Friday, January 30, 2009

Harpy Daze

London's Zone 1 has loads of terrible pubs, many good pubs, and a few great pubs - but I can really only think of two (I am always keen to find more) which rank among the best places I've ever raised a pint to my lips. One is the Ye Olde Mitre off Hatton Garden - more of which later. The other is just off Saint Martins Lane. This is The Harp, near the hateful tourist ghettos of Leicester Square and Covent Garden and has every right to be rubbish, but it isn't. They could have replaced the stained glass front windows with plain glass. They could punt nothing but easy-to-keep eurofizz and nitrokeg. They could have wipeclean menus of whirr-ping bar snacks, brought to your table by a surly backpacker who will have quit by the end of the week, taking with him the contents of the fruit machine. In this location, the tourists will come anyway - the pub wouldn't even have to try. It's maybe a miracle that none of this has happened and the Harp hasn't been turned into Uncle Walt's idea of a British pub.

Beyond that stained glass you'll find a narrow room with an imposing bar decorated with dozens of pump clips, and two or three barmaids waiting to ask you what you would like, darlin'. It's almost always busy, with a good mixture of regulars, pre-theatre ladies, couples, tourists and stagehands nipping in between acts with their earpieces in. Usually there are six ales on handpump, Taylor's Landlord, Black Sheep and Harvey's Bitter being permanent fixtures. All the beers are well kept, but as I always want my Yorkshire beers sparkled, I generally give Landlord and 'Sheep the swerve. The Harvey's is sublime - one sip and i'm in a sunwashed field of freshly mown grass a long, long way from London.In summer, the front windows will be open and you can watch humanity streaming past. In winter, the best place to sit is on the high tables at the back watched by James Mason and his cat. This is one of dozens of portraits of varying quality that line the walls. The romantic drinker might imagine a hollow-cheeked artist giving one to the guv'nor to settle a bar bill. No microwave nosh here - they'll do you a sausage sandwich on the griddle behind the bar if you like, with a smell so seductive it would tempt Morrissey. This is the pub experience everyone in London deserves, resident or visitor. The next time you see someone with a rucksack and guidebook about to get their first and probably last British ale experience at a sticky, sour beer hellhole like the Porcupine on Charing Cross Road, do them a favour and point them at the Harp.

(Photos by spacekadet, Wimseycallme and edmundv. Used with thanks.)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Crossbones Style

The Borough and Bankside - the locales just south of London Bridge - are a good place to explore. It's an area rich in ghost signs, quirky buildings, good pubs and of course, the justly famous Borough Market. It's one of the last bits of London that has real character, though all that could be wiped out when Crossrail comes (and indeed has already seen off one of the better pubs). Round the corner from Borough Market is Redcross Way. Here you'll find a shrine - hundreds of faded ribbons, signs and trinkets adorning the huge iron gates of what is Crossbones Graveyard. From at least the 1500s, this was (and still is) an unofficial burial ground for the "Winchester Geese" - prostitutes licensed by the Bishop Of Winchester. Bankside was out of the control of the City Of London Authorities, and became known for its brothels, inns and other distractions such as bear baiting. The Geese, as "sinners" weren't afforded the rites of the Church, so were buried in unconsecrated ground. By the mid 1700s Crossbones had also become a pauper's cemetery and by 1853 was completely full and closed by the authorities. There have been repeated attempts to develop the site since closure, all of which have been repulsed, though about 15 years ago London Underground succeeded in building an electricity sub-station on part of the site. What visitors see now is a bleak expanse of concrete and scrubby bushes, though In recent years Southwark Council have given Crossbones some degree of protection, with a tentative plan to create a proper memorial garden. Archaeologists in the 1990s removed 148 bodies, most showing the evidence of apallingly hard lives - an estimated 1% of the total still buried there.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Some scooterists make a point of riding in all weathers. Not me, I'm a softy. If it's too wet, too grey, too cold or even too hot, the PX ('Dino') remains unlocked. Somedays the weather's perfect and I just can't be bothered riding, especially if i'm into a particularly good book. It's too bleak in December to ride, and I tend to get lots of books for christmas, so until at least february I usually to take the tube to work. A lot of Londonders hate the underground, but actually I quite enjoy it - the trip from Leytonstone is a mercifully short one, which is why it takes me weeks to read anything. However, after a while public transport begins to get wearing, especially changing trains at Mile End which has all the charm of a decomissioned Chinese power station. It's here I join the District line - the smelliest of all the lines. It's the people, y'know.

