It’s not the drink, really, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to sit down. This is all just a little too perfect; the small horseshoe bar, the light refracted in the frosted glass of the windows, the beer pumps standing sentinel, the scrubbed floorboards awaiting the first splash of spilled drink. The deeply satisfying, almost Zen-like pleasure afforded by this arrangement of wood, glass and low ceiling is making me dizzy and I’ve not even raised a glass yet.
I am in the Bricklayer’s Arms, close to the river Thames at Putney, southwest London. One hundred yards away there is another pub, the Duke’s Head, where for 10 years I worked behind the bar and in the cellar, though I began by cleaning the toilets. The experience left me with an abiding interest in London’s pubs, something shared, it seems, with the majority of foreign visitors to the city. The pub and its baffling nomenclature of bricklayers, blacksmiths, carpenters, kings, queens, aristocrats and animals is a quintessentially London institution and on the must-see list with Big Ben and the Tower of London. According to the tourism agency Visit England, 13.8m overseas visitors visited an English pub in 2011, and most of those were in London. But what sort of pub were they looking for?
“Ideally,” Jeremy Brinkworth of Visit London tells me, “somewhere that offers a combination of history and location, with good beer and no noisy machines, so you have the ability to converse.”
As London is currently experiencing a huge influx of visitors, it seems timely to track down such an establishment. Which is why I have just ordered my second pint of the day; after a week canvassing experts and fellow Londoners, I have set out to find the capital’s perfect pub.
So far I am struggling to find Putney’s perfect pub. Earlier I approached the Telegraph on Putney Heath and entered a cottage garden complete with rose bowers and rustic benches. Over an idyllic pint I considered the power of the bucolic in English culture, even within a few miles of the centre of the country’s largest urban settlement. You could say that English culture itself began in a London pub. When Geoffrey Chaucer first gathered the Knight, Franklin, Duchess, Wife of Bath and the other pilgrims of the Canterbury Tales he did so at The Tabard Inn at Southwark. John Keats, in some eyes our greatest poet, was born in a London pub (The Swan and Hoop in Moorgate, now renamed Keats at the Globe) and penned one of his most heartfelt panegyrics for one: “Souls of poets dead and gone,/ What Elysium have ye known,/ Happy field or mossy cavern,/ Choicer than the Mermaid Tavern?”
Even the Telegraph has played a part in our history and literature. Cabinet members George Canning and Lord Castlereagh fought a duel with pistols in front of the pub in 1809, and in HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898) it is here that the tripods of the Martian invaders first loom over south-west London.
The tripods were fantasy but recently London’s pubs have suffered the very real threat of extinction. In the 1990s many young Londoners inverted Keats’ advice and forsook the Mermaid for happy fields and mossy caverns, swept up in rave culture that cared little for alcohol or the quietly contemplative. Simultaneously a property boom meant hundreds of pubs were worth more as real estate than they would ever make from beer. The result was near catastrophe as Christine Cryne, national director for Campaign for Real Ale, tells me. “We lost 80 per cent of pubs in St John’s Wood alone. We’re still losing about 12 pubs a week nationally, but it seems to have slowed down in London, mainly because property prices have slumped.”
When I ask Cryne to name her favourite pub she replies without hesitation: “The Harp at Charing Cross. It’s a cracking pub and the staff really are so knowledgeable about the beer.” I test their knowledge in the mid afternoon. The walls of The Harp’s narrow bar, only minutes from Trafalgar Square, are lined with portraits – James Mason, Elizabeth Taylor and WC Fields – who look down alongside obscure aristocrats and literary figures. The bar woman takes me through the pub’s rightly lauded selection of British beers and ciders and I take my pint to a stool below James Mason. There are only three tables, at one of them two English men are passing Brinkworth’s conversation test, earnestly discussing who would win in a fight between a mobile missile launcher and a tank.
It is intimate and, vitally, touched by the eccentric, but is it perfect? Until comparatively recently London was the greatest city in the world, shouldn’t its pubs reflect that grandeur? Alex Werner, head curator at the Museum of London, explains that the London pub reached its zenith in the Victorian era. “The 19th century is the moment the London pub takes off,” he says. “Before then they were inns but in the 1830s and 1840s completely new types of structures arrive; gas lights, glass, gilding and their bright colours. For me, a perfect London pub will have retained those fixtures and fittings, it will be a pub where you can get close to what it must have felt like in the Victorian period.”
