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Pubs: you always miss the ones you love

Added: Thursday, May 28th 2020

Boleyn Tavern

It’s when the pubs are shut that you miss them most. Life may be different when you read this but at the time of writing I am in full lockdown, allowed out once a day to walk the dog.

I think, as my furry friend hauls me round the streets of St Albans, that it would be good to drop into the King William IV for a swift half. Then I have to adjust my brain and remember the King Will is shuttered, barred, off limits and verboten.

No matter how good the bottled beers are back at home, I miss what marketing people call “the theatre of the pour”. You walk to the bar, name your tipple then watch as mine host places a glass under the spout and, two pulls and a top up later, presents you with a glass of amber liquid and a tight foaming head.

You have found paradise in all its malty/hoppy glory.

My love affair with pubs began when I went to work in the newspaper industry in London’s Fleet Street and had the pleasure of drinking in such glorious establishments as the Punch, the Olde Cheshire Cheese and the Old King Lud. In those days the beers on offer were Bass and Marston’s from Burton and Whitbread from the nearby Barbican.

The first piece I ever penned for this paper took me to Suffolk to visit Tolly Cobbold’s brewery in Ipswich and then on to Adnams in Southwold.

Tolly has long since disappeared but Adnams continues to produce some of the finest beers known to drinking kind. Southwold, with its inshore lighthouse and multi-coloured beach huts, is a place I return to with keen anticipation, marvelling at the unspoilt clutch of pubs that include the Lord Nelson, the Sole Bay Inn and the Harbour Inn.

I have fond memories of another waterside pub, the Boat Inn at Ashelworth Quay in Gloucestershire. I was there on holiday, not for work, and found myself wrapped around by the charm and welcome of this ancient inn on the banks of the River Severn. It was like walking in to someone’s private home, with comfortable sofas, settles, house plants and Welsh dressers, along with a fine choice of beers and a cheese ploughman’s that would keep the average agricultural worker going for several days.

Great cities also have great pubs. Just before lockdown I was in Liverpool, home to pubs of such architectural importance that some are Grade II-listed. The Philharmonic, a turn of the 20th century masterpiece, is so magnificent that it goes a stage further and has a rare Grade I listing. The gentlemen’s urinals are so opulent that ladies are allowed to view special arrangement.

The roll call of pubs I return to with undimmed enthusiasm scrolls on. The Marble Arch in Manchester, with its notorious sloping floor that makes you think you are several sheets to the wind before you get to the bar, is one of many fine Mancunian hostelries.

Birmingham vies with Liverpool for the sheer bravado of its pubs architecture. A particular favourite is the Bartons Arms in Newtown, Grade II-listed, bedazzling its customers with its stained glass windows, snob screens and sweeping staircase. Laurel and Hardy drank there after performing at a local theatre.

Newcastle offers the splendid Bodega with its striking stained-glass domes and old brewery memorabilia. The beers include Fyne Ales that are also available in the grandiose and galleried surroundings of the Guildford Arms in Edinburgh, handy for Waverley Station.

One pub I have known since my misspent youth closed before the lockdown for refurbishment. The Boleyn Tavern in London E6 was popular on match days with West Ham fans until the club moved to Stratford. The pub had become run down and tatty but new owners are returning it to its multi-storeyed Victorian glory of etched glass, atrium and mahogany panelling (pictured above).

I shall return on opening day, suitably attired in claret-and-blue scarf and uttering what are at the moment the five most anticipated words in the English language: “A pint of bitter, please.”

First published in What’s Brewing, June 2020.