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Posted in Beer on 2009-02-10 12:34
It's odd that the pub should in one sense be the ultimate English tourist attraction, since all countries have their own bars and cafés, but somehow the English pub has become part of international culture. And deservedly so, because there really is something special about English pubs. A good English pub is almost like a communal living-room; a kind of home away from home. That is, the good English pubs are like this. They are of course outnumbered by the indifferent or even bad pubs, which are just boozers like those you find anywhere in the world.
In January this year I took a few days off in London, and spent them just walking around the city visiting pubs, which is a marvellously relaxing way to spend a few days. Especially if you start and finish early, before the pubs fill up. And if you stick to half-pints of British cask ale, which is generally low in alcohol, and keep a slow pace you can keep going all day and not really feel any effects.
I made use of the opportunity to take lots of pub photos, which is what this posting is mostly about.
The Harp, Covent Garden
The Harp is right in the heart of tourist London, in Covent Garden, but has somehow managed to absorb the tourists and remain a gem of a small, unpretentious English pub. The decorations are kind of low-key and rambling, featuring historical photos and notices, the bar covered in pump climps from the many guest beers. The staff are English (which is not that common in central London) and firmly working-class, friendly and unfussy, like the place itself. There's a good selection of cask ales, while food is limited to excellent sausage sandwiches.
As in many English pubs, no music is played, which is a real blessing. The only sound is that of conversation, of which there is plenty. People come and go, chatting seemingly indiscriminately with each other at the bar over a pint or two.
The Prince Alfred, Little Venice
The Prince Alfred is a completely different kind of pub again, as a glance at the facade will show. It's built in a palatial style with lots of carved wood and cut glass. This type of pub was common in late 19th century London, but today there aren't that many examples left. I enjoy visiting pubs like these just to gape at the architecture. Inside, the pub is no less remarkable.
The area around the bar is divided into compartments by elaborately carved and decorated screens like the one shown above. To pass between compartments you have to bend low, or go out on the street, since each compartment has its own street door. Today this looks strange, but Victorians were obsessed with privacy, and this is just one of many privacy-enhancing features in pubs from that period. Another is the so-called snob screens, which prevented customers from seeing other customers round the bar, while still allowing customers to see the bar staff.
In addition to the bar area there is a fine restaurant as part of the pub. Some decry this as a violation of the spirit of the place, and as creeping gentrification, but personally I thought it was a nice touch. While the idea of preserving the original pub as a kind of living museum sounds wonderful, I'm not sure it can be done in practice.
As for the beer, the most interesting on offer was Young's Bitter on cask. Ah well.
The Warrington Hotel, Little Venice
From the Prince Alfred it's only a short walk to The Warrington Hotel, which is no longer a hotel, but a pub on the ground floor, and a fine restaurant on the first floor. Again, for sheer architectural exhuberance there is little to beat this art nouveau gem. When I arrived there were just three people there, two of them sleeping, so I settled happily down on the leather couches with my Ale Lang Syne and a book.
I enjoyed the peace and quiet so much I stayed on for an Adnams Broadside from cask as well. Then, on leaving I stumbled across one of those minor historical footnotes that can be found all over London: a small blue plaque announcing that David Ben-Gurion had lived just a stone's throw from the pub. Then, a little further down the street, I walk past Alan Turing's birthplace.
The Jerusalem Tavern, Clerkenwell
The sign above the door of the Jerusalem Tavern says "anno 1720", and the interior makes this seem plausible, being done out in bare concrete, unpainted wood, and old-fashioned porcelain tiling. The interior does indeed date from that period, but it's only been a pub for a couple of decades. Still, it's a wonderfully athmospheric place. There was no music, and the only sound when I was there were two bar staff conversing with a friend at the bar, over glasses of red wine. (Visible on the bar in the last photo.)
The pub is tied to the St. Peter's brewery, which provides an additional reason to visit. There were six cask ales from that brewery on when I was visiting (including the dark mild), plus a good pale lager from Taddington on keg. And then more St. Peter's ales in bottles, which they give you the option of either having from the fridge (too cold) or from the shelf. I recommend the ones from shelf, which were perfect at room temperature.
St. Peter's is highly respected for its well-made traditional English beers, which have a definite house character, and easily remembered for their distinctive logo and bottles. With all the fuss over extreme beers it's nice to see someone still making low-alcohol beers with lots of flavour and subtlety.
Knut Albert - 2009-02-11 03:27:25
Wonderful photos, Lars Marius. My blurry and grainy efforts are no match for these!
Arnoud Haak - 2009-02-12 03:39:18
I'm planning a trip to London this autumn. I'll keep these places in mind!
olivia - 2009-02-12 10:02:23
Wow, thank you for this post! The places shown are marvellous. Indeed, it makes people wanting to go visit thoses places. I guess it may be expensive in some of theses places??
Lars Marius - 2009-02-12 11:03:15
@Knut Albert: Thank you. :)
@Olivia: No, these pubs aren't much more expensive than other pubs in London. I don't remember the exact prices, but they weren't so much different that they made me take notice.
Good Burp - 2009-06-19 21:36:09
This is a terrific post. Touring London, and drinking Ale in as many pubs I could, changed my life. I fell in love with Europe, and I fell in love with the beer. To drink a pint of english ale in a dark London pub is something everyone needs to do once during their lifetime. It reall changes your opinion of beer. Well, at least it did for me. I can't wait to go back and do it all over again.
Michael O'Hare - 2010-02-17 17:47:04
Lars, thanks for this. I recently visited London and noticed it's the less celebrated things, like walking and pubs, that makes London so special. I might try a swift half in the Prince Alfred next time!
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