CHALK FARM – September 2016

Would this blue plaque bedecked district provide pubs enough to slake our thirst for liquid and social nourishment, or would we be tempted to the nearby pleasure inns of Camden?

If you depart Chalk Farm tube and head south (turning right out of the station and then left, over the railway bridge) you will discover five delightful pubs before reaching the watery barrier of Regent’s Canal. They are, in the order we visited them: The Pembroke, The Queen’s, The Princess of Wales, The Lansdowne and The Engineer. This quintet of hostelries share several praiseworthy attributes – adventurous beers, friendly staff, abundant seating – and all have the sort of convivial atmosphere that puts you entirely at ease.

img_4966It was a balmy Monday evening. The pubs were restful; our fellow drinkers placid and content. As we strolled the affluent streets we spotted blue plaques on a regular basis: Plath, Engels, Yeats. We caught the start of a quiz at The Queen’s (“which US state shares its name with a country?”*), I learnt the meaning of FUBAR in The Princess of Wales, and Andy treated himself to a pizza in The Lansdowne. A more pleasant Monday evening you could not wish for.

img_4970Five drinks down and we had no choice but to cross Regent’s Canal and visit Chalk Farm’s rebellious son, Camden. It was here that things started to get out of hand. First off, we were at a loss where to sit in the vast beer garden of The Edinboro Castle. Feeling bold, we opted to join a large table of merrymakers and did our best to integrate. Unfortunately, on this occasion our best ended up being taking a photo of us ‘integrating’ while they steadfastly ignored us.

img_4971Moving swiftly on, we came to The Spread Eagle where it really kicked off. Andy spotted two cosy chairs and a pile of boardgames, whereupon I had a violent flashback to the time he beat me at Trivial Pursuit in Brent Cross. Blinking away that bitter memory, I picked up the first game that came to hand: some sort of fiendishly difficult IQ challenge. After scant minutes it became apparent that, by witchcraft or deception, Andy was beating me once again, quite comprehensively. The game was clearly defective, so we switched to Connect Four. What visceral pleasure, to send those red and yellow counters hurtling into their plastic prison! This was more like it. Andy, intellectually worn out by the IQ challenge, soon began to fade and I seized my chance. Game after game I successfully lined up four yellow discs, while Andy’s red ones hovered impotently at the periphery, like introverts at a house party. This couldn’t go on for ever and so we packed away that finest of games and made a beeline for the The Dublin Castle. We accompanied our final drink of the evening with a spot of air drumming to the Foo Fighters (or I did at least) before catching the last tube homewards.

Chalk Farm provided us with a quietly congenial evening and its vicinity to Camden is perfect if you’re in a slightly more riotous mood and/or have a hankering for some Connect Four.

*It’s Georgia.

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Next stop: CHANCERY LANE

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CANNON STREET – June 2016

Home to the famous London Stone, a rocky marker at the centre of old London, and housing innumerable financial powers, Cannon Street threatened to be nothing but another hoard of dull city boozers. But beyond the glass and steel promontories, there’s a clutch of excellent drinking spots to be found.Sign 3

Greg, ever the optimist, was certain Cannon Street would provide high jinks but I, marred by previous city crawls, feared more dull opulence. Despite our antithetical premonitions we launched forth into the pubscape in search of summer imbibing.

First Pelt Trader, a pleasant enough modern bar with a wide selection of craft and artisan beers that reverberates with a chorus of pint rim sniffs and repeated astute analytical comments such as “very hop-y”.

Heading towards the Thames we stopped in at The Banker, pleasingly filled with an eponymous clientèle, and then to The Oyster Shed – a vast, riverside bar and restaurant standing in the Shard’s shadow that falls gracefully across the surging, muddy waters of the Thames. A perfect location for a summer drink but unfortunately brimming with unpleasant stereotypes. A middle aged, synthetically orange skinned gentleman was refused entry for being too drunk, the hour barely tickling the fair-side of eight o’clock.IMAG0015

Enjoying a cold one outside, Greg and I listened in to the conversations of our fellow customers. A group of young financial types were discussing the blessings and curses of their jobs and locale.

