Category Archives: Pubs

The ‘I was a teenage under-aged drinker’ 50th anniversary pub crawl

How many people in Britain ever waited until their 18th birthday before they ordered their first alcoholic drink in a pub? Not you, I bet, and not me, certainly.

In fact this year marks half a century since I started regularly drinking in pubs, and as I’m still a little shy of 68, you may assume, correctly, that my earliest out-of-home pints were seasoned with the spice of illegality. Not that it was much of a spice: 50 years ago bar staff, and the authorities, bothered even less about not-quite-legal under-aged drinkers than they did about drink-driving, which was not, shamefully, taken very seriously at all.

Not that I drove to the pub: strictly public transport. Onto the 801 bus, my throbbing green diesel-powered Routemaster to pleasureland, and away to Stevenage Old Town, where the High Street, once part of the Great North Road, offered a sufficiency of pubs, all ancient and characterful, to satisfy the keenest crawler. (And all a total contrast to the soulless boxes that were the pubs on the new town estates. But that is another essay, for another day.)

Not, either,  that I crawled that much back in 1969: there were two pubs out of the eight on the High Street itself where most of my pals would be found, so those were the two where I did most of my drinking. Generally Friday and Saturday evenings those pubs would be rammed almost to bursting with, largely, under-20s drinking pints (or brandy-and-babycham for the teen females: at least, that was what they always seemed to be drinking when I was getting the rounds in). I don’t recall any trouble or violence: the physical aggro was restricted to the only two pubs in Stevenage’s vast pedestrian shopping centre, and mostly to only one of those, the Edward the Confessor, know universally as the Ted the Grass..

The Chequers, Stevenage, a more welcoming pub today than it was to teenage me 50 years ago

I moved from the town almost four decades ago, back to London, where I was born: grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts have died, other friends have moved away, and now my brother has sold his house in Stevenage to move permanently to enchanting Norfolk, cutting the last big link I have with the town I moved to when I was two. I went up a few months ago for a last look round, a couple of weeks after Lewis Hamilton, who also grew up in Stevenage, infuriated most of its inhabitants by calling it “the slums” on the BBC (he did correct himself immediately, but Twitter, of course, was already ablaze). No better way to say goodbye, my brother and I decided, than one last pub crawl down the High Street, starting at the bottom and moving north until we’d had enough.

Stop number one, the Chequers, was not, in fact, a pub that featured regularly on my nights out, being out of what today would be called “the circuit”. It was once, until the middle of the 20th century, the first drinking place travellers saw as they entered Stevenage proper from the south up the main road from London to York. The building of the new town’s huge pedestrianised shopping centre obliterated a long stretch of the old Great North Road at the gateway to the Old Town, and left the Chequers down what had become a largely unhurried cul-de-sac. It’s a quietly attractive, faintly arts-and-crafts influenced building, rebuilt in 1889 at a cost of £500 by its owners at the time, the Lytton family of Knebworth House, a couple of miles to the south, who were the big local landowners. (Edward Bulwer “dark and stormy night” Lytton was a big friend of Charles Dickens, which is why there was once a pub about 400 yards down the Great North Road from the Chequers called the Our Mutual Friend, after one of Dickens’s novels, which opened a month or so after the novel was first published: that pub is now demolished, but the name was transferred to a newly built pub in the New Town, close to where I grew up,)

When I started going into pubs regularly, about 1968/69, the drinkers at the Chequers were mostly Old Towners whose ancestors had lived in North Hertfordshire for, probably, 500 years or more, and who spoke in a noticeably different accent from the tens of thousands of New Towners, like my parents, who had moved to North Hertfordshire in the early and mid 1950s from North London suburbs such as Willesden and Burnt Oak, 30 miles to the south. (A few years ago I met a work colleague of my wife, and recognised her accent immediately: turned out that she had grown up in a village about two miles outside Stevenage.) Today the Chequers is probably one of the best pubs in Stevenage: its two bars, almost inevitably, have become one, but the deep black, hefty, solid oak serving area, surrounded by black and white floor tiles, the settles and oak table, have a comfortable pubby authenticity as welcoming as a hug from your favourite aunt, and although it is still owned by Greene King (who took over the local big brewer, Simpson’s of Baldock, in the 1950s) the beer range is excellent: the first place I can remember finding two dark milds on sale, one Greene King’s own, the other from the Tring Brewery away over the other side of the county.

Would you let this long-haired teen into your pub?

Teenage me, beamed forward half a century, would still probably not come in here, since there continued to be no other teens in the place, even if there would not be the slightly hostile vibration there was in 1969 from middle-aged small-town working class pub-goers against somewhat feminine-looking 17-year-olds with wavy hair down to their shoulders. (My father, a bricklayer, once told me that one of his fellow brickies, astonished by his toleration of his sons’ long hair, asked him why he did not take the scissors to us while we slept.) Teenage me knew next to nothing about beer, except that he liked the taste, and he had not yet realised that there was good beer and bad beer (that would only come a couple of years later, at university in a town dominated by Watney’s). Teenage me went to the pub to meet friends and chat, in particular try to chat to girls (with almost no success). The Chequers in 1969 was not a place to find girls to try to chat to. Old man me, however, now with very much less hair, was entirely happy to be drinking in the Chequers, however. Still no teenage girls in there, but, of course, they’d be even less interested in me today than they were 50 years ago, and the lack of interest among girls in the 1960s in getting to know spotty teenage me better was an almost solid thing even then.

I have always enjoyed the atmosphere of pubs, what Iain Banks in one of his novels calls the frague, the almost indefinable vibration that a good pub has going on between its walls, the interaction of multiple people intent on having an enjoyable experience, the surroundings (which should be a barely heard basso ostinato of warmth, comfort and security), and friendly, attentive service, that makes even sitting in a bar on your own a pleasure. I still enjoy the crack that comes with good company in a good pub, too. Now, however, the beer is probably the most important part of the mix, up from something that didn’t matter at all when I was a teen. Great pub, poor beer or poor pub, great beer? Today it would have to be a really great pub, a “not to be missed”, to make up for the beer not being up to scratch. Fifty years ago, teenage me would have considered that an incomprehensible question.

The Coach and Horses, Stevenage: attractive exterior but a fine example of that excellent rule: ‘Never go into a pub advertising its pool tables’

It was poor pub, poor beer at the next stop on the anniversary crawl, another place I rarely visited 50 years ago, the Coach and Horses. Despite being quite attractive on the outside, a solidly built 19th century brick-and-red-tile inn that, as the sign suggests, catered for travellers until the railway arrived in the town in the early 1850s, this never had much appeal to teenage me, being, like the Chequers, mostly full of people then twice my age or more, and an early example, if I recall correctly, of the banquette and padded Windsor chair style of pub furnishings. In 2019 the interior is now darker and more basic, and the large pool table in the knocked-through bar attracts exactly the sort of customer you would expect to be attracted to a large, dark bar with a pool table. The one handpump had the clip turned round, so it was a half of Hop House 13 (strange how Guinness still provides the one fall-back for a discerning drinker in a pub with no properly acceptable beer, but now in the form of a flowery pale lager-like beer rather than a bottle-conditioned stout) and off up the road.

Pub number three on the anniversary crawl is probably the one I spent most time in during 13 or so years of drinking beer in Stevenage, the Marquis of Lorne. A converted 17th or 18th century cottage built of now worn red bricks, it is named for the man who married Princess Louise, one of Queen Victoria’s daughters, in 1871, and thus ought, pedantically speaking, to be the Marquess of Lorne. I doubt the signboard has ever carried the correct version of the name. The Marquis is a rare example of a pub that still retains its original two drinking spaces, a “tap” or public bar at the front and a long, narrow saloon or lounge bar at the side. For reasons that remain unknown to me, I and my teenage friends drank exclusively in the lounge bar, though, this being the 1960s, when the distinction still remained between public and saloon, we were probably being charged a couple of pence or more per pint for the privilege of carpet on the floor and cushions on the seats than the drinkers in the more basic, bare-boarded tap. Nevertheless, the lounge bar of the Marquis was hugely popular, and frequently, on a Friday or Saturday night, more rammed with teens than a telephone box filled with rag-stunt students. This is not an exaggeration. Sometimes it was almost impossible to move.

The Marquis of Lorne, Stevenage: mis-spelt name, wildly ahistoric pub sign, but still a very good pub

The draught beer in the Marquis 50 years ago was, I now know (and certainly didn’t then), top-pressure: cask ale, brewed at the former Wells and Winch brewery in Biggleswade, up the road in Bedfordshire, but served up from the cellar with the help of a cylinder of CO2, the taps on the bar shaped like miniature porcelain handpumps. Greene King IPA was the most popular choice, but nobody called it “IPA”: the order was always for “a pint of bitter”. Nobody, that I can recall, drank lager: there might have been a Harp fount on the bar counter, and there were bottles of Satzenbrau, Guinness’s attempt at a pilsner, on the shelves behind. Teens, of course, did not drink mild (that was what your dad drank), and I don’t recall seeing Greene King’s excellent dark mild on sale in any Old Town pub, though since my beer consciousness was minimal in 1969, consider me a deeply unreliable memorialist. Other Greene King pubs in the Old Town still had proper handpumps, though teenage me failed to notice any difference in the quality of the beer. What did I know? Forgive me, at the time I had probably drunk the products of fewer than half a dozen breweries. (It would, in fact, be another nine years or so years before the Marquis got its handpumps back, as Greene King finally caught up with the real ale revolution that began in 1971: by that time I was vastly more beer-aware, and on the local Camra branch committee, and we recorded these changes.)

Today the Marquis seems pretty much unchanged, the alterations in 50 years minimal: of all the pubs on the 50th anniversary crawl, it is the one teenage me could step into today without blinking. It has kept the pubby vibe, the smart but comfortable feel that would have made it worth visiting even if it had not been so popular with my teenage peers. Unlike the Chequers, the beer selection is entirely GK, but while nobody’s heart leaps today at the sight of a GK IPA handpump the way we did in 1978, when it meant another gain for the anti-fizz cause, when it’s looked after, GK is entirely acceptable: the Marquis wouldn’t, now, be my first choice of Stevenage pub as it was in 1969, but if you suggested it, I wouldn’t insist on going somewhere else.

