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.

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.

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.

Continue reading “Not Enough Opening Hours in the Day”

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.

The Cuckfield, Wanstead

The Cuckfield is a wannabe gastropub/bar on middle-class Wanstead High Street, where East London begins to turn very clearly into Essex.

It’s a hard place to like, exactly, but it is getting some things right.

First, the selection of la-de-da beer is pretty decent — all three Chimays; Duvel; Liefman’s Kriek; Meantime Chocolate Stout; Schneider and Erdinger wheat beers on tap; Budvar on tap; and Veltins pils. Nothing Earth-shattering, but mostly nice stuff, chosen (we suspect) by accident.

Secondly, it’s very child-friendly. Some people don’t count that as a positive, but we were with friends who have children and it’s nice for them to be able to come out without having to apologise all afternoon for the fact that their children are behaving entirely naturally, viz. laughing and getting up from their seats.

And the building is nice, too. It’s Victorian and, despite some stripped floors and 90s style gastropub decor, the underlying cosiness comes through. It’s easy to get sink into a big sofa and feel very relaxed.

On the real ale front, things aren’t so rosy: there are three pumps, for London Pride, Adnams Broadside and Bombardier. Only Broadside was on, and it wasn’t in great condition.

So, a nice place to pop into when you’ve been for a walk in Epping Forest, or to meet friends with children, but hardly a beer-lover’s paradise.

Posh pub/hotel in Hackney

Old pub livery on the Ship Inn, Hackney
Old pub livery on the Ship Inn, Hackney

We’d walked past the Ship Inn tons of times. We’d even photographed it and put the pictures here. From the outside, it looked like a pretty rough old dive, partly because of the gang of people smoking outside the long tunnel you have to walk down to get in.

Then we read somewhere that, far from being rough, it’s actually the poshest boozer in Hackney, so we got over our nerves and went in for a nosy round.

It’s actually a boutique hotel, and a nice looking one at that. The bar makes more sense when you think of it as a service for guests rather than a pub for locals. It’s done up, as the phrase goes, like a tart’s boudoir. A good half of it is laid up for dinner with table cloths, big wine goblets and silverware. The barmen/waiters are smartly dressed with continental aprons. One of them looks like Tobey Maguire.

Standing by the door, we had one of those moments: it’s too posh! They’ll expect us to eat even though we’re not hungry!

But they didn’t. And they were very nice. The beer was nothing special (several so-called world lagers, Tim Taylor Landlord and the now ubiquitous Sharp’s Doom Bar) but well enough kept. We enjoyed our pint and felt, on the whole, that this would be a good place to go on a date or to bring people from work who don’t like ‘old man’s pubs’.

More to the point, though, it’s across the road from the usual venue for the Pig’s Ear Beer Festival (scheduled this year for 2-6 December). Any out of towners struggling to convince other halves to join them at a beer festival could find a couple of nights in this place will clinch the deal, and it’s pretty convenient to stagger home to as well…

The Ship is owned by Urban Inns, who also own the Coach and Horses in Isleworth.

Greene King Sundance

The Garrick Arms (photo by EwanM, from Flickr)
The Garrick Arms (photo by EwanM, from Flickr)

Every now and then, we have to accept that the choice of venue isn’t up to us. That’s why, last Saturday night, we found ourselves standing outside Britain’s least characterful pub, the Garrick Arms on Charing Cross Road, trying to enjoy a pint of Greene King Sundance.

At first, we were just pleased to find something on offer other than GK IPA, Abbot and Old Speckled Hen, and it did taste fresh. But, by God, this is a boring, derivative beer.

It’s a production-line, by-numbers ‘refreshing summer ale’, which is to say that it’s got far too much sickly hop and honey aroma, no bitterness, and is a bit yellower than a normal ale.

Like drinking an air freshener.

Of course, our bad mood wasn’t helped by the fact that someone in the flat above the pubs was throwing eggs at people in the street, and that a tramp tried to steal our chum’s birthday presents.

The West End on Saturday night is a joy.

GK Sundance is 4.1% and is part of their new range of seasonal beers. It’s on massive discount in our local Sainsburys if, for some reason, you’re desperate to try it. Other bland yellow summer ales may be available.

