A London pub menagerie

The Prospect of Whitby - Mid 1960's
From Colin Pickett on Flickr.

The great thing about researching a book is what you find by accident. Take this passage from a 16 May 1959 article in The Times, for example:

Towards the end of the Lower Pool, The Prospect of Whitby is the most aggressively picturesque of London River taverns, with a veranda as a platform for the yarns of one-time smuggled cargoes. Wistful little Jenny, the monkey, has long since gone–

Whoah, hold on — a monkey? A wistful one? In a pub? A little more digging turned up this:

A visit to the “Prospect of Whitby” on the Thames-side at Wapping has long been an important item in the education of visitors to London who are lucky enough to have knowing guides. From 1939 it was run by James Saunders — “Slim Jim” — and his wife… Mrs Saunders, who even in the most difficult days of the blitz produced meals for 200 a day, had a specially soft spot in her heart for animals and birds. The population of the “Prospect” included in her day, three parrots, a monkey, four cats and three dogs. (The Guardian, 19 May 1947.)

(Here’s Mrs Saunders (or Sanders) in the Hulton Getty picture library.)

The author of the Times article, L.M. Bates, seems to have been a bit obsessed with Jenny the monkey, and she later cropped up in a 1980 book he wrote about the Thames, though, this time, he mentioned that she ‘rattled her chain along the rail’ — a grim detail, which reminds us that the idea of keeping exotic animals in pubs might not be quite as much fun as it sounds.

See also: donkeys in pubs.

London: pubs to ramble towards

Heading towards the Union through the Greenwich foot tunnel.

We do love exploring London on foot and it always helps to have a pub or two as our ultimate destination.

A couple of times a year, we feel the need to be in Greenwich. Usually, we’re heading for Meantime’s brewery tap, the Greenwich Union. Over the years, it’s delighted and infuriated us, swinging from brilliant to awful from one visit to the next. The last couple of times, it’s been back on form. As well as being the best place to try Meantime’s own range, their selection of bottled beers just keeps getting better. The Old Brewery is Meantime’s new(ish) venture and, the couple of times we’ve been, we’ve loved it. In summer, it’s the nearest London comes to capturing the atmosphere of somewhere like Würzburg or Mainz. (Although not everyone agrees with us.)

The Flask in Highgate is a great place to finish a ramble through north London. It’s got hearty, only mildly pretentious food; Fuller’s beer in scintillating condition; and a small but select list of Belgian classics in bottles. Sat beneath a dark oak beam in a cosy corner, it’s easy to feel like you’re in the country pub of fable. It helps that lots of the punters are wearing wellies and Barbour jackets.

We’ve mentioned the Dove already in this series of posts (in case anyone’s in any doubt, it’s something of a favourite) but, when we’re wandering in east London along the Regent’s Canal, past the Olympic site and, more importantly, the Big Breakfast house, the Dove is usually our final destination.

Also in the East, but at the riverside, there’s the Wapping and Limehouse crawl. None of these pubs is staggeringly brilliant in its own right but there are few other such neatly arranged runs in London. You can explore the industrial history of London, stopping off every quarter of a mile for a pint of something. The views from the dining room of the Captain Kidd are particularly good; and the precarious-feeling wooden terrace of the Grapes, with the Thames lapping at its underside, is fantastic place to sit and watch boats go by at close quarters.

The best pub is a comfortable pub

“Pub X is too poncified and it’s full of tossers.”

“Yes, but pub Y is too down-at-heel and full of smelly people.”

That’s a crude summary of a fair bit of debate on pub review sites and even some of our favourite British beer blogs.

We’ve been pondering this and have concluded that what makes a good pub is very much in the eye of the beholder: do you feel comfortable there? If so, it’s a good pub.

And we’re not talking about the quality of the soft furnishings. A pub where you can be yourself without worrying that you’re being judged — one where you aren’t the centre of attention for the wrong reasons — is what most of us seem to be after.

No-one should feel they have to go to somewhere as high-falutin’ as the Duke of Cambridge if they won’t feel relaxed because they’re wearing a football shirt; equally, if you don’t fancy drinking in the scary pub round the corner from your house, don’t force yourself.

