Portraits of pubs, perfect and imperfect

It’s rare to read a memoir, local history or folklore text without finding mention of beer and pubs. Here are some we collected recently.

First, let’s look at The Valley by Elizabeth Clarke, published in 1969. It’s a memoir of life in a Welsh valley between the wars and has a few interesting mentions of pubs and beer.

There’s a story told by Emrys, a shepherd, about poaching salmon:

One night, he told us, in the rough and ready days of his boyhood, when agility and boldness counted above prudence, they went to a pub by the river one night, and talked about what they were going to do to the water bailiffs if they came along.

The landlord was sitting by the fire.

“Tip he in head first, boys,” he said, before they went down to the river.

Emrys had held a stick with a bag wrapped round it, soaked in paraffin, and he sprinkled a few drops more… to make it flare. The rest had rabbit snares to tail the fish.

Soon they had four salmon on the bank. Then Emrys saw a policeman coming along the path.

“Look out, boys!” he shouted, and they grabbed two of the salmon and ran. He dropped his light, and they left two fish on the bank. When they went back those had gone. A day or two later they returned to the pub.

“How many salmons did you get, boys?” the landlord asked.

“Two more than we had, without you,” they said. For one of them had seen the policeman’s coat and helmet hanging in the passage, though the landlord said indeed he kept them there to scare away tramps.

The author also remembers carnival day in the local market town when small boys…

could earn a penny or two running errands such as fetching beer for the blacksmith, who gave them threepence a time and rewarded them further by letting them see him pour it down his throat in one swallow.

And the singing in pubs on funeral days:

While we climbed the hill for home, knots of men were already on their way to compensating for the day’s hardships in making a night of it. As the evening wore on in the pubs in town, one by one they would break into the music, not of massive choral hymns like Cwm Rhondda (for wherever they are, Welshmen sing as though they were in chapel) but the nostalgic tunes learnt at firesides – “Come home. Come home. Calling, Oh sinner! come home.”

We found our 1972 Faber paperback for £2 in a bookshop in Pembrokeshire but there’s also a modern reprint.

A 19th century sketch map of a pub bisected by a parish boundary.
A map used in court in the 19th century reproduced in The Pattern Under the Plough.

The Dolphin in two counties

We’ve mentioned George Ewart Evans here on the blog before in relation to workers migrating from Suffolk to Burton on Trent to work in the brewing industry.

Evans was a collector of folk traditions and oral histories. His 1966 book The Pattern Under the Plough records traditions in rural communities in East Anglia.

He includes the story of a legal dispute over The Burgate Dolphin, a pub in Suffolk which straddled parish boundaries.

As well as a 19th century court case which rested on determining whether a pauper lodging in the pub lived in one parish, or the other, Evans shares this local story:

There is a tradition in the villages of Wortham and Burgate that the ambiguous position of the Dolphin has been brought to notice on another occasion. Some years ago the Wortham constable was about to arrest a man who had gone to earth in the inn after a poaching or similar minor offence. As it happened the wrong-doer was in the Wortham part of the house when the constable approached; but receiving warning he quickly slipped into the bar on the Burgate side, thus putting himself outside the constable’s jurisdiction.

There’s a modern edition of this, too, from Little Toller.

A pen and ink drawing of a half-timbered village pub behind a gnarled old oak tree. Two men are talking, possible conspiratorially, next to the pub.
A detail from one of Joan Hassall’s illustrations for Portrait of a Village, 1937.

A portrait of a village pub

We buy almost any book like Portrait of a Village by Francis Brett Young, published in 1937, and now have quite a collection.

Portrait of a Village is actually a sort of novel set in Monk’s Norton, Worcestershire – a village the author insists is fictional, and based on no real village.

The fictional pub in the fictional village is The Sheldon Arms, run by three generations of the Perry family, of which the landlord, Fred Perry, is extremely proud:

If he no longer, as did his forbears, buys malt and hops and brews his own beer, the house is still free and no man is his master: when the brewers’ travellers arrive he is able to deal with these tyrants on equal terms and to speak his mind. In the conduct of the house he is no less independent. The door of the public bar opens and closes on time; no customer who has not proved himself able to carry his liquor is served, and none dare dispute the decision.

In other words, he was free to buy guest ales from whichever suppliers he liked – probably uncommon then, and certainly a dream for many publicans today.

