Today, with its wood and tiles and punk soundtrack, [the Fenton] is almost as it was; Gill observes that the jukebox has moved rooms. “Pre-mobile phones, you’d have to go where you knew people would be,” Mekons singer Tom Greenhalgh explains, remembering “intense political debates and insane hedonism”, and legendary scene characters such as Barry the Badge. “A huge gay guy covered in badges from Armley Socialist Worker’s party. He was rock-hard, but then he could just grab you, snog you and stick his tongue down your throat.”
I was asked for my views by Carlsberg’s London-based PR company, who sent me some samples. The bottled version said it was brewed in the UK – presumably this means the Northampton factory – while the can says “brewed in the EU”. I said this made a mockery of the new beer being called “Danish Pilsner”… I added that 3.8 per cent ABV was too low to merit being called Pilsner: the classic Pilsner Urquell is 4.4 per cent and all claims to be a Pilsner should be judged against it. I found the Carlsberg beer to be thin and lacking in aroma and flavour.
A footnote from us: we were asked to take part in market research by Heineken earlier this week, which leads us to suspect some similar post-Camden reinvention is in the pipeline there, too.
On Saturday night, Tony Naylor declared the Old Bridge, Ripponden, ‘arguably Britain’s best pub’:
I am drinking a perfectly conditioned pint of Vocation’s Bread & Butter in arguably Britain’s best pub (Old Bridge Inn, Ripponden), and feel how religious zealots must after god reveals itself to them.
That prompted us to ask our Twitter followers, slightly mischievously, we must admit, to place their votes for Britain’s best pub.
When the replies started to tumble in, we realised the results might actually be somewhat meaningful, as certain pubs got multiple votes, and the names of cool-sounding pubs we’d never visited popped up.
So, we’ve decided to sort through the answers and turn them into a to-do list.
We discounted pubs that nominated themselves, obviously.
There were a surprising number of votes for Orwell’s the Moon Under Water, or similarly whimsical perfect pubs of the imagination. Lovely stuff but basically a smart-arsed way of copping out of answering.
Where people named multiple pubs, we’ve ignored all but the first one mentioned in their Tweet. That’ll teach ’em.
We noticed one satirical answer – the Wetherspoon in Preston that was controversially named best pub in town last week – but others might have slipped through the net.
First, here’s a list of all the pubs that got more than one nomination – a very decent list, which overlaps with our personal favourites to some degree.
The Great Western, Wolverhampton
The Hope, Carshalton
The Grove, Huddersfield
The Free Trade Inn, Newcastle
The Bell, Aldworth
The Old Ship, Seahouses
The Ship & Mitre, Liverpool
(We really must get to the Hope. This is getting embarrassing.)
Now, here’s the full list.
You might not like every pub suggested but the point is, to someone, somewhere, these pubs were special enough to warrant a response, which means they’re probably at least worth sticking a nose into if you find yourself in the area.
In 1964 Batsford published a guide to London with a twist: it was about where to go and what to do on sleepy Sundays. Such as, for example… visit the pub.
We picked up our copy of London on Sunday at Oxfam in Cotham for £3.99. It’s not a book we’ve ever encountered before, or even heard of.
We haven’t managed to find out much about the author, Betty James, either, except that she wrote a few other books, including London and the Single Girl, published in 1967, and London for Lovers, 1968. She was older than the girlish tone of the book might suggest – in her late forties, we gather – and twice divorced by the time she was profiled in the Newcastle Journal in 1969.
Before the main event, individual pubs crop up here and there – the Grapes in Wapping is accurately described as ‘an old sawdusty river pub’ where the staff give directions to a particularly good but hard-to-find Chinese restaurant.
One of the best lines in the book, thrown away in an itinerary for a walk, is, we’re certain, a dig at male guidebook writers of the period who couldn’t resist rating barmaids:
The Colville Tavern at 72 Kings Road… [has] the best-looking barman in London. Ask for Charles.