Just a wobble up St Martin’s Lane from the Harp I find a supreme example of an ostentatious 19th-century pub building. The 1892 interior of The Salisbury is astonishing: glass mirrors, half-moon Chesterfield snugs, art noveau lamps in the shape of naked women – even the windows are acid etched with lions and flora. But this is the West End and so many tourists are in the pub already that it has ceased to be the thing they have come to see.
Crushed and buffeted, I cross Shaftesbury Avenue and seek sanctuary in Soho. I’m not the first; the area’s pubs have welcomed revolutionaries, mavericks, poets and philosophers. The most famous, perhaps, being Karl Marx. In December 1847 after a two-day drinking binge-cum-debate above the Red Lion on Great Windmill Street, members of a secret committee of the Communist League commissioned Marx and Frederic Engels to write the Communist Manifesto. Today, the Red Lion is no more, the pub responsible for “you have nothing to lose but your chains” has been taken over by a chain itself, and is now part of a group of cocktail bars.
Happily I have a recommendation to follow. I have been told that access to the snug bar at The John Snow requires ducking under a wood partition, the kind of quirk that is an essential element of pubness.
The name too is intriguing. John Snow ended an outbreak of cholera in 1854 by identifying the cause as the public water pump. Inside the pub, water is notable by its absence; a large young crowd lashes back lager and white wine so urgently that peacefully enjoying Snow’s legacy is impossible.
London has a habit of commemorating people who have done undoubted good for the public health with institutions that sell alcohol (there was once a Florence Nightingale at Waterloo where, unfortunately, the lamps went out in 2005). The Lamb, in Lambs Conduit Street, Bloomsbury, is a head-clearing 20-minute walk from the John Snow and named for William Lamb, who built a conduit that brought fresh drinking water into the city in 1577. Variously described to me as a “bolt hole” and “nirvana”, the interior is a womb-like combination of leather, brass and wood, but sinking into what might be my fifth pint a doubt occurs – surely a London drinker must feel the pulse of the city, the passage of great events?
For that I must head further east. In this Olympic year it is not just London’s cultural and sporting axis that has shifted, drinking has as well. When Young’s stopped brewing in Wandsworth in 2006 only Fullers of Chiswick remained as a major London real ale producer, but in the past five years the gap has been filled by a new generation of small brewers such as Stuart Lascelles, who gave up a career as a research chemist to put his life savings (“and some of my wife’s”) into the East London Brewing Company. “I thought I saw a gap in the market,” he tells me. “Now there are five other breweries in my part of London alone. But go to The Royal Oak in Columbia Road – they take a lot of my beer.”
As Lascelles’ hoppy pale ale settles in the glass, I watch the rain smattering against the windows. The beer is as wonderful as the setting: warm lighting, tasteful restored wainscotting and bright, helpful, staff. But the Royal Oak is almost too well oiled – it lacks the tatty edges.
As I finish the pale ale I remember another Royal Oak. A friend had spent a wonderful evening there but on going back had found the pub had gone as if, like the Land of Green Ginger, it floated away each evening and settled in a new place each day. I find it, though, on Tabard Street, a short walk from where Chaucer’s pilgrims gathered. A corner house arranged around a vestibule which is too small to be a room but too big to be a porch, on either side beer flows into two bars untroubled by chart music but throbbing with conversation. Immediately I realise that this is it. Settling in a corner I watch the shapes of smokers through the glass, they appear to morph and change in the street light. Is that the Knight, the Franklin and the Duchess? It’s been a long day, it might just be the drink.
Michael Hodges is executive editor of Time Out
This article is subject to a correction and has been amended
● The Bricklayer’s Arms: 32 Waterman Street, Putney, SW15 1DD; the nearest underground station is Putney Bridge
● The Telegraph: Telegraph Road, Putney Heath, SW15 3TU; East Putney
● Keats At The Globe: 85 Moorgate, EC2M 6SA; Moorgate
● The Harp: 47 Chandos Place, WC2N 4HS; Leicester Square
● The Salisbury: 90 St Martin’s Lane, WC2N 4AP; Leicester Square
● The John Snow: 39 Broadwick Street, Soho, W17 9QJ; Piccadilly Circus or Oxford Circus
● The Lamb: 94 Lambs Conduit Street, Bloomsbury, WC1N 3LZ; Russell Square
● The Royal Oak: 73 Columbia Road, E2 7RG; Old Street
● The Royal Oak: 44 Tabard Street, Borough, SE1 4JU; Borough