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

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

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.

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Next stop: CANNING TOWN

CANADA WATER – March 2016

“As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.” – Herman Melville

These lines from Moby-Dick rang saltily in my ears as I emerged on the barbarous coast of Canada Water tube station. I knew there was a pub nearby named after Melville’s demonic white whale and I was keen to visit it, being a fan of the novel after listening to a particularly well-narrated audio-book a few years ago. Andy accepted this plan and we set off, navigating not by the stars (alas, it was cloudy) but using the ancient and esoteric Maps of Google, which miraculously manifested themselves in our handheld telephones.

Regular readers of our blog will know that a tenet of ULPC is to never pass a pub or bar without entering. And so, our route first brought us to the door of The Surrey Docks, a Wetherspoon’s, which we dutifully entered. It is a truth universally acknowledged that whenever we enter a Wetherspoon’s there are no spare seats and we are forced to linger awkwardly between tables, to the constant chagrin of customers and staff alike. Tonight was no exception. Eager to track down the elusive Melvillian pub, we drank quickly and resumed our monomaniacal quest, circumnavigating Greenland Dock like madmen.

Whale“It is not down on any map; true places never are.” This aphorism of Melville’s swam to mind, but just as I began to doubt its existence, there it was: The Moby Dick. I was Captain Ahab and here was my prize. I don’t know what I expected but what we found was a pleasant Fuller’s pub, showing precious few links to its literary namesake, except for cheery model whales impaled on wooden sticks adorning the tables of those who ordered food. But the pub was well-named, for the dock it sits upon was used throughout the 18th century by Greenland whaling ships, and blubber boiling houses previously bedecked the dock’s south side. I wonder if the residents of the luxury flats now occupying the site know of its blubbery past? We didn’t stop to ask. Instead we enjoyed a cheap but satisfactory meal and pint, wished The Moby Dick farewell and decided to head for the Thames and follow its serpentine curves west towards a lovely pub I’d visited once before – The Mayflower.

Rotherhithe, the district within which Canada Water sits, is a strange beast. Mainly residential, there were points during our wanderings when, looking south or west, we could have been in any quiet, tidy suburban corner of England, the only give-away being the occasional glimpse of the Shard, sparkling cockily between rooftops. But, turning our gaze northeast across the river, we were greeted by Canary Wharf and its glittering glass cathedrals of capitalism (where, in fact, we would be visiting next month). If there is a better vantage point to take in the night-time beauty of the financial district, I haven’t found it.

Over the next hour or two we visited The Ship and Whale (pleasant and posh), The Blacksmiths Arms (welcoming, great rock playlist put together by one of the friendly barmaids), and The Salt Quay (cavernous and impersonal). By this time we’d walked over two miles, making various failed attempted to join the Thames path – we kept being foiled by locked gates and iron fencing – and we still hadn’t found The Mayflower. But once again, perseverance prevailed, and the oldest pub on the Thames appeared from the hushed gloom of Rotherhithe Street.

Us with beerI had fond memories of this place, spending a joyful evening last year catching up with an old school friend. It was just as I remembered. Characterful and jovially cramped inside, all dark wood and exposed brickwork, with a large tented area outside sitting directly over the Thames. You could see it gently lapping several meters below the floorboards. We sampled every area of the pub, falling into conversation with a cigarette-seeking woman in the tented section above the river. In our slightly drunken state we couldn’t quite remember which ship the Mayflower was. I had a vague idea it was the first vessel to take people from England to set up home in America. No, that wasn’t right, she said.

“It has something to do with the man with the big hat.”

“Napoleon?” I ventured, unhelpfully. Giving me a dark look she shook her head condescendingly. “No, Brunel of course.”

Ah yes, how silly of me. The 19th century engineer was obviously the person responsible for the 17th century Mayflower. You can’t argue with logic like that. So we didn’t. Nodding respectfully we backed away to consult the more dependable if less entertaining Google, and swiftly discovered that I was right – The Mayflower took the first English Separatists, or Pilgrims as they are now known, from Plymouth to the New World in 1620.

