Herb Lester’s Pub Crawl
My old friend Herb Lester – who published the Map of Spitalfields Life a few years ag0 – took me on a pub crawl recently in celebration of his new guide book A London Pub For Every Occasion and here are Herb’s annotations, with helpful excuses for visiting a few favourite ports of call.
“Because it’s never too early”
Simpson’s Tavern, Ball Court, 38½ Cornhill, City of London
If breakfast in a tavern appeals but perhaps without the aroma of last night’s slops, at this remarkably unaltered eighteenth-century establishment you can tuck in to a full English (Cumberland sausage, bacon, black or white pudding, egg, mushrooms, tomato, baked beans and unlimited toast), porridge or simple poached eggs, and order your sharpener from the separate bar area. Of course, coffee and tea are also available, but it’s nice to know the option’s there.
“Because we like the cat”
The Pride of Spitalfields, 3 Heneage St, Spitalfields
At the southern end of Brick Lane, just where the curry house barkers are at their most vociferous, is a small turning and, after a few paces, this retreat. As worn and comfortable as an old pair of slippers, the interior is lived-in and unfussy, the ale excellent, and the presence of Lenny, a large and unflappable feline, only adds to it appeal. It’s small, with one main bar and a room off to the right, and it can get crowded – not such a bad thing in a place as convivial as this.
“Because it’s not what it seems”
The Crown & Sugar Loaf, 26 Bride Lane, Fleet St
To all appearances, a small but stunning time warp Victorian pub with mosaic tiled floor, fireplace, marble bar, etched mirrors all around and leaded windows. Cushioned benches line the wall facing the bar, and there are tables and chairs too, with plenty of room for standing. With no TV or music and an overwhelmingly male clientele, it really does feel it’s from another time, all of which makes its history more interesting. Originally part of the neighbouring Punch Tavern on Fleet St, this only dates from 2004 and its wonderful interior is new and salvaged.
“Because it’s beautiful”
The Viaduct Tavern, 126 Newgate St, Newgate
Should you find yourself staggering from the Old Bailey in need of a stiff drink, fortification is available directly opposite in this stately semi-circular Victorian pub, constructed at the eastern end of Holborn Viaduct. Those in more contemplative mood may pause to take in the etched glass, gilded mirrors, three paintings of sorrowful maidens and abundant carved woodwork. The pub’s original separate drinking areas are long gone, but one rare surviving feature is an elegant booth of etched glass and carved wood at the back of the bar that would have been used as an office of sorts by the landlord.
“Because there’s nowhere quite like it”
The Hand & Shears, 1 Middle St, Cloth Fair, Smithfield
The owners of this wonderful little pub have made the wise decision to hold on to its three distinct bars – public, saloon and private, the latter large enough to accommodate a table of three and perhaps six standing, and there’s even a snug too. Despite its modest size, it has the feeling of a being a place to explore, with more doors than seems possible for so small a space. A friendly and attentive landlord with a taste for interesting ales only adds to its appeal, as does its location on Cloth Fair, a street so lovely even Sir John Betjeman chose to live here, at number 43.
“Because it’s beautiful”
The Blackfriar, 174 Queen Victoria St, Blackfriars
Among the many reasons we have to be grateful to John Betjeman is the survival of this wonderful public house, an opulent art nouveau monument that is merely glorious from the street but quite overwhelming once inside. The interior has a honeyed glow, almost ecclesiastic in atmosphere, with elaborate tile work, copper and plaster friezes, and everywhere disconcertingly jolly monks looming, ‘both holy and leering’, as one observer noted. It’s best visited in the morning or afternoon to avoid the lunch and after-work crowds that can hinder one’s appreciation.
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