The next pub going north 50 years ago, the White Hart, closed in 2010, and is now an Indian restaurant. I spent more time here after I became beerily “woke”, around 1975, than I did as a teen, since it was a rare local outlet for Ind Coope of Romford and, thus, their Burton ale and KK light mild (and, later, the revived Benskins bitter, named for the former Watford brewery), and I miss those vanished beers more than I do the pub.

Happily, the Red Lion, smallest of Stevenage’s former coaching inns and third call on the anniversary crawl, is still open: this was the other Old Town pub deeply popular with teens half a century ago, and it still seems popular with their grandchildren. Teenage me might have been slightly puzzled by the music being played over the sound system today, late 1970s heavy metal and its derivatives, but not that puzzled: I was an early fan of Led Zeppelin (I owned, and gave away, one of the first copies of Led Zeppelin I, with the turquoise lettering on the cover, which would be worth several hundred pounds today: ho hum) and I remember being deaf for at least an hour after sitting in row E for a Zeppelin concert circa 1970 at the Albert Hall. The pub is now properly a music venue, with regular rock band appearances at weekends and an annual “Redfest”, and it is with intense amusement that I note one band due to perform there this October, Gridlock, does a version of “Whole Lotta Love”, a song itself 50 years old this year. (There’s a theme for another essay: it’s like 1969’s teens and early 20s listening to the Original Dixieland Jass Band. What is the continuing attraction of granddad’s music?)

The Red Lion, Stevenage, magnet for teens for the past 50 and more years

The Red Lion’s interior has been worked over, the back bar extended sideways into the courtyard where coaches once pulled up to have their sweating, tired teams of horses changed, and it is now possible to walk from the front bar to the back without going outside and through the arch that connects the courtyard with the High Street. The unbelievably manky men’s urinals, with their strange bright green mossy growths on the walls, have vanished, and so have the bar billiards table, and the darts board, where George Newberry, the tall, thin, elderly landlord, and a former News of the World darts champion, would occasionally come out from behind the bar and demonstrate how to hit treble 20s with six-inch nails, a performance even more remarkable since he had artificial legs. The walls, at least in the back bar, are now painted black rather than the nicotine-stained light caramel they were 50 years ago. (When the pub was decorated in the late 1970s, the brewery – Greene King again – actually chose a shade of paint almost identical to the effects of 40 years of cigarette smoke on white emulsion: perhaps Farrow & Ball should try adding “Public Bar” to its shades of cream and off-white.)

I find it hard to explain why the pub, in particular the back bar, was so popular with 1969’s teens: it was a classic Old Town boozer unchanged, at that time, since at least the Second World War, and should have been full of cloth-capped middle-aged Old Towners drinking the probably well-looked-after hand pumped bitter, or Abbot, and smoking roll-ups with, in the front bar only, their wives drinking Babycham or a small sweet sherry. Likely it was because George the landlord (his wife was known, inevitably and semi-accurately, as the dragon) was entirely laissez-faire about under-age drinking, provided you bought him the occasional rum-and-pep. Once it became a. place for teens to meet, and drink, then it stayed a place for teens to meet, and drink: we went there because we knew our friends were likely to be there. We might have driven the locals out, but we packed the place, and drank, very likely, as much as they would have.

After George and his wife retired to a home for ex-publicans, the Red Lion became more biker-oriented, and eventually music-oriented, and in half a century it has not lost its attraction to that apparently constantly renewing demographic in its 20s which enjoys shaking its hair to very loud guitar solos. Would teenage me still enjoy going down the Red Lion? Yes, I’m sure I would think it was tremendous. What about 50-years-on me? I have no problems still with loud music designed to make the audience bounce up and down – the last concert I went to, in June, was the fabulous Hot 8 Brass Band from New Orleans, which was strictly standing room only – but Led Zep covers, perhaps not.

The Standing Order, Stevenage High Street, a former butcher’s shop and then a bank, ‘spooned’ in 2010, which from the outside looks little different from other old Stevenage pubs

However, we have a pub crawl to finish, so drain that pint and on up the road, past the two bars in the High Street that have opened in the past 50 years, balancing the two that have closed (the new pubs are a Wetherspoon’s in, inevitably, a disused bank and another large outlet in a former hardware shop, which at one time was selling a beer called Four Candles) to what was once Stevenage’s leading coaching inn. This thrived under the sign of the White Lion for more than 400 years: Greene King, with the thoughtless ignorance that characterises the company’s attitude to its heritage, decided to toss that in the skip four years ago and rename the inn the Mulberry Tree, for no known reason.

The Mulberry Tree, Stevenage High Street. That plaque on the wall giving the inn’s history still calls it the White Lion

It’s another attractive old red-brick 18th century building on the outside, and another that I didn’t use that much as a teen: this was the most up-market of the Old Town pubs, popular with young couples on their tenth date, and my only reason for revisiting was to see how much it had altered. Teenage me would not have recognised the interior: the bar had been completely repositioned, the layout chopped about, walls demolished, and the entire set-up now making it clear this was a place expecting you to dine rather than drink: pub dining, of course, is a phenomenon that became widespread only in the past 30 years. The Mulberry Tree, like the White Lion, probably remains popular with young couples on their tenth date: teenage me would hate it, and modern me was pretty underwhelmed.

Conclusions? It was a surprise to me to realise, reflecting on the changes in the pubs, how much I had altered myself as a pub-goer in half a century, without losing a love for pubs. Thank heavens, frankly: going down the pub played a large and enjoyable part in my life 50 years ago, and I still enjoy it greatly today, but for wider and, I think, deeper and more considered reasons. I have no idea how many pubs and bars I have been in, from Sydney to San Francisco, since I first started drinking in Stevenage, but the ordinary British boozer remains my favourite place to have a beer, after 50 years.

If you buy one book on pubs this year …

The “we ran a pub” category of published biographical reminiscence is small, but still includes several classics: John Fothergill’s An Innkeeper’s Diary, for example, arch and snobby, with dropped names covering every page like drifts of autumn leaves – “Ernest Thesiger turned up for the first time … the D’Oyley Cartes came with their usual big party” – and George Izzard’s One for the Road, about the Dove at Hammersmith, which is less snobbish but almost equally rammed with famous customers (“Alec Guinness came in and ordered the drink most appropriate to his name … Dylan Thomas never drank heavily at the Dove. His usual order was a pint of mild and bitter.”)

Now another behind-the-bar tell-all has arrived, doubly unique because it’s about a female mine host, rather than the usual landlord’s tale, and it has been written by the grand-daughter of the main character, not the person whose name was on the licence. But The Last Landlady, by Laura Thompson, deserves your attention for more than its celebration of women running pubs: it is both a paean to a particular successful and charismatic female publican, and an elegy that, ultimately, commemorates and mourns what Thompson clearly feels is a fading, vanishing, dying version of pub life, where landlord/landlady and customers were willing actors in a daily drama, each knowing their parts and performing them for the satisfaction of themselves, their audience and the others in the cast. Thompson’s grandmother Violet Ellis was, it is clear, one of the great bar owners, barely known outside her small section of rural England, but queen of all that lay under the shadow of her innsign and at the same time – if I may mix myself a metaphor – ringmaster of the circus that performed twice daily between 11am and 2pm, and 6pm and 10.30.

But the book is called “The Last Landlady” because, Thompson clearly believes, the sort of landlady Violet was, the sort of pub that Violet ran, no longer exist, can no longer exist, when fewer people visit their local regularly – fewer people even have a local – and the opportunities for women like Violet to be the stars in their own long-running show, an attraction in the daily theatre of the pub deserving of higher billing even than the drink and the craic, have vanished in an era where the idea of the pub as a club that anybody can be a member of, that having the price of a pint in your pocket empowers you to lift the latch of the public or saloon bar door and enter a separate world where everyone is, or should be, on their best and brightest behaviour, has itself vanished, and the pub is simply a place to get cheap food and watch top sporting action on a screen probably only a little larger than the one in your own living room.

Thompson does not name the pub that her grandmother ran, saying only that it was “in the rural Home Counties”, but there are enough clues in the book to identify it as the Cross Keys, in the village of Totternhoe, close by Dunstable Downs, and some six miles to the west of Luton. She does not name the pub that her grandmother’s father, John (or Jack) Solomon, had run, either, called in the book “the old pub”, which her grandmother had expected to take over when her father died. But again there are enough clues given to identify it as the Richard III in Castle Street, Luton.

The Richard III, Luton, after its rebuilding in the 1930s, when Violet Solomon would have been working behind the bar

John Solomon has a terrific back-story: he was born in Sidney, Australia, and – or rather, because – his great-grandfather was Isaac “Ikey” Solomon, one of the most notorious criminals and fences in early 19th century England, and the man that Charles Dickens based the character of Fagin on. Ikey Solomon had escaped from custody in London in 1827 and fled to America, but his wife Ann had been found guilty of receiving stolen goods and sentenced to transportation to Tasmania, where she arrived together with several of their children. Ikey learnt of this and travelled to Tasmania himself to be with his family but was eventually arrested by the colonial authorities and shipped back to England for trial. The punishment the court in London imposed, somewhat ironically, was transportation back to Tasmania. Ikey Solomon’s third son, David, who was only nine when his mother was sent to Van Diemen’s Land, settled in Tasmania, and married. One of his sons, Alfred, moved to Melbourne, and then Sydney, before emigrating back to London around 1877, living in Paddington with his family, including the young John, who was aged two. None of that is in The Last Landlady – probably because it doesn’t really fit the narrative, rather than because it’s embarrassing to say “I’m descended from the man who inspired Fagin.” But I’m a journalist, and I love a story that will make readers go “Wow!”, whether it integrates smoothly into the plot or not.

John Solomon is supposed, according to one source, to have “played for Queens Park Rangers in the first year they turned pro,” which would have been 1889, when he was only 14 – no record can be found to substantiate this, though he was living in the right part of London, Paddington, to be a QPR supporter – and to have “spent a number of years as head foreman to a London brewery.” He does, at least, appear to have worked at a brewery, since his occupation is described in the 1901 and 1911 censuses as “beer cellarman” and the industry he worked in as “beer bottling”. He was still living in Paddington in 1914, when Violet was born, the first girl after five boys to John and his wife Alice, who came from Bristol. In October 1916, however, John had the licence of the Richard III in Luton transferred into his name, the existing licensee, Ambrose Holland, telling licensing magistrates that he was now a soldier and his wife was unable to carry on the pub.

