COVENT GARDEN – JULY 2019

Once gifted away by Henry VIII to a favoured Earl, Covent Garden is now a haven for tourists, suits and 30-something bloggers with delusions of grandeur.

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Greg waited patiently while I enthusiastically captured a picture of every Covent Garden Station sign in sight. The nervous excitement of being back at the helm after just shy of two years lead me to giddy overcompensation – a trait I fear is carried through most aspects of my existence.

The moment harked back to those initial awkward fumblings around Acton, Alperton and Amersham when we would naively venture to the unknown sprawls of outer London with our notebooks in pocket, our floppy fringes bouncing over our eyes and Greg’s soon-to-be pilfered DSLR swinging pendulously from his neck in its bespoke leather pouch. But that was six years ago. We’re now in our 30’s, our hair is shorter, one of us married and our documentation done solely on smartphones and touchscreens. We’ve made our mistakes and we’ve learnt from them. We’re now the elder statesmen of London’s pubscape. The Great Gatsbys of the capital’s many taverns and taprooms. The word ‘debonair’ hasn’t often been used to describe us, but I’m certain it’s constantly on the tip of the masses’ collective tongue.20190705_215415

Once my full mapping of the tube station’s signage was complete, we set off on our fifty-fifth crawl and, this being one of the busier and boozier parts of London, simply set our compasses for beer and marched towards the crowds.

The Nag’s Head, The White Lion and The Punch & Judy all provided pleasing if uninspiring bevvies and surroundings (plus some questionably coloured bacon and shoe-sole tough chicken at The Punch & Judy) but we yearned for some refined imbibing to match our now mature and cultivated tastes. The foppish Greg and Andy of 2013 may have gulped down such banality with wide-eyed wonder, but not the fully grown, big-boy-pants Gregory and Andrew of 2019. Thus, we drank alfresco on the piazza adjacent to Vini Italiani and, back dropped by the flaming pink of a balmy Friday dusk, spoke around important philosophical subjects like proper adults. I think.

Searching for indoor refreshment, the temperature dipping to a prickly 20 degrees, we headed, naturally, to renowned watering hole of the upper echelons, The Ivy (Market Grill, I admit) – casually strolling in as if it were an everyday occurrence of the most pedestrian nature. Unlike Kelly’s in Brent Cross four years previous, The Ivy had no issue with Greg showing off his defined calves in characteristic short-shorts – the famed diner under no illusion that just having us in their establishment was akin to a marketing campaign spend of untold millions. They did fear for our fast turning inebriation, however.

“You can only have a drink if you have food as well”, the maître-d informed us.

“Can we just have some peanuts then?” Greg offered.

“It has to be cooked food.”

Roasted peanuts?”

20190705_224037After some gentlemanly negotiation, we were allowed to booze in return for the purchasing of one dessert each. Our favourite cocktails were ordered, Greg’s being so rarely requested the waiter very nearly wrote down the ingredients direct from the menu, and theatrical, Wimbledon themed puddings brought out for our enjoyment and entertainment.

From here we managed swifties at The Maple Leaf and The Marquis and, not for the first time, subsequently found ourselves being slowly locked out by the city that never sleeps as it prepared to slumber. The hour seemed embarrassingly early, our tanks certainly weren’t full of finest hops and grapes, and yet we were turned away, again and again, by exhausted staff wiping down tables after long shifts.

With few options ahead of us, our thirsts not yet quenched and the drinks at The Ivy adding to our already inflated sense of self, we decided to knock back a few and take a punt at Lola’s Underground Casino, a cabaret bar deep in the bowels of The Hippodrome at Leicester Square.

Although Greg is, without hyperbole, one of the most morally upstanding people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting, he is easily tempted by the lure of a roulette table. Greg never fails to call out unsavoury comments from even the roughest patron of any bar we’ve visited – a trait of his I have unending admiration for – and our 20190706_003050conversations seem to run almost continuously, but once the wheel spins and the ball is flung you may very well be drinking alone as his world is now nothing but baize and his loved ones only croupiers.

