It’s often said that the best laid plans go astray, and this certainly proved to be the case on our visit to London on Saturday. Mind you, the plans we had weren’t exactly set in stone, and when they did begin to go awry, a bit of quick thinking helped save the day on a couple of occasions.
It was my son Matthew’s idea to have a day in the big city. Saturday made sense as my wife was also visiting the capital, in conjunction with a group of her girly friends. They were going to the theatre; we were doing something far more decadent, namely visiting a few choice pubs, and hopefully enjoying a few good beers.
In order to experience something slightly different, Matthew had requested we travel up not via our usual direct Tonbridge – London Bridge – Charing Cross route, but by means of the Sevenoaks – Blackfriars route instead. I agreed to this suggestion, even though the journey would take twice as long as usual. So after changing trains at Sevenoaks, and a pleasant journey along the scenic Darenth Valley, we had the dubious delights of Bickley, Beckenham, Catford and Elephant & Castle to view, out of the carriage window, before finally arriving at an enhanced, and considerably enhanced Blackfriars station.
As I said earlier, we didn’t have any firm plans, apart from heading north up to Finchley Road and Hampstead, in order to see where my parents originated from, and where I spent the first three years of my life. I did however, want to take in a few “craft beer bars”, rather than sticking to tried and trusted favourites like the Market Porter and the Harp. Exiting the ultra modern station and heading in a northerly direction, brought the wedge-shaped Blackfriar pub into view, and I couldn’t resist the temptation of popping in for an inside view of this wonderfully eccentric, art-nouveau pub. Now part of the Nicholson’s chain, the Blackfriar had several interesting looking ales on sale, as part of the company’s current “beer festival” promotion. The Truman’s US Pale caught my eye, but as it was only just after 11am, I decided a half would be more appropriate for that time of the morning. Matthew, of course, stuck to his lager – Carlsberg or Carling; I can’t remember which, and I don’t suppose he can either!
The pub was virtually empty, so we had the pick of the tables and chose one towards the back of the pub, admiring the bronze relief carvings of the monks, along with the ornate marble pillars and arches. Our peaceful contemplation of this late Victorian masterpiece was not to last, as not long after we had sat down, what can only be described as a “tidal wave” of yummy-mummies, accompanied by compliant “dadsies”, pushed their way into the pub, along with various buggies, infants strapped in shoulder slings, alongside the walking and slightly older “little darlings”, and proceeded to grab all the remaining tables and chairs, marooning us in a sea of pushy parenting hell!
This was our cue to leave, and we were both glad that we’d opted for pints rather than halves. I rather half-heartedly thought about asking what the occasion was, but thought better of it in our rush to escape the mayhem and get out into the open air. The pub seemed a strange choice of venue for a child’s birthday party, and besides it was rather too early in the day for that sort of celebration. Relieved to have escaped, we walked up towards Fleet Street, as Matt wanted to re-visit the Cheshire Cheese. I also fancied some bargain-priced Sam Smiths in the timeless surroundings of this classic old pub.
It was not to be; the Cheese was well and truly shut. Whether it opened later, say at midday, was a mystery, as there were no opening hours displayed outside the pub – surely a strange omission for a place that is a popular, “must visit” tourist destination?
After two (OK, one and a half), failed attempts at traditional, it was time for some “craft”, and where better than to put his to the test than the Euston Tap, a short train ride and walk away? Now I’m slightly ashamed to say that I’ve never been to the “Tap”. I’ve obviously read quite a bit about it, and I’d also checked up beforehand on the place, using Des de Moor’s excellent “London’s Best Beer, Pubs and Bars”, a copy of which was in my rucksack. I therefore knew the pub was on the small side, and that it is popular with beer connoisseurs from far and wide.
Its popularity was not in doubt when we stepped inside, a situation made worse by groups of people hogging the bar. Their presence made it difficult to see exactly what was on tap, and although there were chalk boards, behind the bar, advertising what was available, my eyesight is such these days that in the dim light it was nigh impossible to read them. Now we could have stayed, pushed our way through to the bar and enquired further about the beers from the bar staff, but the very fact these ignoramuses were blocking the way, coupled with the fact that Matt had taken an instant dislike to the place, prompted us to about turn and leave. The “Tap” may serve great beer, but I have to say it had all the atmosphere of a hospital waiting room. Nevertheless I am prepared to give the place another try, next time I am in the area.