As for the Sheldon Arms itself, though the house is old-fashioned-a rambling, low-ceiled building of warm brick and timber, with floors of foot-worn flags and surprising variations of level that trip an unsuspecting tread the interior is a paragon of order and cleanliness, permeated by vague alcoholic odours of beer and spirits and cider which give its air a faint antiseptic tang. The public bar, in which the commonalty sit, is as austere, with its table and benches of scrubbed oak, as a monastic refectory. The bar-parlour, behind whose mahogany counter Mrs. Perry sits sewing or knitting, and which communicates with the other by means of a hatch, is the cosiest room in Monk’s Norton. In Summer its open casements, commanding the ‘cross,’ admit wafts of cool air: in Winter a brisk fire burns perpetually on the hearth, its clear flames reflected in gleaming brass and dull pewter, in the coloured ranks of bottles of spirit and liqueurs that stand on the shelves, in the lustre jugs and in the polished glasses whose crystalline clearness is Mrs. Perry’s particular pride. The small room is panelled and furnished with shining black oak, and the walls are undecorated save by four coloured prints of cock-fighting scenes (“worth a mint of money”), a carbon photographic enlargement of Fred Perry throwing out his chest in his sergeant’s uniform, a chromo-lithographic seedsman’s-almanac portraying a Derby winner, auctioneers’ bills announcing current stock-sales, and a number of cards (which Mrs. Perry’s delicacy regret- fully tolerates) proclaiming the prowess and fees of shire-stallions at stud.

This strikes us a rural rival to Orwell’s The Moon Under Water. A composite, perhaps, of several pubs Brett Young knew, and which were maybe already gone at the time of writing.

There doesn’t seem to be a modern reprint of this one but original 1930s copies are affordable and have (a) lovely heavy pages and (b) beautiful illustrations by Joan Hassall.


It doesn’t have to be inhuman

It’s only a pub but the tourists don’t understand that so one of the staff is having to play maître d’. But it’s beginning to get to him.

After one particularly frustrating conversation with a party of ten who don’t understand why there isn’t a table big enough to take them he retreats behind the bar.

Concealed behind a pillar he lets his shoulders slump and at once a colleague rushes over to ask if he’s OK. They share a few muttered words. The second lad takes the first lad’s face in his hands, looks him in the eye, and says: “You’ve got this, mate.” They both laugh, play fight for a moment, and then the maître d’ comes out swinging, ready to go again.

In another pub, quiet and a little gloomy, a particular song begins to play and one of the bar staff instantly darts into the cupboard to turn it up. His two colleagues throw their hands in the air in celebration and the three of them dance together as they clean glasses and wipe the counter.

Elsewhere, a barman takes an order for food before the kitchen has opened and says, hand slapped to his head, “I’m sorry, I’ve fucked up.” The chef replies, “No problem, bruv. I’ll make it happen.” He presents a fist to be bumped and adds, “Don’t be so hard on yourself!”

At shift change in another pub, two members of bar staff have a brief handover, running through the beers that are on and other bits of admin. “It’s funny how we never actually get to work together,” she says wistfully as he picks up his rucksack, ready to leave. “Well, I might stay for a half to keep you company, then, while it’s quiet,” he replies. She looks delighted.

In one pub the garden has to close at 10 pm or they’ll lose their licence. A barman, wiry and youthful, is trying to chase customers inside, prevent new ones appearing, and clear the tables. A bouncer, about twice the barman’s weight, twice his age, and several inches taller, appears. He blocks the door. Once smokers get the message and stop trying to barge through, the bouncer starts clearing glasses and jars of mustard, too. They get the job done by 9:59 and the door is bolted. “Thanks, man.” “You’re very welcome, brother.”

On a busy night, standing room only, in a pub in the suburbs, pints of Guinness are lined up, half filled, while a distracted barman deals with a complicated order. “Do you want me to finish them for you?” asks a colleague discreetly. He nods, frantic and grateful, and she winks, flicks up a thumb, picks up where he left off.

And they glide around each other like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, despite there being hours left on the shift.

20th Century Pub london pubs

London’s best pubs in 1968: mini-skirts and toasties

The January 1968 edition of Town magazine (“For men”) includes a guide to pubs in London and the surrounding area. How many are still there, and still good?

The guide is split into sections starting with pub entertainment. The first entry is a theme pub – one of our pet topics:

The Blue Boar, Leicester Square. Cheerfully, blatant subterranean restaurant and bar devoted to the Robin Hood theme: ‘Kindly deposit ye arrows,’ and ‘Knights’ and ‘Dames’ etc. Sounds awful, but is tremendous fun. Mock torches, waitresses in medieval gear, Maid Marian cocktails, free cheese ‘from the Sheriff’s larder’ and cut as much as you want.