Greg tempted me to the table with a spontaneous birthday gift of ten pounds in chips and gave me some cheery insider tips. Drawn in by his optimism I put everything on even. It came up odd. There ended the dramatic and sweeping expanse of my career as a highflying gambler.

Over our final beer in Lola’s, the last train beckoning, we discussed how often we’ll be able to crawl now our lives are taking us away from this most diverse of cities. Four a year? Two a year? One a year? With 212 tube stations left to visit, the task seems even greater than it did 50 stops ago.

We agreed, with misty, bloodshot eyes, that even completing a meagre twenty percent has been a great pleasure and that the remaining majority may have to be eked out over the coming decades. But as long as we are friends, and there are pubs, and one of us can remember the WordPress login details, we will continue to beat on, drinkers against the bars, borne back ceaselessly into the blog.

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NEXT STOP: CROXLEY (arrival tbc)

COLLIERS WOOD – June 2019

ULPC has returned! Like Jesus, we are back from the dead, albeit after a longer interval than JC’s impatient 3-day regeneration. Our messianic comeback took place not in Jerusalem, but rather in that other most holy of places: the Golgotha of South London, otherwise known as Colliers Wood.

It had been a dry 22 months. Andy had left, heartlessly and selfishly, for Australia in August 2017 and since then the crawl had been on permanent hiatus. I sat by the phone, waiting for a call from my one-time drinking buddy. Months passed. I eschewed all personal responsibilities. My wife grew restless, friends and family gradually fell away, my seclusion became evermore complete. I had renounced all hope for the return of the prodigal son when a radiant message was conveyed to me from on high: he was coming back to the motherland in June for a few short weeks. The crawl, ladies and gentlemen, was back on.

It was a wet Tuesday evening. Andy and I met in the beer garden of The Charles Holden, both of us stoically holding back tears as we caught up on the major and minor happenings of the last two years. Andy shared some memorable events from his new life down under: delivering lambs on a farm, meeting his girlfriend Margaux, watching C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments now lost in time, like tears in beer.

After our cathartic reunion, we quickly returned to our wry, laconic selves and moved on to The Royal Standard where we were joined by previous ULPC guest, Helen. She treated us to a lengthy piece of physical comedy, spending several minutes wrestling her way out of an obstinate rain jacket. She made it appear impromptu, but I could tell she’d been working on that skit for months. The pub was of the carpeted, live sports, local boozer variety. Men sat drinking, singly and in pairs. I ventured to the gents and a solo drinker followed me. He joined me at the urinals, gave me a cheeky wink and said, “it go in one end and out the t’other, dun’t it!” This remarkable insight, delivered in a jaunty iambic hexameter, gave me pause for thought. Yes, I thought to myself, my God, yes — the fellow is right! He then asked me if I was a local, the flatterer. I admitted that, no, I lived near Kingston. He then proceeded to reel off an accurate list of all the riverside pubs south of Kingston Bridge. What a man.

Refreshed by conversation, but in need of something tastier than the poor quality ale in The Royal Standard, we trotted across the road to the intriguing Venus Bar. The walls were bedecked with images and quotes pertaining to the goddess of sexual love. They even had a cocktail in her honour, aptly and succinctly named the Sex Bomb. We ordered three. Helen and I, our bravado increased by Aphrodite’s sweet liquor, recited a bawdy Australian poem to Andy, which I felt summed up his current situation perfectly: The Bastard from the Bush. It was a heartfelt performance and every single punter in the place whooped and cheered upon its competition.

We left the now-empty Venus Bar, and soon found a pub with perhaps the best name of the entire crawl: Kiss Me Hardy. (I won’t indulge in a historical discussion on the last words of Lord Nelson at this juncture, but if interested, you can read more here.) Sadly, the interior life of this pub was no match for its quirky moniker. As Andy pointed out at the time, it felt like the kind of place you’d encounter on a work trip to Swindon when forced to have a ‘team-building drink’ with boring, sociopathic colleagues called Colin. It lacked soul.

