New Pubs and Old Favourites #2: The Cat’s Back, Wandsworth

The last pub was Jess’s discovery; this one was Ray’s. He visited with The Ring last October and we finally got there together in deep December.

All around it are colossal blocks of flats with lots of lights but apparently little life, so that the pub seems almost like a joke, or a contrivance by developers.

The windows glow softly, not throwing light out but guarding it, like a flame cupped in the hands.

It’s a Harvey’s pub – “A back-up Royal Oak,” we said, only half joking. It really does feel like its sister at Borough, only with a little less personality. The clientele seems similar, too: strong London accents and nicotine-stained knuckles, with a raspberry ripple swirl of public school vowels and college scarves.

The Cat's Back -- pub frontage.

Is this the kind of pub, we wondered, that survives through the custom of people who have become accidentally wealthy as their objectively quite unremarkable houses in London stock brick have rocketed in value? People who have always lived here, who miss how it used to be, and cling to the pub – this nail house – as part of their identity as ordinary Londoners?

Ah, what do we know, but it’s fun to ponder.

Old Ale illuminates the concept of best mild without saying a word. Cask Christmas Ale, headless and sherrified, says something about beer’s capacity to be both humble and grand. Wise beer, Harvey’s.

“We should start a podcast,” says one of the staff to some friends leaning on the bar and as they expand on the idea, laughter overtakes them.

Someone explains a complicated conspiracy theory to an uninterested friend.

An elderly woman sits alone, ignoring her paperback, eyes shimmering at some happy memory, or maybe a sad one.

A dark velvet curtain ripples in a persistent draft.

Chainpub Encounter

Our mission to visit every pub in Bristol means we’re going to interesting places we might otherwise give a miss, like The Old Post Office in Fishponds.

It looks, sounds, smells and acts like a branch of Wetherspoon, but isn’t, which is fascinating to us. It’s clearly part of a chain but unlike JDW pubs the brand isn’t blazoned on the building’s front or mentioned anywhere else that we could see.

“This is a daft question but… which chain is this pub part of?” we asked the person who was serving us.

“It’s not Wetherspoon’s,” they replied instinctively, even though that wasn’t what we’d asked. “Everyone thinks that but it’s actually part of a company called Stonegate. I’d never heard of them until I started working here but it turns out they’re huge. Great to work for, too — fantastic benefits and training.” (All this offered freely and apparently sincerely without any additional prompting.)

It’s true — Stonegate is a big company, running almost 700 pubs and bars from behind the cover of several well-known brands such as Yates’s, and Slug & Lettuce. The Old Post Office is part of their Proper Pubs sub-brand: “Our Proper Pubs are the perfect place to enjoy a quiet drink, grab a mid-week bite, get together at the weekend or enjoy the best sports coverage around.”

The pub itself isn’t lovely — too plastic for our taste, lacking even the distinctiveness of decor Wetherspoon pubs generally shoot for, even if they don’t always score. Nonetheless, it was absolutely crammed with families sharing meals, and groups of football fans arranged in various odd ways around their tables so that they could see the TV screens. It felt, as the cliche goes, like a pub truly serving its community — buzzy and informal, but smart with it.

The beer range wasn’t as titillating as a typical Spoons either with a smaller range of interesting bottled beers and no novelty guest ales. Instead, there were five pumps for Sharp’s Doom Bar, Fuller’s ESB, Harvey’s Sussex Best, London Pride and Wadworth 6X, with the last two tagged as Coming Soon. If you’re going to have a line-up of old-school brown beers, though, Harvey’s and ESB are good choices — enough to get us a little bit excited, anyway. Sussex Best wasn’t quite at its most thrilling but was still very good — quirky, dry, a little leafy — but the ESB… Well, that’s where we had a problem.

The member of staff who pulled it saw at once that it wasn’t right, forming no head at all. “It might be the glass,” they said, and tried with another. This time, it was not only flat but also hazy, and obviously so.

“Don’t worry, just make it two Sussex Best instead.”

But at this point what we assume was a manager got involved, apparently the final arbiter of whether a beer is off or otherwise. He said firmly, even sternly, “No, it’s meant to be like that,” and rushed away.

Now we know, and you know, that ESB is not meant to be hazy or headless, but the member of staff pouring the beer had clearly been put in a tricky position. So, chalking it up to experience, we broke the deadlock and agreed to take it, bearing in mind that it seemed to be a mere £2.40 a pint and, cosmetics aside, tasted acceptable, if a touch sweet and subdued.

Sitting outside on the patio watching the traffic go by we couldn’t help compare this experience to our recent experiences in Wetherspoon pubs, where the slightest complaint seems to trigger a full apology and a replacement without hesitation. We wouldn’t want to draw any conclusions based on one visit to a Stonegate Spoonsalike, and one fumbled transaction, but it’s certainly a first mark on the scorecard.

Disclosure: we sold a copy of 20th Century Pub to someone who works at Stonegate the other day.

Yarrow, Alecost and Nightmares

Old illustration of yarrow leaves.
Yarrow leaves. SOURCE: Köhler’s Medicinal Plants, 1887, via Biodeversity Library.

I’m all about Harvey’s at the moment. It’s all I wanted to drink in London the other week, and about all I’m interested in drinking now we’re back in Penzance.

Last night, I pulled something of theirs from the back of the stash that, somehow, I’ve never got round to tasting before even though we got several bottles as part of a mixed case last year: Priory Ale.

This beer isn’t on sale anymore but think of this as general commentary on beer with weird herbs rather than as a review and it might have some use.

It’s 6% — a bit indulgent for a school night but not madly so — but the kick is in the small print. It was released in 2014 to mark the 750th anniversary of the Battle of Lewes and was ‘brewed using ingredients that were available to the Cluniac Order at the Priory of St. Pancras in 1264’. The mash included barley, oats and wheat and it was boiled with both hops and yarrow. It was then dry-herbed with alecost, rosemary and thyme during fermentation.

I can’t lie — on reading the blurb, my first thought was, ‘Uh-oh.’ Thyme and rosemary don’t really work in beer, or at least I haven’t yet acquired the taste, making everything a seem bit sickly and savoury.

On tasting it, my first thought was of medicinal shampoo, then of cough sweets, which I guess must mean some memory of menthol firing in my brain. Alecost is sometimes known by the name ‘Mary’s mint’ or variations thereon so perhaps that’s what I was picking up? The rosemary and thyme rose up as the beer went on, overriding everything by the end, like some kind of cotton bag you might hang in a wardrobe to give your bonnets a pleasant fragraunce. Or a leg of lamb.

Most disappointingly from my point of view, it lacked that distinctive Harvey’s character on which I am hooked.

It was not a relaxing beer. Being kind, I’d say it was stimulating, but maybe nerve-jangling is more honest. It put me on edge. ‘I think this is going to give me nightmares,’ I said on turning in.

And do you know, something certainly did.