london pubs

Ask not for whom the Bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

The Bell Pub, Walthamstow, East London.

By Boak

Of all the exciting beer developments in London since we’ve moved away, none have intrigued us as much as the sudden discovery of demand for good beer in our former home of Walthamstow. This article highlighted the fact that not one, not two, but three (THREE!) formerly rough pubs were due to re-open under new management.

We went back to Walthamstow last week to have a look at the developments. Both the Chequers and the Cock are still being refurbished, which left us with the Bell.

The Bell is one of those large pubs-on-a-junction that you get in Victorian suburbs of London, the product of rapid expansion in housing plus limits on where licenced premises could be built. I went in once or twice as a teenager and remember it being huge and mostly empty. The best thing I could say about it then was that it wasn’t as rough as it looked.

Like other pubs of its ilk, it passed through many managers and a few halfhearted refurbishments in an attempt to bring it back to life, but never managed to shake its rough reputation. The Beer In The Evening comments make for a fascinating mini-history of the last ten years.

Why have the Bell’s new owners (apparently) succeeded where others have failed? Firstly, an ambitious but very tasteful refurbishment, which has involved stripping out lots of twentieth century additions and emphasising the original features (and complementing what’s there with old furniture). The pictures on the website actually make the pub look more modern than it feels. We commented a lot on how impressive the refurbishment was, how much more ‘pubby’ it felt now than we’d ever known it, and how, despite the vast space, it felt cosy.

Secondly, they are openly going for a more ‘aspirational’ market (craft beer and jazz feature heavily in the marketing) – but they are still managing to attract and welcome a range of clientele that reflect the local area.  Extremely welcoming and talkative bar staff help here.

Thirdly, the beer selection and quality is now the best in Walthamstow (which is getting harder and harder to do, and might be difficult to maintain if Antic open the Chequers as planned)  There are eight hand-pumps (plus a mixture of keggy stuff). We had to be somewhere else that afternoon, so we were limited as to what we could try in the time available. We were delighted with Brodie’s London Fields, which we could have easily drunk all afternoon. We also sampled their Landlord, which we’re coming to think is a good test of whether a pub can look after its ale or not.  They passed with flying colours.

We don’t want to exaggerate the quality of the beer selection –  the enormous competition in London means there’s probably not much to drag the serious beer geek out of their way to get here. However, if we were still living in Walthamstow, it would be our new local, no question.

Picture to come when Bailey gets back.


The Poshing up of the Chequers

The Chequers, London E17.

When we lived in Walthamstow in East London, we never once visited the Chequers, halfway up the High Street in the middle of the famous market. We admired the grand Victorian corner building and enjoyed the Taylor Walker livery surviving on its sign, but it never looked remotely inviting. In fact, it looked downright threatening.

The Krays moved to Walthamstow when they’d made a bit of money and supposedly made their way to the Chequers immediately after bumping of George Cornell at the Blind Beggar in Whitechapel. Every pub in East London has a Krays story but, true or not, it says something about the Chequers’ reputation. When we read that the landlord and landlady had voluntarily closed the pub ‘under police pressure’ as a result of accusations of drug dealing, we weren’t massively surprised.

What did massively surprise us was the news (gossip, for now) that it is to be taken over by Antic, the pub chain behind the excellent Red Lion in nearby Leytonstone. That should mean a brand-new-vintage makeover and an exciting range of beer from London breweries and elsewhere. From a selfish perspective, we can’t help but be pleased.

But what about the regulars? Though it wasn’t our cup of tea, it did have a steady clientele, and they’ll probably feel as unwelcome in the new Chequers as we would in the old. Let’s hope the market (and, indeed, the Market) continues to provide a range of pubs so that everyone can find one in which they’ll feel comfortable.

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Memorable Beers #6: Guinness FES

When we host a party, we’re always delighted to open the door and have a plastic bag thrust at us: “We know you like beer so we brought a few interesting things we picked up.”

We have a very vivid memory of the end of a party some time in around 2005. Everyone had gone and music was playing into an empty front room strewn with empty beer cans and paper plates. We slumped onto the sofa, slightly exhausted and a little tipsy, and decided to split one more beer before tidying up. We reached for a bag of beers a friend had brought, harvested from the corner shops of Walthamstow.

The bottle that came to hand was Dublin-brewed Guinness Foreign Extra Stout. Being snotty about Guinness, we didn’t expect much except a nastier, boozier version of the stout we occasionally drank in an emergency in the pub.

The aroma, like smelling salts, snapped us out of our post-party drowsing: jaded as were our palates, it poked its way through. It tasted, we both agreed, like a delicious pudding. (We were enjoying, not taking notes, so that’s where the insight ended.)

Why do we remember this particular moment so vividly? Perhaps because of the shock of having our prejudices overturned.

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Community beers

James and Lizzie Brodie, who run our local brewery, kindly gave us a box of their beers last month, and we’re slowly working our way through the ones we haven’t tried before. The first thing to note is that either free beer tastes better or, across the board, Brodie’s beers have improved since they first launched. We enjoyed their Eat 17 IPA last year, and their Ho Ho Ho at Christmas, and the first of the new lot we’ve tasted were excellent too.

Old Hopper’s Ale is brewed with hops from East London (Cable Street, in fact) picked by residents in Tower Hamlets Community Housing. The beer gets its name from the fact that many of them spent summer holidays as children picking hops in Kent. It’s a nice story and a really impressive beer, with a good solid hop flavour that isn’t astringent or grassy.

Pink Pride is a light beer (3.4%) with a little raspberry in it and an excellent example of a refreshing and balanced fruit beer. The raspberry is there but not overpowering, perhaps adding just a little sourness. Grapefruity hops give it a crisp finish. It tastes and feels a lot like a cask ale, a great achievement for a microbrewed bottled beer.

It’s accompanying story is slightly more vague than Old Hop Picker’s.  It was apparently made “with the help of London’s gay community”. We can’t work out if this is a brilliant marketing trick  or an act of commercial suicide. However good the beer, a lot of blokes might feel a bit vulnerable shouting to the barman in a crowded pub: “Can I get a bottle of Pink Pride, please? Yes, that’s right, the gay beer. The one with raspberries in.”

london Nice places to drink in... pubs

More good pubs opening than closing


It turns out we’ve now got four pubs serving decent and interesting beer within a ten minute walk of our house. We’re spoiled.

The Old Rose and Crown on Hoe Street in Walthamstow, in east London, used to be a cool but down-at-heel pub with rotten beer. It was taken over by new management a year or more ago and the decor improved. Sadly, the beer didn’t.

They’ve obviously been working hard since, though, and this year have deservedly made it into the Good Beer Guide. Having decided to give them another go, in the last couple of weeks we’ve enjoyed fantastic pints of Hopback Crop Circle and Edwin Taylor Extra Stout (a great beer, full of flavours of bitter chocolate and smoke).

With the Nags Head, the William IV, the Village and now the Rose and Crown, we can say without any irony that Walthamstow is worth 20 minutes on the tube and an hour or two of your time if you’re at a loose end in London.

Even our local off-licence is worth a look — it’s now a Spar franchise, but the beer’s got even better, with all the old stock plus Sambrook’s, Brodie’s and a few other breweries we’ve never come across before.