Next came The Nelson Arms, a pub which enjoys placing some of its patrons in mortal danger by the devil-may-care location of its dartboard. With the unforgiving minutes ticking away, we lustily downed our drinks, hoping to fit in one more tavern before last orders. The Sultan hove into view and our wish was granted. A pub quiz had just finished and we acquired three brimming pints before the barman’s bell tolled. It was here that we met Richard, an old veteran who came over to introduce himself after I’d been obnoxiously tinkling on the pub’s piano for a few moments. He praised my “wonderful Chopin and more wonderful Mozart”; in fact I’d played neither. To be honest, I can’t remember exactly what I’d played, but in all likelihood it was either The Chain or perhaps Tubular Bells. Anyhow, he requested some more Chopin, and so I improvised something quasi-Chopin-like, (possibly the Buffy theme tune played as a slow waltz) which he praised richly.

Order in the universe had been restored. We were back on the crawl, if only for one final night. Thank you Helen, Aphrodite, and Richard for enlightening our Colliers Wood experience. Will we return? Have faith, readers. As a prophet once foresaw: “they shall rise again, in the Garden of Covent.”

NEXT STOP: COVENT GARDEN (arrival tbc)

COLINDALE – August 2017

In terms of London boroughs, Colindale is remarkably youthful. Don’t take this to mean it is an on-trend trailblazer. If anything, this youngling has been left behind.

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“Here a little early and there’s already a drunk terrorising commuters outside the station.” Reading Greg’s message I was of course hoping he was referring to himself in the third person. How pleasing it would be to step off the train and discover Greg turning his reddened eyes to each innocent passer-by and giving them a piece of his sullied mind. Unfortunately this fantasy would remain a rendering of my imagination and, instead of a drink-fuelled Greg windmill-ing wildly at TFL staff, he was himself caught in the middle of a tirade from the drunkard.

“Well, really nice meeting you” Greg politely and sincerely chirped at the drunk as I approached and we headed out into Colindale, forever unsure what is was the man had disliked about Greg.

Greg warned me that the night would be one of lengthy journeys between bars and our first stop, The Beaufort, was no exception. But with a sizeable outdoor seating area and the summer rays beaming down, it was a pleasant enough place to enjoy a crisp post-work pint. He also warned me that we would be reacquainting ourselves with pubs from Burnt Oak which we crawled round in December 2015.

Heading back past the station we found our way to the Chandos Arms, the same bar in which we had toasted to the little baby Jesus at last orders some 20 months previous.

“There’s space over here” a familiar voice chimed and there, sat around a small table, were a cluster of ULPC friends and regulars, secretly invited by Greg to celebrate our final crawl before a hiatus. Spirits suitably lifted, we sat down to enjoy some stand-up comedy in the Chandos Arms.IMG_6957.JPG

I often find people who use the phrase “if you could even call it comedy” in response to low laughs a little trite and wearisome. But, alas, now I must give myself the same label as this was comedy only by title.

After the usual rounds of what’s your name and what do you do, one of the jokes that was offered (I will condense it here for your own sanity) was purely this: “have you ever seen those people who, when the Oyster Card reader at the underground station doesn’t work, just stare at it?”

I almost fear by recounting it I have given it more credit than it deserves. All the other acts were of a similarly mind-numbing standard. The funniest quip was authored by a local who, during the interval, warned me that the AK-47 pizza, named so due to the amount of chillies generously applied, was only worth ordering “if you don’t have any plans tomorrow”. The fact this pleasantly crude allusion from another barfly garnered more chuckles from me than the four comedians on stage will, I’m sure, give you some insight into the banality of their jokes.

IMG_6948From here we meandered to The Shanakee. We had, as with Chandos Arms, visited this pub previously but had forgotten it still resided in a pre-digital age and cash or the trading of labour were the only legitimate forms of payment. Due to its generational inertia there was also an audible gasp when Greg’s fiancé, Helen, asked for a white wine.