Neither choice makes you a bad person.

Going to the pub is supposed to be fun, after all — not an ordeal.

Of course, there are some pubs which are so mixed and so welcoming that they genuinely transcend all of that. We think the The Royal Oak is one and the Pride of Spitalfields is another. Those are pubs where no one group of people rules the roost, and where everyone is so busy having conversations with each other that they don’t have time to give the stink eye to their peers.

The picture is from our trip to Wapping on Sunday. It’s of a pub, so kind of on-topic.

A trio of East End riverside pubs (Wapping & Limehouse)

We love exploring London on foot, particularly East London. There’s always something to catch your eye in this area of contrasts — the strange mix of the very rich and the very poor, incredibly old buildings poking out between 1960s concrete blocks, five-for-a-pound samosas next to £50-a-pop sea-bass restaurants.

And if you’re interested in beer, pubs and/or brewing history, there’s stacks to see, if not necessarily to drink. About a year ago, we posted these photos of old Truman, Hanbury and Buxton signs. This time, the theme of our walk was riverside pubs. We didn’t plan a particular route or crawl, we just headed for the river around Wapping to see what we could see.

Firstly, we were intrigued to find ourselves on a Brewhouse Lane, just off Wapping High Street, which featured “improved industrial dwellings” from 1864 and Chimney court, complete with chimney. It definitely looks like an old brewery complex, but a bit of internet research hasn’t yet shed much light on which brewery, or when it was in operation. John Rocque’s 1747 map of London shows the street in exactly the same location. If anyone can shed any further light or even suggest where to go to get further information, we’d be grateful.

Our first beer stop was the Captain Kidd, on Wapping High Street, just behind Brewhouse Lane. This Sam Smith’s pub looks like it’s been there for centuries, but apparently only dates from the 1980s. They’ve made great use of the old building in which it’s housed, with big windows looking over the Thames. There’s also a small beer garden/yard. The usual Sam Smith’s selection is available, plus food. All in all, a really nice spot.

Wapping High Street continues east and becomes Wapping Wall. There you’ll find the famous Prospect of Whitby which dates from 1520 and claims to be the oldest riverside tavern. The place just oozes history and has lots of prime riverside views. In the summer,the small beer garden under the massive weeping willow is beautiful; in the winter, it’s a cosy place to look out onto the grey Thames and read your favourite East End Dickens scenes. The beer selection is unexciting (London Pride and Greene King products) but it’s in reasonably good nick.

After the Prospect of Whitby, we kept following the Thames Path eastward. Wapping becomes Limehouse and on Narrow Street we passed “The Narrow”, once the home of the Taylor Walker “Barley Mow brewery”, now a Gordon Ramsey gastropub. Maybe it’s nice, maybe it’s not. We didn’t go in.

The Grapes, further along Narrow Street, is claimed to be the inspiration (or one of the inspirations) for the “Six Jolly Fellowship Porters” pub in Our Mutual Friend. We’ve got no primary evidence to support this, but Zythophile is bold enough to repeat the suggestion. It’s definitely an old place (current building from 1720), with a great atmosphere and nice beers — among them, London Pride, TT Landlord and a guest, this time Bateman’s Valiant.

There’s a deck out the back where you can sit and hear (and occasionally feel) the Thames lapping up against the wall. It almost felt like we were beside the seaside, particularly with the stormy skies and choppy water. Bliss. The first photo in this post was taken there.

Boak

Notes

The Captain Kidd is at 108 Wapping High Street, E1W 2NE. Further west from here (no. 62) is another old pub, the Town of Ramsgate, which we found out about afterwards. That’s the disadvantage of being spontaneous and not planning.

The Prospect of Whitby is at 57 Wapping Wall, E1W 3SH. The nearest tube station for the Captain Kidd and the Prospect of Whitby would be Wapping, but it’s shut until 2010 for East London Line refurbishment. Try Docklands Light Railway to Shadwell instead. Or have a bit of a walk from the City. You’re bound to see something cool.

The Grapes is at 76 Narrow Street, E14 8BP. Closest public transport is Limehouse DLR station.

We didn’t have this walking guide from the local council yesterday. Might have been nice if we had!