I love pubs. Ever since I was aged about four and was left outside the Roseberry Arms (now flats) in Cheddington by my dad, swinging my legs while sitting on the rotting trestle table nursing a bottle of Coke and a green packet of Golden Wonder cheese and onion crisps. Dad was inside this mysterious mock-Tudor building, seemingly for a long time (though probably only enough time to buy a pint and chat with the locals) and when he emerged, he was carrying a huge glass of brown liquid and sporting a toothy smile.
What was in there that had effected such a change in the man who had entered in a grumpy mood? I stuck my head around the door briefly and was overwhelmed by a wall of foul stench. A juggernaut of dank, poor-quality Ind Coope kegged ale soaked into well-worn carpet and at least half a century’s worth of fag smoke bowled out into the porch and sent me running for the sanctuary of the grey, cracked concrete beer garden.
I was given my first taste of beer that golden, late summer afternoon. Hated it. I can’t remember whether or not I spat it out, but I did wonder how on earth anyone could possibly drink that stuff for pleasure. It would take another 10 years for the palate to become used to the idea, but the allure of pubs never went away. I was fascinated with their names; the fact they were almost always preceded by the definite article; the little white wooden signs above the door that say: “Licensed to sell intoxicating liquor on and off the premises,” in black painted scrawl, most of which I didn’t understand at that age.
When I could first drink in pubs, anywhere would do. Yet as time passed, I began to appreciate the better ones; those that had a certain something I couldn’t quite place but nevertheless were clearly superior. I learned there wasn’t any one characteristic that made somewhere a good pub.
When I moved to London, I began to take notes. Collecting the good boozers and dismissing the dismal. I soon developed a compendium of them that I knew were worth visiting – the drinker’s equivalent of the cab drivers’ Knowledge. I kept adding to it for years.
But since I arrived, the public house landscape has changed dramatically. Once famous chains are gone, others have sprung up in their stead and the beer market itself has undergone a radical upheaval. Mostly for the better but not always.
It’s the closures that have really made me put down my pint glass, stare wistfully into the distance and take notice. We are losing pubs at an alarming rate (up to 39 a week depending on which figures you believe) and, although new ones are opening, the general trend is one of decline.
In October 2014, I had a stinker of a month, but one thing kept me going. That thing was a book called Nairn’s London, in which the author, architectural correspondent and heavy drinker Ian Nairn documented the buildings that inspired him in our capital city. Among them were 27 pubs, with a further 50-odd mentioned in passing. Throughout this fascinating, inspiring guidebook, there is an underlying theme of foreboding and impending loss, which was particularly apposite for me at the time. Among many things to muse upon, I began to wonder what remained of the pubs Nairn had patronised some 50 years before. Were they still there? Were they still pubs? Would they still pass muster?
What Nairn had done – and something I felt comforted by – was to hold a mirror up to the drinking culture he delighted in. One that embodied the essence of ‘pubbiness’ (his own term) and that more often than not required the presence of cockneys (or at least, working class people) and good draft beer. Some of his favourites were also my own, while others I was familiar with in passing. Others were completely unknown, but I felt I had to find them out if only to immerse myself in the comfort that his words had given me.
The seeds of an idea duly sown, I resolved to visit as many as I could within a year and write about them. The result is the book I’m about to write.
It’s not really a guidebook to pubs. Neither is it meant to be taken as a list of the best pubs in London. I’ve no time for the former and the latter is way too subjective. It’s also not likely to be just a London Review of Pubs – I don’t really see the merit in that and can’t hope to cover them all even if I wanted to.
In choosing the ones I’ll feature, I’ve stuck to what I know or what I think is worth preserving, if only for posterity. Most have a personal back-story, which might well take precedence over a description of the pub itself; I think that’s more interesting anyway. If I don’t have a history with the pub, I’ll try and find a story worth telling at least. I’ve included a good variety with a reasonable geographical spread, though mostly I’ve opted for ones I think should be sought out for reasons that will become obvious.
What I hope it will be is a window on what beer drinking culture is like these days and why some of it is worth treasuring. With trends changing, fads passing and pubs closing, doubtless much will have altered by the time the book is published. But what I’d like to show is that there’s still so much to love about pubs and, if you can recognise that, you should go and visit your nearest as soon as possible. We really don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone.