A Guide to British Pubs

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Introduction

My decision to preserve these experiences no doubt suggests that I lead a rather sorry existence, perhaps as one of those tragic drunks found dancing for pennies in low-end drinking establishments. But the truth is, I am not a prolific drinker by any means, and the purpose of this piece is not to indulge my own love of drink. Rather, it’s to comment at length on the sort pubs I think are worth visiting; to put my finger on what makes them exceptional or unique and to encourage others to visit them. Although it is probably true that a pub is only as good as the beer it serves, I have tried not to comment here on booze at all. This is partly owing to my own ignorance on the subject, but mostly because I’d rather focus on other factors I believe important, such as history, clientele, fittings and architecture.

It seems sensible to write about these things, since they can be described in relatively certain terms, whereas beer, or any drink for that matter, can only really be described using equivocal words like smoky or fruity. I feel, moreover, that there is something quite blokey about discussing the qualities of beer; or rather the men who tend congregate at bars to discuss these qualities tend to be quite blokey. Like meat and football, beer is used by some men as means of asserting their masculinity. They believe that a drinker of some swamp-coloured mixture called Hembrook’s Gullet is more of a man than somebody who drinks a beverage of inferior brownness. And they are dedicated to expressing this conviction very loudly while pushing in line at the bar, or spitting into the urinal while texting.

This type of drinker, I’m relieved to say, rarely seems to find his way to my favourite pubs—although in fairness, many of my favourite pubs never have anybody in them. They are places that, for no accountable reason, stay open in spite of poor business, and where emptiness is all part of the charm. It is true after all that nobody wants to drink shoulder to shoulder with other drinkers, or wait twenty minutes to be served at the bar. We go to pubs to relax and enjoy ourselves, and if we ever tolerate an overcrowded pub it’s either because the drinks are cheap or (more likely) because the pub is worth all the hassle. This is true of Norman’s Coach and Horses in Soho, which is almost always rammed, though rarely unpleasantly so. In most busy pubs I soon find myself fantasising about drowning people under the beer taps. Yet there, surrounded by what invariably seems to be such a lovely group of cheerful, jubilant people, I can find very little to complain about.

A nice group of regulars can make a pub. And although landlords have very little say over what sort of person they attract to their pub, they can help cultivate a pleasant atmosphere for drinkers by providing them with a comfortable, well-furnished space in which to sit and drink. Broadly speaking, I’ve found that most worthwhile pubs tend to follow the traditional format created by the Victorians. The best places look like pubs, for starters, with tasteful features and fixtures. They don’t have cow heads on the walls or obnoxious synth music blaring from the jukebox. For good pubs don’t aspire to be cool, edgy or sophisticated. Their landlords don’t have contempt for certain types of customers, as do the landlords of Shoreditch, and other areas that have been wrung of all sense of personality by the dark hands of gentrification.

Pubs have an entirely unique atmosphere, and it seems to me unthinkable that anybody would alter what is such a tried and tested format, particularly when such alterations are so uncalled for. The traditional pub is a paragon of cosiness and hospitality; the flashy, fashionable booze dives that are popular right now are something quite different: vulgar, charmless and tolerable only to the hopelessly stupid and those too drunk to know any better. They turn a profit because, in order to remain in those places, one has to be drunk. They have nothing in common with traditional pubs, aside from in appearance, and so I have chosen to omit them from this piece on the grounds that they are third-rate bars, too ramshackle to be clubs, and too unwelcoming to be pubs. These are establishments that, fifteen, twenty years ago, would have been worth a visit. No longer is this true.

Although I have little affection for anything described in national newspapers as British (this includes Wimbledon, WWII propaganda posters, what idiots call British values and the disdain some people pretend to have for the French), I make no hesitation in listing pubs as one of my favourite things about this country. You don’t really get them outside the Britain and Ireland—not quite like the ones we have here and in Ireland at any rate. Yet up and down the country, in whatever city or town you’re in, from Leeds to London, from Grimsby to Grasmere, there is always a pub serving great beer and decent food. What’s more there is no shortage of good ones.

If I have one regret about this piece, it’s perhaps that it is destined to be insufficient. For however many pubs I include here, there will always be hundreds more deserving that I simply haven’t the time to write about, or even the time to visit. I am aware, too, that most of the pubs mentioned below are in London, the simple reason for this being that London is where I live and therefore do most of my drinking. Although I have tried where possible to include as many pubs from other places, the list is by my own admission rather limited. It is a work in progress, and I intend for it to be built up slowly over time, becoming more cohesive with each revision.

