london pubs

The Brigadoon Pub in Greenwich

Ashburnham Arms

I first visited the Ashburnham Arms in Greenwich’s Ashburnham triangle about 17 years ago, and it’s been lost to me ever since.

I was taken then by my flatmate, a Greenwich native, who had heard that the pub had won some award or other. I seem to recall it took us a while to find that time, too.

London streets rarely run in straight lines so two roads that seem to run at right angles can slowly curve to meet, while what feel like parallel lines can turn out to be subtly angled spokes off a hub. At the same time, the houses are made of the same London stock brick, to similar designs, denying the wanderer the necessary points of reference.

Even as you draw near, the Ashburnham can be hard to spot, its signage hidden behind shrubs, and its exterior otherwise resembling the grand 19th century houses that surround it.

Which, of course, makes it all the more charming — a kind of secret reserved for locals, not tourists.

So secret that when I’ve tried to return, I’ve failed, popping out in Greenwich Park, or on the high street, or in Deptford, thirsty and scratching my head.

Of course Google Maps spoils the fun. This time, I walked straight there with only a bare minimum of confusion and back-tracking.

It was much as I remembered it — multi-roomed, just; modernised, a bit; respectable, but not posh; friendly, without overdoing it.

It’s a Shepherd Neame pub and this time the only cask bitter on offer was Master Brew, their ‘ordinary’. It cost somewhere north of £4 a pint but tasted extraordinarily good — light, bright, and snapping with earthy, vivid, tea-like hop character.

I sat in a corner with my book and enjoyed the atmosphere. Outside, intense sunlight tempered by a breeze that carried the smell of the city and the jangle of ice cream vans through the open door; inside, the murmur of soft London accents, the sisterly chat of the bar staff, and the rustling of newspaper pages, all wrapped up in warm wood and scented with furniture polish.

As dinner service finished bowls of crisp, salty leftover roast potatoes were distributed around the pub — a physical manifestation of unpretentious hospitality.

I had to stop for a second pint, didn’t I? After all, I might never find the Ashburnham again.

beer reviews

Bad beer or an acquired taste?

Shepherd Neame India Pale Ale

We’ve had an interesting and rather educational experience with Shepherd Neame in the last few weeks which all started with this review of their Christmas Ale. We thought there was something wrong with it — something beyond a matter of house style or ‘characterful’ yeast. SN’s ever-patient in-house marketing man, John Humphreys, was disappointed we hadn’t liked it and asked if he could send us a few more beers to try, which is how we ended up with samples of the new India Pale Ale (6.1%), newly brown-bottled 1698 (6.5%) and Double Stout (5.2%).

Unfortunately, whatever it was that we found ‘wrong’ in the Christmas Ale was also present in both the IPA and 1698: neither of us could stand to drink them and they ended up down the sink after about half a bottle of each. At this point, we contacted John to break the bad news and let him know that we thought there was a production issue.

This troubled him and he decided to investigate. In a very civilised exchange, we shared the batch numbers of the bottles in question, along with more detailed notes on the ‘off’ flavours (‘bad breath’); he initiated the quality assurance (QA) process at their end; and kept us informed of progress. The conclusion, after bottles from those very batches had been retrieved from the QA ‘archive’ and tasted by brewers and QA managers, was that there were no detectable faults, and that the beers in question were excellent.

It’s possible that something went wrong on the long journey down to Penzance, though it seems unlikely. Far more likely, as John has suggested, is that Shepherd Neame beers have an intrinsic character we not only dislike but read as ‘off’.

Beers we do like, such as those from Harvey’s, have flavours that might be considered off — we’ve occasionally referred jokingly to Sussex Best as ‘the English Orval’ — and other bloggers and writers have certainly enjoyed these particular SN beers.

We can’t change our minds — we still found them undrinkable — but maybe we need to think a bit harder before calling ‘wrong’ in future, and perhaps also get our hands on something that can help us understand off-flavours in a more scientific manner.

beer reviews

Strong, fruity, wrong and funky

Two beers: Shepherd Neame Christmas Ale and Bateman's Vintage Ale.

Last night, we got round to drinking a couple of strong beers we were sent by Shepherd Neame and Aldi respectively in the run up to Christmas.

In one sense, Shepherd Neame’s Christmas Ale (7%) is a cause for rejoicing: it comes in a proper brown bottle, rather than the clear glass they’ve been using to disastrous effect for the last decade or so. This is a huge turnaround and a ‘positive behaviour’ (thanks, Dr Tanya Byron) we definitely want to encourage.

It’s a shame, then, that the beer itself seemed to be… wrong. There was a whiff of elastic bands when we popped the cap, and it tasted waxy, rubbery and, finally, of slightly singed cardboard. An intriguing minty hop flavour we detected early on passed too quickly and, unfortunately, we only got half way through before giving up.

We’re not huge fans of SN’s beers in general (though we have a soft spot for their porter) but this particular bottle disagreed with us on a level beyond ‘house style’ — a technical issue, perhaps? We won’t write off the beer altogether, though we’d want to wait a few months before trying another from a different batch.

Bateman’s Vintage Ale (7.5%) comes in a cardboard box with a sticker sealing the lid — these apparently, thanks to Fuller’s, are the universal indicators of ‘vintagey-ness’.

On pouring, we were immediately reminded of Black Sheep Progress, another strong ‘special’ from a British regional brewer that we got to try at a tasting do run by Darren ‘Beer Today’ Norbury. Where Progress caused one of our fellow tasters to mention “armpits” in his notes, this beer’s aroma gave us (bear with us) old socks and white cheese rind. The taste was similarly odd, with some savoury vegetal character coming up against a tot of salty, coppery sherry-vinegar.

We didn’t love it, and, no, that doesn’t sound appetising, we admit, but the beer’s not wrong, just funky, in the same way Harvey’s or Adnam’s beers can be. If we drank enough Bateman’s, we could probably get to like it, and it certainly kept us interested, if not delighted, to the end.

london pubs

The Prince of Wales, Kennington

The view from inside the Prince of Wales pub

It’s a shame Shepherd Neame’s standard beers are so boring, because a lot of their London pubs are really nicely located and friendly.

The Prince of Wales in Kennington in south east London is hidden off the main road in a square which looks like it hasn’t been touched since early in the reign of Queen Victoria. There’s a chalky, sandy square surrounded by trees where people play boules on hot afternoons. The pub itself has lots of windows, a beautiful frontage and hanging baskets. As long as you can put up with posh people shouting about RADA and cricket, it’s absolutely charming.

We drank slightly tart Spitfire (it was in good condition — that’s just how it tastes) and grassy Master Brew and felt very happy to be alive.

Weirdly, on the table by the window was a middle class family we last saw in a beer garden in Wuerzburg last summer. Are we under surveillance?