london pubs

Special grade mediocre everyday

We’ve been struck down by nostalgia lately and find ourselves yearning for a particular experience of the pub.

Maybe it’s birthdays. Maybe it’s the emotional impact of the two weirdest years we’ve ever lived through.

Or perhaps it was just that excellent pint of Young’s Special at The Railway in Fishponds in Bristol.

Whatever the reason, here’s where we want to be: in a slightly crappy Young’s pub in central London c.2008, after work, with rain turning to sleet outside.

We used to end up somewhere like this quite often back then.

If the Tube was knackered, or the overground trains, or both, we’d hang about until after rush hour. That often meant finding a pub.

There was socialising, too – with colleagues or friends from university, before everyone got kids, mortgages and hair trigger hangovers.

You rarely ended up in really good pubs. They were too small, too busy or too end-of-the-line.

No, it was usually a Young’s pub with shiny tables and bad lighting. There were usually lots of suits, a few cabbies, and maybe someone selling plastic-wrapped roses.

Being interested in beer, we’d make the best of it, working our way through every cask ale on the bar – Ordinary, Special, maybe Winter Warmer.

Then we’d turn to the bottles. Ram and Spesh, Chocolate Stout, Special London – the original hazy IPA?

Once or twice, to our glee, we even found the Oatmeal Stout brewed for the US market, marked up in pints and ounces.

It doesn’t have to be Young’s. Fuller’s or Sam Smith’s would do.

But it does have to be a bit damp, a bit warm, a bit weary. Our friends need to be there. And we need to be in our twenties again.

Is that too much to ask?


Memorable Beers #14 — Guinness With Nick

By Bailey.

The only reason I started drinking was because of peer pressure from my mate Nick. I stayed at university for an extra year to do a masters and he had another year of his engineering degree to go and. Early on, the full horror dawned on him: “I can’t believe I’m stuck in this miserable city with only a teetotaller for company.”

I started drinking to keep him company and soon learned that Nick had a set of rules about pubs and beer:

1. Pubs should be dark brown up to waist height and nicotine brown above.

2. Red Stripe is the go-to beer for most situations, but especially nightclubs and picnics.

3. Beck’s tastes of blood.

4. Stella gives you headaches because it is “dirty”.

5. No-one likes Guinness, but you have to drink it on Sunday lunchtime — “It’s a rule.”

Having only been drinking for about two months, I remember vividly being bullied into getting a pint of Guinness and taking two hours to drink it. It only got worse as, sitting next to a roaring fire, it got warmer and warmer. I’d never tasted anything so bitter or so vile.

I was not reassured by Nick’s Sixth Law:

6. Guinness makes you shit treacle.

These days, of course, Nick is himself teetotal, and I’ve got way more rules about beer and pubs than he ever did.

real ale

Memorable Beers #12 — Birthday Sophistication

By Boak.

It’s 2002 and I’m in a central London chain pub celebrating my birthday with a mixture of work colleagues and friends from the real world. At this time, you’ll normally catch me drinking Foster’s or bloody marys but it’s my round (hey, thanks, so-called friends!) and one of my colleagues asks for a Deuchars IPA. I am so intrigued by the name that I order one as well.

It’s quite nice – every bit as refreshing as the lager but with some interesting flavours that I find I want more of.

Over the course of the next year, I drink more, and start looking out for it in other pubs. My conversion to real ale has begun.

We’ve posted about how disappointing Deuchars usually is. Either it’s got worse or I grew out of it.

Beer history

Memorable Beers #11: Pale Ale for POWs

By Bailey

During World War II, my grandfather was taken prisoner at Dunkirk, and spent most of the next few years at Stalag VIIIb in what is now Lambinowice in Poland, but was then called Lamsdorf.

I decided to visit the site of the camp and badgered Boak into using her Polish to make arrangements. As a result, I was greeted on site by an English speaking student from the University of Opole, who showed us what little remained of the camp and escorted us around an exhibition building.

There were three camps, she explained, and the “Britische Lager” was by far the most civilised. The Russian camp was hellish; the Polish one not much better; but the British soldiers benefited from lip-service to the Geneva Convention.

She pointed to a photograph: “They even had one bottle of beer a week from packages sent by the Red Cross.” There it was, the familiar shape of an English ale bottle, with what I thought was the Big Red Triangle on the label.

It must have tasted great after a day labouring on the construction of an Autobahn; the fact that it was a little piece of home must have made it all the sweeter.


Memorable Beers #10: a Sobering Pint

By Boak.

London, 8 July 2005 – the Day After.

It felt really important to get into work that day, to show that our lives were not going to be disrupted by terrorism.  Many of my colleagues clearly felt the same, as despite the ongoing public transport chaos, and the fact that we could all have worked from home if we wanted to, the office was perhaps even busier than usual for a Friday in summer.

But our minds were on things than accounts and spreadsheets and, eventually, a number of us sloped off early to a nearby pub. We needed to be with each other, doing something normal, not being afraid.

As the tipsiness kicked in, the British stiff upper lip started to falter just a little, and we began to express how we really felt about the previous day’s events.

I don’t think I’ve ever spent a more sombre night in the pub, or a more therapeutic one.