So why pubs? What is their appeal exactly? Well, no doubt it has something to do with drink, which, as Samuel Johnson found, has the effect of exhilarating a person’s spirits, prompting them to free conversation and an interchange of discourse with those they most love. More than this, though, I think that traditional pubs are simply very beautiful places. The golden shimmer of light reflecting against the beer pumps, the elaborate sprawling decorations on mirrors and on windows, the intricate carvings of rich mahogany—such antiquated features can be seen in few other places today. They are found primarily pubs, and for me at least, there can be nowhere more enjoyable to drink, chat and act like a fool than a place in which these features are on full display.

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Oliver Goldsmith, James Boswell and Samuel Johnson in conversation at The Mitre Tavern.


 PUB INDEX

LONDON

i. Holborn
ii. Smithfield
iii. Uncategorised


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Holborn, London

Holborn is an area of remarkable buildings that is rich in history and more or less deserted on weekends. This is partly because most of its shops are closed then, though a few of its finest pubs, including the Cittie of Yorke and The Seven Stars, stay open on Saturdays, making this the most worthwhile time to visit. Of all its buildings, the Prudential Assurance Building (1879), located on High Holborn, and designed by the prolific Gothic Architect Alfred Waterhouse, is perhaps the most formidable. It is made of fiery-red terracotta and embellished with ornate sculptural features, the complexity of which only become apparent when examined close up.

Across the road is Staple Inn, which dates from 1585. It has been extensively refurbished, though nonetheless remains one of the most astonishing examples of timber building in the whole of London. The Cittie of Yorke, one of my favourite London pubs, lies just down the road. It is difficult to miss on account of the large copper shield that hangs above the doorway and its traditional-looking wood façade. In spite of these features, the pub is not as old as it looks. It was rebuilt in 1920s, though apparently a pub has stood on that spot since 1430. Before it was the Cittie of Yorke, it was called Henekey’s Long Bar, and I suspect that little has changed since then, for its interior is uncompromisingly traditional: a late-Georgian or Regency era triangular metal stove, vaulted ceilings, Victorian-style cubicles and a comfy backroom.

Like many London pubs of notable design, it is now owned and operated by Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery, who have done an excellent job of preserving its sense of antiquity. I have heard many people boast that Dylan Thomas used to drink here, though that in itself is not particularly interesting, since Thomas seems to have drank in almost every pub in London. What is interesting, however, is that Thomas wrote an impromptu ode to the pub in 1951, which lay undiscovered until last year, and has just been published as part of a revised edition of his collected poems.

Heading right along High Holborn, towards Lincoln’s Inn Fields, is the Penderel’s Oak. Historically speaking, it is of little importance: one of its few notable features is the stained-glass widow that bears its name as you come in. Nevertheless, it is a good pub, and one of the best Wetherspoon’s I have been to in London. Inside it is furnished with quite attractive modern fixtures, and though it is one of the lesser pubs in the area, I visit quite often, usually before heading for second drink somewhere nearby.

The Melton Mowbray is on the same street, and can be reached by heading back towards Holborn Circus. It has a gorgeous black façade with a bow window that has been partially hidden by several low-hanging flower baskets. Recently, I spotted a man taking a shit beneath one of these, and have been put off going inside ever since—which is rather silly really, for it is a nice pub with traditional fixtures and a great abundance of wood. Indeed, there’s a wooden bar, wooden chairs, wooden ceiling—as a matter of fact everything but the beer (Fuller’s) is made of wood.

Across the road is Hatton Garden, an irritating stretch of road on which jewellers sell shiny things that children in third-world countries have risked their lives mining from the ground. I have walked up here many times and often been asked by these jewellers to buy one of these shiny things for what I’m told is a tremendously cheap price. I’ve never been tempted to take them up on one of their offers: given the choice, I’d much rather spend my money on beer, which is well worth its price, and has the additional benefit of not having been brewed by children in third-world countries.

Ye Olde Mitre Tavern, found just off of Hatton Garden, down a tiny passageway, sells a good selection of it, and to lots of different people, too. I mention this because I am always astounded by the variety of customer found in this cosy little establishment. The last time I was there, a throng of road workers were telling dirty jokes at the bar, while on the table next to me, looking bohemian in jackets of varying shades of tweed, a collection of the poshest people I had ever heard tattled on to one another about how much of an arse Jonty had been that night.