“Ten pound lunch budget!”, one scoffed, “get a coffee and you’re fucked!”

His attention was momentarily taken by a young woman stood on the river walls, spreading her arms wide in an angel like pose.

“Hope she doesn’t swan dive – fucking concrete down there . . . great tits though.”

We dived onwards into the backstreets and happened upon our first real find of the night –The Olde Wine Shades. Built in 1663 and still featuring a beautiful archaic aesthetic, this quiet and cosy wine bar is one of the few buildings in the area to have survived the Great Fire of London. It then became one of the few buildings in the area to survive the Second World War (and even has a secret tunnel underneath connecting the north and south banks of the Thames). It then, as if it hadn’t already proved its architectural integrity over the preceding four hundred years, survived acute water damage after the upstairs boiler and water tank exploded.

WineDavid from Bordeaux was our affable barman and, between filling us in on the building’s indestructible history, pointed us in the direction of the cheapest but best wine for us two uninitiated experts of the grape. We attempted to impress and integrate by redundantly sticking our noses into our glasses, echoing the grain elite of Pelt Trader. David politely told us we had a naturally skilled nasal palate whilst simultaneously dropping the bill onto the bar and demanding swift payment.

Next The Bell, another excellent little pub erring on the side of traditional English local rather than a continental winery. Upon entering we were met by rapturous applause from Paul and Timmy, an Irish and Australian duo who had been “on a session” for most of the afternoon. They soon accepted us into their drinking gang and conversation took a turn for the predictable.

“How long have you and your husband been together?” Timmy slurred in a thick Aussie accent.TandP edit

“He’s not my husband”, I replied.

“Your partner then.”

“He’s not my boyfriend, he’s got a girlfriend in fact”

“Oh. But you’re gay right?”

“No, I’m not.”

Timmy took a step back and looked me up and down in pure aghast shock. Offended at the lacking coordinates of his own Gaydar.

“But you’re the gayest bloke I’ve ever met!”

Thus began a light-hearted dissection of mine and Greg’s physiognomy, personality and fashion sense.

“You two are like Seigfried and fucking Roy”, Timmy announced, “but more like Teapot and Horseshit!”, the latter coupling of nicknames being a charming moniker derived for my habit to stand with one hand on my hip and Greg’s taste for plaid shirts.

Last orders was called (at ten o’clock, “it’s an old pub” the barman explained) and the four of us headed across the road to rock bar London Stone – somehow losing fifty percent of the group along the way so myself and Horseshit were again a twosome.

With the city quickly closing down around us, we headed to The Core for a nightcap. The evening had somewhat altered my thoughts on city boozing, maybe I was wrong and there were good venues and people to find in the fiscal byways of central London. But my precautionary worries came surging back to the fore when I witnessed a suited city Dantype aggressively haggling with the toilet attendant in regards to what small change demanded which branded deodorant. My head hung low by tangential and vicarious embarrassment, Greg and I headed back to the tube where, in a brightening moment, we met Dan.

Dan, for reasons unknown, was carrying a leather clad bench. This allowed us a final tube ride as needlessly decadent as the district from which we were retreating.

Bench

Next stop: CANONS PARK

CANARY WHARF – April 2016

Our third anniversary crawl saw us head to the eternal glow of Canary Wharf’s glass and steel towers. Our usual duet now swelling to a gang of 14, we explored London’s primary financial district in search of high jinks amongst its 100,000 peak time inhabitants.

Canary Wharf sign

Over the past three years Greg and I have always found the business and financial sectors of London to be somewhat lacking. Lacking in warmth. Lacking in personality. Lacking in colour. Despite the abundance of cash monies surging through Hedge Funds and Off Shore accounts straight into the tills of nearby wine bars, the wealth of these areas is rarely translated into anything other than varying hues of grey and the occasional loosened striped tie.

This isn’t to say these areas aren’t filled with laughter – thrown back heads and hysterics can be found within every city Startboozer. But on occasion enough to mention, the laughter is more akin to a tenor whine. An unfulfilled and exhausted tremolo covering some sort of existential crisis. The panicked chortle of a struggling decorator who lifts his head to find he has literally painted himself into a corner.

