Pub visits this week 11
Locations Birmingham, London
Monday and Birmingham: two words guaranteed to bring a pang of terror to the cheeriest of hearts. And all the more so when they appear together. There’s only one thing to do in circumstances like these, and that’s get to the pub.
Given that I used to visit the Anchor almost once a day when I worked just round the corner (and sometimes more than once a day), it would seem almost rude not to drop by when I’m in Digbeth again. However, although the Anchor is the best pub in Birmingham by a mile, I was going through some very bad times when I was a regular here. And I’m not in the lightest of moods this afternoon. So matters are not improved by a gloomy atmosphere here now, still less those memories of traumatic times past.
Two other drinkers are here, seated apart and alone with their thoughts and their pints. One is a blank-faced man of about 50, the other an elderly Irishman wearing a long raincoat on a sunny day and occasionally waving to an imaginary friend positioned approximately four feet to his right. The beer is tremendous. The pub is silent – except for the television, where Sky News reporters are conveying in grave tones the nation’s profound shock at Cheryl Cole having mimed during her performance last week on The X Factor. This brings the only flicker of acknowledgment between those present, as the lad working the bar quietly remarks (in not so many words) upon the death of journalism, and we smile ruefully in agreement.
Actually, I’ve no idea whether the elderly man is Irish or not, because nobody’s uttered a word the whole time I’ve been here. But (a) he’s drinking Guinness and (b) we’re in a pub in Digbeth, so it’s a fairly safe bet.
Over at the Victoria it’s entirely a different trip. The place is as busy as I’ve seen any pub anywhere ever at six o’clock on a non-bank holiday Monday. Which is to say: it’s fairly busy. Only one pump is offering cask ale, rather than the usual three, but the charming, chatty girl selling it to me insists that this pale ale from the Purity brewery up the road in Warwickshire is “the drink that got me into ale”. I can see how that would work. It’s quite good. But ‘quite good’ is a sort of minimum requirement at three quid a pint.
I’m here for two and a bit hours with both my brothers, which is just about time enough to commiserate them on living in Birmingham. The bloke behind the bar tells me no, it isn’t usually this busy on a Monday; maybe people are here before the public dress rehearsal of The Rocky Horror Show at the Alexandra Theatre round the corner. Genuinely delighted to be in each other’s company, my brothers and I make expansive plans for birthdays, Christmas, and generally seeing a bit more of each other. Just before we leave, the barman’s theory is confirmed by the appearance of throngs of people dressed as if auditioning for gothic pornography.
On Tuesday I’m down in London to play a solo gig. Before I do, there’s the Bree Louise to get to. It’s just round the corner from Euston station. I’ve been wanting to visit for a while, because of its status as a multiple Camra award winner long recognised as one of the best alehouses in central London. Also I like the pretty name. It’s a very good pub in a single square room, with low, square tables in square rows. This gives me the impression of a classroom, which in turns makes me feel like a naughty schoolboy. What this says about the darker recesses of my psyche is uncertain and perhaps quite worrying, but I swear it makes the beer taste better.
The gig is Totally Acoustic over at the Lamb, which is just off Russell Square. In many ways the Lamb seems an archetypal London pub, with its U-shaped room, smooth-supping Young’s beer, and wealthy financiers lighting cigars with rolled-up Geordies. One of those may be completely made up.
The Lamb’s cosy upstairs function room is just the job for our unplugged frolicking, where I line up alongside Winston Echo (who I’ve never seen before) and our host MJ Hibbett (who I’ve seen and appeared with 1,583 times). Both are fantastic, and the audience is kind to me. Playing to a small room above a pub containing 25 people reminds me of my early days as a musician and helps me keep my feet on the ground. This is important when, like me, you’ve reached the giddy heights of occasionally playing to a small room above a pub containing 30 people.
(If you fancy sharing this particular pub experience with me, by the way, you can download a podcast featuring some highlights from the gig.)
It seems important to point out that most of the time I’m in London this week I’m drinking halves. This allows me to try out a lot of pubs without getting too drunk to play my guitar, conduct polite conversation or stand up without leaning on the shoulders of complete strangers. Nobody leans on strangers’ shoulders in London. It also allows me to perform a happy act of self-delusion whereby I can walk away from the bar thinking: “Only one pound eighty for a beer! Maybe London’s not so bad after all!”
On Wednesday, then, my friend Marianthi unfurls a long list of pubs we should get to. Since we’re starting the day at the Priory Arms in Stockwell and ending the evening with a gig at the Buffalo Bar in Islington, plan A is a sort of Victoria Line pub crawl. It doesn’t quite work out like that, but it’s a glorious day in pubs nonetheless.