Pubs are given real, focused treatment in the dying pages of the book, which is a statement in its own right.
From Monday until Saturday this Sunday is the Local Public House of somebody else in whom once has no interest whatsoever. However… on Sunday at the hour of noon it is entered immediately by the knowledgeable tosspot in order that he may refresh himself in convivial company, while his wife cooks the joint to which he eventually return too late to avoid unpleasantness… Meanwhile, the regular visitor to this Sunday Pub (whose Local Public House it is from Monday until Saturday) will repair to another Sunday Pub because it is considered not schmaltzy to take drink in one’s own Local Public House upon a Sunday.
This very old pub is impossible to find. You can wander around the chi-chi little mews surrounding it, absorbing the untraceable emanations of Guards subalterns and debutantes without actually ever seeing anything but a chi-chi little mews… A dread silence occasionally falls upon the place… [because] somebody has mislaid a debutante.
The Kings Head and Eight Bells in Chelsea sounds like fun, with people drinking outside in the embankment gardens on Sunday morning, or blocking the road ‘where they risk being knocked drinkless by other cognoscenti in fast sports job’. It is, Ms. James says, ‘exclusively patronised by absolutely everybody who isn’t anybody’. Sadly, this one seems to be a goner.
Of course we got really excited at the description of a theme pub, the Square Rigger in the City, near Monument Station:
Fully rigged with seagull cries and the sound of breaking surf there is also an enormous social schism between the Captain’s Cabin and the Mess Decks both 1 and 2… ‘Tween decks there are rope ladders, sails, and yard-arms and that. Together with a lot of beautifully polished brass bar-top.
Back to those classic mews pubs of west London, the Star in Belgravia, of course, gets a mention, and rather a cheeky one: ‘Well now… The best thing we can say about this pub is that all the aforementioned missing debutantes may be discovered here… recovering… And some of them simply aching for the utter, utter blissikins of getting mislaid again as soon as possible’.
The Windsor Castle in Kensington apparently had ‘Luscious sandwiches’ and quite the scene going on, with actors in the bar and ‘a pig ogling a cow in the pleasant walled garden’.
The last pub tip is given reluctantly:
There is of course one Sunday Pub to which afficionados resort of a Sunday evening. However, it could so easily be completely ruined by hypermetropic invasion that I hardly like to mention it. This is the Lilliput Hall, a Courage’s house at 9 Jamaica Road SE1, where, at around 9 pm, commences the best not-too-far-out jazz this side of paradise. The hundred per cent professional group renderings are led by the guv’nor, Bert Annable, a name to be conjured with in the business, since he’s worked with Cyril Stapleton and Paul Fenoulhet, among others.
One of the perks of having been blogging for as long as we have is that people find us via Google and send us interesting things without us having to make the slightest effort.
At the beginning of February, Sally Mays emailed us asking for help tracking down information about a pub she remembered visiting years ago, the Surrey, just of the Strand in London:
I went there a number of times with my boyfriend when I was a very young woman, around 1970. We were planning to travel to Australia as Ten Pound Poms and Australia House (where we were interviewed) was just around the corner from the Surrey – well, actually on the other side of the Strand, on a corner opposite Surrey Street.
I’m not sure quite how we became aware of the pub but it was mainly frequented by Aussies and New Zealanders and served mostly (perhaps only) Foster’s beer (or lager, I should say). I think it was the only period of my life where I imbibed the amber nectar.
It didn’t look much like a pub – it was housed in one of the buildings on the right hand side of Surrey Street, as you walk down it towards the Embankment. Its décor was very basic – plain, I seem to remember, with lots of beer spilled onto the floor, and a raucous ambience.
Those were days when it was still possible for [incoming] travellers to park their Combi vans down by the Thames for the purposes of selling [them on to outgoers].
[The pub] was a very male-dominated place – the sort that wore shorts and flip flops no matter what the weather!
Sally also pointed us to one of the few sources she’d been able to find – a 1966 diary by a young Australian traveller in London shared on a blog – but we think it’s now been hidden from public view.