Andy on slideBasking in erudition, we continued our saunter westwards, soon stopping to wonder at the bizarre abuttal of the graveyard of St Mary’s Church and a brightly-coloured children’s play area. They were literally on top of one another; a child descending speedily down the shiny slide would be in danger of alighting on a tombstone. Of course, we had to have a go. Both Andy and I tested the slide, curiously too small for our adult frames. I have to say, it certainly made the graveyard more cheery.

Andy thoughtfulMoving on, we soon entered and immediately departed The Angel – the barman announced they were closed while pouring a fresh pint with a lively crowd behind him. In a lesser area this could have caused us to sink into deep dejection, but after a few steps we came across The Winnicott, a real find. Gloriously under-lit, we peered in to discern mock tudor fittings, an open fire, and a few small gatherings of eminently stylish folk sharing witty asides over tankards of dark ale. Jazz played smoulderingly in the background. A piano nestled against a wall. I refrained, despite Andy’s pleas for a rendition of Tubular Bells. We didn’t want to leave. If you’re ever in this part of town, you would do yourself a grave disservice to miss The Winnicott.

The remaining hour of the pub crawl is, I must admit, dim in my mind. But with Andy’s help I discovered that our penultimate pub was named The Kings Arms. What I do remember, vividly, is the following:

During a casual anecdote, Andy decided to throw into the conversational arena, without further elucidation, the following phrase: “hoist by my own petard”. I believe he was slightly sore at my superior knowledge of the Mayflower and wanted to prove his own intellectual prowess. Whatever the reason, I questioned this expression – hitherto unheard by my ears – and he, shocked at my ignorance, explained its meaning (a ‘petard’ is a small bomb, and the phrase literally means “causing the bomb maker to be blown up with his own bomb”). Andy continued to be amazed at my idiocy for not knowing this apparently common utterance and I, unwilling to accept this hole in my own linguistic arsenal, bet that surely the vast majority of people have never heard of it either. I believe I originally guessed 95%, but then adjusted that to 75% taking into account the lofty intellects of Londoners. We then proceeded to ask our fellow drinkers in The Kings Arms. I was unsettled when a young lady at the first table I accosted nodded her head in complete comprehension, but after a short while the results were in: 8/11 people had no clue of its meaning – 73%. Another victory for me, if one’s own ignorance can be claimed as such.

After a hasty gin and tonic at The Pommelers Rest, we discovered that we could make it back for our last train from Waterloo on foot, rather than bothering with the tube, if we were happy to maintain a light jog for two miles. Rising to the challenge, we did indeed jog back to the station. Andy, raring like a stallion, wanted to sprint ahead but I, better versed in the art of pacing kept us at an easy trot, and we still managed to purchase a burrito before boarding our train as champions.

Next stop: CANARY WHARF

CALEDONIAN ROAD – January 2016

In Caledonian Road we explored the disparity between local boozers and chic bars, raged against the upswing of “posh coffee”, and played Tekken.

It had taken two entire years but finally, as 2016 opened its doors, we were visiting a tube station beginning with C. The letter B was old news. 24 stations of B, from Baker Street to Burnt Oak, were behind us – banished forever to the Archive. The sense of forward momentum, of progress along our lengthy challenge, was palpable. The letter C – how novel it was! We left the tube station with a spring in our step, eager to explore the alphabetically-advanced environs of Caledonian Road.

We were joined by Danny, an old friend of Andy’s who was in town for a few days. Andy had recently returned from a month-long road-trip around the US and filled us in on his escapades over a cold beer in The Cally. When one ‘brief anecdote’ threatened to grow to Wagnerian proportions we hustled Andy out of the door and proceeded on. As we passed a few posh coffeehouses, Danny began a tirade against the gentrification of such establishments, the gist of his point being something like this:

“Coffee shops aren’t what they used to be. Who the hell wants a skinny soya macchiato brewed in laboratory conditions served in a fucking cocktail glass anyway? Where can a lad get a simple black coffee?”

