Nice places to drink in Westminster, London

There are no nice places to drink in Westminster.

Joking aside, Westminster is one of the biggest tourist destinations in Britain, so most of the visible pubs are tourist traps selling “traditional fish and chips”. But there are a few gems, mostly full of gossiping civil servants and political types.

1. The Sanctuary, 33 Tothill Street — that old reliable, a Fuller’s pub. It gets heavingly busy between 5-7 most nights, but the beer’s always good.

2. The Buckingham Arms, Petty France and The Royal Oak, Regency Street — two cosy (small) Young’s pubs. As with all Young’s pubs, the range isn’t quite what it used to be in either pub, but there’s still enough variety to have something different on every round.

3. The White Horse and Bower, Horseferry Road — a Shepherd Neame pub which has always been good, but horribly smoke-filled. That shouldn’t now be a problem. A range of SN beers on tap, including the seasonal special, and a few more in bottles. The last few times we’ve been, the bar manager has been a very cheerful chap who will wax enthusiastic on the beer, if given the chance.

4. St Stephen’s Tavern, Bridge Road (Westminster Bridge approach on the Parliament side) — the beer’s usually a bit rough, to be honest, but it’s one of the two Hall & Woodhouse (Badger) pubs in London, and very “historical”. It’s the one with the bell that rings when it’s time for MPs to get over the House of Commons to vote. Great Victorian interior, too.

5. Westminster Arms, Storey’s Gate — a pub which has cleverly sub-divided into a hole for civil servants to drink real ale in, and an upstairs to fleece tourists. There are usually two or three guest ales on, all well kept, and not the usual suspects. Don’t expect a seat; do expect to see lots of famous politicians walking past the window.

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6. The Speaker, Great Peter Street – probably the best place for real ale if you like variety. It’s the traditional haunt of old-school civil servants with a fondness for liquid lunches, and the windows are full of passive-aggressive signs (”This is a real pub! We don’t have music…” and so on). But for all that, it’s rather charming, with surprisingly friendly staff, and a deep commitment to serving a variety of interesting real ales from around the country.

7. The Old Monk Exchange, 61-71Victoria Street. It’s a bit of a hole in the ground, and can be very busy, but it’s got a large range of foreign lagers and other bottled beers — fruit beers, wheat beers, that kind of thing. They also seem to be improving on the real ale front. We didn’t used to like it much at all, but it’s growing on us.

Here’s a another post about it.

See also our guide to places to drink in Victoria — it’s only a short walk from Westminster to, say, the Cardinal (Sam Smith’s pub near Westminster Cathedral)

Link to Google map showing all of the above, including the Cardinal.

The Defunct Essex Brewery

brewery_tap_closeup.jpgThe Essex Brewery used to be on St James Street in Walthamstow, east London. It was demolished in 1975. But there are still signs of the brewery’s existence in the immediate area. A nearby pub — which seems now to be abandoned, having been a nightclub in recent years — bears the brewery’s name.

I’m keen to find out more about “Collier Brothers Essex Brewery”. For now, I’ve found this brief history, at the East London and City Beer Guide Online:

Only one takeover, apart from the Wenlock Brewery Co Ltd, has been made by a brewery outside London. This was when Tollemache Breweries Ltd of Ipswich acquired Collier Brothers, Essex Brewery, St Jamess Street, Walthamstow in 1920. Founded by Williams Hawes in 1859. Brewing ceased in 1972 and the brewery has been demolished.

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There’s also this interesting trade advert at the British Library website.

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And this from the amazing British History Online website:

A brewer was listed in 1848. (fn. 169) In 1859 there were two, one of them being William Hawes, who built the steam-powered Walthamstow Brewery in St. James Street. (fn. 170) The Essex Brewery Co. Ltd. was formed in 1871 to buy Hawes’s brewery, (fn. 171) but apparently failed to attract subscribers, for the brewery was acquired by Collier Bros., who operated it as the Essex Brewery, until 1922. It was then sold to Tollemache’s Breweries Ltd., to whom it still belonged in 1968. (fn. 172)

From: ‘Walthamstow: Economic history, marshes and forests’, A History of the County of Essex: Volume 6 (1973), pp. 263-75. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.asp?compid=42779. Date accessed: 26 July 2007.

The July Session – Atmosphere

session-logo-r-sm.jpgThis month’s Session topic has been set by Hop Talk, and is all about atmosphere. We have been challenged to talk about:

…the Atmosphere in which you enjoy beer. Where is your favorite place to have a beer? When? With whom? Most importantly:

Why?

We thought that we’d focus on the why — what is it that make for a good atmosphere?