The good news is that the first book we reached out for, Green and White’s 1968 Guide to London Pubs, had a detailed entry on the Surrey that confirmed Sally’s memories:
The Surrey, just off the Strand, is the first visiting-place of the newly arrived Australian; though they don’t actually serve schooners of beer, you can get two home-brewed varieties: Swan’s Lager on draught and Foster’s in the bottle. The present house dates back to the turn of the century and had, until a recent fire, a fine collection of Australiana; this was reduced to a couple of boomerangs and photographs of visiting cricketers. It is the sort of place in which the lone Pommie, towards closing time, feels rather uncomfortable; there is a lot of back-slapping and singing and rather too much noise. Otherwise, it is a perfectly normal pub, serving lunch and snacks all day. The upstairs bar is a trifle small, particularly when it gets crowded at lunch-time, but there is plenty of room downstairs, and even a dartboard. A visiting Canadian professor once refused to buy his publisher a box of matches here, but the staff obligingly accepted a 2d cheque, which must prove something. Being handy for Australia House, the prospective migrant, harried by bad weather, housing and taxes, might well take a drink in the Surrey to see how the natives disport themselves.
Since January, we’ve also managed to find our copy of The New London Spy, edited by Hunter Davies and published in 1966. Its section on ‘Australian London’ mentions the Surrey repeatedly as something of a centre of Australian life in London:
Here, on a Friday night, elbow to elbow, surrounded by boomerangs and familiar accents, London’s Australians sip their Fosters (Melbourne) and Swan (Perth)… and complain about jobs (‘lousy bloody seven quid a week’), food (‘I haven’t had a decent steak since I got here’ and the weather (‘How can you ever get a tan in this place?’).
The pace of drinking is, by British standards, express-like, but even so it is unlikely you will see that well-known Australian sight, rare in Britain, the-face-on-the-bar-room-floor. (You can, by the way, pick out the old Australian from the newly-arrived. The seasoned man drinks iced English beer instead of iced Australian.)
This book, though, also lists other notable Australian pubs: the Zambesi Club and the Ifield, both in Earls Court, then known as ‘Kangaroo Valley’ because of its supposed population of 50,000 rowdy Aussies.
Bill Robertson, 28-year- old farmer, strolling along Earls Court Road on his second night in London [said] ‘We went to Wimbledon last night to see how the other half live. Walked into a pub and every head turned round. We were strangers, foreigners. And what’s more they didn’t drink as quickly as Australians.’ In Earls Court you can walk into a pub and be the only Englishman there. Colleague John McLeod, who writes the London Life drinks column, doesn’t like Australians in pubs. He thinks they are rowdy and boorish and drink too much. I have a friend who says you can always tell an Australian in a pub because when he has finished drinking he falls flat on his face… One girl living in Earls Court says ‘The only Australians I have met have only been interested in two things: rugger and beer.’
The 1972 film The Adventures of Barry McKenzie includes a scene set in an Australian pub in London, with Barry disgusted by English beer and demanding ‘a decent chilled Foster’s’. It might be satire but it probably captures to some degree how these pubs really felt. (For now, you can see it here, at 14:46.)
It feels as if there’s a lot more to be explored here. If you’re an Australian who lived in London in the 1960s-70s with memories of pubs and of hunting ‘iced beer’, do drop us a line.
My brow furrowed. I struggled to articulate how it felt to me like something had been lost from the place, even though all that had really happened was that more options had been added. I’d loved the pub for precisely its niche; the reliability of excellently kept Castle Rock ales, the chance to try the brewery’s seasonal ranges, and guest ales from other small local breweries, such as the fantastic Springhead. But now there was a smorgasbord of choice that was almost dizzying. I quickly realised the problem; were it not for the recognisable brick walls and beams lovingly decorated with pump labels, I could be anywhere. The pub had retained its charm, but the bar choice had lost its accent.