August 16, 2012 by LeVoyageur
I’m going into vacation mode, so some frivolity for a change…
It is mid-Winter and somewhere in the Shire, Tolkien and Lewis have settled themselves into their favorite old chairs, just near the roaring fire, and each man is quietly contemplating the pint of good dark ale that is set before them by the congenial publican. Their pipes emit curling smoke and the glow of England’s oak, becoming embers, is upon them. Their conversation begins as if it never ended and they are in one of their own studies. Here in the pub they have left the world behind as their great creative minds tap into the collective memories of ancient lore and their stories percolate in this den of creativity…
The Pub. It’s surely one of the great draws of traveling the UK, with its storied image. It is not really my intention here to burst any bubbles. I try to not be a kill-joy. But the warm, cozy pub, where you’re always welcome, is not really something I’ve experienced in the UK. In our country walks and city living, we have been to a fair variety of pubs, some very nice. In the past 10-20 years, as I understand it, many pubs have become ‘gastropubs’ in which cuisine is the focal point of the establishment. Gastropubs offer a great array of quality food and we’ve really enjoyed some of them. But at the end of the day, a gastropub is by any other name really just a restaurant.
I may be doing it wrong. I’m not British, or even English, so I might be missing the finer points of going to a pub. In our first year here, it was a bit difficult. At Christmastime, more often than not pubs were closed for special events. Gangs of workmates would have their festive parties there which is all well and good if you’re a workmate. Walking through the neighborhood in the evening in the weeks leading up to Christmas you find lots of closed doors. Not exactly a welcome sight on a cold Winter’s eve.
Most pubs are chain affairs. In 2008 according to the Caterer and Hotel Keeper 53% of pubs were owned by pub companies and another 16% by breweries. 31% were independently owned and that number was seen as declining. The British recognize that the traditional pub, and traditional beer, is becoming an endangered species. CAMRA is just one organization devoted to advocating for the traditional British pub and ale.
The institution that is nearest and dearest to every Anglo-Saxon heart is their ‘local.’ Local pub that is, the place where everyone probably does know your name. To be fair, one of the charming aspects of pub culture is that they are truly family affairs. Often you will see multiple generations down at the pub on a Sunday afternoon for a meal. It is one of the reasons why the idea of the pub is so alluring the world over. For many, it is truly the center of their community.
In our neighborhood, which is a mix of tower blocks and condos, design firms and chip shops, there are a range of pubs to suit every customer. Near the giant main post office are pubs that cater to postal workers. There are pubs for locals and pubs for tourists. There are gastropubs and boozers, literary pubs and beer specialists.
There are three pubs that we have found nearby that drew us in for one reason or another, two of which I like to take friends from out-of-town to for a pint. The first is the Jerusalem Tavern. Brewery-owned, it is the sole location of St. Peter’s Brewery which makes excellent beers and is exported to America where I first had it. Stepping into the Jerusalem Tavern is a bit like stepping back in time. There is no TV, no music. Ancient as pubs go, it is a draw in part because of an association with the nearby Priory of St. John and the Templars. It also has a great atmosphere. And very good beer.
Craft Beer is a rarity in London. Taking a cue from the thriving microbrewing culture in Quebec and America, it focuses on small UK breweries, offering over 30 beers and ales on tap and many more in bottles from around the world. I enjoy trying new microbrews, so for me this is about as close as I’ve come to having a ‘local.’ The guys that work there are friendly and if it’s too busy to find a seat, you can just go outside and stand by the curb. The street it’s on is a largely pedestrian market street, so while it may not be the cleanest place in the world, there’s not a lot of traffic.
Finally, an honorable mention goes to the pub closest to our flat, Filthy MacNasty’s. Offering literary events, pub quizzes, and music, it is the pub I want to like. But to be honest, it’s just another pub. We’ve gone there a few times. It’s fine. But in the form of many ‘locals,’ if they don’t know you, well, they don’t know you. But, it’s got such a great name I have to include it.