The Richard III (still open today, under the name O’Sheas) was originally a row of cottages, converted to a public house in 1846, and was rebuilt by its brewery owner, JW Green’s of Luton, in the 1930s in a very neo-Georgian style, with a red brick frontage extending up above the bottom edge of the roof. By 1939, aged 25, Violet was a manageress there, along with her husband, Charles Ellis, and their five-year-old daughter Josephine, while John Solomon, then 64, was the licence holder. Alice Solomon died in 1943, and with her husband apparently called up into the armed forces and her father now in his late 60s, Violet was effectively, as Thompson calls her, the châtelaine of the Richard III, running the pub on her own. Ellis seems to have disappeared out of the door (he and Violet were divorced in 1944 – Thompson says the divorce took place “just after the war”, but reveals that it was granted on the same day that the actress Jessie Matthews was divorced, which allows it to be dated to the month after D-Day). When her father died in 1952, aged 77, Violet must have had the expectation that the brewery would allow the licence of the Richard III to be transferred into her name. She had, after all, lived at the pub for all but two of her 38 years, and been involved in running it for a fair slice of that time, much of it with only an elderly father to help.

The Cross Keys, Totternhoe no later than 1938, when it was being supplied by Benjamin Bennett’s brewery in Dunstable

However, the brewery would not let her have the licence: according to Thompson, it was because she was a daughter, and not a wife – or a son. It was a knock-back, but strings, apparently, were pulled for Violet by influential friends, and Whitbread’s brewery in London eventually offered her the licence of the Cross Keys, which it had acquired from the owner four years earlier. The pub had literally just been designated a Grade II listed building, on the grounds that it dated from at least the 16th century (claims have been made that it is even older, first appearing in the 1420s), but it was run-down, with no proper bar, no bathroom, no real upstairs floor – the pub sitting room stretched up to the height of the thatched roof – an outside privy and a customer base of ruddy-faced local farmers and dominoes enthusiasts. Whitbread sent the builders in, the sitting room was given a real ceiling, with a bathroom installed above, a bar was built, the “cellar” (actually an outside shed) revamped and thatched to matych the main building, and Violet, “black-haired, bejewelled, bohemian”, installed herself behind the bar, where she would graciously accept whiskies from admirers, surreptitiously tipping them out onto the floor by her stool.

According to Thompson, Violet was “the first woman in England to be given a publican’s licence in her own right, that is to say, as neither a wife nor a widow.” As it happens, the history of the Cross Keys itself destroys this claim. The name of the pub, incidentally, is both easy and difficult to explain. Totternhoe was home for hundreds of years to quarries that dug out the soft local clunch, or chalk, easily worked, which make great building stone for the interiors of churches. Henry I founded the Priory of St Peter, Dunstable, in or just before 1124, and endowed it with, among other riches, the quarry at Totternhoe. The badge of St Peter is, of course, crossed keys. The pub’s sign thus strongly suggests a link with the Augustinian foundation of St Peter in Dunstable, through the priory’s ownership of the nearby quarry. But the priory was dissolved by another King Henry in 1540, and whatever the age of the building it occupies, the pub is first named as such only in 1808, in an advertisement in the Northampton Mercury. Is it credible that folk memory kept the link between Totternhoe and St Peter’s Priory alive for more than 250 years, to give the Cross Keys its name? Anyway, returning to the main tale: by 1824 the landlord was John Clements, who was born around 1799. He ran the Cross Keys for more than 40 years, but by 1871 he was dead, and his eldest daughter Mary, then aged around 37, was listed as the licensee at the Cross Keys. Mary, known as “Miss Clements”, was still in charge in 1890, but by 1902 her younger sister Hannah, then 61, was the licensee. Hannah died “in harness” at the Cross Keys in February 1909, aged 68. So the Cross Keys had female licensees who weren’t wives or widows, but daughters. for a stretch of at least 37 years, almost half a century before Violet.

The Cross Keys, Totternhoe circa 1902-09, when, the sign above the pub door shows, Hannah Clements was the landlady

This is not the only story in the book to make the fact checkers twitch. Thompson says Violet would speak of another pub a few streets away from her father’s:

“The daughter of this pub’s landlord was a few years older than my grandmother, equally attractive although in pure English style. In youth she too served behind the bar, and received the adoration owing to the dauphine; this, however, was not enough for her. She went to London, became a C.B. Cochran chorus girl, married one of the biggest film stars of the day and ended up the wife of an earl.”

This would be Sylvia Hawkes, and the real story is even more spectacular than Thompson’s version. Sylvia was step-daughter (rather than daughter) of the landlord of the Painter’s Arms in High Town Road, Luton from at least 1925, Frank Swainson, and one of the most successful serial brides of the 20th century, married to not one but two of the biggest film stars of the day, as well as a baron, a prince, and, not actually an earl, but the eldest son of an earl.

Sylvia was born, like Violet, in Paddington, in 1904, and worked as a lingerie model in the early 20s, before becoming a dancer in the productions put on by the theatre impresario CB Cochran, starting with the Midnight Follies, and swiftly, beginning in 1924, moving into acting. Despite claims, it is not clear if she ever did appear behind the bar at the Painter’s Arms: one source reckons she “ran away from home at the age of 15”. In 1927 Sylvia made her first marriage, to Anthony Ashley-Cooper, Lord Ashley, eldest son and heir to the Earl of Shaftesbury: it was one of the year’s great scandals, as the Earl and Countess fought to dissuade their son from marrying the actress, threatening to disinherit him and cut off his allowance. The day before the wedding, the Earl was denying that it would take place, while Lord Ashley’s sister was declaring: “Such an alliance is unthinkable. An Ashley-Cooper can never marry a Follies girl.” When a telegram arrived at the Shaftesbury’s 17th century ancestral pile in Wimborne St Giles, Dorset announcing that the wedding would be happening that morning, the earl and countess threw themselves into a limousine and ordered their chauffeur to break all speed limits to get to the church in Knightsbridge, 120 miles away, to try to stop the ceremony. They arrived only in time to see the newly weds leaving the church, to the cheers of a huge crowd, with women, it was reported, fighting to see the bride.

It was also reported that Lord Ashley had been in such haste to organise the marriage that he had not bought a wedding ring large enough to fit his bride, and “was obliged to hold it at the end of her hand, looking rather foolish. This detail does not affect the legality of the ceremony, but superstitious people say it brings bad luck.” So it proved. Less than 18 months after the wedding, Sylvia and Lord Ashley had parted, the actress apparently unhappy with life on a farm in Worcestershire. She moved to Hollywood, as “Lady Sylvia Ashley”, though if she ever made any films there they appear to be desperately obscure. However, she became a big hit with Douglas Fairbanks Snr, one of Hollywood’s superstars, starting an affair with him that led to his separation from his fellow Hollywood star Mary Pickford, in 1933, and Sylvia’s divorce from Lord Ashley the following year. Sylvia and Fairbanks married in 1936, but he died of a heart attack only three years later. The widow Fairbanks then returned to England, where in 1944 she became the second wife of Edward John Stanley, 6th Baron Sheffield, 6th Baron Stanley of Alderley and 5th Baron Eddisbury. That marriage lasted just four years, and Sylvia was back in Hollywood, where in 1949 she married her second movie superstar, Clark Gable: it has been said that she reminded him of his previous wife, Carole Lombard, who had died in a plane crash in 1942. Within three years Sylvia and Gable had also divorced: undaunted, in 1954, Sylvia picked up her fifth wedding ring, marrying Prince Dimitri Djorjadze, a Georgian nobleman, racing car driver, racehorse owner and hotel executive. This time the now Princess Sylvia Djorjadze stayed married until her death in 1977, though she was apparently separated from her new husband within less than a year. She died in Hollywood, and is buried in the Hollywood Forever cemetery. It was a tremendous career for a former Luton publican’s stepdaughter.

A drawing of the Cross Keys from 1942

There are also a few missing facts in The Last Landlady more pertinent to Violet’s story: no mention of the fire at the pub in April 1966, which destroyed the thatched roof and upper storey, nor her second husband, Roy Barrett, who was running the pub with Violet at the time: the pair lived in a caravan in the grounds until the Cross Keys was repaired. Again, like Ikey Solomon, Barrett and the fire are most likely omitted because they would interfere with the flow of the narrative. Never, as journalists like to declare, let the facts get in the way of a good tale.

Because this is a good tale, a great tale, filled with terrific, well-presented anecdotal evidence of how one woman, through her will, her charm and her innate talent as a landlady, turned a run-down rural inn into a PUB in capital letters, a place with personality in every brick and beam – and how the kind of pub Violet ran is evaporating away, doomed, Thompson fears, to disappear:

“The process whereby pubs ceased to be the cornerstone of people’s lives was slow … They were still loved. They still are loved. But gradually they ceased to be intrinsic to society …Without the ballast of unquestioned love, the knowledge that it was wanted, the pub faltered.”

Decline, Thompson says,

“did not begin in the 1980s, yet there was something about that time that was inimical to pubs … It was the aspirational quality that was unleashed by money-centricity, all that Sloane Ranger Handbook and property porn and Filofax-flaunting, which in different form is still with us … Put very simply, the pubs that moved with the times, that acquired wine lists and logos and a matte veneer, became a part of that brighter new world. The pubs that were left behind, that retained their connection to the bench and the sawdust, that for all their roughness remained innocent – they were implicitly the habitat of the unevolved, the victims, those who had failed to aspire … The notion of a pub as a place where people simply congregated, a social hub that did not need to be named as such because nobody would have doubted it, or even thought about it, all this was evaporating.”

This is a thesis that rejects the smoking ban and greedy pubcos as the major causes of the scything down of pubs over the past 30 years, and points instead to deeper changes in society, in people’s needs. It suggests that the pub, as we knew it, is no longer wanted, and ultimately doomed. I wish I could deny this with total confidence.

So what IS the difference between a pub and a bar?

Man walks into a pub – or is it a bar? Is there a difference? Can you walk into any outlet for the retail of alcoholic refreshment on the premises and declare immediately, without discussion, disagreement or deviation: “This is a pub, not a bar!” or, conversely and contrariwise, “This is a bar, not a pub!” Is it possible to draw a line and say: “Everything this side is a pub, and everything that side is a bar“?

