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20th Century Pub beer in fiction / tv london pubs

Lose Bunny Lake, find a pub

The 1965 psychological thriller Bunny Lake is Missing was set in London and, of course, features a scene set in a pub – The Warrington Hotel, Maida Vale.

Bunny Lake was a flop on its original release, and an obscurity for decades. Now, like many lesser-known films of the period, it’s been beautifully restored and released on Blu-ray.

That gives us an opportunity not only to see the pub as it looked almost 60 years ago but also to freeze the frame, zoom and enhance, to see what details we can pick up.

First, a disclaimer: this is a real pub, not a studio set – there are enough clues to be sure of that. But, of course, it is filled with studio extras, not real drinkers, or so we assume.

That means some of what we see is sort of real, and some sort of isn’t – although the film is intended to feel real rather than presenting that romantic fantasy version of London so often seen in American productions.

In fact, Laurence Olivier, as Superintendent Newhouse, makes that point very well, in dialogue written by novelists Penelope Mortimer and John Mortimer:

“Ever been in a pub before? Here it is, the heart of Merrie Olde England. Complete with dirty glasses, watery beer, draughts under the doors, and a 23-inch television.”

Oh, yes – the television. A novelty in pubs in the 1950s, by 1965, it’s a fixture – almost the centrepiece, in fact, front and centre above the bar. It shows the news first, then a performance by The Zombies. Middle-aged and elderly drinkers seem transfixed by it.

A pub television.

Never mind the TV, you’re probably thinking – what about those bottles beneath it.

In this shot, and others, we’ve got:

  • Babycham
  • Courage Brown Ale
  • Worthington Pale Ale
  • Guinness
  • and some others we don’t recognise, but you might

There’s also some very prominent point-of-sale material for SKOL lager.

Bottled beers

What about draught beer? There’s a very obvious Courage Tavern Keg Bitter font in several shots, a draught Guinness font, and a single lonely cask ale pump-clip advertising Flowers.

Tavern Keg Bitter
Guinness
Flowers

That last one is a bit confusing because Flowers was a Whitbread brand by 1961 and this pub was definitely a Barclays (Courage) pub. Perhaps this is a bit of set dressing by a production designer who – can you believe it? – didn’t especially care about brewery ownership.

There’s also some background detail for students of pub grub to enjoy. Jars of pickles. Boiled eggs. Pies. Miserable sandwiches. And a full but unconvincing steak, seafood and oyster menu.

Pickles
Sandwiches
Full dining menu

What’s also clear is that this was a handsome building. Green and White’s The Evening Standard Guide to London Pubs from 1973 says:

A dominant building at the north end of Warrington Crescent… the Warrington is a glowing example of faded splendour, possibly due to the fact that it has never really been taken up by the Maida Vale elite. It has one of the most imposing pub entrances in London, with its own ornate lamp-standards and a coy lady holding a torch in a niche on your right as you go in. Fascinating interior with some art nouveau stained glass, only slightly marred by some more recent murals, a salmon-pink ceiling hung with chandeliers, and a crescent-shaped bar with a brass footrail. Probably the best example of an Edwardian pub in London.

The exterior of the Warrington
Painted sign on the door: LOUNGE
Art Nouveau windows

Apparently, it’s still worth a visit. Next time we’re in London, plagues and regulations permitting, we’ll try to pop in for a sad sandwich and a bottle of brown ale.

Categories
london pubs

Notes from London in the season of the plague

London, a week before Christmas, mist around the tops of the skyscrapers, and the pubs are as quiet as country churches.

We had this London trip in the calendar for a while, planned around a work commitment, and designed to get a load of pre-Christmas family and friends stuff ticked off at the same time.

As news broke about Omicron, we considered cancelling, but those family obligations made it feel right and necessary to get on the train.

Then, as it happened, things got cancelled and we were there with not much to do except go to the pub.

As it had been a while since we last visited London, we had an urge to check in on old favourites – both pubs and breweries.

It’s interesting how we still perceive Fuller’s and Young’s to be essential touchpoints, even though the former is now a multinational and the latter isn’t brewed anywhere near London. 

We’re not alone in this: we noted that CAMRA’s London Drinker magazine still starts its brewery news round-up with news from those two, bloody-mindedness tied with nostalgia.

On the first night, our target was a Fuller’s pub in the City of London proper. Based on our observations of the Tube the day before, we guessed rightly that most places would be pretty quiet and, sure enough, our first stop, the Hung, Drawn & Quartered near the Tower of London, had only a handful of people trying to make the best of things beneath its high ceilings.

