While there are famously no guarantees in life save death and taxes, the same can’t be said for this book. And among a few others, this place was pretty much a banker to appear in these pages. Because I believe it to be one of the best pubs in this city. In an age when many are striving to be all things to all people, The Three Kings concentrates on getting the basics right. And absolutely nails them.
It has done for years. I first came here in the early 1990s when this area was experiencing something of a renaissance after an age of neglect. Nothing more appropriately signalled that change than the presence of a papier-mâché objets d’art shop just across the road from this pub and right next to St James’s church.
There was clearly quite a community spirit back then, as an alarming number of paper sculptures decorated this pub, presumably as a result of some kind of primitive, paper-based barter arrangement between the landlord and the shop owner. Whether or not it was an urban myth, I never found out, but it was at the time reputed that the paper shop owner was the girl who appeared in the black and white Edwardian-style photographs that formed the opening montage to the Oliver Postgate-produced children’s television programme Bagpuss. It was far-fetched enough to work for me. These myriad figures were fascinating to view in the context of a dark wood-panelled boozer, providing flashes of rich colour and character. Not that the place needed it; it had personality by the bucketload. The kind of charisma that would pull in the thirsting throngs from miles around. Back then, the clincher for me was the way the landlord would collect pint glasses on a long, wooden pole he would swing out nautically from behind the bar on busier nights, unable to leave the tight confines of the serving area for fear of queues building up, glasses running out and – more likely – an unwillingness to venture out into what was usually a thoroughly packed pub. It rapidly became a regular prelude to incredibly late nights in the era when Clerkenwell boasted clubs in spades.
Then almost without reason, the papier-mâché disappeared, the clubs were turned into offices and the cachet of the area evaporated. I didn’t visit again for ages. Then a chance office move saw me once again a neighbour and willing patron. A lot has been changed. But what remains is still worthy of more than a passing mention. It is still a real pleasure. Gone are the paper puppet faces, but instead there are pictures, posters, a Pete Fowler print, a rhino head, what looks like an original Dansette, a glitter ball, brass coat hooks at the bar and intricate tiling around the bar area. This attention to tiled detail extends to the gents loos, which also house the most prettily functional toilet paper storage arrangement I have ever seen.
Paper still features strongly too, but it’s as if someone decided that whole mâché thing was way too much hassle, so just pasted whole newspaper pages around the ceiling instead. There is so much to divert the gaze, you almost don’t need anyone else in the place to still feel like you’re not alone. Throw in almost always excellent music on the stereo and a more-than-passable beer selection and you’ve got somewhere a long lunch or extended evening are practically inevitable. There is an upstairs function room at which countless worthy creative pursuits are taught, including poetry and fly tying. It’s testament to the enduring fascination for this pub that I’ve never felt the need to venture in.
A brief chat with the landlord reveals there was absolutely no connection with the papier-mâché shop – the presence of the paper sculptures was purely coincidental, though the shop did provide the pub sign. Even better.