  1. The time, the place. Obvious really, but we’ve had some great times in terrible pubs just because there’s something magical about the circumstances. For example, when you’ve stepped in out of a sudden shower, or from the freezing cold; or when you’ve taken a week-day off work, and you should be sitting at your desk, but instead you’re in the boozer, with two elderly alcoholics, a dog and a couple of bluebottles for company. Almost any pub feels good on Christmas Eve, or if your country has won in a big sporting event.
  2. The company. Who you’re with is probably the most important contributor to atmosphere — the worst pub in the world can have a great atmosphere if you’re with good friends. Remember, the point of the pub is to socialise! And it’s nice, too, if the other people in the pub are of different ages, classes, races and so on. A pub full of people in suits can be miserable. A pub full of football fans can be miserable. A pub full of students can be miserable. But mix them all up, and suddenly no-one feels on guard or out of place.
  3. Pubs you’ve hiked to on holiday. Any pub you’ve walked a long way to get to, perhaps along a coastal path, in the rain, will have a great atmosphere. A pint you’ve earned tastes twice as good. A pint of bog-standard Flowers at the Anchor Inn, Burton Bradstock tasted like nectar after four hours walking from Abbotsbury and, again, it’s great to know that you’re there when you should be at work.
  4. Decor. Small rooms, subdued lighting, rich dark colours. Pubs like that don’t always have good atmosphere, but they’re more likely to than ones with large, white, echoing rooms with bright lights. The legendary and brilliant Pembury Tavern in Hackney has only one flaw, perhaps best summed up in a graffito from the gents toilets: “This place is like an Anglican church”. (We should add that the atmosphere there gets better every time we go, and that for some people, it’s one of the main attractions.) Good pubs are designed so you can hear what your friends are saying but no-one else can. They’re intimate, cosy and comfortable, like a home from home. They shouldn’t feel too “corporate”, as Fullers pubs have started to do.
  5. Friendly bar staff. It’s not always the case, but generally a pub with a landlord as opposed to a “management team” will be friendlier. Nothing crushes the atmosphere quicker than dead-eyed, tired, grumpy staff wearing identical polo shirts glaring at you over the pumps. It’s not usually their fault — they’re underpaid and treated like drones. But it’s great when bar staff engage you in conversation, know about the beers and say goodbye when you leave.
  6. The lock-in. A uniquely British tradition, the significance of which has declined with the change to licensing laws. Until recently, pub landlords had to call “last orders” at 11:00 and kick you out by 11:20. The “lock-in” was where the pub landlord spontaneously decided that he liked the crowd he had in, so decided to flout the law, shut all the doors, draw the curtains, and stay open later. Guaranteed good night out. I’d name a couple of pubs famous for never shutting, but I wouldn’t want to get them in trouble. Often local Irish boozers (not big Irish chains). Nowadays, it’s supposed to be easier for landlords to get late licences, and we haven’t been in a lock-in since.
  7. Noise or music. It doesn’t have to be music, but some kind of background noise is usually a good thing. Beer snobs seem to have some problem with music in pubs, which I don’t really understand. It’s preferable to complete silence or — worse — an echo. A good jukebox can’t be beat. And the best ever: sitting in a beer garden in Munich listening to the hubbub of conversation, and a distant oompah band.
  8. Busy but not claustrophobic. A pub should be busy enough that it has some life in it, but not so busy you can’t get a seat after, say, 2o minutes. Claustrophobic pubs — anywhere in central London between 5-8 on a Friday, for example — are a nightmare.
  9. Beer gardens and town squares in the sun. This is a cheat, really, because the atmosphere is that of the town or city you’re visiting. Sunlight, shade, bustle and beer are a great combination. Watching the world go by under a parasol.. just perfect.

Note that good beer does not appear in this list. When we started to think about this post, we noted that almost all pubs where we’d had a truly amazing time had indifferent beer, at the very best. And we often choose to go to pubs with mediocre beer but great atmosphere whenever we’re meeting “normal friends” (ie those that aren’t beer obsessives). If it’s just the two of us, that’s different, but most people are not willing to trek to a “weird” pub because they have an interesting beer or two.

We wondered whether, in fact, “good beer” and “good atmosphere” were negatively correlated. How many times have you gone into a new pub with a “good beer” reputation, tried all the beers you’ve never had in as short a space of time as possible so you can move on and try somewhere else. We certainly have on day trips to,e.g., Oxford. Does this help create an atmosphere?

However, with a bit more consideration, we thought of a few places that do manage to pull off both great atmosphere and great beer:

  • The Rake, near London Bridge. A tip from Stonch, which we can’t drag ourselves away from now we’ve found it. Great range of beer, very friendly, enthusiastic, knowledgeable staff. Very busy, but we’ve got a seat within 20 minutes every time we’ve been. It’s tiny, which is, in fact, probably what gives it a “buzz”, even when there are only 10 people in it.
  • The Fitzroy Tavern, near Oxford Street. A nightmare in the evenings, but on a Sunday afternoon, a lovely place for a pint. Victorian style booths break up what is actually a big space, and make it feel more intimate. Sometimes there’s music, sometimes not, but there’s always the sound of the street outside. And we love several of Sam Smith’s beers “real” or not.
  • Quinn’s, Camden. It’s a normal pub — one that looks too scary to go into at first glance — with a mixed and friendly clientele, but which also has fridges full of great German and Belgian beer. Sitting drinking Schlenkerla Rauchbier in a normal pub is how it should be.

This was a great topic!

Old School Beer “Blogging”

Before blogging, anyone who wanted to record something interesting they’d come across to do with their hobbies and interests had to stick it in a scrapbook.

The Westminster Archive1 (which we’ve mentioned before) has an astounding collection of beer related scrapbooks — 82 volumes in total — all of which were the work of a mysterious chap2 called “D. Foster”.

Between around 1880-1900, Every time Mr Foster came across anything in a book or magazine to do with beer or pubs in London, he copied out the section by hand. His scrapbooks, of which there are between 10-20 per bound volume, are meticulously organised. The first 60-odd volumes cover London pubs from A-Z. Then there are volumes on beer and ale; drinking vessels; coffee shops; and so on.

It really does read like a blog, and is a priceless resource of knowledge about beer. The copy in the Archive is the only one — it’s never been printed or published — so if you’re in the area, it’s worth popping in for a look.

Notes

1. The archives are on St Ann’s Street, in Westminster, and are open every day except Sunday and Monday.

2. We’re assuming D. Foster was a chap — the librarians didn’t know much about where the scrapbooks had come from, except that their author was an “enthusiast”.