From here we drank in the unpopulated McGowans Irish Bar where we had sung Fairytale of New York at karaoke nearly two years previous, and finally, and pleasingly, we found our way to another The Moon Underwater – named after George Orwell’s vision of a perfect pub.IMG_6972.JPG

It was, of course, ostensibly another Wetherspoons and held all the charm and interest of other establishments under the goliath’s management. But, with the knowledge this would be the last Ultimate London Pub Crawl for some months, I offer here an 11th, and admittedly saccharine, rule to Orwell’s essay:

The pub must be populated by a diverse slice of society and, if possible, you must be surrounded by friends who can make you laugh to tears.

Over four years and 53 pub crawls (without missing a single month, I hasten to add) London has proved, again and again, that it is its joyous, welcoming, bizarre and diverse populous that make it what it is – one of the greatest cities on earth.

I’m hope when ULPC returns the same will be true – I’m sure it will.

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NEXT STOP: COLLIERS WOOD (arrival tbc)

 

COCKFOSTERS – July 2017

With a name that provokes a puerile snigger from many of us, would Cockfosters deliver the sort of unsophisticated beer-fest that the name suggests, or would it oppose its moniker and be awash with elegant cocktail bars? We set off to find out.

The bright thwack of ball on bat greeted us as we ambled up to The Cock Inn. A local cricket match was playing out on the village green. The early evening sun was still strong and we could hear glasses clinking and the contented murmur of conversation drifting over from the beer garden. We marvelled at this quintessentially English idyll just a few minutes’ walk from a Zone 5 tube station. London felt incredibly far away.

My friend David had joined us for this month’s outing and we settled down in the beer garden to wait for Andy. David had just completed a ‘dry June’ and since this was July 1st he was allowed to imbibe once again. I felt a curious mix of emotions: pride that he’d lasted a month sans alcohol; fraternal happiness that he could drink again; and guilt that I was the one encouraging him back on the booze. Before long I let the fraternal happiness take over as we enjoyed the tranquil surroundings, the intermittent thwack of the cricket ball continuing to underscore our first pint.

Andy soon joined us, delighting in the comedic opportunities afforded by the pub’s name. I knew that it was at least a mile’s walk to the next drinking hole, so we made sure that our thirst was fully slaked before reluctantly leaving the rural paradise of The Cock Inn. On the pleasant stroll to The Prince of Wales we took in the sights of Suburbia: manicured front lawns, stone lion statues impotently guarding front doors, occasional faux Roman columns supporting nothing but the owners’ misdirected and overblown sense of status.

We drank and dined al fresco at The Prince of Wales and took in the last of the evening sun before moving onto a pub that seems committed to remain firmly in the 1990s: the Lord Kitchener. It had been a pleasant if uneventful night so far and David was determined to spice things up. With a mischievous grin he reached into his bag and pulled out…a newspaper. Deftly locating the crossword, he spread it out proudly on the sticky tabletop and we spent an intellectual five minutes tackling this most classic of word games. As our minds started to flag, we realised further mental fuel was needed, and so hastened onwards to The Railway Bell. It was here that we invented an utterly new word game, the likes of which the world had never seen before. This new game was both hilarious AND mentally rigorous and Andy quickly bestowed upon it a name, and what a glorious name it is: cockword.

The rules of cockword are simple. Take any crossword grid. Ignore all the clues. Think of rude words that fit exactly into the various spaces on the grid. If there are several of you, take it in turns. Continue fitting rude words into the grid until it is complete. As the game progresses you will find it harder and harder to find rude words to fit the remaining spaces and so a bit of lexical creativity is not only allowed but actively encouraged. However, you must be able to provide a definition for any new rude words you have deemed it necessary to coin. A few examples from the world’s inaugural game of cockword:

xenocum – the reproductive fluid of ghosts
mumbum – a mother’s posterior
iPedo – a new but highly controversial Apple device

You get the idea. Feel free to try this delightful new game with your friends – but please, remember its ULPC heritage.

Needless to say, cockword kept us occupied for quite some time. Eventually David had to head home while Andy and I had one more drink at The Railway Tavern while completing the final moves, and devilishly difficult they were too, of our debut cockword puzzle. We felt smug the whole journey home. We ended up having a bit of time to kill at King’s Cross and so celebrated our proud cockword success by posing for a few snaps at J. K. Rowling’s famous Platform 9 and three quarters.