If you think this is a meaningless distinction, let me ask you this: does the idea of a list of Britain’s ten best pubs suggest something rather different from a list of Britain’s ten best bars? Would you expect those two lists to be identical? I don’t believe you would.

Note that little of what follows is relevant to anywhere outside Britain, and even in Scotland the line between a pub and a bar will be drawn rather differently, I suspect, than in England and Wales.

All the same, in Britain, I propose, pubs are different to bars, even if, on a Venn diagram, we might see considerable overlap. But how are they different, exactly? We’re not helped much if we try to drag the dictionaries into this argument. The OED defines “pub” as “a building whose principal business is the sale of alcoholic drinks to be consumed on the premises”, and “bar” (in the sense larger than merely “counter”) as “an establishment where alcohol and sometimes other refreshments are served.” There’s a small clue as to possible differences between pubs and bars in those almost identical definitions: a pub is “a building”, a bar “an establishment”, hinting that a bar as a separate business need not be occupying the whole of the building in which it is found. But Merriam-Webster, giving an admittedly transatlantic take on the meanings of the two words, refuses to be quite so nice: a “pub”, it says, is “an establishment where alcoholic beverages are sold and consumed”, a “bar” is “a room or establishment where alcoholic drinks and sometimes food are served”. OK, it looks as if the heirs of Noah Webster think a pub can’t be just a room, though a bar can be: but they seem to allow that a pub does not have to be a separate building. Apart from that, little difference.

The Teddington Arms, Teddington: only a pub since 2003, it was previously restaurant and, before that, a tyre depot. Its serving bar is at right angles to the road, but it has a pubby name: is it a bar or a pub?

To me, however, there is one simple test that will tell you probably 90 per cent of the time whether you are in a pub or a bar as soon as you walk through the door: where is the counter at which you stand to be served? If it’s in front of you, against the far wall, you’re in a pub. If it’s to the left or right of the entrance, at right-angles to the front of the building, you’re probably in a bar. This basic difference springs from the different origins of pubs and bars. Pubs come from the “dwelling house” tradition, where the building, often originally someone’s home, is likely to be shallower in depth than it is wide, and the longest orientation is parallel with the road or street. Thus to maximise the length of the serving area, the bar-counter runs across the back. Bars come from the “shop” tradition, where the building is more often deeper than it is wide, to maximise the number of frontages along the street. Thus the greatest length of bar-counter is achieved by running it down one of the side walls.

The former Red Lion in Twickenham, an example of how a pub can become a shop

Of course, there are very many occasions when you’ll know without having to think very hard whether you’re drinking in a pub or a bar: if it’s a stand-alone building that looks as if, without much alteration, it could be turned into a home, it’s a pub. If it’s in a shopping parade, it has huge plate-class windows and it could easily be turned into a Starbucks or Costa, it’s a bar. But the rise of the micropub movement means it’s now less easy to declare definitively: “Pubs are descended from houses, bars are descended from shops.” Many micropubs have been converted from disused shops. Should we call them “microbars” instead? And come to that, many disused pubs, most of them stand-alone, have been converted into shops.

Interior of an Alehouse, oil painting by James Ward, 1769-1859: a converted home

Not that it’s entirely true to say without elaboration that “pubs are descended from homes”. The pub as we know it today is essentially of 19th century origins, born of a four-way mating between the alehouse (strictly for locals and regulars; mostly working class; mostly rural/semi-rural, or backstreet urban; most likely to have started as somebody’s private home), the gin palace (strictly urban; showy; for both locals and strangers, working class and middle class; most likely to have been deliberately built as an outlet for drinking by a developer or entrepreneur), the tavern (High Street urban; middle class; food-oriented; original uses varying from drinking outlets attached to religious establishments to cookshops to wine retailers) and the inn (rural or urban; on a main road; mostly for travellers and occasional visitors; food important; origins in farmhouses, if rural, and private homes, if urban).

Interior of an inn circa 1800: note the bar constructed in what was obviously roriginally a farmhouse kitchen

Pubs developed to cater for a broad swath of society but still, until the 1970s, kept a strict class divide between different parts of the same building, with different rooms for different social groups, so that the working class, those who had earlier gone to the alehouse would now frequent the public bar, while middle-class drinkers, those who would once have drunk in the tavern, had taken up seats or stools in the saloon bar. But with this amalgam of different traditions, the pub architect Ben Davis said in 1961, arrived what he called “pubness”. Three of the elements of “pubness”, Davis suggested, came from the inn: a home-like character; a personal sense of welcome; a sense of permanence and continuity. Two, Davis said, came from the tavern: “an accent on good-fellowship”, by which he meant, I think, something folded into the concept the Irish spell “craic”, the idea that taverns (and pubs) are places for conversation and the enjoyment of others’ company; and “a decided affinity with Christian traditions and principles”.

Though I was brought up going to Sunday School, and with hymn singing and prayers every term-time morning before classes for 13 years of primary and secondary education, I’m not entirely sure what Davis was trying to say here: possibly that every man is equal in the eyes of the (land)lord, more likely that in the tavern (and pub) all should strive to follow the Golden Rule (the name of an excellent hostelry in Ambleside, Cumbria), that is, treat others as you would wish to be treated: “Love thy neighbour as thyself.” Acknowledge your fellow pub-goer’s right to space, to consideration, and to get served at the bar before you if he was there first.

I’m in with the inn crowd … the Golden Cross inn, Charing Cross, London in 1828

Are there any of those elements of “pubness” you won’t find in a bar? It would be a very poor bar that did not have an atmosphere that included a sense of welcome and “good-fellowship”, and which oozed hostility between drinkers. But while “a sense of permanence and continuity” is not at all essential in a bar, it helps make a pub feel like a “proper” pub: the reason why the Jerusalem Tavern in Clerkenwell is so popular is because, although it is only 22 years old, it looks inside and out like a genuine 18th century establishment. (The serving bar at the Jerusalem Tavern, as it happens, is at right-angles to the street, just to show me up.) In the New Town where I grew up, all the estate pubs had been built to look like New Town homes on steroids, following the “pub as a home from home” idea, but their newness stripped them of any of the “sense of permanence and continuity” that all the pubs in the Old Town had dripping from every brick and beam, and they felt like zombie pubs, lifeless and without character. A bar, in contrast, never feels “homey”: indeed, I’d suggest that the slightest pinch, jot or iota of “a home-like character” turns a bar into either a pub or a teashop.

Pubs have regulars; bars only have customers, generally. Bars have owners, or managers; pubs can have managers, but they are often better when they have landlords, publicans or tenants, names that suggest a more proprietorial relationship with the establishment. Bars are run by people called Kenton; pubs are run by people called Sid (although this can change). Pubs have dartboards, meat raffles and piles of coins stacked up on the bar that will be pushed over by a minor celebrity one well-attended evening just before Christmas, to raise money for a local charity: these are part of “pubness” because pubs are rooted in communities in a way bars are not. Bars are places you call in to on your way home from work; pubs are places you go out to after you’ve got home from work.

The Tipperary, Fleet Street: It’s a Long, Long Way from Accurate History

The Tipperary, in Fleet Street, has a fair claim to “oldest pub in London” status. You wouldn’t know this from the information you will find about it on the web, in books and magazines, and even the noticeboard outside the pub, which makes much of its storied past. Unfortunately, almost everything written about the history of the pub – including, shamefully,  that noticeboard – is wildly, utterly wrong, a staggeringly inaccurate macedonie of untruths, misunderstandings, made-up nonsense, fake news and pure bollix of inexplicable ancestry. What is particularly tragic is that the pub actually has a fine back-story, which has become entirely submerged by layers of invented garbage.

Let’s begin by deconstructing the noticeboard that hails customers as they enter this charming, if cramped, old Fleet Street boozer, with its delightful, slightly shabby shamrock-decorated mosaic floor and dark wood-panelled walls. (We’ll ignore, as much as we can, the grammatical infelicities and spelling errors on the board, though they constitute in themselves a grievous insult to the hundreds, or more, of newspaper sub-editors who, in the times of Fleet Street’s glory as more than just a metaphor for Britain’s national press, walked through the Tipp’s front door in search of liquid relief.)

“The pub was built on the side [sic]of a monastery which dated to 1300 where, amongst other duties, the monks brewed ale.” – it was a friary, not a monastery. They were friars, not monks. A house for the Carmelites, more fully the Order of the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel, was founded by Sir Richard Gray in Fleet Street in or about 1241, not 1300. (The Carmelites, as an aside, originated in the 12th century, and took their name from Mount Carmel in northern Israel, supposedly the home of the prophet Elijah. They were known as the “white friars”, from the white cloaks they wore, in contrast to the black-cloaked Dominicans, the “black friars”, whose main base in London was just across the Fleet river, and whose name is commemorated in a bridge, a railway station and one of the finest art nouveau pubs, inside and out, in the world.)

“This site was an island between the River Thames and the River Fleet which still runs under the pub that is now little more than a stream” – utter steaming garbage. The Tipperary is half-way up the hill that rises from what was once the west bank of the Fleet, which was 250 yards away to the east, not “under” the pub at all. The Fleet ran south along the line of what is now Farringdon Street – indeed, it still does, though now underground and converted into a sewer, which empties into the Thames under Blackfriars Bridge.

The Tipperary, 66 Fleet Street, one of London’s three or four oldest surviving pub sites

“‘The Boars Head’ which was built in 1605” – wrong again, though a rare example of a pub claiming to be much younger than it actually is, since “Le boreshede in Parish of St Dunstan in Fletestrete” was mentioned in the same grant to the Carmelite friars in 1443 as the Bolt and Tun inn next door. (This means, incidentally, that the Tipperary/Boar’s Head is at least 575 years old this year: there are only two or three other pubs in London that can reckon to be older.) “It survived the Great Fire of London in 1666. This is because the property was of stone and brick whereas the surrounding neighbouring premises were of wood.” More ahistoric nonsense. The fire destroyed all of Fleet Street to a point just past Fetter Lane, some 160 yards west of the Boar’s Head/Tipperary, which was one of the 13,000 buildings consumed in the blaze.