The Priory is another square, single-room pub, but a combination of two huge windows and a suburban street-corner location makes it very distinctive indeed. Or at least to this non-Londonist, anyway. Perhaps it’s another example of the capital city doing pubs in a way that never happens elsewhere in Britain. Either way, the abundance of natural light and the view into the tree-lined streets is very nice. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it south London’s answer to the Wenlock Arms (as, apparently, some do) but it ain’t bad.
Marianthi and I are united in our distaste for the awful, bland pop-soul music that’s playing in the Priory when we arrive. It goes on for 20 minutes or so before they change it. And maybe they were going to do this anyway. But there is the possibility that the nice lass working the bar has taken a look round the pub, which is empty other than Marianthi and me, and decided she might need to change the music to try and keep us here. And I can’t help but smile at the thought that she’s taken one look at us and reached straight for the Smiths CD.
Next we’re at the Ship & Shovell in Charing Cross, recently recommended by Get to the pub.com reader Mr Carsmile Steve, after I asked where one might find Badger ales on draught. The Ship comprises two separate bits either side of an alleyway, and we hit on the great idea of having half a pint in each half of the pub. Unfortunately one side doesn’t open until five o’clock, so we take off to the Harp instead, a short walk away on the other side of the Strand.
This is a great real ale pub in a narrow room, filling up fast with after-work drinkers who know a fine pint when they taste it (indeed, the group around the next table is passing round an already well-thumbed copy of the Good Beer Guide 2011). Dark Star is a brewery I’ve been mightily impressed by this year; Marianthi goes with their excellent, citrussy Hophead while I take a half of their Porter. Well, you know – it’s only proper to drink porter while you’re down in these parts. When in Rome, do as the Cockneys did 150 years ago.
Next stop is the Southampton Arms in Kentish Town, named this very day by Fancyapint.com as London pub of the year or something. A range of guest ales are kept well, while dim bare bulbs give a Victorian gaslight effect to this popular boozer with a cheery atmosphere, as you might write if you were preparing an entry for the Good Beer Guide.
At last, then, it’s up to Islington for the popshow. Joined now by our mates Ian and Emma, we miss the support act because of the Compton Arms, where we are unexpectedly detained by the fact that it sells beer. In contrast to the last time I was here, when the place was submerged in pitch darkness by a power cut, it’s possible to see a hand in front of your face. There are Arsenal fans here, cheering on their team on TV in a lovely pub rather than shell out a ludicrous sum to watch them for real just up the road. Geordie boy Ian sinks into his seat as the Gunners rack up a big win over Newcastle.
Despite the increased light, it’s still plenty cosy in here – and the perfect place for a pint and a chat before watching the incomparable Milky Wimpshake rock the Buffalo Bar just round the corner.
Also regarding London pubs, are eastern Europeans the new Australians?
On Thursday we decide to stay put in one pub, instead of dashing round all day. And the Florence in Herne Hill is an ideal afternoon pub. Or an idle afternoon pub. Either way, it’s Nicely Done Out in the sort of décor where the designer must have cost as much as the materials. I wish I hadn’t just had a very late and very large breakfast so I could try an aubergine burger or something from the very tempting menu (pdf). This is my second visit, and it’s a shame the beers from the microbrewery round the back aren’t on this time. But the guest ales are in decent nick, and it’s a good place to kick back and while away the time until my train out of London.
While those beers go down, there’s some spectacularly good Hallowe’en pumpkin carving going on behind the bar. The staff member responsible wonders cheerfully aloud about the diverse nature of his duties in the job. Meanwhile a charming Dalmatian (as in the dog, rather than a person from the Dalmatia region of Croatia on the east coast of the Adriatic Sea) potters up to our table to say hello, then finds one of his own, crashes out and goes to sleep. He or she is a very nice dog. I don’t even like dogs but I like this one.
After a couple of the cask beers I try a pint of London Pale Ale from the Meantime Brewery. It’s a keg version, sharp and fizzy; like the keg Kipling I tried last week, it would go down well on a hot summer day. It also seems to play merry hell with my bladder, which suddenly goes into hyperdrive, and until I get off a packed commuter train at Hatfield some time later I am forced to the toilet roughly every three minutes. It’s been a lovely couple of days in the smoke, and I’m not keen to leave. But I’m desperate to go.
What an interesting week in pubs. Eleven of the buggers in four days – the first four days of the week, peculiarly – and none in the city where I live. Nice to stretch your wings now and again, eh? I really must get to more pubs named after characters from The Magic Roundabout.