Tuesday, 29 March 2016

My First London Pub Crawl - Part One



Not on this crawl, but still one of London's finest
I wrote the piece below some 20 or so years ago, when things were much fresher in my mind. I have re-visited it several times since; the last time being the Easter weekend just gone, when I thought it should finally see the light of day. Obviously there have been many changes in the world of beer and brewing, and also the Capital’s pubs and I have tried to reflect some of these changes whilst remaining true to the original article.

The post describes seven landmark London pubs; five of which are still trading, but the important thing for me, is that pub-crawl I undertook, back in 1974 represented the first time I had visited these pubs and I have tried to convey both the sense of joy, and the thrill of discovery that I experienced at the time.

I won’t go so far as to pretend that visiting these pubs proved a life-changing experience, but it did open my eyes to the variety and diversity of public houses available in London at the time. It also bears witness to the emergence of “real ale” as both a force to be reckoned with, and an attraction in its own right; something several of the Capital’s pubs were quick to seize on.

My intention is also to provide the reader with an interesting narrative and to provide a “snapshot” of what a small selection of London pubs were like 40 years ago. If I have managed to convey some of the excitement I felt at the time, then this article will have done its job.

Lovely old Bass mirror
In the summer of 1974 I embarked on a crawl around some of the leading pubs of London’s burgeoning Real Ale scene. Several of these pubs were quite famous and well-known in the capital, and some have remained as personal favourites to this day.

My companion and guide on this tour was a school friend who, like me, had just completed his first year at university. We had met up again during the summer vacation, and had both ended up working in the same summer job. I owe this particular friend an enormous debt of gratitude, as he was the person responsible for sparking in me, what has remained a life-long interest in beer, pubs, brewing and all things related. He was also instrumental in my joining CAMRA, but that's another story!

We discussed the idea of a London crawl, and even though it meant taking a day off work, we decided that a break would do us good. My friend had managed to obtain a copy of the first CAMRA Guide to Real Ale in London, so armed with this vital source of information we set off for London, by train, from our home town of Ashford, alighting at Waterloo East for the first stop on our itinerary.

Hole in the Wall - Waterloo
The pub in question was the Hole in the Wall, a pioneering free house occupying a railway arch, opposite Waterloo Mainline station. Here we both renewed our acquaintance with Youngs Ales, although some forty years later I am uncertain whether it was the Ordinary or the Special that we sampled that day. I described the pub as “pioneering”, and for its time it certainly was, offering beers which weren’t widely available in Central London. For example, just over a year after my first visit to the Hole in the Wall, I got to drink Brakspears beers there for the first time.

Forty years on and it’s good to know the pub is still trading; even though it's many a year since I last set foot in the place. There are mixed reviews on-line, but the Hole in the Wall retains its obvious appeal for homeward bound commuters, wanting a quick pint before their train home.

The second port of call was a Charrington's pub, called the Goldsmith's Arms. The plan was to make our way towards London Bridge in order to visit one of the capital's most ancient and historic pubs, but after consulting my friend's guide, we decided to break our journey approximately halfway, at this typical south London local. The warm summer weather, plus the brisk walk involved, had ensured that we worked up quite a thirst.

During the mid 1970's, Charrington's supplied the bulk of the Real Ale in London; with hand pumps relatively common throughout their tied estate. This was at a time when most of the other big brewers had removed them from their pubs, in favour of top-pressure forms of dispense. The fact that Charrington's had retained hand pumps was probably due more to inertia on their part, rather than a genuine desire to continue selling the real thing, but so far as the drinker was concerned it represented a welcome bonus.

Charrington's famous Toby Ale trademark
In 1974 Charrington's were still brewing at the Anchor Brewery; their original home in London's Mile End Road, but that situation that was to change a year later when that historic plant closed and production was switched to Birmingham. This was a great pity as the London brewed IPA was a vastly superior drink to the imitation version produced, until its final demise, at various Bass breweries in the Midlands. From what I remember, it was much paler in colour (as an IPA should be), and was considerably more bitter, with a good hoppy nose to match.

Our first pint at the Goldsmith's slipped down a treat, and having sparked the landlord’s interest by showing him his entry in the guide, we were persuaded to stop for a further pint. This was contrary to our aim of sticking to one pint per pub, and only having more than one when a pub had several different beers on tap. The beer however, was in tip-top form and we ended up having an interesting chat with the typically “old school” guvnor who ran the place. Forty years on and the pub has undergone a few changes, and is now known as the Goldsmith Pub & Dining Room. It has had a contemporary makeover, but looking at the website, it all looks very nice. My friend would be pleased to know that the Goldsmith's still served traditional beer, but not Charrington’s IPA!

That was to be my first and only visit to the Goldsmith's; subsequent visits to London never seemed to take me near the pub. Besides, as mentioned above, Charrington's IPA took a turn for the worse following the closure of their London brewery; a situation which was partially compensated for by the company significantly increasing the availability of Draught Bass throughout their estate in the South East. Given my well known appreciation of this classic Burton-brewed ale, I regret to say I never missed IPA as much as I might otherwise have done.

George Inn, Southwark
The subject of Draught Bass leads nicely on to the third pub on our itinerary, namely the George Inn, situated just off Southwark High Street. The George is famous for being London’s last surviving galleried coaching inn, although even this splendidly preserved old pub is incomplete. The George was just one of the many such inns which once graced the capital, and it was from inns, such as this, that the mail coaches set out daily. The George is now owned by the National Trust, and is a popular tourist attraction, perhaps even more so today than it was back in the mid 1970's, when I first visited it.

