CANNING TOWN – May 2016

“Many select such a dwelling place because they are already debased below the point of enmity to filth.” – Charles Dickens (1857)

Canning Town 1

With Canary Wharf fresh in our minds, we were looking forward to exploring the nearby district of Canning Town which sadly, according to Wikipedia, is “among the 5 per cent most deprived areas of the UK.” Grandeur has always existed in startling proximity to poverty, and London is no exception to this unfortunate truth. But Canning Town is on the rise. A huge regeneration scheme to the tune of £3.7 billion is underway, and the myriad cranes crisscrossing the skyline are a conspicuous testament to the area’s impending metamorphosis.

Dickens, describing Canning Town in the 1850s, wrote that “a fetid mist covers the ground.” Thankfully we saw no evidence of this miasma, strolling out on a clear summer’s evening to track down our first pub. Filled with an inflated sense of derring-do we opted to explore a dusty side road – more of a cart-track really – home to some dilapidated sheds and industrial relics. Initially our tenacity proved foolish, but just as we were about to admit defeat we discovered the Durham Arms, the last bastion of booze in this grubby hinterland. The pub seemed frozen in time, decade after decade having passed with indifference. Its patrons were of such close ilk that they seemed almost of one homogenous life-form, like a vast human fungus sprouting here and there from the ale-soaked carpet. They barely seemed to notice the intrusion of two new individuals in their midst. Indeed, weeks went by before we got served. We used this time to get acquainted with the resident parrot, who sat morosely in its gilt prison behind the bar, subsisting on M&Ms which the landlady doled out in diabetic quantities. Eventually we were granted service and sat drinking in comfortable anonymity, watching the locals reenact their nightly rituals for the ten-thousandth time. But something seemed amiss, something strange or uncanny which we couldn’t quite put our finger on. It wasn’t the parrot. It wasn’t the table of sandwiches that was gradually being set up in the corner (had they been warned of our arrival?). Finally the fog of ignorance cleared: everyone was smoking. Openly smoking, not vaping or simply pre-rolling but drawing deeply on cigarettes, dropping ash nonchalantly in and around countless ashtrays. Dickens’ “fetid mist” was still here after all, alive and well in the Durham Arms. Although we’re both non-smokers, it was strangely uplifting to see a pub flouting the law in so flagrant a fashion; perhaps news of the ban had simply yet to reach them? With a catch in our throats and tears starting to form in our stinging eyes we bid the Durham Arms adieu.

Heading back to Canning Town’s main thoroughfare, we had a quick drink in the Princess Alexandra, where a group of cynical Cockneys were watching Britain’s Got Talent, augmenting Ant and Dec’s commentary with their own adroit analysis. Next came Charlie’s, a more modern establishment with a dapper crowd swaying suavely to dance music. Once again, something seemed amiss. The fog of ignorance cleared faster this time, Andy quickly pointing out the rising spirals of smoke throughout the venue, like so many middle fingers raised to the 2007 smoking ban. Who’d have thought Canning Town would turn out to be an outlaw state, a place where laws were ignored and the populace embraced Aleister Crowley’s self-serving dictum “do what thou wilt”? The air thick with danger – and smoke – we continued deeper into this rebel-held land.

Canning Town 2Bronze, an African/Caribbean Bar & Restaurant, was our next stop and surprisingly smoke-free. Perusing the sizeable beer fridge, Andy selected a bottle of “rich and satisfying” Hero, whereas I opted for the “ultimate beer” otherwise known as Gulder. At first this place seemed suspiciously law-abiding, but the astronomical price we were charged for these two drinks (which, for the record, were neither rich, satisfying, or ultimate) proved that a certain criminality was no doubt at play here too. Nevertheless, Andy and I chatted away happily enough, mulling over what would happen if the loyal patrons of the four previous pubs were forced to explore each other’s boozers. We simply couldn’t imagine it happening, which suggests either a failure of imagination on our part, or the strength of territorial loyalties – or abject inertia – on theirs.

Canning Town 3The evening changed tack as we entered the Red House. Andy seemed different all of a sudden. His eyes lit up and he seemed to grow a few inches in height – a sure sign that a pool table was nearby. He eagerly scribed his name onto the list of upcoming players and waited impatiently to have his go with the pointy wooden stick and the large coloured marbles. I indulged his love for this ‘sport’ – he is actually rather good at it – and watched him bash the marbles into the small goals for a while. After several minutes I needed a rest from this gratuitous athleticism and settled into conversation with John, a middle-aged ex-Navy man with an almost impenetrable Glaswegian accent. By some miracle I managed to perceive the overriding narrative of his mumblings. He had lived quite a life by all accounts, travelling the world extensively during his naval days.