We have tried to combat this when the crawl has thrust us into these boroughs. Greg once used a break-dancing banker’s discarded shoe as a phone. But, alas, no one answered.

For our third anniversary crawl we continued our campaign to brighten the fiscal shores of London and our open invite was sent with only one instruction – you must wear your most outlandish clothes. We were determined to bring to Canary Wharf, that infamous gleaming promontory of dull opulence, some warmth, some personality and some Jarekcolour.

At first a merry septet, we poured out of Canary Wharf station and into Smollensky’s where, after squeezing to the bar to order cocktails, we examined each other’s gaudy garbs. Greg and I had managed a vibrant palette of floral designs and 80’s colour schemes. Amongst the rest of the group there was the occasional red top here or purple scarf there. Our office memo entitled “Fun Fashion Friday!!!!!” had not been taken seriously by the rest of the team.

We drank through the Slug and Lettuce and headed to All Bar One. Now a band of 14, we were certain our buoyant and carefree spirits would promote some sort of crazed party. But with professional monthly goals still far off, All Bar One and its patrons were decidedly sullen. A musical trio of glasswind instruments was quickly assembled to elevate the sombre mood but sadly to no avail – despite the band’s obvious magnificence.Glasswind

From here we led our party to Obicá, a bar that stands in the middle of a vast, vacuous glass cube. Its Italian stylings and redundant indoor parasols do nothing to lift it above the sorry truth – its utter and uncompromising unattractive lifelessness. A pub designed by committee, it is reminiscent of the solitary pub in an airport departures lounge but without the thrilling promise of a foreign jaunt only a few hours away. It is Ron Burgundy’s purgatory – a void, titanic and perpetual glass case of emotion.

We hastened out and indulged at Hazev and Goodman, two bars sitting alongside South Dock. The hour was only half ten, but the heaving bars were now a thing of the past and the torch of the city was fading to dying embers. Either the affirmation “work hard play hard” is but a flimsy marketing slogan regurgitated in false promise by tired employees, or the local worker types play elsewhere. The latter being a likely truism considering the quality of the local pubscape.

BDUndeterred, we ventured onwards and raced into the young night in search of final imbibing. In and out of transparent towers and through empty hallways and shopping pavilions, we were turned away again and again by the perplexed door staff. Constant suggestions of short bus rides to thrilling destinations did nothing but energise our search for the elusive final pint hidden within the gangways and avenues of Canary Wharf.

We finally fumbled our way to Fine Line, another waterside bar and the last we found with its doors still open and taps still running. Although completely empty, a dedicated DJ continued to reel out hit after hit to the empty room. We filled it as best we could, employing walking dance moves so to enhance the illusion of a swelling patronage.Sleepy

As the final bell rung at midnight we marched back to Canary Wharf station through the now deserted streets – joy still ringing through our unaccompanied group. In the 12 hour stretch between 8am and 8pm Canary Wharf is a swirling, hectic, chaotic mass of motivated workers. A place where sums of money too wild to imagine are spent, lost and recouped with a shrug and the whimsical flick of a director’s hand. Of an evening it is a bizarre, deserted dystopia with only the occasional light shining from an office on the 28th floor. A hunched silhouette desperately punching numbers into multiple screens and not even the promise of a late night local boozer to console their hard work.

Our outlandish clothes and inviting smiles, although genuine and well-meaning, did little to invigorate or alter the deep-seated traditions of Canary Wharf’s crammed institutions. But hopefully one late-night lone trader, looking down through the window from their cluttered, paper filled desk, saw a dozen people being led through the streets, Piper-esque, by two men in kaleidoscopic shirts and forgot, just for a moment, about the impending doom of Monday morning.

Finish

Next stop: CANNING TOWN

BLACKHORSE ROAD – February 2015

“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you will also live.” John 14: 18-19

Blackhorse Road sign

Such was the bible verse that Kieran, an affable and pleasant 27 year old child of the Lord, recited as I waited for Greg at Blackhorse Road station. Kieran had approached to ask for directions to the nearest church and struck up conversation about my religious leanings.

“The Lord is telling me he wants you to come back”, Kieran revealed, obviously having some sort of direct line to the Almighty, after I told him I once was, but am no longer, a man of faith. “There are special places in him you have not yet experienced”.

