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.

20th Century Pub pubs

News Pubs and Old Favourites #1: The Forester, Ealing

We spent the gap between Christmas and New Year in West London, on the hunt for Proper Pubs. Four stood out and we’re going to give each one its own post.

Jess first visited the Forester in Northfields, Ealing, in 2016, during research for 20th Century Pub, and has been trying to get Ray there ever since. It’s of academic interest, being built in 1909 as an early Improved Pub to a design by Nowell-Parr, and retaining a multi-room layout with lots of period details.

It also happens to be a suburban backstreet corner pub – our current favourite thing. As we approached, it peeked into view between the corner shops and terraced houses, like a steampunk cruise ship at berth.

It’s a Fuller’s pub, too, which means touches of the corporate, but not to an oppressive degree. It helps that the light is kept low and (not to everyone’s taste, we know) the music loud, so every table feels like its own warm bubble.

The Forester, Ealing -- interior.

The locals seemed well-to-do without being posh, sinking beer and gin, and throwing out the odd raucous joke: “Bloody hell! When you bent over then, Steve… Either you’re wearing a black thong or you forgot to wipe your arse.”

They ignored parties of outsiders – a group of what we took for professional footballers on tour, all designer shirts and hair product; a trio of twentysomethings, apparently from the middle east, when-in-Rome-ing with pints of Guinness – without apparent malice.

The beer was excellent, too – Fuller’s as Fuller’s should be served, gleaming and brilliant beneath clean arctic foam. The ESB in particular was hard to resist, demanding to be treated like a session beer, which maybe it is at Christmas.

We made time to visit twice during a four-night trip, which should tell you something. You might find it worth a detour next time you’re in London.

Beer history pubs

Not Enough Opening Hours in the Day

It seems that this is ‘Quirks of Licensing Law’ season here on the blog: today, a few notes on the problems, and opportunities, of neighbouring districts with different pub opening hours.

The 1921 Licensing Act gave magistrates the freedom to fix within limits the opening and closing hours of pubs in their districts. In London in particular, this led to great consternation among publicans, who simply wanted uniform pub opening hours from, say, 11 am to 11 pm.

It also turned the whole business into something of a game, as one report in The Times pointed out:

A curious effect of these varying hours is that anybody setting out to get drink during as long a period of the day as possible could begin at 11 am in Kensington, continue — if he took lunch — until 3:30 pm, start again at 4:30 in Stoke Newington, and by returning to the Holborn area have a glass before him until half an hour after midnight. (03/11/1921, p.7.)

What was fun for some, however, meant trouble for others. In 1929, Mr E.H. Keen, chair of the Holborn Licensing Justices, told the Royal Commission on Licensing of the result of Holborn’s pubs staying open until 11 while those in neighbouring Marylebone, Finsbury and St Pancras closed at 10:

Between the hours of 10 and 11 outsiders from all quarters pour into Holborn, and the scenes in the public-houses nearest the boundaries baffle description. The bars are overcrowded with disorderly men and women, many of them the worse for drink, and at closing time they are turned out with difficulty and behave outside in the most disgusting and rowdy manner. The nuisance to the neighbours is unbearable… The condition of things is a disgrace to civilisation. All decency is disregarded. (Lancs Evening Post, 05/12/1929, p.7.)

But it would take years for this problem to even begin to be solved — until the 1961 Licensing Act, as far as we can tell — during which time the strategies of drinkers became cleverer and more elaborate as they learned of more dodges and tricks.


The Leaving of London

Those happy few who read this blog might have noticed that there’s not been much going on here in the last couple of months. That’s because we’ve had lots going on in our real lives: we’re moving to Cornwall.

This isn’t one of those A House in the Sun-style escapes from the city, just a job opportunity too good to turn down.

Now it’s all agreed and the move is underway, it’s suddenly hit home to us what we’ll be leaving behind. We’ve never claimed London has the best pub scene in Britain (for a city its size, really good pubs are weirdly scarce) but, nonetheless, it’s been getting better and better since we started blogging, and there’s lots we’re going to miss.

In the next few posts, we’re going to record our one-last-time visits to old haunts and try to catalogue our favourite London pubs in some kind of orderly fashion.


Pembury beer festival starts today

Er, yeah, what it says in the title. The Pembury Tavern at Hackney Downs has a summer beer festival starting today and running until Sunday.