Now, how’s that for a flying start? The London Picture Archive has an image from 1975. The magnificent building is still there but is no longer a pub.

There was modern jazz at The Bull’s Head in Barnes with “American stars”. It’s still there, still a pub, and – amazingly – still hosts a jazz club. There’s a pleasing sense of permanence there. 

Other jazz pubs included The Iron Bridge in Poplar (Marylanders on Sunday, New State Jazzband on Monday, Hugh Rainey All Stars on Tuesday and Alan Elsdon’s Jazz Band on Wednesday; demolished) and The Tally Ho in Kentish Town. (Became a punk pub, then demolished.)

If you wanted protest songs and folk music the anonymous author suggests The Horseshoe Hotel on Tottenham Court Road on Sunday evenings. There was apparently also cheap food to be had in the dive bar. This 1976 photo shows it in Ind Coope livery. It was demolished years ago.

We’ve written before about The Waterman’s Arms on the Isle of Dogs. As the Town pub guide explains:

Where journalist and TV personality Dan Farson inaugurated the now wildly successful Stars and Garter era of modern East End music hall. Few East Enders in sight but packed for the excellent entertainment.

It’s still there as a pub and boutique hotel, without music hall acts.

The Deuragon Arms in Homerton is described as “the best of the untainted and uncommercialised East End fun palaces” where “Marks and Sparks shirts glitter in the ultra-violet lights”. Snooty! It’s long gone, replaced by flats.

Also mentioned in this section are The Lamb & Flag, Covent Garden; The Prospect of Whitby in Wapping; St Stephen’s Tavern in Westminster; The Samuel Whitbread on Leicester Square; and Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street.

LP cover for "The Entertainers" featuring a warm Victorian pub interior.
A 1960s record featuring the interior of the Waterman’s Arms.

City of London pubs in 1968

This section features a lot of wine bars, chophouses, and quasi-pubs. But there is one excellent sounding theme pub:

Square Rigger, King William Street, EC3. A modern pub with a yo-ho-ho theme, as befits a boozer only a stone’s throw from the Pool of London. Canned noise of the sea, ship’s timbers, etc, but none the worse for it considering the large number of dirty and characterless pubs in the City.

From the outside it was a concrete booze bunker and was demolished in the 1980s.

Engraved glass on the door of a pub with Restaurant and Saloon Bar.
The Antelope in 2017.

The pubs of Belgravia

This section has a list of familiar classics, many of which we’ve visited, and some of which we wrote about back in 2017.

The Antelope on Eaton Terrace, the guide says, is “a male pub, full of beer swillers and hearties”. The Duke of Wellington, also on Eaton Terrace, is “full of the classier flat dwellers” and “Lots of lovely girls” The Grenadier on Wilton Row has been in every single pub guide for decades, as far as we can tell. Here we’re told it has “the ghost of a grenadier flogged to death” and “classy birds, but usually accompanied”. The Wilton Arms on Kinnerton Street “claims to be the smallest pub in London” where you can “get served by one of the miniest skirts”. All four of these pubs are still there and still trading, in one form or another.

The Red Lion in Pimlico is an unusual entry. It’s described as “a fine modern pub built into a block of GLC flats”. You’re probably wondering about “the birds” aren’t you? This being a less posh neighbourhood at the time the author got in a dig alongside his sexism: “a little more obviously bleached”. This became The Belgravia which, oddly enough, was one of the pubs Jess drank in a lot after work during the noughties. It’s now a restaurant.

An ornate Art Nouveau pub at night.
The Black Friar.

Quirky architecture and vibe

The section called ‘Character pubs’ starts The Black Friar at Blackfriars with its unique Art Nouveau decor which was literally a cause célèbre in the 1960s. It’s still there, still beautiful, but perhaps not a great place to drink these days.

Carrs on the Strand grabbed our interest with mention of its new “German Schloss Keller” with “Lowenbrau and Bavarian snacks served by mini-skirted waitresses”. There was a trend for this back in the 1960s and 70s which we wrote about for CAMRA’s BEER magazine. That piece is collected in our book Balmy Nectar if you want to read it.

The Surrey Tavern on Surrey Street also rang a bell and that’s because it was the Australian pub in London in the 1960s: “If you want to know what Australia’s like skip the pamphlets and come here.” It’s not only gone but doesn’t seem to have left much of a trace on the usual pub history websites.