Greg arrived and the two of us trudged out into the night, Kieran’s affirmations still ringing through our ears. We stood under the Welcome to Blackhorse Road mural outside the station and realised the suburbs mantra, “The home of people who make and create”, was a heavenly sign and Kieran a humble messenger. We had to find, somewhere on these rain drenched streets, and experience the special place of the one true Maker and Creator.

“We’re on a mission from God”, I proclaimed and we set off in search of enlightenment and refreshment.

Hymns in mind and bibles in hand, we stopped in the Lord Palmerston, Zig Zag and The Bell – where for the first time on our adventures a barmaid asked if Greg and I were twins (taking the running score to Brothers 4, Lovers 2. HurricaneMuch to Greg’s and the Lord’s satisfaction). Still unilluminated, Romulus and I paid the £2 membership fee to join the Hurricane snooker club for five minutes so not to break our own second commandment, “thou must entereth every licensed dwelling on thy mighty crawls”.

We indulged in a swift alcoholic confessional in The Olde Rose and Crown before heading into The Victoria which was hosting a hugely popular karaoke night. Men and women of all shapes and sizes ascended to the Victoria’s stage and were accompanied, regardless of whether they wanted to be or not, by Eglon King of Mohab who perched on a table and acted as backing singer and percussionist – enthusiastically tapping two tambourines on his swollen thighs. I put in a request to perform my favoured karaoke track (Touch Myself by the DiVinyls) hoping that trumpeting my self-love for the Lord and his special place would bring him forth. Alas, by the time our beers were drained my name had not been called and we had to leave – having not been touched by either the Holy Spirit or by ourselves.

Our spirituality was looking increasingly dire – our blood was flowing with booze and heathenism and our search for salvation still held no end. In The Goose, Greg and I, desperate for a conversion and inspired by the two lone girls on Dancerthe dance floor, decided some uncoordinated but rhythmic flailing may evoke a divine intervention. Even this proved fruitless. We shook and lurched all over the dance floor and received only angry glares from the leering men as we invaded the eye line between them and the duet of Virginal Marys. A group of friends, recognising our gentile plight, offered to teach us the shuffle dance step as “it’s so easy!”. But Greg and I fell into every white male stereotype and were useless, useless, pathetic dancers. Useless, useless, pathetic dancers who were no closer to heaven.

By this time we had marched all the way to Walthamstow and were still stubborn atheists. Even Greg’s in-depth chats with locals in The Chequers and Cock Tavern provided nothing in the way of spiritual guidance towards God’s special place.Old

And so, with the final tube fast approaching, we headed back towards the station only stopping en route for a last supper of fried chicken (which would promote a sit-down exodus of biblical proportions the next morning).

On the tube towards our final destination we initiated a Thumb War tournament to pass the subterranean purgatory endured by all last tube sinners. Soon a rowdy and competitive rabble were eagerly lining up in a winner-stays-on battle of digits. Greg proved a formidable and unbeatable opponent until Dave, a stoic and silent Londoner who spoke only once to offer his name and sat patiently observing Greg’s extremity command, was invited to step up to the plate.

He was an omnipotent and omniscient master of the thumb. An Archangel. A God among men. His control and power was not of this world. Was his thumb the special place Kieran had spoken of? Had we been looking in all the wrong places and finally found an all-powerful entity on the end of Dave’s quicksilver hand?

We had to leave Dave at Waterloo, genuflecting as we exited the carriage. He didn’t speak again. He only offered a single, modest nod and, of course, a thumbs-up.

DaveNext stop: BOND STREET

BETHNAL GREEN – December 2014

“Punctuality is a wonderful thing, lads. There’s nothing that gladdens your soul more than punctuality. Punctuality means order in the world. (Raises glass) To punctuality!” – R.U.R. by Karel Capek, Act One.

Bethnal GreenAfter a slightly tardy arrival, Greg, myself and a rabble of well intentioned seekers of the sauce, all of whom had joined us for our ULPC Christmas party, barrelled out of Bethnal Green accompanied by a cacophony of sirens. Our guests gave Greg and I a wary look and we tried to placate their panic with faux confident nods.