Although secretly a fan of complex caffeinated beverages I nodded in deference to Danny’s passionate argument; Andy, braver than I, lampooned it mercilessly and repeatedly. Thankfully, we soon happened upon the wonderfully-named Doyle’s Tavern. My heartfelt impression of Father Ted’s faithful housekeeper fell rather flat. Danny must have still been sore over Andy’s cruel but accurate parody.

Doyle’s Tavern was a back-to-basics kind of place; no frills, no exposed beams or literary quotes emblazoned on the walls. The barmaid looked us up and down, stating with utter certainty, “You’re new here, aren’t you.” We settled down, feeling conspicuous and vaguely ridiculous in our matching plaid shirts, as Andy returned to his American anecdotes.

The evening continued in seesaw motion between trendy hipster bars and earthy local haunts. The former advised against visiting the latter, on fear of grievous bodily harm, and the latter scoffed at the “rich twats” in the former. This all-too-human fear of ‘the other’ is repeated across the globe and throughout history, and it exists in miniature across the pubscape of London. Andy and I, in our role as wandering nomads, often bypass this fear, and are usually treated – at worst – with curious ambivalence and – at best – as honoured guests from another land. Will these varying tribes of London drinkers still exhibit hostility towards each other in 20 years time? We shall see.

The ivy-clad, bibelot-hoarding Hemmingford Arms was next. We passed a pleasant half-hour there in the claret mood lighting, among a crowd of affluent thirty-somethings, nice enough if somewhat cliquish. Our next pub, Kennedy’s, was of the Doyle’s Tavern variety, much quieter, more spacious, home to an older, local clientele. Andy and Danny showed off their considerable pool skills, while I watched sagaciously from the sidelines, offering convincing noises of support or commiseration honed over many years as a pub-games spectator.

IMG_3716Next came the wildcard of the night – Meltdown. This was London’s only “gamer bar” with manifold screens on every wall, tables rammed with MacBooks, pints and takeaway pizza boxes, and a tournament area complete with racecar-style seats for the lords and ladies of the realm. We hovered uncertainly, unsure of what to do. Andy valiantly asked a surly, long-haired chap for advice, who murmured a few words of gamer-speak and slunk back to his electronic war-games. Thankfully the barmaids eventually took us under their wing and provided a run-down of the etiquette and hierarchies of this unique London subculture. Only half listening, I had the perverse but persistent urge to press the off-button of the nearest MacBook, just to see what would happen. With huge strength of will, I refrained. Meanwhile, Andy and Danny were indulging in some Tekken, once again leaving me to observe. They were maddeningly well-matched and my increasingly unsubtle pleas did nothing to speed up their tournament.

IMG_3723The Meltdown barmaids had strongly advised against the next pub, The Tarmon, as apparently a fistfight was almost guaranteed. Impervious to fear, we waltzed in and soon struck up a conversation with Janice, a middle-aged woman who seemed quite fond of us all, but of one of us in particular, offering me the flirtatious if colour-blind statement: “you’re a handsome young man…for a ginger.” The Tarmon was full of loud, passionate conversations, played out over a pulsing backdrop of 90s pop hits. Janice claimed that here, “everyone knows everyone”. We believed her, and truly warmed to the place.

IMG_3733Sad to leave, we necked a quick bottle at the Thornhill Arms, followed by an invigorating shot of tequila in Be At One and finally made it to Simmons in time for an ardent boogie before sprinting for the last tube.

As we’ve come to learn, almost as much fun can be had on the journey home as over the night itself. On the tube we met a fine young Scotsman, out celebrating Burns Night, and wearing a sporran made out of the corpse of a beaver. Bertie, for that was the beaver’s name, was over 100 years old, as our Scotsman proudly pointed out. Feeling rather underdressed we headed for the last Surbiton train. I suggested a bit of quiz action to enliven the journey and Andy gamely began regaling the carriage with general knowledge questions. Most of these sleepy drunken Londoners failed to respond, but Tom and Kyle were game, taking on Danny and I for a heroic batch of quizzing. We soon lost count of the score but I got the sense that Andy’s stentorian quizmaster voice was enjoyed by all, especially those travellers with furrowed brows and pale faces attempting not to vomit.

Next stop: CAMDEN TOWN