Don’t let this put you off going there. It truly is one of the best pubs, not in Holborn but in the whole of London. It was likely built between 1772–3, but is the rebuilding of an early pub built about 1546. Although it was remodelled internally in the early 20th century, the decorations and fittings could be of a much earlier age, and no doubt many people presume that they are. A window of stained-glass bears the date of the pub that preceded it, and apparently the owners take great pride in “not doing chips”, preferring instead to serve traditional bar snacks, such as Scotch eggs, pickled dimbles and faggins—a spiced cabbage impaled on the branch of a chestnut tree.

Ely place, the road on the other side of the passageway, is also worth a visit. It is the last privately owned street in London, originally set up as an exclave of Cambridgeshire for the Bishops of Ely, and managed to this day by its own body of commissioners and beadles. It is the location of St Etheldreda’s, the great catholic church, which is the only surviving building in London from the reign of Edward I (1239–1307). The gardens of St Etheldreda were said to produce the finest strawberries in London. In Shakespeare’s Richard III, Gloucester tells the Bishop of Ely: “My Lord of Ely, when I was last in Holborn, I saw good strawberries in your garden there. I do beseech you, send for some of them”.


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Smithfield, London

Whatever one thinks of the business that takes place between its tall stately towers, it must be admitted that Sir Horace Jones’s Smithfield Market is one of the most arresting buildings in the whole of London. Made of red brick and stone, and with domed angel towers, it is best viewed towards the end of the day, when the sun is low in the sky, or very early on a clear morning. The effect of light hitting these patina-mantled, Italianate domes is extraordinary; I often walk past here, usually via Cloth Fair or Charterhouse Square, simply to appreciate the character of this peculiar little area.

Of course there is plenty not to like about it: Fabric, for instance, if you’re idea of a good time doesn’t involve listening to DJs with name like Saab Pizzle, Mixxy and Giles Aldous in a sweltering sweat cave. Yet Smithfield has plenty of history to entertain anybody passing through, not to mention a number of great restaurants and cafés. Best of all, there are many excellent pubs in the area, of which several have been here for nearly as long as the market has. For no reason at all, I will start with The Hope, which judging from TripAdvisor reviews is disliked by some drinkers, apparently owing to the fact that it is rather rickety, in urgent need of repair and smells unmistakably of pee. I nevertheless think it is a wonderful pub, and have particular fondness for its exterior. Its most notable features are its beautiful bow window, the elegant wooden doorways and the fine etched glass panels that you pass on your way into the building.

Built in 1790, it is still in reasonable shape, though those who complain that it is rundown are not entirely wrong, since the furniture and floorboards do bear considerable signs of neglect. Otherwise, I’ve never noticed it smelling of pee, and I say that as somebody with overparticular standards when it comes to hygiene.

Strangely, I have heard people complain that the next pub, The Smithfield Tavern, located just across the road, suffers from a similar problem. Yet once again, I have only good things to say about this large, often-empty establishment. I have drunk here a number of times, and never once had an unpleasant experience. Inside the fixtures are mostly all modern, but though I get the impression that its landlord is trying to appeal to hip young people, I find the atmosphere quite peaceful and not at all like that of the sort of wannabe club-bars you find in Shoreditch.

Like Norman’s Coach & Horses, The Smithfield is advertised as a vegetarian pub—odd perhaps, considering how close it is to perhaps the most famous meat market in the country. What is more, there is a picture of a roast chicken as you enter the building, so if you are a vegetarian, I’d recommend inspecting the menu with extreme caution before ordering. Or better still, just stick to the beer.

The Fox & Anchor, located a few doors down, very near to the Charterhouse, is one of the finest pubs in London.

It has a breathtaking Art Nouveau façade of moulded cast stone (1898), with coloured decorations by William Neatby, very reminiscent of his famous work at Harrod’s meat hall. The pub is well known for its “City Boy Breakfast”, which has been ostensibly created to kill off unscrupulous, hedonistic City workers, and anybody whose five-a-day consists of a selection of meat harvested from five separate animals. Also on sale are cigars, pies and sausage rolls, though I have always stuck strictly to the beer, which I have enjoyed immensely.

The interior, like the exterior, is very handsome indeed: almost everything is made out of wood, and there are intimate booths at the back, so you can feel as though you’re travelling on train while you drink. There are rooms for hire upstairs, and though I can’t comment on condition or quality of those, their existence does mean that Fox & Anchor is one of the few pubs in the area that stays open on Sundays.

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