“Don’t worry” we assured them, “last month we were told we’d get raped and that turned out alright”.

We all poured into the Salmon and Ball, a classic East End boozer with carpets throughout and calloused fingers clutching every glass, and set about our business. Our plan was to make it as far up Bethnal Green Road as we could before hotfooting into a taxi and back to civilisation.

A photo was needed to mark our first group outing and, with gusto and aplomb, a squat, thick necked, paint covered Yousuf Karsh appeared from the busying locals and directed our scene.S&M

“Now on three”, he insisted “everyone scream”. And thus, with Yousuf himself in frame (third from right) and his photography assistant behind the lens, the boozing began.

We battled on and into The Misty Moon, another musty venue where a pub singer was preparing to woo his adoring double-figure reaching crowd. A crowd which were all actively trying not to make eye contact with the born entertainer, including his grimacing girlfriend who was curled into a protective and miserable ball at the side of the stage.

Next, The Sun Tavern – the first display of the diametrically opposed pubs of Bethnal Green. On one side of the road you’ve got IMG_20141206_205945your Salmon and Moon establishments – filled with an older, working class clientèle complete with ill-fitting garments and questionable facial hair. On the other you’ve got your Sun Taverns – all bare brick, empty frames and filled with the hipster elite complete with ill-fitting garments and questionable facial hair. I guess the latter do it with irony.

After a quick stop in Bar Valient’e, quick due to its unforgiving stench, we made our way into The Star of Bethnal Green. Here, Greg and I got chatting to a greying and slicked back West Irelander called Paul who when asked what he did for a living replied with a straight face and dead eyes, “terrorist”.

As well as his violent occupation, Paul also revealed himself to be a keen gambler who liked to take a punt on the horses.

“Have you ever had a win?”, Greg enquired. Paul took a long, slow suck on the straw of his G&T, looking out into the middle distance as if amassing the grand sum of his keen betting acumen. He swallowed, stared down into the lime and melting ice of his beverage, poked at it a bit with the mixer and, after a dramatic pause that would make Olivier himself blush, slowly and sombrely shook his head.IMG_20141206_223150

Paul was a stubborn, aggressive and fiery barnacle on the side of our once merry vessel. We tried to politely bid him farewell, turning our backs to him but he was keen to grab us by the forearms and keep himself involved. Many of his ramblings started with the unshakable indicator of a jar too far – “you know what your problem is . . .”. When our charming guest headed back to the bar for a top up Greg and I announced we’d meet our party in the next pub and, as all brave young men do, we ran away. Paul tried to follow but became marooned at the entrance. Unable to take his drink outside but unable, due to his innate ethical stance, to leave a fresh G&T behind. Paul watched us scarper away from below his heavy, furrowed brow and added “cowardice” to the list of mine and Greg’s problems.

We found safety in The Marquis of Cornwallis, peering through the window to make sure Paul hadn’t followed our gang or, indeed, our scent. Our guests finally arrived and, without even a pause for breath, an actress friend was on stage performing and interpretive dance of Mariah Carey’s classic ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’ whilst we crooned in the background. Some of the locals were apathetic, at best, to our raucous endeavours but salt-of-the-IMG_20141206_233714earth landlady Gwen was completely enamoured to the point of commenting “you’re the best thing that’s ever ‘appened ‘ere”. And when you’ve got Gwen the landlady onside, you can do no wrong.

Our esteem was further established when I managed to flip and catch a stack of fifteen beermats in one go. Gwen and her staff cheered and clapped and I, fuelled by the biblical proportions of my own feat, took to the stage, firing the the tools of my success Frisbee like into the crowd and announced, with a modesty and humility for which I am renowned, “you are my people now!”

Gwen clearly agreed and ran off only to return with a stack of shot glasses and a bottle of hooch in celebration.

We finished with a few at the upmarket Well and Bucket, drinking all we could before they kicked us out at 2am. We toasted to friends old and new, wished all we saw a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and thanked Bethnal Green for one of our best crawls so far.10846587_10152865723562457_711888597_n

Next stop: BLACKFRIARS