Cockfosters will now go down in history as not only the 52nd stop on the Ultimate London Pub Crawl but also the ancestral home of cockword. Wizard.

NEXT STOP: COLINDALE

CLAPHAM SOUTH – June 2017

“If you make a trilogy, the whole point is to get to that third chapter, and the third chapter is what justifies what’s come before” – Peter Jackson

“Sea Lion” Mikey announced with unwavering certainty after a short, shrugging interlude from his audience. The answer to the conversation opening question he had proposed was blindingly obvious to him. What kind of Luddite would even consider an alternative?

Greg and I were reasonably well liquored by the point Mikey laid down his assertions. Had we been holding onto our senses and faculties with a touch more gusto we may have been inclined to request some definition. But with dusk rolling past and considering how, at this point in the evening at least, he was a perfect stranger, we simply nodded and smiled.

Mikey’s question, of course, was “which animal would be best to have sex with?” The ferocity and velocity of his answer can only lead one to conclude it was a quandary he had spent many hours exploring.

Mikey’s sexually charged zoological query was offered to us on the terrace of The Grove – a pleasant enough pub just off the main drag of Balham High Road, where we ended up seeing the night out.

Arriving at Clapham South some hours previous we had indulged in conversation and voluntary liver damage at The Rookery, The Windmill, The Abbeville and The Avalon. As with the first two stops in our Clapham Trilogy, the pubs in the area catered almost exclusively to a very particular Londoner – young, wealthy and attractive in a scripted reality sort of way. Solid, slick backed hair and pink, knife sharp shirts for the boys. Long, styled hair, generous make-up and bejewelled digits for the girls. Not that I am sneering or criticising – all seemed perfectly pleasant and amiable as they discussed closing deals and making target over bottles of Prosecco. But the stylings of the pubs and patrons in Clapham are so unrelenting in their fashion it’s difficult to leave the bland predictability uncommented. Nights out in Clapham are not too dissimilar to walking through a drunkard, millennial re-write of The Stepford Wives.

However, The Grove, which we found some way towards the end of the evening, was more akin to a local boozer. The group we fell into conversation with were all on first name terms with the bar staff, they had a large and friendly dog draped across them and broke off intermittently to wave at a neighbour walking past.

The confab was pleasant with the group and we were treated to fresh pints by our new friends throughout the night. One can only assume Mikey was either in the middle of a dry spell or was getting it daily, nightly and ever so rightly as when he found himself at the conversation’s helm he would always, and without fail, gallantly steer talk to his preferences and conquests. The satisfaction of making a partner climax was enthusiastically detailed along with cunnilingus techniques and notches on bed posts.

Mikey was a handsome thirtysomething former rugby player, said he was in a long-term relationship and spoke, regardless of intimate content, confidently and eloquently. Kurt, a mildly rotund middle aged gent, similarly had a way with words. On discovering Greg was engaged to be married he bestowed him the godly title “Skateboarding Champion of Love”.

As last orders rang through the night we bid farewell to The Grove and finally, after three crawls, to Clapham. Looking back over the months we spent there one can’t help but consider wrapping up our findings in a useful and pithy tagline the local council could use as a sub-heading on their visitors’ page.

‘Clapham – plain and simple.’

NEXT STOP: COCKFOSTERS

CLAPHAM NORTH – May 2017

Pub crawl number 50, in which we revisit the spot where ULPC was born…

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From Clapham Common last month to Clapham North this month – what variety we are treated to by arranging our route alphabetically! And the geographical diversity doesn’t end there: next month is Clapham South. The trio of Clapham tube stations isn’t the only trinity we will encounter over the course of our ramblings; there are three Heathrows, three Hounslows and three Ruislips. I’m looking forward to the three Heathrows with a deep masochistic relish.

Even though we had only moved half a mile down the road from last month’s crawl, we had no fear of impinging upon ground already covered. My slight knowledge of the area told me that there would be pubs aplenty and no need to consult a map beforehand. Our pals Oli and Leon were highly distraught to miss last month’s anniversary outing, and so they joined us here – 4 years and 1 month into our 23-year challenge – which we discovered was actually another milestone: our 50th crawl. Our half-century.