“What did you do for your 18th birthday?” he asked in an out-of-character burst of intelligibility.

“I think I went to a gig and had drinks with friends.” I replied.

“Well, I spent the day in a Bolivian brothel.” said John, former man of the seas and now it seemed, insatiable lover.

“The day?” I retorted.

“Ay, it opened at 8am.”

Images of an 18-year-old John placating a harem of Bolivian harlots swam in hideous clarity before my eyes, the dull sounds of colliding marbles my only link to reality. Eventually Andy let the marbles rest (he’d won four games on the trot and the locals were starting to get restless) and we departed hastily, leaving John staring vacantly – but I like to think happily – into the middle distance.

Canning Town 4It was nearing 11pm and last orders were looming. The Abbey Arms came and went in an oppressive cloud of cheerless masculinity. Ever the optimist, I calculated that we had time for one more drink, if we were willing to jog almost a mile to the Black Lion. Andy, buoyant from his sporting dominance at the Red House, sprinted into the night and it was all I could do to keep pace. As we crossed our last threshold of the evening, slices of birthday cake were thrust into our hands; it was Norman’s 80th! After a brief moment of indecision we plunged into the orgy of senescence and soon found ourselves in the capable arthritic hands of Sonia and Veronica. A doddering singer-pianist crooned out Neil Diamond with the vim and vigour of a mere 70-year-old. Before long Andy was being eyed up by the sprightly and only slightly varicose Mary, and within seconds she was throwing him around the dance floor like a rag doll. Andy was besotted but I sternly (and somewhat enviously) reminded him of the impending last tube, and so we departed Norman’s 80th with Sweet Caroline ringing in our ears and the tantalising tang of elderly urine in our nostrils. This blog’s for you, Norman.

Next stop: CANNON STREET

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BOW ROAD – July 2015

A stone’s throw from the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, would Bow Road make or break the dreams of two eager young hopefuls embarking on the 28th leg of the ultimate test in pub crawl endurance?

Only time would tell…

IMG_3029Bow Road had two possible identities in my mind – I imagined it as either a cockney stronghold or a hotbed for hipsters, spilling over from nearby Hackney. In fact, we didn’t find a great deal near Bow Road itself. Mindful of not impinging on Mile End (to the west) or Bromley-by-Bow (to the east) we turned right along Bow Road, planning to then meander north along the River Lea towards Hackney Wick.

The two pubs Bow Road did deliver – The Little Driver and The Bow Bells – were agreeably traditional establishments with a great beer garden and possibly the comfiest sofa in the East End respectively. Andy and I sank into easy conversation, discovering neither cockneys nor hipsters, just friendly Londoners enjoying a lazy Friday evening drink.

IMG_3041In a relaxed mood, we set off towards the River Lea. The Olympic Stadium swam into view and our endurance was tested as it took almost 30 minutes to find another pub. No matter – we enjoyed the evening air, sporting sights and multifarious graffiti along the river’s edge until The Plough at Swan Wharf appeared, along with the promise of a cool craft beer. I let the barmaid advise my choice of beverage, ending up with a Mokko Milk Stout, a hearty and sweet concoction bringing to mind the Korova Milk Bar where Alex and his droogs supped on drug-laced milk in A Clockwork Orange. Andy received a German wheat beer and we felt quite cosmopolitan sitting on the high outdoor terrace. Shame the bar was only sparsely attended, the burly doorman’s presence surely redundant for such a well-behaved and modest gathering.

IMG_3040Winding through the warehouse-lined backstreets we came across Formans, a rather well-to-do eatery where we imbibed Shoreditch Blondes and munched on olives in the sterile bar area. The sliding doors to the restaurant were decorated with an HD image of smoked salmon, blown up to such monstrous proportions that it made me feel vaguely nauseous just looking at it.

Moving swiftly on, we soon arrived at Crate Bar and Pizzeria. On the banks of the River Lee Navigation Canal, it boasted a huge outdoor drinking area, ample space to dance indoors, a trendy but unpretentious crowd and its very own barge complete with onboard bar. This was a real find, one of the best of the crawl so far. We wandered around, soaking up the atmosphere and settled gleefully on the barge, grinning like schoolboys.

IMG_3051Reluctant to move on but pulled by the restless spirit of the crawl, we took a few steps along from Crate and discovered Howling Hops, the UK’s first “tank bar”, opened only recently but already building up an impressive clientele from Crate’s passing trade and their own enviable beers and impeccable service. Kat, one of the bar staff, let us sample from several tanks and provided gentle suggestions when we seemed indecisive. Andy fell in love within seconds but her dedication to the job was such that he found no appropriate moment in which to woo her with love sonnets. A quick photo had to suffice. We could have stayed all evening, sauntering between Howling Hops and Crate, but the road lured us on. If you ever find yourself in the vicinity, do pay a visit to these two glorious pubs – you won’t be disappointed. And say hi to Kat for Andy.