The others mentioned in this section are The York Minster in Soho (AKA The French House), which is still going, and a bunch of wine bars like El Vino.

An illustration of some pies adapted from an old cook book.

Pub grub

There’s a relatively small list of pubs chiefly known for decent food. Fittingly, one is The Earl of Sandwich in the West End where “they commemorate their namesake by selling at 9d a round some of the cheapest sandwiches in London”. It was apparently opposite The Garrick Theatre. Does anybody know exactly where?

The Museum Tavern in Bloomsbury gets in because it had cheap student meals. It’s still there although we’ve not been for a while and don’t know if it still serves Old Peculier as a regular beer.

The Albion at Ludgate Circus gets a positive rave review for food “deliriously superior to usual pub fare” including toasted sandwiches and home-made pies. Toasties and pies! That’s really all we ask. It’s still there and looks rather handsome. Why have we never noticed it before? Despite this being another part of town where Jess hung out a lot 20 years ago, she doesn’t recall ever drinking there.

Beyond the boozer

For additional context, the same issue also has Cyril Ray’s pick of the wines, including Grande Fine Champagne 1948 at £6 a bottle; a recommendation for the film the Dutchman starring Laurence Harvey; and high praise for Dusty Springfield’s album Where Am I Going.

Why write a post like this?

That’s a good question. It’s mostly so that if someone is researching any of the pubs above they might find a nugget or two of useful information via Google.

Increasingly, we think of this now rather ancient blog as, among other things, a sort of index to our library of books, magazines and cuttings about beer and pubs.

And if nothing else, it was fun to spend an hour or two in 1968, where things were different, but also the same.


The lesser-spotted underage drinker in 2024

When did you last see underage drinkers even try to get served in a pub? It’s what you might call a dying tradition.

Ray’s dad says he started drinking in a pub on the Somerset Levels when he was 12, surrounded by adults who made sure he and his brothers (mostly) behaved themselves.

And in the mid-1990s, Jess went to East London pubs from 16 hiding behind her tall friend, though nobody ever got asked for ID.

She’d sit in the darkest corner of the back room with all the other juvenile boozers, tolerated by management on the understanding that they behaved. 

(Teenage Jess’s drinks of choice, in case you were wondering: snakebite and black, or Newcastle Brown Ale.)

It sounds sort of cute and nostalgic but there are good reasons why you might not want actual children to drink. Pubs have quite rightly been put under pressure to apply the law, check for ID, and refuse service if they’re in doubt.

Still, the other day, we saw what looked to us like a group of adolescents getting served in a pub without too much trouble.

We say “what looked to us like” because we’ve reached a point where people under, say, 25 all look about the same age to us. What we think is a schoolboy turns out to be a bloke on his way to the office or, worse, a teacher. That kind of thing.

Anyway, these lads definitely looked young, and the bar staff thought so too, because they asked for ID. One of them produced a document which, even from a distance, looked unconvincing. After a bit of conversation, the person behind the bar was convinced, or gave up, and agreed they could have their drinks.

They ordered, nervously, three pints of lager, without specifying which one.

As they made their way to a table they all but gave each other fist bumps. Their conspiratorial manner and excitement were obvious.

“Alright lads, play it cool, play it cool,” said Jess.

At which point, they took out their phones and started recording videos of themselves with their beers, pouting and posing for, we suppose, Tik-Tok or something similar.

The middle-aged group on the table next to them asked, amused, what they were up to. The phones went away and some polite, good-natured conversation ensued.

There’s no astonishing twist to this story. The lads drank their pints, slowly and a bit weirdly, as if they’d never held a glass before, or tasted beer. They made quiet conversation. And after a while, they left, with a round of shy waves and goodbyes to their neighbours and the pub staff.

Legally, they probably shouldn’t have been served – one ID, even if it is legit, doesn’t cover three people. But it was hard to find the whole business anything less than rather sweet.

And we need them to develop the pub habit, don’t we, if we want these places to exist at all in 20 years time?

Back in the 1990s and 00s there were conversations about lowering the legal age for drinking in pubs so that this could be a safe, supervised activity. It was tied into various moral panics over kids ‘hanging around’ on the streets, alcopops, and lager loutism.

Which politician would bother arguing for that now?

There are some additional thoughts on youthful drinking habits and the avocado toast paradox for subscribers to our Patreon.


An unscientific approach to Brighton

Its a sign of a good drinking town that you can find multiple decent pubs without doing much research.