There seems to be a strange pattern with flagship Fuller’s and Young’s pubs which is that one of the cask ales will be outstanding, one will be fine, and one will be tired and/or about to go to vinegar. But you never know which it’s going to be.

In pre-Covid days, Jess would often ask for a sample just to find out which one was on shift as the stunner that evening. On this occasion, we had a pint of each and found that it was good old London Pride that was really in the mood to sing.

When it’s tired, or even a bit less than fresh, this beer can taste like cornflakes and dishwater; when it’s good, biscuity malt, flowery hops and stony bitterness harmonise beautifully.

For a moment, we relaxed. There was plenty of room, all was calm, all was bright. Then a group of people came and sat on the table right next to us – a bit odd in a mostly empty pub. 

That prompted us to move on to a pub we’d always wanted to visit but which had always been either too busy, or totally shut. That is, The Swan, next to Leadenhall Market.

This is pub is more passageway than building to the extent that most of the pub furniture was outside rather than in. As it was a fairly balmy evening, we sat outside, just to one side of some kind of work Christmas do, and enjoyed Jack Frost, Fuller’s seasonal special.

We hadn’t really appreciated this in the past and certainly early on in our blogging days used to moan that it was yet another brown beer in a range already full of them. We thought it was pretty dull and pretty sweet. Perhaps the addition of blackberries makes it hard to hit a consistent flavour, or maybe we just didn’t know what we were talking about. This time, at any rate, we found it exotic enough, with a touch of fruit, but generally edging into a Burton Ale territory, much like Young’s Winter Warmer.

Once we’d had that thought, we needed to find Winter Warmer itself so, the following day, we headed for The Founders Arms, a modern riverside Young’s pub which really is a lot better than it needs to be. It has an amazing view across the river; interesting, surprisingly decent food; and, of course, a solid line up of Young’s beers, plus St Austell Proper Job and others. 

Winter Warmer was on and, as the barman proudly announced, “Fresh from the keg.” (Cask.) It was as good as we’ve ever had it – something like a beefed-up mild with rich chocolate and smokey notes.

The Original (AKA Bitter, AKA Ordinary) was zesty, dry and delicate.

And the Special was vinegar, but changed without any bother.

We’ve often declared that The Royal Oak on Tabard Street is the best pub in London but we haven’t visited since the change of management and the refurb, at least as far as we can recall.

The refurb was fairly gentle but the pub has lost a lot of its greebling – no doubt the property of the previous guvnors. No more strawberry pink mugs. No more tatty paperbacks. Grey wallpaper instead of rich red.

The Harveys beer is still superb. Sussex Best remains the English Orval (we think we coined this phrase, so we’re going to repeat it) but, this time, somehow managed to taste both funkier and cleaner than we remembered it.

The funkiness had also leaked across into the Old, which is really a sort of best mild, but had got drier not through hops but yeast character.

Cask Prince of Denmark (2019 vintage) was well on the way to becoming full-on Imperial Stout with waves of coffee, port, old wood and leather.

And finally, an honourable mention for Christmas Ale, which we’ve only had in bottles before and never found very exciting – it’s just sweet! But on cask, it reminded us of something like Gordon’s Finest Scotch Ale: a Belgian-ish take on a sweet British beer. With a bit of strawberry jam to follow, too.

We had half the pub to ourselves here but realised after a while that the only other customers, on the far side of the bar, were former colleagues of Ray’s from his Civil Service days. We had a chat, considered joining each other on one table, but decided against it. Another time, perhaps.

The classics checked off, we went off in search of something more adventurous.

At Mother Kelly’s in Bethnal Green, Siren Caribbean Chocolate Cake was as delightful as ever and lured us into trying their White Chocolate Pancake Stack, which was a bit of a mess. Like drinking maple syrup in coffee or, rather, a splash of coffee in some maple syrup.

Round the corner (ish) at the King’s Arms, we were pleased to find Burning Sky Porter – another of those straightforward but interesting dark beers that seem to be quietly in fashion right now. This pub was busier but everyone seemed to be committed to keeping at arms’ length from strangers and there was a reassuring breeze through the open door.

On our last day, we trekked to another old favourite, The Pembury Tavern, to drink our way through a full range of Five Points Brewing beers.

Lots were good but the standouts were (cask) Pale Ale, which is evolving towards Fyne Ales Jarl territory, and Railway Porter – which must now be The Main London Porter now Fuller’s can’t be bothered.

Actually, saying that sounds disrespectful to Five Points, and to this absolutely superb beer.