So, with spring ambling slowly towards us I took my first trip of the year to Scooterworks for Dino's service. I spent most of last year riding to work, and 14 miles a day can grind away at components made in 1981. By the end of last year the brakes had faded alarmingly, the engine would sometimes cut out at idle and gear shifting was becoming a bit of a lottery. All fixed now, and Dino feels as fettled and responsive as when his first owner got him in Verona. When I first started riding scooters almost a decade ago, it was all about cheap transport and maintenance was done by oily blokes in oily lock-ups. In recent years, servicing has become much more expensive and the bill always comes as something of a punch to the guts. £120 this year. Mind you, I once worked out that for everything - insurance, petrol, tax, servicing, spares - the lot - it costs me £1.32 a day to run a scooter. And you get a seat all the way.

Friday, January 23, 2009

"It's just ... it's fairyland..."

Jonathan Ross is back on TV tonight. Joy unbounded. I am literally vibrating with delight.

Anyway. Here is a reminder that there's nothing new about presenters behaving badly. It's the broadcast of the 1937 Spithead Review by BBC Radio commentator Lieutenant Commander Thomas Woodrooffe, who's clearly had a too much rum on his old ship, HMS Nelson. He got suspended by BBC legend Lord Reith for a whole week after this. Woodrooffe must have had a sense of humour. He declared in the closing minutes of the 1938 FA Cup final that if there was another goal, he'd eat his hat. There was another goal. And he did.*
*(some sources say it was hat-shaped cake. Spoilsports.)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Local Hero

I've yet to live in a London neighbourhood with more than a handful of decent pubs. In Bethnal Green we had the Pride Of Spitalfields, The Owl And Pussycat and our regular haunt, the Carpenters Arms. We visited so frequently that the sweet old landlady cried when we moved away. Back then I suspect that the biggest seller was that uniquely London drink, Light and Bitter. The pub was once owned by the Kray Twins who bought it as somewhere safe to take their mother before they went out to choir practice. It was a bit of the 'old' pre-gentrified Bethnal Green, and six years on the pub's been reborn as a successful nu-alehouse with sun-baked parsnip crisps.

When we moved to Leytonstone, a local bobby told me I'd do well to stay away from every pub on the High Road except The Bell. Well, things have moved on since then. The Croppy Acre with its photographs of alleged IRA members is now a mini market, and Erosion (ahem) is now a Camden-style music pub, and pretty good it is too. The management of Lincolns - a waste of a beautiful building if ever there was one - are about to lose their licence after a drugs bust. Good riddance. The Bell remains a good community pub with a brilliant quiz night and a surprisingly good pint of Abbot. There are loads of other average pubs doing an average trade selling average lagers alongside a solitary pump of Courage Best. Some of these are great for what they are - I always enjoy a visit to the Rookwood for example, which sells the only pint of Kronenbourg I've ever enjoyed. If you want a selection of real ales, your only options are the Birkbeck Tavern round the back of Leyton Tube, and in Leytonstone proper The Walnut Tree or the North Star.

The Birkbeck is a large, well-kept workaday pub with some original features and three rooms served by an island bar. Out the back there is what must be one of the largest beer gardens in London. Over the back wall is where you'll find the grave of Mary Kelly. It's a friendly place and the beer is good when it's on form, but it can be a bit hit and miss. There are usually 4 handpumps on. The permanent beer is 'Rita's Special' (named after an old landlady and apparently Courage Best) and some ever-changing micobrews. On saturdays It's the pub of choice for older Leyton Orient supporters, many of whom seem to wear corduroy jackets with leather elbow patches. The Walnut Tree is a Wetherspoon. It's not a bad one, the beer is always well kept and I do drop by from time to time to use a CAMRA voucher. It's a bit like having a pint in the 1990s, although back then the interior wouldn't have been so tired.