Photo by EwanM at Flickr, under a Creative Commons license.

London pubs in the 1960s

The cover of the New London Spy (1966)
The cover of the New London Spy (1966)

Beatles biographer Hunter DaviesNew London Spy was published in 1966. It’s a travel guide aimed at cool people, and an excellent window onto the city at the height of its hipness.

In his lengthy section on pubs, Davies makes some interesting observations:

Pubs are what other countries don’t have. In England, country pubs are perhaps nicest of all. After that come the London ones.

Pubs change character as you tipple down from the top of Britain. In the dry areas of Skye you have none at all. In Glasgow they are just drinking shops. In Carlisle they are cheerless and state controlled.

But in London, there are pubs for all men and for all seasons.

He then goes on to classify London’s pubs into six categories:

  • rough pubs
  • posh pubs
  • arty pubs
  • pubs for unaccompanied men (“not queers”)
  • pubs for unaccompanied women
  • pubs associated with crime.

His descriptions of various posh pubs and of some of the pubs he recommends for women suggest that gastro-pubs had their genesis in this era — “serves very decent food, far better than the average pub meal (though naturally priced accordingly)”; “both setting and clientele are almost exaggeratedly decorous”.

A London pub, as illustrated by Kaffe Fassett for the New London Spy
A London pub, as illustrated by Kaffe Fassett

It is the so-called rough pubs that sound most intriguing, though. Dirty Dicks opposite Liverpool Street had dead cats, cobwebs and sawdust for decor. Charlie Brown’s (the Railway Tavern) on West India Dock Road housed a “collection of Curiosa” from all around the world (sadly sold off in the late 60s). And of the Steps (the Custom House Hotel) on Victoria Dock Road, Davies says: “It is not unusual to see somebody almost kicked to death outside.”

The illustrations in the book are by world-famous knitting pattern designer Kaffe Fassett. You can pick up a copy of the New London Spy for next to nothing at abebooks.co.uk if you want to read more.

The Beer Rep Cometh

A band of aggressive beer salesmen seems to have passed through our neck of the woods, or maybe a new cash-and-carry has opened?

Some cornershop beers
Some cornershop beers

A band of aggressive beer salesmen seems to have passed through our neck of the woods, or maybe a new cash-and-carry has opened?

At any rate, the range of beers available at fairly ordinary corner shops and grocers near our house has expanded massively in recent weeks.

Here’s a partial list of bottled beers we can buy on the way home from work without going near a supermarket:

  • Grolsch Weizen (big thumbs up from Bailey, Boak not so excited)
  • Jennings Cocker Hoop, Cumberland and Sneck Lifter
  • Bateman’s Combined Harvest and Victory
  • All the Badgers, including unseasonal Pumpkin
  • Young’s Bitter (bottle conditioned), Special London and Chocolate Stout
  • Wychwood Hobgoblin, Wychcraft, Black Wych, Circle Master and Goliath
  • Hen’s Tooth
  • Cooper’s Sparkling Pale Ale
  • Theakston’s Old Peculier
  • Shepherd Neame Whitstable Bay, Spitfire, Bishop’s Finger, Master Brew and 1698
  • Fuller’s London Pride, ESB, Golden Pride, Honey Dew and 1845
  • Svyturys Ekstra, Gintarinis and Baltas
  • Baltika porter, wheat beer, dark lager and helles
  • Pilsner Urquell
  • Budvar and Budvar Dark
  • Pitfield Red Ale, Stock Ale and EKG
  • Gulpener Rose (eugh!)
  • Paulaner Helles
  • Brakspear Organic and Triple
  • St Austell Proper Job and Tribute
  • Baltika porter, dark lager and wheat beer
  • Usher’s Founders Ale.

That covers a great many of our day-to-day needs, but it would be nice to see more porters and stouts; more Belgian beer; and the return of Brooklyn Lager, which has disappeared from our local off licence.

And, of course, there is a bit of an illusion of choice here, because many of these beers are very similar in taste and appearance and, in some cases, are made and owned by a handful of umbrella companies.