It tastes how you imagine a beer from the turn of the 20th century might: dense, smoky, warming, with bitter chocolate and coffee character, but beautifully balanced with subtle hops. 

We just could not stop drinking it and stayed for several more than we were planning to.

The pub wasn’t dead but it wasn’t busy either. Pleasant for us but worrying for them, no doubt.

Fingers crossed for January.

Categories
london pubs

Special grade mediocre everyday

We’ve been struck down by nostalgia lately and find ourselves yearning for a particular experience of the pub.

Maybe it’s birthdays. Maybe it’s the emotional impact of the two weirdest years we’ve ever lived through.

Or perhaps it was just that excellent pint of Young’s Special at The Railway in Fishponds in Bristol.

Whatever the reason, here’s where we want to be: in a slightly crappy Young’s pub in central London c.2008, after work, with rain turning to sleet outside.

We used to end up somewhere like this quite often back then.

If the Tube was knackered, or the overground trains, or both, we’d hang about until after rush hour. That often meant finding a pub.

There was socialising, too – with colleagues or friends from university, before everyone got kids, mortgages and hair trigger hangovers.

You rarely ended up in really good pubs. They were too small, too busy or too end-of-the-line.

No, it was usually a Young’s pub with shiny tables and bad lighting. There were usually lots of suits, a few cabbies, and maybe someone selling plastic-wrapped roses.

Being interested in beer, we’d make the best of it, working our way through every cask ale on the bar – Ordinary, Special, maybe Winter Warmer.

Then we’d turn to the bottles. Ram and Spesh, Chocolate Stout, Special London – the original hazy IPA?

Once or twice, to our glee, we even found the Oatmeal Stout brewed for the US market, marked up in pints and ounces.

It doesn’t have to be Young’s. Fuller’s or Sam Smith’s would do.

But it does have to be a bit damp, a bit warm, a bit weary. Our friends need to be there. And we need to be in our twenties again.

Is that too much to ask?

Categories
20th Century Pub london

A Docklands pub in danger, 1987

In 1987, the end was near for The British Oak at Poplar, East London, because Docklands, with a capital D, was coming into being and a compulsory purchase order had been served.

We came across this small story of the loss of a specific pub through ‘Eastenders’, an episode of the ITV weekly documentary series World In Action available via BritBox. Jess being a Londoner, and Ray being a hopeless nostalgist, we often find ourselves watching this kind of thing and there’s invariably a pub somewhere among the grainy footage.

The London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) was set up by the Government in 1981 with the intention of regenerating what had become largely wasteland as London’s docks moved out of the city to places like Tilbury, as a result of containerisation. The LDDC was given unusual powers to grant planning permission and issue compulsory purchase orders – whatever it took to make this land profitable, in short.

Detail from the 1976 Dockland Strategic Plan. SOURCE: A London Inheritance.

At the time, much was made of the effects of this regeneration programme on local people, many of whom faced eviction, with the LDDC insistent that it was under no obligation to provide replacement housing. Roads needed widening, railways needed building, and old buildings couldn’t get in the way of progress.

The British Oak was a victim of the same process. As the narrator explains:

The landlord of the British Oak hoped to see some benefit from the changes. Four years ago he sold his home and put his life savings into the pub. When he bought it, the Corporation told him there were no plans for this street. Now, they want him out.

SOURCE: ITV/BritBox.
SOURCE: ITV/BritBox.

The landlord isn’t named in the documentary – does anybody know who he was? – but he and his wife were certainly not impressed:

Her: I’ll stay until they put a bulldozer through it.

Him: And then I will drive a bulldozer through the London Dockland Development Corporation’s guv’nor’s house myself.

It was a free house in 1986, formerly an Allied Breweries pub, formerly Ind Coope, formerly Taylor Walker. The building we see in the documentary dates from 1927.

The interesting thing is that, despite the melancholy tone of the documentary, the pub building survived much longer than might have been expected. London pub historian Ewan Munro suggests it was there until around 2003, although it seems to have ceased trading much earlier, in around 1991.

In fact, this makes it worse, doesn’t it? They bought out the landlord, shut the pub down and then… Did nothing with it for more than a decade? Then they built a small surgery with a car park. The road wasn’t widened. No great Progress was made.

It turns out the LDDC was responsible for the demolition of several pubs in the 1980s including this one described in The London Drinker for July 1988:

Another East End landmark has disappeared, this time due to the LDDC (London Docklands Demolition Co – sorry, that should read Development Co). What was lastly called Lipstick and before that the Londoner, originally the Eastern Hotel, 2 East India Dock Road E14, has been demolished. Originally it was a Truman house and had an illuminated moving one-legged Ben Truman hopping across the front of the building proclaiming that there were more hops in Ben Truman.