The Yard Theatre was just a few yards away from Howling Hops and upon entering their bar we found a near perfect vacuum containing just three bar staff and ourselves. Attempting to break our record for the shortest time spent in an establishment we opted for tequilas and were back on the crawl in seconds.

IMG_3104Kat had recommended a venue called Number 90 and we were determined to honour her proposal. Alas, we first came across Turntable and were greeted by a hostile doorman who was deeply offended by Andy’s attempt to enter the venue in the normal manner – by the door. Biting our tongues, we withstood his irksome tirade and eventually managed to gain entry, only to find the bar closed. Number 90 was thankfully next door and, while quiet, it provided some entertainment by way of a pop-up art exhibition. The artist in question was the monstrously talented Stefano Ronchi, better known as RONCH, whose minutely detailed creations kept us diverted until the last tube beckoned. Indeed, it is RONCH who I blame for missing the final train and being forced to splash out on an Uber to Waterloo. (RONCH, if you’re reading this, if you provide an original artwork each as compensation for our disrupted travel plans we’ll call it quits.)

And so we found neither cockneys nor hipsters, but an easy-going, arty district and two genuinely outstanding venues. Crate and Howling Hops, we salute you.
IMG_20150731_233124Next stop: BRENT CROSS

ALDGATE EAST – June 2013

After our wanderings around the financial district and Jack the Ripper’s old haunts, we disembark 500 feet away at Aldgate East, venture eastward, and find an all the more personal, but equally barren, pub-scape.

Aldgate East tube sign

So much has been decided with the toss of a coin. If England bats first, how Tim and Daisy spend their evening, whether or not Anton Chigurh caves your face in with a captive bolt pistol. For Greg and I the coin would decide Commercial Road or Whitechapel Road. We had enjoyed our first drinks at The White Hart, a small bar adjacent to Aldgate East station which holds all the trimmings of your standard British pub and now we stood on the corner outside London Met putting our future in the hands of a grubby two pence piece.

Heads was Commercial, tails was Whitechapel. I flipped the coin, failing to catch and stumbling awkwardly, my hands flapping in front of me as I pursued it across the pavement. It came to rest at the side of the road and, looking down into the dirt, we saw the profile of our fair monarch seal our fate. Commercial Road it was.

Andy's back on the wagon

The first three pubs left little to be desired. To start, The Castle – a rather gloomy affair of matt black paint, sticky flooring and an inexplicable floor to ceiling cage at the top of the stairs. Next, after a worryingly long trudge down Commercial Road, The Hungerford Arms – a small, pokey bar filled with a variety of East London characters and a well-worn pool table. “It’s our local!” exclaimed an ageing, peroxided pearly girl when asked if she drank there often. We asked if there were any more decent pubs nearby: “Whitechapel Road, that’s where you want to be”. But we could not deny the steely instructions of our copper Queen.

Then, The George Tavern, which despite the three pound entry fee and advertised Ian Brown Tribute Night was exactly the same as previous occasions Greg and I have visited. The only addition being Shane Meadows’ bleak drama This Is England projected onto the wall. We asked the barman if there was going to be live music later on: “nah, don’t think so, mate”. Fuelled by the lust to prove that this lengthy stretch of inner-city tarmac had some life, we pushed on. Greg told me about Stephen King’s The Long Walk, I spoke about the Dylan Thomas poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night – such was our mood.

After another long slog we ventured into what appeared from the outside to be a bustling, live music venue, but it would prove to be a cruel veneer. Inside The Royal Duchess was a stereotypical, almost comical, rotund, ageing pub singer in an ill-fitting tux crooning along to a backing track of pop hits. The clientele, to which we were junior by a good two or three decades, stood around the edge of the laminate wood dance area. The wives swung their hips and sipped vodka mixers, the men, all of whom had slicked back grey hair, road map faces of scars and creases and fading tattoos across their knuckles, lent on the bar discussing doing ‘one last job’. Despite the stern looks being shot our way we tried to rile up a party. We took centre stage among the criminal elite, grooving and singing as best we could. Some of the face-hanging women joined in, a couple of hips were bumped and there was a mutual uneasiness disguised by giggles and high jinks.