“In approx 1700 the S.G. Mooney & Son brewery chain of Dublin purchased ‘The Boars Head’ and it became the first Irish pub outside Ireland … The pub also became the first pub outside Ireland to have bottled Guinness and later draft.” I cannot fathom how or why anyone would invent this stuff, or have it so totally wrong. There is actually a gorgeous old mirror, probably more than 100 years old, on the wall inside the pub which gives the proper name of the pub chain – not “brewery chain”, whatever one of those is — that formerly owned the Boar’s Head/Tipperary, which makes getting the incorrect name outside the pub particularly inexcusable. It was JG Mooney and Co, not “SG Mooney & Son”: the company developed out of the licensed wholesaler and retailer business James G Mooney was running in Dublin from at least 1863. The Tipperary was not only emphatically NOT “the first Irish pub outside Ireland”, it wasn’t even JG Mooney’s first pub outside Ireland. The company acquired its first licensed outlet in London, on the Strand, in 1889, its second on High Holborn in 1892 and a third in Duke Street, on the south side of London Bridge, shortly afterwards. Mooney’s acquired the lease of the Boar’s Head, its fourth London pub, in November 1895. That’s not “approx 1700”, unless you think being nearly two centuries out is “approx”. (Mooney’s was to grow to at least 11 London outlets by 1940, all, or almost all, called “Mooney’s Irish House”: the one in Duke Street was known as “Mooney’s Dublin House”.) Nor, of course, was the Boar’s Head “the first pub outside Ireland to have bottled Guinness and later draft” (sic, again). Guinness was exporting to Bristol from at least 1825 (and to the West Indies earlier than that), in both cask and bottle.

The lovly mirror inside the Tipperary that gives the lie to the signboard outside

“1918 At the end of the Great War the printers who came back from the war had the pubs [sic] name changed to ‘The Tipperary” from the song ‘It’s a Long Way’ [sic], which name it retains to this day.” But it was being called “Mooney’s Irish House (late Boar’s Head)” in 1895, and Kelly’s directories make it clear that the name of the pub was The Irish House right up to 1967. Only then did it change to The Tipperary. There are no references that I have been able to find to the pub as The Tipperary before this: it was certainly being referred to as “Mooney’s Irish House in Fleet Street” in the 1950s. (Strangely, there is a strong Fleet Street link to the song “It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary”, but it is nothing to do with returning printers. The song’s popularity with the British Army in France in August 1914 was spotted by a Daily Mail reporter, George Curnock, who cabled back to his news editor, Walter Fish that the soldiers were all singing the song as they marched from Boulogne to the front. According to Fleet Street mythology, “Fish visualised ‘Tipperary’ as a great national stimulative, the possible British counterpart of the ‘Marseillaise’, and to his delight found Lord, Northcliffe [owner of the Mail], with his fine flair for judging the public taste, equally enthusiastic. The words and the music of the pantomime song were secured and prominently displayed in the Mail, and from that day on it was on everybody’s tongue.”)

So: four paragraphs, at least 11 clunking, ludicrous errors, all of which could have been avoided with little effort. It took me two to three hours on the interwebs, and an hour in the Guildhall library looking at microfilms and consulting a couple of books, to put together the corrections above, and uncover a more accurate history of 66 Fleet Street. People, this is really not difficult. Don’t just repeat stuff you read – do your own research, because “stuff you read” is quite likely to be wrong.

A map of Fleet Street at the Reformation, circa 1538-40: the Bolt-in-Tun is shown in orange, the Boar’s Head in dark blue. Double-click to embiggen

The Boar’s Head originally faced onto Whitefriars Street (named, of course, for the Carmelites, and originally, until at least the 1830s, known as Water Lane). To the south was an inn called the Bolt-in-Tun, with both premises having back entrances dog-legging out on to Fleet Street, at what would later be numbers 64 and 66. (To the east, at what would become 67 Fleet Street, was a tavern owned by Royston Priory in Hertfordshire called the Cock and Key.) In a licence of alienation to the Friars Carmelite of London of certain premises in the parish of St Dunstan, Fleet Street, in the Patent Roll of 21 Henry VI – that’s 1443 to me and thee – “Hospitium vocatum le Boltenton” is mentioned as a boundary. This would have been a building attached to the friary for accommodating guests. The hospitium, or at least a building on its site, was quite probably at least a century older than this, because the wording of an ordinance of King Edward III in council dated 1353 suggests that the road from the bridge over the Fleet to Temple Bar, where Fleet Street becomes the Strand, was by then already lined with dwellings and well-inhabited.

The inn’s name is a pun on “Bolton”, and its sign was a bolt – a crossbow arrow – sticking though a tun, or cask. How or why it was give that name remains unknown. (At least two sources try to claim that the inn’s name is ” derived … from Prior William Bolton of St. Bartholomew, Smithfield”, which is more nonsense on stilts, because while Prior Bolton certainly used the bolt-in-tun as a badge, he was born around 1450, after the first known mention of le Boltenton. It’s more likely, in fact, that Prior Bolton stole the idea of using a bolt sticking through a tun as his badge from the Carmelites’ inn.)

The Bolt in Tun, 64 Fleet Street in 1859, when it had fallen to become no more than a booking office for the railway companies that had replaced the stage coaches. Note the two ‘tuns’ pierced by bolts, or arrows, just visible on the frontage. Picture nicked shamelessly from the British Museum website.

It looks as if the Carmelites used the premises to brew, because after Henry VIII nationalised their friary in November 1538, the list of buildings surrendered included “a tenement for brewing called ‘le Bolte and Tunne'”, and “a brewhouse called Le Bolt and Tunne in the parish of St Dunstan in Fletestrete, which belonged to the late Carmelite Friars there” was leased to one of Henry’s household officials, John Gilman, in 1541. As the only inn on Fleet Street, and thus effectively the first inn on the Great West Road, the Bolt-in-Tun developed into an important base for coaches travelling to Bristol, Plymouth and South Wales. In September 1665 a boy was found dead of the Plague in its hayloft. The Fire of London the following year at least cleansed the city of plague-carrying rats, and by 1704 regular coaches for Windsor were starting from the rebuilt inn. In 1741 services from the inn included “A Handsome Glass Coach and six able Horses” travelling regularly to Bath. Destinations from the Bolt-in-Tun in 1805 ranged from  Cardiff to Hastings, and Newbury to Chichester, and in 1817 26 coaches a day left the inn for towns and cities across the south and south-west.

About 1822 the Water Lane side of the premises was renamed the Sussex Hotel, but the Bolt in Tun continued as the booking office and coach destination in Fleet Street. You could still get a drink there: in 1830, John Richardson, 38, was nabbed by a police officer in the Bolt-in-Tun tap for stealing a horse-blanket worth eight shillings from the Bolt-in-Tun’s stables. (His defence was that “I was very tipsy”: he was fined one shilling and discharged.) The stables still had a hayloft, of course, and in March 1838 a fire broke out in the Bolt-in-Tun hayloft which “extended its ravages with great rapidity”, destroying all the hay, while the adjoining house, “occupied by many poor families,” was also “considerably damaged”. The proprietor in charge of coaching operations was Robert Gray, whose partner was Moses Pickwick – a surname that a young Fleet Street reporter called Dickens found a use for.

The coaching era, however, was nearing its end. From 1838 onwards, London was increasingly connected to the rest of Britain by railways, and in the 1840s the Bolt-in-Tun was described by its proprietor as a “Mail, Coach, and Railway Establishment”. Gradually the railway side took over, and by 1859 the Bolt-in-Tun was purely a booking office and parcel collection point for the railway companies. Eventually, in late 1882 or early 1883, most of the Bolt-in-Tun was demolished, ending a history of more than 440 years.

Timothy Richards and James Stevens Curl, authors of City of London Pubs, published in 1973, thoroughly screwed up the history of the Bolt-in-Tun, completely confusing it with the Tipperary, and claiming that “shortly after 1883 the Irish house of Mooney erected a new pub on the site of the Bolt-in-Tun, and it is this building that now stands.” This is, of course, as egregiously wrong as anything on the Tipperary’s signboard. Mr Curl is an extremely distinguished architectural historian, a member of the Royal Irish Academy, a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Chartered Architects of the City of London. He is a Professor at the School of Architecture and Design, Ulster University, Professor Emeritus at De Montfort University, Leicester, and a former Visiting Fellow at Peterhouse, Cambridge. He has written more than 30 books. Let us say that the entry on the Tipperary in City of London Pubs was not his finest hour.

The Boar’s Head at 66 Fleet Street, and the Bolt-in-Tun at No 64, from Tallis’s London Street Views and Pictorial Directory of 1847

The Boar’s Head led a comparatively quiet life compared to its neighbour. Boar’s Head Alley, alongside the pub, is first mentioned in 1570, and two inhabitants of the alley had to appear at a ward inquest in 1595 for not having chimneys in their houses. The first known licensee was William Hayley or Healey, there in 1664 and 1665. The next year the pub was destroyed in the Great Fire, but Hayley was back in business within a couple of years, and issuing a trade token bearing the words “William Healey at the [picture of a boar’s head] in Fleet Street • 1668 • His Halfe Penny”. How much of today’s pub dates from the post-Great Fire rebuilding I don’t know, but the City of London’s own “Fleet Street Conservation Area Character Summary and Management Strategy” paper from February 2016 named it as one of only “a handful of survivors immediately post-Great Fire” in the conservation area. The report dated the pub building to “circa 1667”, saying that the “slightly crooked window details” hint at its age, and adding that it has a “later, traditional pub frontage and stuccoed upper floors on a narrow historic plot.”

Behind the Boar’s Head, the rectangle of land bounded by the Thames, the walls of the Temple, Fleet Street and Water Lane/Whitefriars Street was known in the 17th century as “Alsatia”. It still had some of the privileges of sanctuary left behind from the days when it was the site of the Carmelites’ friary, which privileges were confirmed and enlarged by a royal charter issued by James I in 1608. The rule of law thus did not run in “Alsatia” as firmly as it did in the rest of the city, so that it was a refuge for on-the-run debtors, and “a hiding-place to cheats, false witnesses, forgers, highwaymen and other loose characters who have openly resisted the execution of legal process”, until the privileges of the liberty of Whitefriars were extinguished by William III in 1697.