With Euston station, and the Northern line a stone’s throw away, we were able to jump on a tube and make our way towards Hampstead. It was raining when we arrived in this fashionable (and expensive) part of town, which put paid to my plan of walking across the Heath to the Spaniards Inn. Instead we headed for another old favourite of mine, the unspoilt Holly Bush, now owned by Fuller’s. The Bush seemed larger than I remember, although I understand it had been extended in recent times to incorporate some rooms which were not part of the original pub. I have to say though, that whoever carried out the work has made an extremely good job of it, and it was nigh on impossible to tell which parts were original (apart from the bar that is!), and which were not.
After purchasing our drinks, we opted for the large room behind the bar, away from the open fireplace which was giving out rather too much heat for the mild weather. I chose Wild River, Fuller’s American-style pale ale, whilst Matt went for Frontier, the brewery’s new “craft” lager. I had a taste of this beer and found it full-bodied and rather good. My Wild River was also equally enjoyable.
It had stopped raining by the time we left the Holly Bush, but time was marching on. A walk across the Heath was now out of the question, so instead we made our way down Hampstead High Street to Hampstead station. After a quick one stop journey to Finchley Road and Frognal, for a look at my grandmother’s old house, it was back on the train, destination Stratford. We had a bit of shopping to do, and the large Westfield Shopping Centre at Stratford seemed ideal for this. The centre is also home to a brew-pub called Tap East, which I believe has a connection with the same people who run Utobeer and the Rake at Southwark’s Borough Market.
Unfortunately after boarding the train, we became aware that due to engineering works on the London Overground, trains would be terminating at Highbury and Islington – an area of London I am totally unfamiliar with. Upon reaching said station, we took the decision to jump on a southbound train in order to alight at Wapping. We were feeling hungry by now, and a quick look through Des’s guide had revealed that the Town of Ramsgate, a well-known riverside pub on Wapping High Street, served food of the pub-grub variety, as well as a reasonable selection of beer.
After initially turning the wrong way out of Wapping Underground station, we eventually found our way to the Town of Ramsgate. The CAMRA guide was right, and it turned out to be a very pleasant pub; long and narrow in its layout, with a terraced area at the rear overlooking the River Thames. The beer range was fairly standard, apart from the Wye Valley HPA, which turned out to be a good choice; pale and fruity, with a good hop bite. Also good was the homemade chicken and leek pie, served with new potatoes and seasonal vegetables. As we sat there enjoying our meal, we noticed the barman setting out a long table, opposite where we were sitting. I asked him if they were expecting a crowd in later, and he told us that the pub is on several tourist circuits, and they receive quite a lot of pre-booked trade from coach companies. The pub’s history and riverside location appeals to foreign visitors especially, and there is obviously a good trade to be had from this attraction.
Suitably fed and watered, we headed off, by tube, to Canary Wharf, where we able to do the shopping we had wanted to do earlier. Then it was a very cramped and crowded underground journey back to London Bridge for our last port of call, the Rake at Borough market. I had a slightly ulterior motive for calling in here as according to the Rake’s Facebook page Oktoberfest beers were on offer at two pints for the price of one, providing one used a phone App called appropriately enough "I Love Free Beer". Unfortunately after ordering the beer I couldn’t get the wretched App to work, despite having connected to the pub’s free Wi-Fi network. (I later found out it was due to a glitch with the GPS system on my phone). We therefore had no choice but to cough up £13.20 for our two pints of Löwenbräu Oktoberfest, which is definitely the most I have paid for a pint of beer outside of Scandinavia.
The beer was good, but not that good, but I wasn’t going to let a glitch with a phone App spoil the end of our day out. Even so, we decided to make that the last beer of the day, especially as I received a text from my wife saying she was on the train home herself. Looking back we probably spent more time travelling than we spent in the pub, but at least we got to see some different parts of London and had some enjoyable beers as well.