Further on, just past The Troxy on Commercial Road, we came to The Railway Tavern, a silent commuter pub filled entirely with male couples and staffed by a Julian Clary parody. The situation was dire. We needed more beer, we needed more people, more fun. Again we set off into the night and onward further into the depths of East London. We weren’t sure if we were even on Commercial Road any more. Had we quietly died of exhaustion and slipped into purgatory, and was this vast, lifeless drought to be our eternal struggle?

Greg, Andy and baroness

Finally, we came across The Westferry Arms and, thank the lord, it was full of people, excitement and, most importantly, beer. We pledged to get as many drinks down us as possible, which seemed to please the wiry, shorthaired landlady who was enamoured and desperate for our company from the moment we walked in. She chatted us up, swayed with us on the dance floor and, in an oddly surreal blending of cultures, jived for Greg whilst he slammed out beats on a discarded djembe that lay on a bench next to the DJ. Again, there were mafioso types propping up the bar, shooting angry glares our direction but we didn’t care. The 2.2 miles we had journeyed felt a lot longer and getting down with this pickled baroness of the East was our well-deserved trophy.

“Why don’t you stay?!” exclaimed Greg’s ageing dancer.

“We’d love to, but we have to get the last tube otherwise we’re stranded”.

She shrugged and looked us up and down suggestively: “Might not be a bad thing”.

Friends at Bank

Next stop: ALPERTON

ALDGATE – May 2013

Nestled between the financial district and trendy East London, Aldgate could mirror both, but ends up reflecting neither.Aldgate tube sign

As we emerged from the station rather late on a bank holiday evening, the empty grey streets greeted us with indifference. Exchanging grimaces, we set off at a brisk, optimistic pace and soon spied The Chamberlain, a pleasant if unexceptional Fuller’s. We ordered two ales and sat gratefully in our first Aldgate pub. The decor was comfortingly faux – an opulent wall of gilt mirrors stood opposite a bookcase of military histories. (This sort of impotent ostentation can be found in many a chain establishment, presumably designed to convince the beer-swilling patrons that they are in far more superior surroundings than their choice of lager would otherwise indicate.) The bar staff were friendly but strangely sluggish, asking for IDs midway through our pints. I put this down to weighty bank holiday hangovers, the remnants of which Andy and I still felt, having spent a Bacchanalian weekend performing with By Moonlight Theatre at the vibrant Meadowlands Festival in deepest Sussex.

Greg with SteinMoving on, we wandered through side streets peppered with closed pubs, until the welcoming glow of a Bavarian Beerhouse drew us in. This incongruent continental import came complete with table service from traditionally attired waitresses, so we manfully ordered a stein each. Andy, rather conservatively, chose Germany’s number one premium beer, Krombacher Pils, while I fearlessly plumped for the “rich, dark and complex” Krombacher Dunkel. By 10:30 we were the only ones left and the manager hovered nearby, eager to lock up and honour his homeland’s legendary time-keeping skills. We dutifully acquiesced, drank up, and departed.

Our mistake in venturing out on a bank holiday evening now became woefully apparent. Every pub we discovered was closed, and as 11pm drew ever closer we grew ever more desperate.  Heading home after only two drinks seemed a crime – the blog deserved better than that.  Our frenzied wanderings soon left Aldgate in the dust. As we strode up Bishopsgate we crossed the threshold of several pubs only to be cruelly turned away by stony-faced barmen, shutting far too punctually for thirsty young bloggers such as ourselves. The situation was getting desperate. Andy struck out ahead, drawing upon his Northern ability to divine booze at great distance. As we finally stumbled onto Commercial Road, his aim was proven true, as the Ten Bells appeared from the gloom.

Greg and AndyIt is a sad fact that the first pub we found with real atmosphere and more than half-a-dozen drinkers was this far from Aldgate. The historic Ten Bells has a grisly claim: it was here that Mary Kelly, the last known victim of Jack the Ripper, had her final drink (gin, of course) before being found mutilated in a nearby flat several days later. Scenes from Jack the Ripper film From Hell were filmed here, and the original Victorian tiling still remains. In dark homage, we ordered two G&Ts and sat contentedly under the gaze of two inseparable East Londoners, Gilbert and George, who take pride of place in a mural by Ian Harper which adorned the wall above us.  In the late 1880s Mary Kelly would have been slugging back straight gins while tugging lustily at crotches and purse-strings, whereas here in 2013 us two fops cut our gin with tonic and sat discussing modern art.  How times change.

Aldgate’s pubs may bustle on work nights but during our self-inflicted bank holiday outing it really did seem to be a bland no man’s land, squatting between thriving neighbours and losing in the struggle for a character of its own. It was only by escaping the dreary gravity of Aldgate that the evening was resurrected, ironically in a pub more famous for dealing death than enhancing life.

Next stop: ALDGATE EAST