English pubs are among the premier “third places” in the world. Despite rumors of their death, they remain vital to the community and I’m impressed by how well they fit in to the urban (and rural) fabric. The English pub is a great place to gather with friends or strangers. They are also quite amenable to the solo traveler. There is no waitstaff to bother you and it’s possible to linger at a table with a book and a pint. But lest you think Merry Olde England is a nonstop flow of pints of warm beers like Old Toejam, Cheeky Bubble, and Churchill’s Spittle, you’d be wrong. Like here in the U.S., particularly places like Minneapolis, craft brewing is alive and well in London and England. On my late 2015 weeklong visit, I made many stops in some lovely English pubs and the experience was vastly improved by the quality and variety of beers now available.
My first stop upon arriving at St. Pancras Station in London was to settle in to my AirB&B and wander across the street to the Prince George, my “local” pub for the week. That early Sunday afternoon the Prince George patio was bathed in early fall sunlight, where I enjoyed a large plate of fish and chips and a pint of Seafarers, an English bitter. Then I took a walk around Hackney.
Following a pleasant wander through the new neighborhood and stolling along Regent’s Canal, I headed back through London Fields. Time for a pint, I reckoned! I stopped in at the Pub on the Park for a pint of Top Drop, made locally by Southwark Brewing. I’d been in London for less than four hours and was already impressed by the range and quality of local beers, something that didn’t exist even a few years ago, much less in 1996 when I first visited. I’m a fan of the ale or bitter, particularly when it is pulled from a cask, but also appreciate how mild English IPAs seem compared to their super-flavorful American counterparts that seem to split your skull. Less hoppy, more happy, I say!
The following day, after a long walk through Central London and along the Thames, I returned to my neighborhood in Hackney for a leisurely pint before evening plans. Mayor of Garratt from By the Horns, a local brewery in Wandsworth. It is hard to beat a leisurely afternoon pint at a quiet neighborhood pub in London, sun streaming through the windows. And one of my favorite things about many English beers is the low alcohol volume. At 4.3% Alcohol By Volume (ABV), about half of what most beers seem to contain around Minneapolis, an afternoon pint is a nice break but doesn’t destroy the ability to concentrate on the rest of the day.
One evening in London I attended a class at the Guardian newspaper; “A Short History of England” by Simon Jenkins. (Jenkins’s best quote: “Bad kings remind you how good the competent ones were.”) Following that I returned to my local pub, the Prince George, to ponder how I could possibly even have scratched the surface of English history in those short two hours. It was pub quiz night and all the Hackney hipsters’ bicycles were chained up outside. I enjoyed a pint of 2 O’Clock Ordinary from Dragonfly Brewery in nearby Acton and couldn’t believe it when nobody at quiz night knew what “turducken” was!
I arrived in York, England, on the eve of a big hike and sat on a lovely terrace by the River Ouse and enjoyed the sunset with a pint of Samuel Smith’s Best Bitter. Following a dinner accompanied by a pint of Landlord by Timothy Taylor, I took a pleasant walk through the city centre. I came across the Guy Fawkes Inn where I enjoyed lovely pint of Ghost Ale by York Brewery, sitting in a tastefully weathered easy chair. Guy Fawkes, by the way, is a legendary character in Britain, and November 5, Guy Fawkes Day, is the British equivalent of the 4th of July, at least in terms of number of fireworks set off.
On a previously described hike I enjoyed the world’s most scenic pint. The beer, a red ale called Saltwick Nab, was damn near as good as the view, and winner of “the finest beer of the trip” award. It was made at the Whitby Brewery that I walked past earlier that day. So, if you are ever at the Victoria Hotel in Robin Hood’s Bay, or Whitby, for that matter….
After climbing Ravenscar and walking 11 miles from Robin Hood’s Bay, descending the Scalby Ness Rocks along the footpath as it reached the boardwalk and wide sweep of North Bay in Scarborough, there it was like a mirage! Across a small footbridge was the Old Scalby Mills, a lovely quaint pub where salvation awaited in the form of fish and chips washed down with a fine pint of North Bay, made exclusively for Old Scalby Mills by a local brewery, Wold Top. As much as I wanted to stick around for another pint of Bumble Beer or Old Sailor, it was time to continue my trek – I had a train to catch back to London.
I arrived back in London in time for a Friday evening neighborhood stroll that included a stop at the nearby Spurstowe Arms. I sat on the back patio with all the young about-to-hook-up professionals putting on their beer goggles and had a pint of Wandle, made by Sambrook’s Brewery in Battersea, London, and stared up at the precious few stars you can see from the city. I returned to the Prince George for a nightcap of Scrumdown, a beer apparently no longer made by Sambrook’s, and it was good.
Following a morning spent riding a bike share along the Regent’s Canal and perusing the wares and eating samples at the Broadway Market, I was thirsty and stopped at the Dove on Broadway Market for a pint. The Dove was humming at midday on this market Saturday, and it was nice to find a small table and relax for a spell. Although pubs in general are in decline, breweries are growing at what may be an unprecedented rate. Hackney is among the centers of this market and the Amarillo IPA I had was brewed just a couple blocks away at London Fields Brewery. Delicious!
Prior to an evening show at the Globe Theater, I set aside time to return to a favorite pub of mine, the Founder’s Arms, which has an outdoor patio overlooking the Thames. When I first visited in 1996 I was on a London Walk of Southwark, what was then a very quiet south side of the Thames. The Founder’s Arms was then in the shadow of the old Bankside Power Station, which loomed over us. Within a few short years the Globe opened, the Millennium Bridge was built, and the Tate Modern opened in the power station and today this side of the river is absolutely bustling. The Founder’s Arms seems unchanged but fits much better with today’s surroundings. I savored that pint of Young’s Special Bitter as the sunset changed to those colors you find in a Turner painting, just happy to watch the Thames flow by.
The Prince George became a local standby for me. How can it not when it’s right across the street!? I only was in London for five precious nights, but the Prince George became my third place away from home. Aware of how rapidly Hackney had been gentrifying made me wonder what this place was like just a few years earlier. It sure was pleasant; with well-worn floors, comfortable seating, a couple separate rooms, including one with a huge map of the world on the wall.
Time passes, elections are held, new beers are created, but I sure as hell hope the corner pub is timeless. On my final Sunday in London, I bought a copy of the (London) Times and lugged it across the street to the Prince George to read it with pint of Ghost Ship, made by Adnams Brewery in Southward, Suffolk. An older gentleman had the same idea, and he and I had the place to ourselves.
Just this week the New York Times had a timely article about how American saloons were once a hub for political debate. I’d argue the rise in craft brewing on both sides of the Atlantic is good for community; whether anybody debates political anymore is another matter. So there I sat on a Sunday in late 2015 in the Prince George, nursing a pint of Seafarers, and reading about the upcoming English referendum (this was eight months before the vote). I didn’t debate Brexit with the old chap at the next table, but I bet I could have. As long as people want a place to gather, have a drink and discuss the world, the English pub will have a long life and a prominent place in the urban fabric of neighborhoods. And a fine selection of beer to fuel that discussion!