The district continued to be lively. The Boar’s Head had all its windows smashed by a Jacobite mob during the “mug house” riots of 1716, because the landlord, Mr Gosling, was “well-affected to his Majesty King George and the present Government.” (It was described in news reports as an “ale house”, putting it one rung down the ladder from an inn like the Bolt in Tun.) Gosling was lucky: the mob’s real target was Mrs Read’s Coffee House in Salisbury Court, the next street east from Water Lane, which was a centre of Whiggish support for Britain’s new Hanoverian ruler. The Jacobite supporters stormed the coffee house, and when the landlady’s husband, Robert Read, shot dead the leader of the rioters, Daniel Vaughan, they smashed their way in, mad with fury. While Read and some of the coffee house clients escaped “with some difficulty” out the back, and others sheltered behind a barricade on an upper floor, the rioters trashed the downstairs rooms, smashing all the furniture to sticks and drinking all the ale, or letting it pour onto the floor. The Sheriff came and read the Riot Act, passed only the year before, and when that failed to have any effect, mounted troops were called in. The tumult finally ceased, arrests were made, and five rioters were later hanged in Fleet Street opposite Salisbury Court. Read, meanwhile, was found not guilty of Vaughan’s murder. You don’t get THAT kind of thing happening in Starbucks …

Part of the lovely shamrock mosaic floor at the Tipperary

Gosling and the Boar’s Head were given a page in Ned Ward’s rhyming pub guide to London, A Vade Mecum for Malt Worms, written around the same as the mug house riots. This makes the Tipperary today one of the few among the 200-plus pubs Ward wrote about in the Vade Mecum and its companion, the Guide for Malt Worms that are still open. Ward described the Boar’s Head’s landlord as “justly prais’d/and by his Courage and good Drink emblaz’d/Is to some height of reputation rais’d.”

He had a better reputation than a later landlady. In 1775 there was a complaint by the wardmote inquest against Sarah Fortescue, widow and victualler of the Boar’s Head alehouse in Fleet Street, for keeping her house open at unseasonable hours, frequently the greatest part of the night, and for harbouring and entertaining “lewd women and other infamous and disorderly persons to the great disquietude and disturbance of her neighbours.”

Some time after the premises had risen from mere alehouse status: in 1812 the Boar’s Head was described as “That well known and long established first rate Wine Vault and Liquor Shop,” brick-built, four storeys high, and in the occupation and on lease to Mrs Geary at “the very low rent of 50£ per annum.”

The Boar’s Head survived the demolition of its neighbour, the Bolt-in-Tun, and then became the fourth of the Mooney’s Irish House chain in London in 1895, four years after the death of JG Mooney himself (the company continued under his sons Gerald and John Joseph, the latter a nationalist MP and, in 1900, the youngest member of the House of Commons.) The Mooneys brought in an English architect, RL Cox, to refurbish the pub, and it was presumably under his direction that the mosaic floor was put in, and the front step installed that still says “Mooney’s”. A fifth pub, near Piccadilly, was bought in 1896. The original premises in the Strand were closed when Kingsway was built, but a new bar was opened at 395 The Strand in 1900 which, until it shut around 1967, was famed for having the longest bar in London. At one point the company had another pub in Fleet Street, at No 154, formerly the Portugal, which closed in 1910. The serving staff in all its pubs were all male and Irish – no barmaids, apart, apparently from a brief experiment around 1963 – and Mooney’s Irish Houses were known for excellent service, excellent prices and excellent food.

No … no, I’m very sorry, it isn’t

Through the 1960s the company began to retreat from London, with the former Boar’s Head disposed of in about 1966-67, which is when the name change from Mooney’s Irish House to The Tipperary looks to have taken place. At the same time the name The Boar’s Head seems to have been resurrected for the upstairs dining room, as indicated on the signboard outside the pub: I am sure I can remember that the name “The Boar’s Head” used to be visible between first and second-floor level on the pub’s fascia in the 1980s or 1990s. Greene King is supposed to have taken the pub over in the 1960s: I haven’t researched this particularly, but the 1979 Camra “real beer in London” guide shows the Tipperary selling Everard’s Tiger and Wethered’s bitter, which suggests this is as inaccurate as the rest of the signboard’s claims about the pub. It apparently closed for a couple of years around the start of the 1980s, I believe, for a refurbishment, and it was certainly a Greene King pub in 1986, when it was listed for the ’87 Good Beer Guide as selling IPA, Abbot and the much-missed (by me) Rayment’s BBA. I am middlingly sure I drank Rayments in the Tipperary about that time, since I would have hunted out a rare central London outlet for one of my favourite beers, though that was 32 years ago. GK looks to have sold the pub a few years back, and it is now under independent ownership.

That’s it: a vastly, vastly more accurate history of one of London’s oldest pubs than you will find anywhere. What are the chances of promoting the correct version of events over the one on the signboard? Not good, I fear: there are at least five books, a number of newspaper and magazine articles (including one from the Daily Mirror which was, again, wrong in every sentence) and dozens of websites repeating the total nonsense version, including one book published a couple of years ago that talks of “the famous Dublin brewer SG Mooney & Sons” – they can’t be that “famous”, mate, you’ve never heard of them before, because THEY DON’T BLAHDY EXIST. And the more observant of you will have spotted that this particular author can’t even copy inaccuracy accurately: the signboard outside the Tipperary says “& Son”, not “& Sons”.

(Astonishingly, should you have £46 to throw away, you can buy a Tipperary pub Christmas decoration, 7.5cm high, to hang on your tree – down from £82, apparently.)

Thousands of Londoners pass through a historic brewery every day without realising it

Every weekday morning hurrying tech workers rush out, hundreds at a time, from Shoreditch High Street station in East London, turning left down Bethnal Green Road, past Boxpark Shoreditch, clutching cups of take-away coffee, ready for eight hours of keyboard-stabbing. None of them realises, as they head towards their desks and computers, that as they stride towards the road junction they are stepping through the ghosts of burly labourers in long leather aprons and red stocking caps: that where today they are dodging buses, cars and lorries as they try to cross the road, if they fell back two and a half centuries through a wormhole in time they would be dodging men rolling butts and hogsheads of beer, and skirting vats filled with maturing porter, the air carrying the satisfying scents of hops and malt rather than diesel exhaust.

(double-click to enlarge)

More than 150 years of sometimes frenetic development has altered swaths of London’s streetscape so much that plotting what once stood where has seemed sometimes impossible. This is particularly true in Shoreditch, where the driving through of Commercial Street and Great Eastern Street and the building of the Bishopsgate rail terminus in the 19th century meant streets and buildings were rubbed from existence like timetravellers who murdered their grandfathers. Happily, it is getting easier to reimagine the past, with websites now running that overlay and underlay old maps from earlier centuries on modern satellite photographs. Thus, through the artful alliance of messers Horwood ( 18th-century mapmaker), Bryn and Page (20th-century Google-makers), we can say that the long-disappeared Bell Brewery, for a couple of centuries credited (wrongly) as the place where porter was invented, was slap where Bethnal Green Road now meets Shoreditch High Street. Stand in the box junction here with the Pret sandwich shop at your back and you are staring straight down where the entrance to the brewery yard was – now covered by the eight-storey Tea Building, once a bacon-curing factory, then a tea warehouse, now studios and offices. Don’t stand in the road too long pondering the past, though, or you’ll get either a No 26 bus or a hipster on a fixed-wheel bicycle up the jacksie.

Just over 250 yards west of the site of the former brewery is the Old Blue Last, which was once a Bell Brewery tied house. (A last is the foot-shaped cobbler’s form over which he constructs a shoe.) It passed into the hands of Truman’s of the nearby Black Eagle brewery in Brick Lane in 1816 when the men then running the Bell Brewery, Thomas Marlborough Pryor and Robert Pryor, members of a family of Quaker brewers and maltsters from Baldock in Hertfordshire, unable to renew their lease on the brewery site, instead merged their business with Truman’s.

The now-vanished sign that once marked the rear wall of the Old Blue Last, Great Eastern Street, declaring the pub to be the first place to sell porter

It has been claimed on the pub’s behalf that it was built in 1700, though it does not seem to appear on any early maps, and also that it was built on the site of John Burbage’s Theatre in Curtain Road, where both Marlow’s Faustus and Shakespeare’s earliest plays were performed (it wasn’t: the Theatre was north of New Inn Yard, the Blue Last is on the south side). It was also claimed that the Old Blue Last was the first pub to sell porter, presumably based on the inaccurate story that porter was invented at the Bell brewery by the Harwood family, brewers there from around 1702 to 1762. The first known mention of the Blue Last in connection with the history of porter appears in 1811 in, bizarrely, a book called Arithmetical Questions on a New Plan, by William Butler, “teacher of writing, accounts and geography in ladies’ schools”. Butler repeated the story that the Harwoods had invented porter, alias entire butt, and added that “Entire butt beer was first retailed at the Blue Last, Curtain Road, and the intercourse between that public house and the Bell Brewhouse has continued ever since without intermission.”

The Old Blue Last today: is the sign claiming the pub was the first to have sold porter hidden under that advert for vitamin bars?

The original Blue Last was demolished in 1876 when Great Eastern Street was built, and a new pub erected in its place on what was now a corner site. On the back wall, visible from Great Eastern Street, Truman’s placed a large sign repeating the claim that the pub was “the first house where porter was sold.” I probably first drank in the pub in the 1980s, when both it and Shoreditch were run-down and scruffy: if the Blue Last didn’t actually had a stripper performing occasionally itself, there were several pubs nearby that did. I was there for the history, of course, hem hem, and additionally the Blue Last was handily close both for the Pitfield beer shop nearby, one of the few retailers of rare and obscure beers at the time, and the many typesetting firms in the area around the Old Street roundabout, which made Shoreditch and Hoxton a designery hangout long before any coms had been dotted. At least two magazine companies I worked for had their typesetting done in the area, which meant, since Sir Tim Berners-Lee was still but a lad with dreams, taking a taxi over from the office in West London to pass proofs.

Inside the Old Blue Last today, where a superb 19th century Tuman’s mirror still dominates the back bar, and a beer brewed by ‘Truman’s’ is still available – though the only stout is from the Molson Coors-owned Franciscan Well of Cork

Some time in the past ten years the “first porter pub” sign seems to have vanished from the Blue Last’s back wall, or been painted over/covered up. However, there is still an enormous Truman’s mirror ruling the back-bar area, and meanwhile the fortunes of both the Blue Last and Shoreditch have risen and risen as it and its locality have become hipster havens. There wasn’t a porter on sale when I called by a few weeks ago, but they did have a draught stout that wasn’t Guinness, and since I was looking for some liquid history, that was welcome enough.

