to drink my first Titanic Plum Porter of the season which was as good as this beer gets. 

Excellent as The Old Shoe was, we chose to crawl on.

The next stop was The Church House, tucked away behind Sheffield Cathedral. It was packed with a post-shopping crowd of all ages. It felt timeless and cosy and is yet another example of the basic high standard of Sheffield pubs. I’d never heard of this place before this visit even though it would easily be a top three pub in just about any other city.

On Martin’s recommendation, I drank Farmer’s Belgian Blue by the Bradfield Brewery. It stood up well to Plum Porter, as a warming, slightly exotic winter special. I didn’t detect any Belgian character in the beer but perhaps that’s because it’s actually named after a breed of cow.

The next stop was the legendary Fagan’s which we didn’t manage to visit prior to the change of ownership. That was an oversight on our part last year – but we just couldn’t drink any more! That means I can’t offer a before and after commentary. What I can say is that the Bass was some of the best I’ve ever tasted, and the surroundings were extremely pleasant.

At this point, I was due to get a bus back to my friend’s as we had an evening session carolling in the pub. However, as the bus stop was next to The Rutland Arms, it proved impossible to resist its charms. I managed to stick to one half only by promising myself that I’d come back the next day.

No phones at the carols

The carols were at The Travellers’ Rest in Oughtibridge. It turned out to be a Sam Smith’s pub which was strictly enforcing the no-mobile-phones policy.

I’ve got a couple of observations on that policy. First, it rather supposes that you have absolutely no need to be in touch with the outside world while you’re in the pub, so screw you if you’ve left the kids with the babysitter and want to check in on them. (As did my companion.)

It also means that I have no video or photographic reminders of what was a really lovely evening of carol singing. So you’ll just have to take my word(s) for it.

It was a slightly different atmosphere to last year’s experience, possibly because it was in the evening so the crowd was less mixed. This didn’t make the singing any less accomplished or moving. And they even laid on snow for when we came out.

Oh, and the perfectly decent keg dark mild was £2.80 a pint.

A butty and some bitter

The following day I revisited The Rutland Arms, as promised, and saw off my grogginess with a hearty chip butty and the hair of the dog while I read a book in the corner.

The highlight was Bampa Best Bitter by Beak. It was a pale amber bitter with smoky toffee notes and a touch of honey about it. A modern take on a trad style that managed to taste fresh and different without disrespecting its heritage.

We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again: if you like pubs, you owe it to yourself to spend a weekend in Sheffield. There really is nowhere quite like it.


Sheffield Carols: a Christmas tradition built around the pub

What could be more true to the spirit of Christmas than standing in a crowded pub and singing Christmas carols? Especially if the tunes are only to be heard in a few towns and villages near Sheffield, in South Yorkshire.

I first heard about the Sheffield Carols from a friend who lives in the city. She knows I love pubs and she also knows I grew up in a musical family. I’ve been in and around choirs since before I was born.

It’s a big thing, she explained, that goes on from mid-November until into the New Year, and is unique to the region.

I was fascinated and became determined to visit Sheffield during caroling season. Of course it took a couple of years to get that trip scheduled but this year, finally, we made it.

The website Tradfolk has a good explainer by James Merryclough. He begins by explaining that ‘Sheffield Carols’ is a misnomer:

With a few exceptions, the carols themselves do not originate from Sheffield, but rather Sheffield is where the tradition of singing carols in pubs has been maintained. Go back 200 years or so and the repertoire of carols that are now largely only known in Sheffield’s pubs would have been commonplace across the country… The Sheffield Carols are, mostly, carols as they used to be. Which is to say, at a time before it was decided that the questionable Christian doctrine and folky heritage of these earlier, earthier carols didn’t belong in England’s increasingly pious churches.

This is where the connection with pubs comes in. If you can’t sing your favourite carols in church, because the vicar will give you the stink eye, the pub is the obvious place to keep them alive.

Professor Ian Russell wrote a thesis on Traditional Singing in West Sheffield 1971-72. It has tons of detail on the culture surrounding pub singing and makes clear that it wasn’t just done at Christmas. It’s just that (if I’ve understood this correctly) as year-round pub singing died out, Christmas became the exception.

One fascinating detail in the tradition of Sheffield Carols is the repetition of ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks’. It’s often performed multiple times with different tunes. They’re recorded in the songbook by the name of the town or village associated with each version.

To actually hear (and maybe join in with) the Sheffield Carols we took a tram to the end of the line at Middlewood and then trekked up a hill and along a wintry country road (‘liable to flooding’) until we reached the village of Worrall.

There, we found The Blue Ball Inn, absolutely packed, and throbbing with music.

We couldn’t actually get into the room where the bulk of the carol singers were massed around an organ. Instead, we found ourselves a perch near the coat rack by the door.

For two hours, the crowd drank ale, ate roast beef and roast potatoes, and sang together.

Some people had books of music, or just of the words, bought from behind the bar.

Others who had clearly been singing these songs their whole lives belted out the words from memory, swinging pint glasses, wrangling dogs, or feeding toddlers as they did so.

