Sunday, 17 September 2017

Three out of five

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.

Roger Protz with the 24 Guides he has edited
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.


Curmudgeon said...

A couple of reasons why there are only five survivors from the first GBG:

1. The coverage in the first edition was very patchy and often poorly researched. For example, there was only one entry in Stockport, which was a very ordinary estate pub that has long since closed. But there would have been plenty of excellent pubs they didn't find.

2. Quite rightly, for many years most branches have followed a policy of only including pubs if the licensee has been there for long enough to give confidence that the beer is kept in good nick. Therefore many pubs will have dropped out due to change of licensee.

On the second point, the Rose & Crown in Tunbridge Wells has re-entered the GBG for 2018, but I spotted tonight a sign saying "Under New Management". Does this mean its status will need to be reviewed? Quite a drastic internal transformation from how it was in 2003.

Paul Bailey said...

It does sound as though the Rose & Crown's status will have to be reviewed. Despite not having bought the Guide for several years, and no longer being involved with the selection process, I am still surprised by the inclusion of this pub in the guide, especially as it seems to change ownership on a regular basis.

I must admit I haven't visited the place probably since 2003, as I never liked it nor rated it as somewhere I wished to drink. Tunbridge Wells has far better pubs, as should be demonstrated tomorrow evening.

Going back to the so-called "famous five", it's a pity that all subsequent entries have been skewed by that first GBG, and it would be interesting to have started the clock ticking from say 1975 or even 1976.

As you point out there were quite a few odd, or even totally incorrect entries in that original guide, and one which sticks in my memory, because I was living in the area at the time, was a Wilson's pub in Manchester City Centre, called the York. Described in the guide as "A new pub with busy atmosphere", it was an out and out keg palace.

Curmudgeon said...

I recall the Rose & Crown as a nice, if quirky, old-fashioned local back in 2003. It had, rather bizarrely, a curtain dividing the front and back halves. I walked past Fuggles Beer Cafe which had a lot more customers!

Curmudgeon said...

It should be pointed out that the Queen's Head is not in Cambridge itself, but in the village of Newton about five miles to the south. I called in there for the first time last year. It's one of those pubs that initially doesn't strike you as *that* special, but then steadily grows on you.

Paul Bailey said...

Thanks for the updates, Mudge. I look forward to meeting you this evening.

Curmudgeon said...

Yes, good to meet you and your colleagues last night :-)

As we discussed, I was quite wrong about the Rose & Crown being in the GBG. I think what I'd done was to write down a list of pubs that included some from the GBG and some from WhatPub, and then looked at it later and concluded that all were in the GBG.

The same issue applies to the Royal Oak, though. The landlord said he'd only been in there since April, so presumably it's included on the efforts of his predecessor, who he didn't think much of!

Paul Bailey said...

It was good to meet up with you too Mudge, and I trust you enjoyed our mini-tour of Tunbridge Wells.

You mentioned the Royal Oak and its inclusion in the Guide, despite its recent change of landlord. As I am no longer involved with the selection process, I cannot enlighten you further, although I do know that the previous licensee had been in the Guide before and did keep a decent drop of beer.

Curmudgeon said...

The news may have come too late to exclude it from the book, of course. Or the new licensee may have been considered to have sufficient prior track record. In any case, on last night's evidence he seemed to know what he was doing.

Interesting that we had two examples of the classic new licensee statement "you won't believe the mess this place was in when I took it over!"

Paul Bailey said...

It’s rather like tradesmen, when they slag-off work carried out previously, by other members of their profession. “Who carried out this awful wiring?”, or “Which numpty installed this?”

The age-old human condition, I suppose!