Last-minute Christmas beer book recommendations

Postcard from 1906 showing the ‘largest and smallest employees’ of Watson Brothers’ Wembley brewery, Sudbury, Harrow, North London. The brewery closed in 1910. There’s no particular reason for showing this picture, except that it’s great

As a man who owns 14 different books just on the subject of hops, I am not, perhaps, the target market for such recent volumes as The Little Book of Beer Tips,Yet Another Atlas of Beer, or even 1001 Beers to Try Before Your Liver Explodes and You Have to Spend Three Years on a Dialysis Machine Waiting for a Transplant. I buy guides to beer like 1001 Beers cheaply, second-hand, in charity shops, because as they age they become good records of what was happening in beer in a particular year, which is very useful if, as has just happened, I write something on the recent history of a particular beer style. The 1984 Connoisseur’s Guide to Beer by James D Robertson, £5 in a second-hand bookshop in Chiswick four years ago, was out of date within, probably, two years but is now invaluable as a picture of the world of American brewing (and what it was doing with porter) just before it underwent Big Bang-style super-inflation, when there were fewer than 100 operating breweries in the US, across only 28 states. And not a single one in Vermont. I buy new books on beer only when I think I’ll learn something I didn’t already know, and, ah, yes, this is big-headed, but that doesn’t happen very often. So that means I’m not the best person to make recommendations about possible beer book Christmas presents for your ale-loving mum or dad.

However, I CAN still recommend two books that came out this year, one because it’s probably the most comprehensive in-depth look at the subject of beer and its ingredients as you’ll find anywhere right now, so that all but the most nerdily knowledgable will definitely have their beer education levels lifted, and even better, it’s entertainingly well-written; and the other because it’s on one of those subjects that, until you read a book about it, you probably hadn’t realised you needed to read a book about it: the history of the pub in the 20th century, or How We Got from Lloyd George to Tim Martin (not the actual sub-title, which is “From Beer House to Booze Bunker”, though perhaps it should have been …).

Pete Brown’s Miracle Brew (sub-titled “Hops, Barley, Water, Yeast and the Nature of Beer”) is a book whose time had come, in that at least two other beer writers, to my knowledge, had been contemplating a “history of the ingredients” before Pete announced what his next book project would be about. Astonishingly less than a quarter of the population could tell you what all the ingredients of beer actually are, even though it’s still, by total number of glasses consumed, easily the biggest-selling alcoholic drink in the UK. As awareness of those ingredients grows, however – led, of course, by the increasing narrative around hops and hop varieties powered by the craft beer movement – curious drinkers do seem to be finally wishing to educate themselves more thoroughly on what goes into their beer, judging by the numbers (almost 600) who pledged money to the crowd-funding that paid for Miracle Brew to be published. That may not sound a lot in advance sales, but it’s better than many books do in total.

Pete is a travel writer as much as – or possibly more than – he’s a beer writer, and Miracle Brew explains how the ingredients that go into beer work with a series of journeys: to Warminster in Wiltshire, and to North Norfolk, to see how barley becomes malt, and to Bamberg, to talk about speciality malts with the people from Weyermann, whose name you will see on bags in the malt store of most breweries you might get to visit; to Dublin, Bohemia and Burton upon Trent, to investigate the biggest ingredient in beer by far, and the most under-appreciated, water; to Bohemia, again, and Kent (where he meets, and hails, a man who is also one of my heroes, Dr Peter Darby of the British Hop Association – amateur enthusiasts love professional enthusiasts) and Slovenia, and Oregon and Tasmania, to try to understand the allure of hops; and back to Burton, to Copenhagen, to Brussels and Amsterdam, and finally to Munich, in pursuit of yeast.

I don’t think it’s possible to write any fact-crammed non-fiction book without getting some of those facts wrong – I never have, and I was kicking myself only recently as I reread one of my early books and wondered why I had written that a butt of beer contains 120 gallons (it is, of course, only 108 gallons – three barrels). Miracle Brew does pretty well: there’s a howler on page 10 where the date that the Fuggle hop was discovered is given as 1785; the London & Country Brewer was indeed published anonymously in 1736 (p59) but we’ve known for around half a century at least that the author was a Hertfordshire farmer called William Ellis; Guinness didn’t start adding roasted barley to its stout as soon as it could (ie 1880), but waited around 50 years (p117); unhopped, unherbed ale isn’t automatically sweet, but has a tannic dryness and probably would have had a woody smokiness too, from the way the malt was dried (p174); the surname Hopkins most definitely does NOT mean “children of the hop” and was NOT given to babies born nine months after the hop harvest who ended up in orphanages, even if Dr Darby says so (p265) – it’s fundamentally the same origins as Robertson; and “kvaic” (it’s properly spelt “kveik”) is from Norway, not Finland (p354). And that’s it. Six small stumbles in 407 pages: well done Mr B and/or his fact checkers.

Pete is, no question, the most stylishly dextrous and verbally entertaining writer about beer in the English language right now, and because of that, Miracle Brew is a great read even, probably, if you’re barely interested in beer at all. Buy it for a pal you know likes beer: buy another one for yourself, you’ll enjoy it.

I was slightly surprised to find just how many people I knew of those mentioned in the pages of Miracle Brew, though beer is a small world. I was more surprised to find how many of the outlets mentioned in Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey’s 20th Century Pub I also knew: indeed, Chapter Four majors on a discussion of one pub I knew well from the age of six, the Pied Piper in Longmeadow, Stevenage New Town, which was a short walk from where my grandparents lived after they moved out from Burnt Oak, North London, and which had a large garden where children could run around and choke themselves on the blue bags of salt that used to come in packets of crisps, while their elders drank pints of mild and bitter from Simpson’s brewery in nearby Baldock. B&B use the visit by the Queen to the Pied Piper soon after it opened in 1959 as peg from which to hang a discussion of the 4,000 or so new pubs built in the decade or so after Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953.

Pied Piper, Stevenage, 1959, designed by Messers Moore, Simpson & Cleverly for Simpson’s Brewery, Baldock

Probably a couple of hundred of those new pubs were built, like the Pied Piper, in the first wave of New Towns, from Crawley to Glenrothes. It would be interesting to know how many of those New Town pubs have now closed: of the 15 pubs that were built in Stevenage New Town, at least seven have shut, including the very first one to open, in 1953, the Twin Foxes (named for a pair of notorious early 20th century Stevenage poachers, Albert Ebenezer Fox and his identical twin Ebenezer Albert Fox) in Bedwell, which is now flats. For comparison, the original Old Town of Stevenage, once a major coaching stop on the Great North Road, and the surrounding hamlets and villages the new town swallowed, had around 20 pubs and beerhouses in 1953, of which eight have disappeared: the New Town has thus lost 47 per cent of its “original” pubs, the Old Town and surroundings just 40 per cent (while gaining two more).

The Twin Foxes, the first pub to open in Stevenage New Town, built by Stevenage Development Corporation and leased, at first, to three brewers jointly: one local, McMullen’s of Hertford, and two from London, Whitbread and Mann’s

It’s that kind of question which 20th Century Pub constantly provokes: it is comprehensively researched and excellently footnoted, and will be a book I know I will be turning to whenever I have a question about recent events in British pubs, just as I turn to Brew Britannia, their equally comprehensive and deservedly award-winning survey of the past four decades of British brewing, whenever I want to check a fact. Run down the index, and it ticks off almost all the more obscure subjects I would wish to find in such a survey of pub history 1901-2000: the foundation and growth of the Trust House movement, Thomas Nowell Parr, Levy & Franks and the Chef & Brewer chain, the roadhouse movement, the ploughman’s lunch (thanks for the hat tip to my own Strange Tales of Ale, chaps!) Everything seems to be covered: the pre-First World War battle between brewers and the temperance parties about the very existence of the pub, the problems of the First World War, the “improved pub” movement of the 1920s and 1930s, “modern pubs”, estate pubs and theme pubs, gastropubs and superpubs, the threat to the community pub, and the concomitant rise of the micropub. And yet: I’d have liked more in-depth discussion of the history of many of the topics that flash by, such as Chef & Brewer, founded some time before the Second World War, probably the longest-lived “non-brewer” pub brand still going, albeit now under its fourth or fifth owner, Greene King, still with 145 pubs operating under the brand, but not one in central London, where the brand began: indeed, there are now only four Chef and Brewer pubs inside the M25. What happened to all the former Levy & Franks Chef & Brewer pubs? Are they closed, or running under other names?

The public bar at the Twin Foxes, the first pub in Stevenage New Town. Note the five handpumps on the bar

I would also have liked more discussion on a topic that, as someone who grew up in a town that had large numbers of brand new pubs competing against large numbers of pubs that had been open for hundreds of years (the oldest pub in Stevenage, the White Lion – recently renamed, with no good excuse, the Mulberry Tree – has been around since at least 1652), continues to fascinate me: why were all the new pubs so soulless? B&B quote an Architects Journal piece from 1964 on “the post-war pub” which says of the sort of estate pub that dotted Stevenage, at one end of every parade of shops, with a church at the other end: “… in their architectural decoration [they] tend to reflect the type of house which surround them … often the pub could in fact be another house except for the inn sign and car park.” But if you look at New Town pubs, while they often do indeed reflect the surrounding estates in architectural style, namely blandardised “neo-Georgian”, they look more like a New Town corporation house after a huge intake of steroids: swollen and bloated. The family resemblance is still there, but if you took the innsign away, you still wouldn’t mistake this for a normal dwellinghouse. They were cold-looking and unwelcoming outside, and the insides were no friendlier. Nobody I knew drank in a New Town estate pub: Friday and Saturday nights it was on the bus and away to the Old Town. But why? What were those New Town pubs missing, and could they have been injected with it?

The ‘mixed bar’ – that is, the ladies were allowed in – at the Twin Foxes, Stevenage in 1953, before furniture was installed

Those criticisms of 20th Century Pub apart, the error rate, again, appears to be commendably low: the original Stevenage was a town (since it had a market), not a village; the Bear and Baculus is not a “curious” name for a pub in Warwick, since “baculus” means “rod or staff”, and the Bear and Staff has been a badge used in Warwick and Warwickshire since the middle ages; craic is not a Gaelic word, but an “Irishisation” of the old North of England dialect word “crack”; table service was not an Irish oddity, but something that could certainly still be found in pubs in the North of England in the 1970s, where staff could be summoned to take orders via a bellpush on the wall; the bust of Carl Jung in an alcove at Flanagan’s Apple in Liverpool was not installed as a “whim” but in homage to the dream Jung had in 1927 in which he found himself in a mystic Liverpool, interpreting the city’s name afterwards as symbolising the “pool of life”.