Even though the tunes were unfamiliar, and sometimes unusual, most were easy to pick up, especially as many have repetitive elements within a verse, or call-and-response structures. 

It definitely pays to memorise the words to ‘While Shepherds Watched’. We counted four versions and there may have been more before we arrived.

Here’s an example of the ‘Pentonville’ version from another pub, at another time:

This was truly one of the most magical things I’ve ever experienced. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants a hearty dose of Christmas spirit combined with some English cultural tourism.

You can still catch Sheffield Carols being sung for a few weeks yet. Check out this calendar for dates and details.


The death of the pub function room

It’s only when you find yourself trying to organise a wake that you realise the extent to which pub function rooms have all but disappeared.

Growing up in Walthamstow, East London, I think pretty much every pub had a function room – and that’s where we ended up after a lot of funerals, weddings, or christenings.

Pubs in Walthamstow tend to be pretty large, as is typical for suburbs, and, until recently, were invariably undersubscribed. You’d rattle about The Bell or The Duke’s Head.

Now, a lot of the pubs I knew as a kid have either disappeared (farewell, The Plough) or ceased trading (The Lord Brooke).

Many of those that remain have changed substantially, catering to the kind of people who can afford to buy houses or flats in the area.

Those big, empty back-rooms have become dining spaces, or permanent, busy extensions to the main bar.

Although the loss of what were effectively community facilities is bad news for people like me, right now, for pubs, I guess it’s good news. It means they’re too busy to justify a blank space.

And I know from a previous job that offering space for wakes is a really tricky business.

You’re dealing with customers who are struggling emotionally and can’t or don’t want to have boring conversations about logistics. Undertakers are trained to deal with this; publicans not so much.

And they can’t be sure about how many people are going to turn up – “No, we’re surprised too, we didn’t think he had any friends!” – and so fixing a price that works for both parties is a challenge.

Because of a general trend towards hosting weddings in posher places (country hotels, stately homes, the Maldives) it’s also harder to justify holding a room that only does any business when someone dies.

And of course this isn’t specific to pubs. Where real estate is at a premium, it’s hardly surprising that fewer and fewer businesses are prepared to maintain, clean and heat a dead space.

In a different context, the West Country council estate where Ray grew up, the function rooms have also gone. That’s because both The Pig & Whistle and The Withycutter have been demolished, leaving the estate publess. There’s a community centre but that’s one degree more utilitarian again.

One final point, though, to undercut the general “Fings ain’t wot they used to be in my old manor” tone: useful as pubs were, my parents and grandparents hardly ever visited them between big family events.

Researching 20th Century Pub, I asked my practically teetotal late grandfather if he remembered anything about The Lord Raglan in its prefab phase after World War II. Despite having lived around the corner for most of his life, he barely knew which pub I was talking about.

Nowadays, though, my family, and families like it, are more more likely to choose a pub as the venue for a casual social get-together. We use them all year round, not just when we need somewhere to set up a trestle table covered in sausage rolls.

Main image: The Chequers in 2016. I think it might be one of the few remaining pubs that does have a function room.

london pubs

The pleasing perpetuity of the Porterhouse

The Porterhouse used to be good. The other side of a UK ‘craft beer revolution’, and of a pandemic, does it still have what it takes?

Last week I was in London for work and wound up in Covent Garden with a couple of colleagues looking for somewhere to have a drink.

The Porterhouse leapt to mind, mostly because at the moment it’s really difficult to guess where will be busy and where won’t, and The Porterhouse is, if nothing else, enormous.

We also haven’t been for a very long time, and I couldn’t resist the urge to check in and see if this relic from our early beer ticking days was still doing its thing.

It’s interesting to compare my notes with what we wrote almost 15 years ago. Even then, we were describing it with warm nostalgia.

We first drank there in the early noughties, no doubt also for some work do or other, and kept going back.

It was one of the few places in central London you could get German and Belgian beer and we were trying pretty hard to tick Michael Jackson’s 500 Great Beers.

It was ways worth fighting through stags, hens and lads to get to the bar. As we wrote:

…it’s a beer-centred venue which could survive perfectly well if it didn’t bother dishing up any decent beer at all.

And now? Well, it really is much the same – a party pub with a beer list that’s better than it ought to be.

A photo of the paper menu
The beer list at The Porterhouse in January 2022

It’s been updated to reflect current tastes. There are a lot more British IPAs, for example. 

There are now two lager options, Temple Lager and Hammer Pilsner, both of which are more characterful than Chiller ever was. More importantly, they’re also branded to look like they might have been made by a medium-large British craft brewery from about four or five years ago. If you like Camden Hells, you might also like…

I only had limited time, so I skipped the various pale ales and went for continuity. Plain Porter (4.2%) is a really great example of this style – a slightly smoky, easy drinking, toasty beer with a hint of bitterness for a finishing flourish.

Oyster Stout (4.6%) is a little mellower, with a subtle sweetness that suggests richness rather than being cloying.

It takes a lot of work to make a central London business stick – it changes constantly, and always has. But now The Porterhouse has made it past 21 years, perhaps it’ll be there as long as its neighbour, which was founded in 1798.