We call the British pub many things, always with affection in our hearts and rarely with anger (save that for those who ruin this uniquely British institution) — the pub is where we meet and greet friends, neighbours, strangers (friends in the making) and (on occasion) future lovers; it is also the place where we go for peace, to take time out from the demands of the day, and if we’re really honest it’s an escape, and why not? Some escape and pray to a god that might or might not exist, while others climb mountains where they will find themselves free. We might do all of this as well, but the pub, for me, is the great escape (though mountains also have their place).
And what of these pubs? Some are gloriously and stubbornly old-fashioned: dark, cloistered places dedicated to the arcane art of drinking, where the snug has survived the attentions of those eminent Victorians who thought it a home to vice. A sense of continuity and history resonates from the pictures and prints that cover the walls. The log fire burns with a cheery blaze of red-faced contentment, drawing in the pub dog (or dogs), which claims it as a hearth from home. The same folk gather during the week, some night after night, others rationing their appearances with the same sense of care that the canniest of celebrities apply to public appearances.
Some pubs are fresh and bright, upbeat and eager with light pouring in; they are all the better to appreciate the bright hoppy chatter of a golden beer in its glass. Cosy sofas comfort, stripped pine furniture soothes, while beers from home and abroad and food with an accent on the unusual offer sustenance. Mine’s a glass of craft beer from across the Atlantic, barrel aged and infused with Brettanomyces (but tomorrow I might fancy a tangy IPA from Yorkshire or a beautifully lagered bock from the Bavarian countryside).
Then there are pubs that serve food; a continuation of the great tradition began by the medieval monasteries when they started the inn. I wouldn’t mind a Scotch egg, which properly done, is a magnificent beast, the antithesis to the kind of creature that makes its appearance in a service station, pallid and wan in its crinkly, see-through plastic wrapper. The one I’m thinking of will be crispy on the outside, the size of a cricket ball and golden brown in colour, the sort of beautiful looking creation that immediately lights up the day (at the Dean Swift near Borough Market I saw a crayfish Scotch egg advertised, I must return to try it out). On the other hand I also like the idea of fish and chips (crisp but pliant batter wrapping itself around the sweet, yielding flesh of the fish in the company of the sort of fluffy, firm chips with plenty of salt and vinegar).
Whether old, middle-aged or new, a good pub is a comfort, a crossroads of social mobility, a centre of communications and a place where the reward of a great beer sustains during the long working day. There are town pubs, city pubs, suburban pubs, seaside pubs, village pubs, in the middle-of-nowhere pubs, pub pubs, and brewpubs where the beer is freshly brewed on the premises. Each of these pubs will be quite different and each will have its own unique atmosphere. But one thing that binds all good pubs together is that they are the heartbeat of a community, as well as being a home of good beer.
So what don’t I like? I can’t bare the sort of place where only men gather and the air still remains thick with five-year-old tobacco fumes and the beer slops on the floor with the abandonment of an inebriated ballet dancer. This is the man cave where no women, children, young people, funny looking buggers and ‘pretentious’ people are tolerated to gather; there is no food apart from a pickled egg the colour of a Welsh slate mine and a bag of Golden Wonder crisps (Bovril flavour) that was young when Jim fixed it every Saturday evening. Some might like the idea of taking a holiday in this version of other people’s hell, but I’m done with this sort of pub for the rest of my life.
On the other hand, there are people whose idea of a perfect pub is one which doesn’t look like a pub, where every table has a neatly written ‘reserved’ card standing on the table like a doorman at the Ritz (and just as disdainful to the wrong sort of person). There will be an IKEA-like cleanliness to the place with plenty of scrubbed pine, a bar as polished as a Guardsman’s pair of boots, and of course a chalked up menu that will promise all sorts of gastronomic delights such as pan-fried this and that, jus de something or other and steak and kidney pud (you can almost hear the mock-jovial tones of the person who wrote the menu).
There will be decent beer but it will not be the sort of place you feel you can linger and slowly drink several hours away, newspaper to hand. Oh there will be locals, a rough diamond, adopted as a pet by the retired stockbroker/villain/failed major who parks their piles on the stool at the bar most days.
We can’t all get it right so here are five of my favourite pubs where I hope to while away the autumn and the winter (when I retox rather than detox).
One of my local pubs where roisterers and the retired, toffs, both local and visiting, the salt of the earth and various celebrities come and go to enjoy the ferocious Otter Head (dark and 5.8%) and wine as well as eat great food.
Lots and lots of beer in what was formerly an old school boozer that’s had a thoroughly modern makeover. About 12 cask beers from the leading lights of the craft beer revolution (such as the stupendous Magic Rock) and pretty much the same amount of taps for American, Danish, German, Belgian craft beers (and oh there’s lots of bottles as well).
Old school opening hours but all that means is that you make more of an effort to visit this venerable pub time machine. Its origins are in the middle ages and it has also done time as a brew-house and malt-house (you can see the old brewery behind the pub), while once you’ve had a glass from the serving hatch you can explore the warren of small old-fashioned rooms, parlour-like in their ambience and packed with memorabilia.
Architectural time capsule, basically left alone since the 1920s when its then brewery owners remodelled it in the style of the times. Think art nouveau tiling in the lobby, art deco flourishes here and there and plenty of timber and red brick. After a spell as one of the worse pubs in town, it reopened in 2010 and is now run by four local breweries.
As soon as I came to the Red Lion I wanted to move to Cricklade, even though I’d never been there before. The main bar featured stuffed animals’ heads and antlers on its bare brick walls (a wild boar here, an ibex there), while a gang of old bottles hung around on a shelf. Beer was on the collection list as well: there were 10 cask beers, German lager and plenty of bottles from around the world. Oh and landlord Tom has also installed his own brewing kit. This is a place where beer (and food) gets the respect it deserves.
Adrian Tierney-Jones writes for a variety of papers and magazines including the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Times Travel Magazine; his two most recent books are 1001 Beers You Should Taste Before You Die and Great British Pubs (which should be on your Christmas list).
Some great articles to read while sampling the local brew
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