I was instantly impressed with the George. It was like stepping back into a bygone age, with its picturesque, galleried upper stories overlooking the courtyard and with its narrow entrance leading to the busy thoroughfare beyond. I thought I knew London reasonably well, but was surprised that such an ancient old building was still standing, given the ravages of the Great Fire, the Blitz and modern day property developers!

Interior - George Inn
Stepping inside the pub too, for the first time, was equally impressive. With its bare wooden floors, low-beamed ceilings and the serving hatch for a bar, the interior was every bit as good as the exterior. The beer was dispensed from an unusual set of beer pumps resembling a cash register. They were reputed to be over 200 years old. The pumps dispensed two different draught beers, namely Draught Bass (or Bass Pale Ale as it was then called) and London-brewed Whitbread Bitter. However, the splendid surroundings must have made more of an impression on my memory than the beer itself, as I fail to remember which of the beers we sampled, or whether we did actually try them both.

I was reluctant to leave the George, but was determined to return as soon as possible. For quite a few years after I managed to achieve this when in the vicinity of London Bridge Station, but today the pub seems to have become even more of a tourist trap. The ancient “cash-resister style” beer pumps have been taken out (presumably they were either beyond repair, or were constructed from “non-approved” materials such as leather or brass), but despite this, the George is still worthy of a visit, especially if you are a lover of old inns.

After our lengthier than planned stopover at the Goldsmith’s, my companion was anxious to press on. This was ironic as it was his decision to stop for a second pint there! Nevertheless, even with the generous lunchtime opening hours which prevailed at the time in the capital, closing time was drawing ever closer. We therefore left the George, crossed Southwark High Street and found our way to the legendary Becky's Dive Bar.

This establishment, as its name suggests, was a basement bar. It was situated below a rather dingy looking building, which I later found out was the London Hop Exchange. According to my friend's guide, Becky’s was a rare outlet for Thwaites Bitter, all the way from Blackburn, and we were both looking forward to sampling this Lancastrian beer for the first time.

We were somewhat taken aback by the Dive Bar itself. The steps, which led down to it, seemed to have an unnatural springiness to them; as if their timbers had rotted and were about to give way. The bar itself was dimly lit, furnished with a number of worn out chairs and littered with umpteen up-turned casks. To make matters worse, the air smelt dank and reeked of tom cats. We were to be disappointed in our quest for Thwaites, but not by the beer on offer in its place, namely the legendary and revered Ruddles County.

Hop Exchange - London
Despite the reverence attached to this beer, the Ruddles County my companion and I drank, for the first time that day in the Dive Bar, was not exactly in the best of condition. Mine pint was rather cloudy, whilst my friend's glass appeared to contain an inch or two of sediment! I discovered the reason for the cloudy beer on a subsequent visit to the Dive Bar (about a year later to be precise), when, if anything, the place seemed even more down at heel.

I was on a similar crawl to the one I am describing, with a friend from university, but one which was somewhat more limited in scope. Becky’s was quite unusual for a city-centre outlet in that all the cask beers were dispensed direct from casks perched up on the bar. As my friend and I sat at the bar that night, we noticed that one of the casks had run dry. We then watched, fascinated as the barman removed it and replaced it with another, taken from the customers’ side of the bar. The replacement cask had been left standing up-ended, with the tap already in place. It was heaved, unceremoniously, onto the bar, manhandled onto a stillage and then, more or less straight away, the barman began serving from it. It had obviously received a considerable amount of disturbance by this treatment, with the ensuing effect on its contents. At this point, my companion and I decided it was high time to drink up and leave!
To return to the main story, I finished my pint of Ruddles, whilst my friend wisely left the bottom third of his before departing for the final port of call of the lunchtime session. Before describing the next pub, it’s well worth mentioning that veteran Beer Bloggers, Boak & Bailey posted a lengthy and very informative article about Becky's Dive Bar back in 2012, which drew on interviews with people who drank there along with detailed and extensive research which the pair conducted into this legendary establishment. You can read their article here.

Our next pub was a tube ride away, so we took the Underground to Hyde Park Corner, and then made our way, past the various foreign embassies and consulates which abound in Belgravia, to what is still one of my favourite London pubs. It is, of course, the Star Tavern, and it is hidden away off Belgrave Square. It is reached via an archway which leads into Belgrave Mews West. The Star at the time, was a lone outpost in Central London for Fuller's excellent ales, and what was even better was the fact that the beers were dispensed by hand pump, rather than the more usual top-pressure system favoured by the brewery at the time.

Star Tavern - Belgravia
I have returned to the Star Tavern on many occasions, and have spent some really good times in there. What appealed to me at the time, and what still does today, is the Star's location; one simply does not expect to find a gem of a pub like this in such a salubrious neighbourhood. It is also the sort of pub I’m sure my grandfather would have liked visiting. He worked as a chauffeur for a wealthy Hampstead businessman, until forced to retire through ill-health, and I can imagine him enjoying a drink in a pub like the Star whilst waiting for his employer to emerge from one of the smart houses nearby.

What we didn’t know was that a decade or so earlier the Star was the haunt of some of London’s most notorious master criminals who hob-knobbed there with various stars of stage and screen. It is said that the planning for much of the Great Train Robbery took place in the pub, but this recent (at the time) history was unknown to us as we sat near the window, enjoying the excellent Fuller’s beer. We of course had to sample both the London Pride and the renowned ESB. The latter, at the time, was the strongest draught beer available on a regular basis, anywhere in the country.

We had now reached the end of the lunchtime session, and “Time” had been called at the Star. There were now two hours to wait until the pubs re-opened at 5pm. This then seems as good a place as any to break off the article, and to resume the story of the evening session next time, in part two of this narrative.

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