By a mile, the best pub in the area is the North Star. It's a slightly surreal experience, turning into a street opposite McDonald's and abruptly finding yourself in a Victorian village. This is Browning Road, a conservation area and the oldest bit of Leytonstone. The narrow street is lined with small cottages, and right in the middle of it all is the North Star. Opened as a beerhouse in 1861, the pub has only had a full drinks licence since 1959. Inside there are two rooms - each a former cottage - partly lined with brown tongue-and-groove panelling. For some reason, the walls are covered in railway memorabilia despite the pub being named after a ship. The dark, knocked about and appealingly shabby interior dates from a 1961 refit by then owners Charrington. It's a cosy place with usually 5 ales on handpump, with enough beer coming through the pipes to ensure that it's usually on good form. Guest ales recently have included Taylor's, Butcombe, Woodforde, Harvey's and there's always yer bog standard Bombardier on. It's good place to call in at on the way back from a cold-eared walk round Wanstead Flats with an enthusiastic dog. As with all good pubs, something happens to time as you cross the threshold. You enter at 7pm and seemingly half an hour later the guv'nor is calling last orders.

Image of the North Star from Dayoff171

Sunday, January 18, 2009


I've worked with several people who interviewed Tony Hart over the years - by all accounts he was a real gentleman of the old school. Most "creatives" over 30 owe a debt to him.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Until a year or two ago, I was a Guardian reader. I'd first started reading it at art college when Pentagram and David Hillman's groundbreaking redesign brought me to it, but I stayed with it because I liked the paper's insight, balance and the genuine genius of Steve Bell. I even worked for them for a bit. A couple of years back, the Guardian stopped being merely handwringing and liberal, and became preachy and accusatory. The feeling I got was that if I didn't agree with the editorial, I must be The Enemy. Also, it seemed to me that the paper was slipping into a parody of itself. Their saturday supplement in particular only seemed to be of relevance to about 25 women who live within half a mile of Angel tube station. And then you'd get the occasional gem like the (in)famous Max Gogarty blog. Anyway, I don't read it any more.

And then you get something like This beaut from Malcolm Gluck, their extraordinarily smug wine writer, chiefly famous for his old 'Superplonk' article and website extolling the bargains to be found in the wine aisles of supermarkets.

Other than saying that pound for pound, craft beer is of a much higher quality than almost any wine, It's difficult to know where to start, so I won't bother. Just read it for yourself.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


One of my oldest friends has a long professional association with Keighley's most famous firm, Timothy Taylor. On his visits to the brewery, he often finds that a crate of their beers has been mysteriously left by his car - which is why he has a seemingly inexhaustable supply in his cellar. He's the lad I mentioned before who has just finished some bottles that were two years old. He is also lucky enough to be invited to the dinners which Taylors use to mark significant events. When Alan Hey, Taylor's head brewer retired some years ago, Taylor's marked the event by producing a very small amount of these special bottles, which were given to guests at Hey's farewell 'do'. Hey had been at the helm for 30 years, and was regarded by many as the best brewer in the UK. Stepping into Alan Hey's brogues must have been a daunting prospect for Peter Eels, Hey's successor - but Taylor's keep on winning those awards.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Feeling Supersonic

Despite the allies reconquest of Europe, London was a dangerous place as WW2 rushed to its climax. From September 1944, the Nazis started to use their terrifying V2 rocket against Great Britain. It was a massively destructive weapon that travelled faster than the speed of sound. There was no warning of an impact, and early casualties were attributed to gas explosions by the Government in order to prevent panic. About 3,000 V2 rockets were fired - their flight arc made them the first manmade objects into space - until their launch sites were overrun, with about half of them aimed (though 'pointed at' is perhaps a more accurate phrase) at Britain, the majority landing in the South East and London. The last V2 to land on Central London was at Hughes Mansions in Bethnal Green, killing 134 on March 27th 1945. Among many other hits were Smithfield Market (110 dead), Selfridges Store (18 dead) and New Cross Woolworth's which slaughtered 168. Anyone familar with Tottenham Court Road will know the mural on the building near Heal's. The blank expanse in front of it is a V2 impact site, still undeveloped. 9 people died here. By the time the V2 threat was over, about 9000 Londoners had been killed by this horribly indiscriminate weapon.

