Best London Pubs?

I’m spending so much time in and around ‘That Big Place’ at the end of the railway line that I’ve even bought the last couple of editions of ‘Time Out’ — possibly regressing about 15 years when I used to have it delivered every week and used it for the TV listings (now I use the cheaper ‘Radio Times’).

This edition was worth buying as it lists their Top 20 London Bars and Pubs (note the word order, it says a lot about these metropolitan types). The article is really a puff for the new edition of their bar and pub guide book, which has 500 of them in.

But it’s interesting to see which pubs Time Out picked as worthy of inclusion in their top 20. Here are a few with my own observations.

One is the Rake near Borough Market. This is really just a place that people visit for curiosity value — an old greasy spoon building with a patio bigger than a drinking area — is it really a pub at all? It has quite a lot of interesting ‘world beers’ and a couple of real ales that people apparently rate highly — but on the couple of occasions I’ve been then they’ve not been out of this world.

The Old Brewery in Greenwich is Meantime Brewery’s pub. It’s the wrong side of London to me and I’ve always had mixed feelings about Meantime. I read an interview with someone involved with them who suggested they liked to export their beers to the US because Americans had better palates than the British and appreciated their beers more. I also view their packaging and labelling as ludicrously pretentious (and lazy — one label on a bottle I bought said the beer should be ‘refridgerated’) — and they’re expensive. Yet Meantime still have the CAMRA politburo purring over their supposed quality and championing of ‘lost’ beer styles. Maybe I’ll go there and see for myself.

The Sloaney Pony in Parson’s Green gets in there (White Horse) fairly predictably — along with a mention of the nectar of Thornbridge Jaipur IPA — any pub in London that sells this lovely beer is automatically in my Top 20.

Also included is the Charles Lamb in Islington — it’s a sort of trendy-ish gastro place by all accounts near Angel but I’d like to go there as it’s in the GBG 2010 (I think). Highest placed pub, and another I’d like to visit, is a place called Draft House in SW11 which apparently does 17 ‘unusual’ draft beers (not all of these are real ale, though). I took a look at the website and it’s suitably pretentious for the area (Battersea) but the beer list looks pretty good — and they do some interesting selections of thirds of pints.

The Clerk’s Well

The Clerk's Well, Farringdon
The Clerk's Well, Farringdon

I’ve recently become quite fascinated by the hidden geography of London — one of the most interesting aspects of which is the concealment of various rivers that flow through the capital. The largest of these is the River Fleet (as in Fleet Street) which rises on Hampstead Heath and flows via Camden, King’s Cross, Clerkenwell and Farringdon to meet the Thames at Blackfriars. For almost all its length the Fleet is now culverted into a storm-relief sewer. Nevertheless, the shape of the valley is quite distinct from various vantage points. One is from near the British Library, looking down towards King’s Cross station. Another is from Farringdon Road, just north of Farringdon station where a wide river valley can easily be imagined — and apparently two or three hundred years ago this was an area that was still fairly rural on the edge of the City and was used as a place to water livestock that were driven to Smithfield Market.

This is now the very trendy area of Clerkenwell, which takes its name from access to the water found in the Fleet Valley. The name derives from a well, known as ‘the Clerk’s Well’ which dates back to 1140. The well can still be seen as it’s incorporated into a modern office building (14-16 Farringdon Lane) which has a very discreet display that can be seen through some plate glass windows. A pump was added to the well in 1800 and this is commemorated in a plaque which still can be seen on the wall above the well. I got a grainy photo of the plaque. It was a bit too dark to photograph the well but its stone rim can be clearly seen.

The Fleet

Walking between two interesting pubs in Clerkenwell/Farringdon in London, the Jerusalem Tavern and the Gunmakers (they have up to date information on their beers on their website which is sadly incredibly unusual for most pub websites), I was quite struck by the topography around Farringdon Road. It was quite unusual for London and more like a city like Paris or Amsterdam as there were two roads that were only built up on one side with a large void between them of about 50 yards or so. Moreover, the ground gently rose on each side of the gap. The void was spanned by bridges that spans the Metropolitan line and the Thameslink railway line beneath but the geography looked very like a river valley. 

Interestingly, a bit of research on the web shows that the tube and railway lines were actually built through the valley of the biggest of London’s hidden rivers — the Fleet. The river is contained in a storm drainage sewer that runs alongside the railway tracks. The Fleet itself is a fascinating subject — it rises in Hampstead and Highgate and passes into the Thames at Blackfriars via Kentish Town, Camden, St.Pancras, Farringdon, Clerkenwell, Smithfield, Holborn and (of course) Fleet Street. It is almost entirely covered over but water can be heard rushing down manhole covers at the time.

There’s a really excellent and comprehensive guide to the course of the hidden river on someone called London Geezer’s blog. It might make a good theme for a pub crawl?