Now that we would have liked to have seen.

And if not pubs, what did the LDDC want? Well, wine bars, of course. Mangetout, Rodney – mangetout!

SOURCE: ITV/BritBox.

There are things in ‘Eastenders’ that feel both familiar and strange. On the one hand, we’re still living in the age of the property developer, for whom pubs are too often an obstacle to be removed to make way for flats. On the other hand, however, it’s startling to hear yuppie talking heads ‘saying the quiet part out loud’:

It’s really up to [the local people] to see the benefits and opportunities… Certainly I think there’s winners and losers in any situation in life. In Docklands, the people I work with and the people I’ve met generally find Docklands to be a successful area to be living and working in… I think the resistance is a lack of understanding of what is being created here… Local people are not used to the kind of change that is happening and they don’t understand the kind of change that is happening to them.

Categories
20th Century Pub london

The Battle for the Boot, 1914-15

In the early 20th century The Boot, a pub on the High Street in Edgware, North London, was the focal point for a battle between brewers and licensing magistrates. Was it one pub too many, or did it perform a vital social function?

While browsing the wonderful British Newspaper Archive trying to find out more about the Middlesex magistrates we came across an interesting story about The Boot from the Hendon & Finchley Times for Friday 2 July 1915.

It’s about how the pub was initially refused renewal of its licence by the local justices but had that decision overturned by the Middlesex Licensing Committee – twice.

The Boot c.1910
The Boot in 1911. SOURCE: Colleen/PubWiki; our own image clean up.

What seems to have happened is that the local justices were keen to close the pub purely because, in their view, there were too many in the area.

Look at the map above (via the National Library of Scotland) and you’ll see that there were, indeed, quite a few ‘P.H.’ in the area, not to mention the Railway Hotel just up the road.

But the magistrates were unable to provide any convincing evidence as to why that pub in particular should be the one to close.

They had tried the previous year, and the decision had been overturned by the licensing committee.

The full newspaper report paints a fascinating picture of the changing, evolving nature of pubs at this time, particularly in growing suburbs:

The house was small, the bars were extremely small, and the roofs so low that a person wearing a hat could hardly stand upright. The house was 31 yards from fully-licensed house, The Red Lion, the same side of the road, and about yards from a commodious, well-built, and fairly new beer house called The Surrey Arms, also on the same side of the road. The other direction, 220 yards away, was The King’s Arms, another fully-licensed house. All of these three houses were very superior accommodation to The Boot. The total population within a quarter of a mile radius, as near as could be ascertained, was 350. that at the present moment there were four licences within the area for 350 people.

The Boot in 1900
SOURCE: Possibly Barnet Archives – the subtle watermark may offer a clue.

The representative for the Gore Division justices (who were the ones that turned down the renewal) went on to say that

as the brewers had another house in the immediate neighbourhood, it could not be argued that those who liked the beer to be obtained at The Boot would suffer. They would hear that the other house, The Surrey Arms, coupled with the two fully-licensed houses, could easily deal with the trade which at present was being done at The Boot, and if the other side argued that it could not, then there was plenty of room for enlargement.

He also said that beer being served through windows was causing blockages in the passage outside.

In an unusual defence of this sort of pub, the Chairman of the committee “suggested that The Surrey Arms might not be so attractive to people in humble life” and that he “understood The Boot was a favourite house with this class of people”.

The justices’ representative replied that “he quite appreciated the point that there were always people who preferred a house where they might touch the ceiling in preference to a better building, but in considering whether a house was redundant they must differentiate the ordinary rules and consider which were the better premises”.

There is then a fairly lengthy recap of a report that was commissioned comparing The Boot to The Surrey Arms – “an excellently arranged house”. 

A local policeman then gave witness and said there had been “no complaint” about the conduct of The Boot. After further appeals from the licensee’s representative, pointing out how much trade The Boot did, and how difficult it would be for The Surrey Arms to absorb this, the Committee upheld their decision from the previous year to renew the licence.

They refrained from ticking off the local justices for bringing the case back with no new evidence but there’s certainly an undercurrent of irritation evident in the report.

The Boot was demolished in the 1960s and replaced with a modern shopping precinct fittingly called Boot Parade.

The Surrey Arms continued in various forms, including as a Shisha Lounge and a night club, until it was eventually demolished in May 2020.

Meanwhile, there is an ongoing campaign to save the nearby Railway Hotel, with a petition here.