In Brighton last weekend, on a trip with Ray’s parents, we weren’t sure how much time we’d have for the pub.

So, we didn’t bother studying the books or blogs, or scouring Google.

The only thing we had in the back of our minds was that it might be nice to revisit The Evening Star after 15 years, on the other side of the Dark-Star-Fuller’s-Asahi situation.

As it happened, we did get a couple of hours free on Saturday afternoon and went straight there.

We caught it between lunchtime and the post-football-match rush and so had our pick of scrubbed wooden tables. It felt like a country pub, with solitary readers and groups of older men in wax jackets and battered hats.

On the bar were cask ales from Burning Sky and others. There were also interesting keg beers such as Saison Dupont.

Everything we drank was in excellent condition, served with distinct pride, but we got stuck on Evening Star (Downlands) Revival at 4.8%. It’s the kind of clear, clean, citrusy pale ale that briefly bloomed for a decade at the start of the century. You know, the kind of thing for which Dark Star became famous.

“…the cashless thing is about complete control of the population…” “…used to brew at Partridge Green…” “…these hoppy IPAs gripe my guts…”

When the football fans began to turn up, the atmosphere changed, but not for the worse.

This remains an utterly great pub.

A wall at The Brick with a vintage German poster from 1954 with a stylised stag's head. There are dangling lamps and simple wooden tables with candles.
European signifiers at The Brick.

We heard about The Brick when The Brick followed us on Instagram two days before our unannounced visit. Spooky.

Its branding and proposition appealed to us immediately: warm minimalism, Czech and German beer.

On a rainy Sunday evening, in the wake of the half marathon, it was a little quiet. But that’s not a bad test of the fundamental fitness of a pub.

With its dark green walls, vintage furniture and antler-themed greebling, even with six customers, it felt alive.

One of the owners was pottering about tidying up and stock taking; two lads were chatting in, we think, Italian; and a group at the bar were exchanging horror stories from working in commercial kitchens.

The highlight of the visit was Vinohradský 11, a Czech pale lager with a delightful flowery aroma, a hint of butter, and a heavy layer of pure zing.

When we ordered, the loitering owner intervened to tell the person behind the bar: “I think we’ve got a nice little Vinohradský glass for that one…” They did, and it enhanced the pleasure enormously.

Squint and, with that handled mug to your mouth, you could convince yourself you were in some eastern bloc bar in 1983. In a good way.

The interior of a modern pub with tiled back bar, keg taps, bunting, chalkboards, and very bright lights.
Craft beer signifiers at The Maris & Otter.

Much as we enjoyed this modern bar, and its continental beer, we then had an itch to drink Harvey’s somewhat on its home turf. A 6-minute walk away we found The Maris & Otter, which we’d clocked on an earlier walk.

Again, it’s tough to judge a pub on a rainy Sunday evening, but this felt inherently bland. It’s an attempt by a trad brewery to do ‘contemporary’ which means:

  • bare brick and concrete walls
  • prints of otters in Peaky Blinders hats
  • the words ‘craft beer’ in random places
  • bright lights
  • pop music

If it hadn’t been for the line up on the bar, we’d have walked, but when you offer us Harvey’s best bitter, mild, porter and old ale, you’ve got us hooked.

The porter was wonderful, we might even say magical, with everything you get from something like Fuller’s London Porter plus that distinctive funky yeast character. The best bitter was in wonderful condition, too, but served in a highball type glass which did it no favours.

The door of a pub toilet with signs warning that drugs are not allowed on the premises, and that only one person at a time is allowed in the cubicle.
Normal pub signifiers at The Waggon & Horses.

As a footnote, Ray also enjoyed Sussex Best at The Waggon & Horses, a city centre pub chosen by his dad because (a) it was handy and (b) looked down-to-earth.

It wasn’t anything special, as a pub, except, somehow, it was. Extraordinarily ordinary. Buttered white toast. A Rich Tea biscuit.

The staff weren’t obsequiously friendly but seemed to have the knack for treating customers like human beings.

The other customers were damp shoppers, lads on crawls, and a trio of older fellers, evidently from London, who made welcoming chat with Dad while Ray was at the bar.

And the beer was… excellent.

Dark Star Hophead, that 3.8% wonder, as good as it’s ever tasted, and Harvey’s Sussex Best in similarly shimmering form.

It seemed to bring Dad, not long out of hospital, and still not quite himself, back to life, as only a really good pint can do.