Screen Shot 2017-06-18 at 14.42.00We clinked glasses to this weighty achievement in our first pub, blessed with a name of stunning originality: The Clapham North. We caught up with each other’s lives over a cool beverage, continuing discussions in The Falcon on Bedford Road. By the time we reached Fifty Five At The Oak we were fully up-to-date with the recent doings and movements of each member of the group and could now tackle subjects of wider significance. The dim ambience and presence of half-price cocktails led us naturally to talk of space travel, nuclear warfare, and how to guarantee the survival of our frail and idiotic human species. As our cocktails (raffishly entitled ‘Johnny Appleseed’ and ‘Show Me The Honey’) began to take effect, dialogue segued seamlessly from issues of planetary importance to an ad-libbed film noir detective scene, no doubt one of devastating verve and wit.

Screen Shot 2017-06-18 at 14.43.54With a spring in our step we moved on to The Bridge, a delightful if cramped gay bar under the arches of Clapham High Street station. To our consternation not one of us, prime specimens of manhood that we are, received any romantic attention whatsoever, so we moved on all of ten yards across the road to Cellar SW4, a small, smart-looking wine bar. Since we’d already mixed pints with cocktails we threw caution to the wind and ordered a bottle of red. But not just any red. It was here that Oli surprised us all by his truly impressive knowledge of the grape. He perused the wine list with the eye of a seasoned sommelier and, after some consideration, opted for a bottle of Gimblett Gravels Crofters Syrah. To his lasting credit it was a fine, fine choice. We discussed at length the meaning of the phrase “it has legs” (not a marker of quality, but rather of high alcohol content) and felt really rather civilized.

IMG_6494The bottle had to run out at some point and so when it did we moved on another 10 yards to The Railway Tavern, a busier, edgier joint after the relaxed refinement of Cellar SW4. I asked the barman to choose us four of his best bottled beers, upon which his eyes lit up as he embarked on the challenge with energy and dedication. It was an excellent selection, of which I remember the names of none, but I do recall that one tasted strangely of lime.

It was approaching the time when queues were forming outside the many bars and clubs of Clapham High Street. We managed to gain quick access to Adventure Bar, whereupon we were hit by such a strong odour of Sambuca that we literally recoiled. Mastering our olfactory faculties, we made it to the bar which was cash only. Leon selflessly ran off into the night to find a cash point, returning unsuccessfully ten minutes later, while Oli, Andy and I marveled at the unique dance-floor abilities of an overweight middle-aged man who appeared to be entirely on his own. His movements were strange yet assured, he was covered with a veneer of sweat, and yet there was something appealing about this singular figure. Cashless, we had no choice but to leave, and so we inched past his gyrating form, his solo display showing no sign of ending.

After a quick boogie in 64th & Social we continued down Clapham High Street when suddenly Andy stopped, his eyes locked on a nearby club.

Revolution,” he muttered mystically.

“Where it all began…”

A scene began to gather in my mind’s eye. My 25th birthday. A drunken discussion about how many tube stations there are in London and a joyous pledge to visit every single one. It was here, in Revolution, that our historic pledge was made, a pledge we have stuck to thus far, not missing a station yet at a rate of one per month. 50 stations behind us, 220 still ahead, winking to us from the unknowable future.

The bouncers searched our bags and in we went. The venue had acquired legendary proportions in my mind and I expected nothing short of Coleridge’s Xanadu. In reality it wasn’t quite a stately pleasure-dome but it had music and booze and somewhere to dance. We didn’t let ourselves linger over the venue’s emotionally-charged history. Instead, while waiting at the bar we invented the most obnoxious way to pay for drinks ever. When told the price, simply throw your card – or even better your entire wallet – up onto the bar, while saying “there you go love”. Of course, being decent, upright citizens, we never actually employed this technique, but had much fun practicing it and giggling when the bar staff had their backs turned. It really is most pleasing – try it some time.

What rare delights await us down the road in Clapham South next month? I can hardly wait to find out.

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NEXT STOP: CLAPHAM SOUTH