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.