The then London County Council kept meticulous maps of bomb damage, some of which can be seen on Yersinia's site at Flickr. The full-size versions can be seen at the London Metropolitan Archives.

Flickrite Matt From London has created this map showing all the V2 impact sites in the wider London area as well as that of the old LCC - it's an ongoing project and a perfect example of what a wonderful place the internet can be.

View Larger Map

Monday, January 12, 2009

Off The Wagon

I don't usually drink alcohol in January, but the weather has been so cold and grim here that I decided there was no point in denying myself something I enjoy so much. Last night I went to the first-ever Leytonstone Anglo-Spanish beer festival, which was held in our dining room. On offer were 11 beers, 9 from the UK, 1 from the Czech Republic and one from Sweden. The Spanish element was our mate G who is from Madrid. Last year I took G to the Brown Cow in Keighley, his first visit to a pub with a wide variety of ales. He was impressed by the 'beer talk' going on, which had parallels with 'wine talk' in the bars in his home city. Previously, he had been unaware that British beer came in as many styles and subtle differences as wine, so he was keen to try some more. The standout beer of the evening was Harviestoun's Bitter And Twisted, an utterly delicious golden ale bursting with grapefruit flavours, not what we expected at all. It was strongly reminiscent of the Goose Eye Brewery's sublime Chinook, which is all but impossible to find in London. Runner up was Pilsner Urquell, followed by Old Peculier. Landlord was the 'control' beer - it's as essential as milk in our house, so we knew it 'too' well. Poor old G, a typically Spanish moderate drinker couldn't finish his last ale - a syrupy McKewan's Champion - before staggering off to his taxi, so I drank it for him. I'm suffering a bit today though.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Tet offensive

When I was Up Home over christmas, my uncle gave me this pint glass. I remember seeing these when i first started going to pubs, when the Yorkshireness of Tetley was something to be proclaimed without a trace of irony and before someone in red braces decided that sticking an apostrophe 's' on the end of the brewery name would somehow improve the product.

I'm still sad that the Tetley Brewery is to shut, with production moving to Northampton. That's Northampton, the home of shoes. While in Leeds station on our way back south, I noticed that The Yorkshire Evening Post are running a campaign to keep Tetley brewed in Yorkshire, and preferably in Leeds, which is heartening. Professional Yorkshireman? Moi?

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Oxford Sheets

Oxford Street. It's rubbish isn't it? From the 'posh' end at Marble Arch to the scratty end, terminating at the exclamation mark of Centrepoint above Tottenham Court Road Station. The TCR bit is the most interesting of the whole stretch, especially at the junction of Charing Cross road, with its seedy shops and hustlers that make me think of Taxi Driver's New York. Naturally, it's all getting pulled down in a redevelopment. Farewell, Astoria. The World's Premier Shopping Street is a long row of boring multiples you can find in any city. Primark. Zavvi. Accessorize. Monsoon. Starbucks. Borders. TopShop. TopMan. Barratts. On and on. There were two C&A's until the company realised that Brits don't like lime green acrylic cardigans and fled back to Holland. Shoe Express. HMV. Tesco Express. Footlocker. Marks And Spencer. Boots. McDonalds. Carphone Warehouse, Clarks, Sunglass Hut. The only shops with any charm are John Lewis and Selfridges. Of course, the best way to navigate this canyon of consumerism is to walk the parallel streets and avoid the crowds. Here, you'll have the pavements to yourself and you might even spot a gem like this place, the Linen Cupboard in Great Castle Street. I always forget about this little shop, and i'm always delighted to find it still open. The last time I passed I noticed that the faded, handwritten price tickets in the window were gradually being replaced by computer prints. Looks like the place is modernising, but it must surely be one of the last places you can still buy a candlewick bedspread.