One of the more newsworthy stories associated with the launch of the 2018 Good Beer Guide, is the one regarding the five UK pubs that have made every single edition. To be listed just once in the Guide is an achievement in itself for any pub, but to have appeared in all 45 editions, since the publication was first launched, is absolutely amazing.
Not everyone is perhaps aware that the pubs which appear in CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide are selected entirely on personal recommendations made by local CAMRA members. Individual selections are rigorously reviewed by local branches before any final decisions are taken. Recommendations take into account beer quality as well as the history and architecture of a pub and various aspects such as food, gardens, family and disabled facilities and special events. CAMRA does not take any fees for listings to ensure the guide remains independent and unbiased.
The five pubs, which year after year met CAMRA’s strict criteria by serving a consistently high standard of quality beers, in their own unique settings are: the Star Tavern and the Buckingham Arms in London, the Roscoe Head in Liverpool, the Square & Compass in Dorset and the Queen’s Head in Cambridge. Each pub will receive a special award from Guide Editor Roger Protz, and the local nominating CAMRA branch.
Roger, who will be stepping down as Editor of the Good Beer Guide after 24 editions said: “Congratulations to the famous five, who will go down in history for being hallmarks of the Good Beer Guide. It is a great honour to be listed in the Guide even just once – never mind 45 times. I look forward to visiting each of the pubs to offer my personal congratulations in the coming days and weeks.”
As mentioned in a previous article, I have visited three of these five pubs and would like to look at them in a little more detail. Not surprisingly, the two London pubs, feature on my list, so let’s look at them first.
Star Tavern, Belgravia. Tucked away down a mews, in the midst of London’s main embassy district, the Star is a Grade II listed traditional pub, which dates from 1848. A sensitive refurbishment, carried out in 2008, ensured that the Star’s essential character was maintained, along with its cosy wood panelling and a real fire.
In its time the Star has been the haunt of the powerful and famous, and also the infamous. It is rumoured that the 1963 Great Train Robbery was planned at the pub; given its tucked away location. Today it is a popular Fuller’s pub where local residents, business people and embassy staff rub shoulders with casual visitors.
I have known the Star since the mid-1970’s, having “discovered it” whilst on a pub crawl of London with an old school friend. 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.
Travelling by tube, we alighted at Hyde Park Corner, and then made our way, past the various foreign embassies and consulates which abound in Belgravia, to the Star, which is reached via an archway leading into Belgrave Mews West.
On that first visit, my friend and I sat near the window, in order to soak up the atmosphere and take in the whole scene of this hidden gem. We sampled both the London Pride and the renowned ESB. At the time, the latter was the strongest draught beer available on a regular basis, anywhere in the country.
I have returned to the Star 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 such a gem of a pub in such a salubrious neighbourhood.
Buckingham Arms, City of Westminster. This pub opened in the 1720s as the Bell, was renamed the Black Horse in the 1740s, rebuilt in 1898 and renamed for a second time as the Buckingham Arms in 1901. It remains a welcoming late Victorian pub, which belongs to the Young’s Pub Company. Refurbishments carried out just under a decade ago have retained the etched glass mirrors behind the curving bar counter, along with the attractive stained glass screens. There is an alley bar, which was formerly used by servants to avoid observation.
The pub is situated in Petty France; a short street linking Buckingham Gate with Broadway and Queen Anne's Gate. The name is thought to refer to the settlement of Huguenot refugees in the area.
Petty France was until 2002, the home of the London Passport Office at Clive House, and this is the reason I first became acquainted with the Buckingham Arms. I visited the Passport Office with a friend, back in the mid 1970’s. I can’t remember if it was to collect his passport, or if something to do with mine, but I suspect the former, as my friend lived in London.
Whoever’s passport it was, the visit afforded the perfect opportunity, for me at least, to call in at the Buckingham Arms. This was back in the day when Young’s beers were held in high regard, and were well worth drinking. I don’t remember that much about the pub, apart from it being packed out with office workers enjoying a lunchtime pint. Again, this was at a different time when a few pints at lunchtime was quite normal, rather than being frowned upon, as it often is today.
I have been back a few times since that first visit, but not recently. I ought to rectify this, especially in view of the pub’s unbroken record of 45 consecutive years in the Good Beer Guide.
Square & Compass, Worth Matravers, Dorset. The third, and final pub of this “famous five” is a real gem, which quite rightly is listed on CAMRA’s National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors. The pub has been in the hands of the Newman family since 1907, and the two rooms on either side of a serving hatch convey an impression that little has changed since then. The garden faces the sea and offers fantastic views across the Purbecks. In winter the pub closes in the afternoon, but stays open all day during the summer months.
I have only been to the Square & Compass once, and that occasion was 35 years ago, whilst on a camping holiday, in the Purbecks, with the previous Mrs PBT’s. We were staying at a campsite at nearby Langton Matravers, and I am delighted to see from the map that the camp site known as “Tom’s Field ” is still in existence. I’m not sure about Tom himself though, as he was getting on a bit when we pitched our tent there!
Anyway, we had heard of the Square & Compass and had been recommended to visit it whilst in the area. Rather than driving to Worth Matravers, we decided to walk there for a lunchtime drink, and instead of taking the more direct inland path, we headed south towards the flat area of rock, just below the cliffs, known as “Dancing Ledge.” We then followed the coastal path in a westerly direction, before heading back inland via the lengthy dry valley of Winspit Bottom.
The walk took longer than anticipated, but we still managed to reach the Square & Compass before afternoon closing. Such was our thirst that we had time for a couple of well-earned pints. As far as I recall, the beer was from the former Strong’s Brewery at Romsey which, although then owned by Whitbread, still turned out a decent drop of locally-brewed bitter.
We sat inside, sheltering from the brisk onshore breeze which had accompanied us for most of the walk. The beer was served in handled, dimpled mugs straight out of the cask, via a serving hatch, and as mentioned above was well received. I had the distinct feeling that we were visiting somewhere unique, and really special, so I am especially pleased to learn that the pub remains little changed to this day.
We took the shorter inland route back to the campsite, but that was our sole visit to the Square & Compass. This may have been because we were only in the area for a long weekend, but as with the Buckingham Arms, I would love to make a return visit to this unspoilt gem of a country pub.
So three of these unique “famous five” pubs visited, and two more to go. I should be able to make the Queen’s Head in Cambridge without difficulty, as I can squeeze a visit in on my next trip up to Norfolk. The Roscoe Head in Liverpool, might prove a little trickier, and the fact that its future could still be in doubt, does make a visit all the more important.
The thing which does surprise me though, is the enormous “churn” of pubs which have appeared in the Guide over the years. Given it features around 4,500 pubs each year, it’s strange that only five in the whole country should have featured in every edition.
Acknowledgements: photos of the three pubs featured were supplied by CAMRA via a press-release to the British Guild of Beer Writers website.