If you have any interest in pubs (and I assume that since you are reading this blog, you do), this is a book worth buying: buy a copy for any friends interested in pubs, as well. And if reading it inspires you to answer some of the questions the book raises via some research of your own, all the better.

Miracle Brew: Hops, Barley, Water Yeast and the Nature of Beer, Pete Brown, Unbound

20th Century Pub: from Beer House to Booze Bunker, Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey, The Homewood Press

Laissez les bonnes bières rouler

New Orleans is one of the few places in the world where walking the streets at all hours consuming alcohol from an open container is not just allowed, but actively encouraged. This is party city USA. Bars shut only when the last customer leaves, and will gladly sell you drink to go – and while that used to be, generally, cocktails such as the take-away daiquiri, or the infamous Hand Grenade (equal parts vodka, rum, gin, melon liqueur and pure grain alcohol, with a dash of pineapple juice, served in a hand grenade-shaped vessel), since a change in the law two years ago, that drink is increasingly likely to be a local craft beer.

The beautiful but sadly long-closed Jax brewery, by the Mississippi waterfront in New Orleans

I was in Louisiana ostensibly for a music tour: the first weekend of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and then a trip out to the south-west of the state, where settlers expelled by the British some 260 years ago from Acadie, the French colony on the Atlantic Canadian shore, eventually settled and became known as Cajuns. The plans included an open-air Cajun crawfish boil, with music from masters of Cajun song and dance. But there was enough free time to fit in plenty of beer tourism as well, and multiple places to choose from. Louisiana may have almost the lowest number of breweries per head of any state in the union (only neighbouring Mississippi is worse), but the world brewery boom has not completely passed it by. The state now has 30 craft breweries, three times more than in 2010, and New Orleans is home to nine of them, after losing its only surviving large brewery, Dixie, to the floods caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (The Jax brewery had closed in 1974). What is more, since New Orleans is one of the top eight tourist destinations in the United States, at least a couple of operators have started organising minibus tours taking in several local breweries at once, reckoning that the huge growth in interest in craft beer makes for a potentially lucrative niche alongside the other organised tourist attractions, such as paddlesteamer trips along the Mississippi and visits to spooky cemeteries and antebellum plantations.

You have to be prepared to be flexible here, since beer tourism is still at the toddler stage, and if not enough people book a tour, it will be cancelled at almost the last minute, which is what happened to one trip I had organised before I arrived in New Orleans. But I still managed to get to see eight different breweries, or more than a quarter of all that Louisiana offers, AND hear some wonderful music AND eat some fantastic food AND see some amazing, beautiful sights AND get soaked almost to my underpants in one of the drenching hours-long thunderstorms New Orleans is prone to.

Continue reading Laissez les bonnes bières rouler

Snug beers and snug bars

Young's Winter Warmer as sold in the White Cross, Richmond earlyb this am
Young’s Winter Warmer as sold in the White Cross, Richmond early this am

Autumn, season of mists and mellow, fruity ales, as John Keats might have written, if he hadn’t been more of a blushful hippocrene, beaker of the warm South man. As the early evenings darken, and the leaves and the temperatures fall, it’s one of the joys of the season that we can start drinking strong, dark beers again, sitting by the fire in the snug – or by the fire in your own home, if you prefer. I often do. I have a place at one end of the sofa, close enough to the fire that I can toast my toes, with an old oak blanket box alongside that I rest my beerglass on, where I sit and read, or listen to music, while whatever the weather is doing outside can be ignored.

An advert for Dark Ale from Sunderland in 1929
An advert for Dark Ale from Sunderland in 1929

If you have been looking at national newspaper feature pages recently, you will not have been able to avoid articles discussing hygge, the Danish word meaning something allegedly untranslatable in between and greater than “cosy” and “comfortable” and “safe” that is the condition all Danes allegedly seek to attain. Of course, we actually have a perfect translation of hygge in English, or at least a word that describes the equivalent state of warmth and comfort and safety Britons desire: snug.

More than 230 years ago the poet William Cowper wrote: “There is hardly to be found upon the earth, I suppose, so snug a creature as an Englishman by his fire-side in the Winter.” He wasn’t wrong. And outside the home, some pubs provide us with a room where this blissful level of being can be achieved, a room generally only to be entered from inside the pub, with no street windows or doors, private and secure, almost always small enough that half-a-dozen will be a heaving crowd, and ideally with its own servery hatch to place orders at the bar. This room of happiness is actually named for the state of safe comfort, like the bug cuddled down deep in the protective tufts of his rug, that we seek between its enclosing walls: the snuggery or snug. Continue reading Snug beers and snug bars

How to brew like an 18th century Virginian

Spruce ale and tavern porterI live half-way between Richmond and Hampton – which gave a small but still slightly odd twist to my 3,000-mile journey last month to deliver a talk in another town halfway between Richmond and Hampton. Different Richmond and Hampton, of course: the pair in Virginia, not the ones in the western suburbs of Greater London†.

The talk was in Williamsburg, Virginia, as part of a terrific two-day event called Ales through the Ages featuring more than a dozen speakers from Europe and the United States, put on by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Williamsburg was the capital of Virginia until 1780, when capital status was transferred to Richmond, and the town went into a decline that lasted through until the first quarter of the 20th century. Ironically, its decline was its subsequent salvation. Since there was no incentive (or cash) to knock them down and rebuild them, many of Williamsburg’s original colonial-era buildings remained standing, albeit increasingly rough-looking. Eventually, in the late 1920s, with campaigners concerned that genuine American history was literally falling to pieces in front of them, John D Rockefeller jr, whose father, one of the founders of Standard Oil, was the richest man in the world, agreed to fund what would become Colonial Williamsburg, a living reproduction of 18th century America. Today Williamsburg is a considerable tourist attraction with restored buildings, actors walking the streets dressed like 18th century colonials and, of course, demonstrations of the lifestyles and crafts of the 18th century. Naturally enough that includes food and drink, and naturally enough that includes brewing. Continue reading How to brew like an 18th century Virginian

Don’t move that WC!

When you’re enjoying yourself down the pub, there will generally come a moment when urgent necessities need to be taken care of. But increasingly, pub owners seem to be putting difficulties in people’s way – by shifting their ground-floor conveniences to somewhere decidedly more inconvenient, involving negotiating often steep and narrow stairs. I am happy to give the opportunity for a guest rant on the subject of upstairs (and downstairs) loos to my good friend Mr James Castle of the parish of Twickenham in Middlesex – take it away, Jim:

A brief list of pubs and restaurants now with “grade separated” toilets in the Twickenham area: the Prince Blucher, near the Green, the Osteria Pulcinella in Church Street, the Eel Pie, also in Church Street, and the Waldegrave Arms and the Railway in Teddington. Al this is ostensibly to increase seating space for punters which, I suppose, is for rugby days, as these new areas are never occupied. Other pubs which have been like it for some while have their own quirks. The London Road (or whatever it is called now) allows some drinkers to use the downstairs loo; the Fox in Church Street leaves the disabled loo open for all and sundry; as does Twickenham’s JD Wetherspoon pub, the William Webb Ellis, where I do notice old blokes sneaking into the “universal”/disabled loo, sometimes having to queue. I think the staff might not lock it as part of their customer service.

The fermenting room at Fuller's Griffin brewery about 1970, showing the "dropping" system in use: fermentation would be started in the upper rounds, and after a day or two the wort would be dropped into the shallower squares below to finish fermentation.
The fermenting room at Fuller’s Griffin brewery about 1970, showing the “dropping” system in use: fermentation would be started in the upper rounds, and after a day or two the wort would be dropped into the shallower squares below to finish fermentation.

To use these ground floor loos the pubs usually provide a key from behind the bar but I’ve also noticed that some of the big chains (in other areas) allow the “RADAR” key scheme for access. In Twickenham, the George on the main drag, the Brouge/Old Goat or whatever on the Hampton Road, the Three Kings, also in the centre of town, the Barmy Arms by the river and the Sussex Arms by the green are all fine places where a gentleman does not have to climb the stairs to find relief, as are most pubs in Teddington, Hampton Hill, Whitton, Richmond (except the White Cross) and Kingston. But all the pubs I used to go in Putney are now “grade separated” (the Eight Bells a proud exception). I let the White Swan by the river in Twickenham off this “naughty” list as I don’t suppose it ever had a gents’ loo on the level of the bar.

In terms of culprits for all this aggravation, Messers Fuller, Smith & Turner seem to be the main offender, and I’m hearing rumours about the Prince Albert in Twickenham, which I understand is to undergo a refurbishment The “destruction” of their decent pub in Isleworth, the Royal Oak, is appalling, although I suppose there was no room to move the loos upstairs.

Anyway, how “disabled” do you have to be to use the designated ground floor loo? As a sufferer from the after-effects of prostate surgery, I try to avoid unnecessary flights of steps, which can lead to embarrassment, but it’s not as though I use a stick. I am not really disabled (or am I?). In any case, all this extra space the pub companies/breweries have created by moving the loos upstairs/downstairs never seems to be full!

The other problem is the under-supply of cubicles in gents’ toilets. One is not enough. It seems more and more men are eschewing urinals, not just us victims with urological difficulties, but also those with fly-button trousers, small willies and drug problems.

And another thing, the 2015 budget took a penny of a pint. Basically it didn’t happen as most boozers saw it coming and raised their prices by ten pence before Budget Day, and then reduced them by a penny. Pubs are still increasing prices twice a year, although I am told we do not have any meaningful inflation. No wonder pubs are empty. There’s only a certain amount of overpriced second-rate food a pub can sell to compensate for the missing regulars put off by prices. We’re not all baby boomers on generous final salary pensions …

JC

Fuller's brewery, Chiswick in the late 1960s, with the brick chimney still in place. The land for the petrol station on the corner was sold by Fuller's to the fuel company, and later had to be bought back a considerable expense as the brewery expanded
Fuller’s brewery, Chiswick in the late 1960s, with the brick chimney still in place. The land for the petrol station on the corner was sold by Fuller’s to the fuel company, and later had to be bought back at considerable expense as the brewery expanded