The Art of the London Pub Crawl – Part One
‘I certainly have a hobby, Ambrose, a most interesting hobby… It consists in wandering about this wonderful London, prowling and probing in odd corners for quaint things, old customs and queer characters. Can you imagine a more fascinating subject…?’
Quaint Survivals of Old London Customs
I lived in London for a couple of years, a while ago now, in Deptford, Kings Cross, Finsbury Park and finally Walthamstow. I am still haunted by the shades of London. It is like another country, or like endless layers of city all built one on top of the other, stretching back in time to Roman Britain and before, delving downwards deep into the shuddering ground, spiralling up into a sky full of glass and metal.
I did many things to understand this city better. I went to talks, I joined groups and societies, I scoured the internet for things going on, for facts and histories. I walked many miles of back streets and industrial alleys. I read Charles Dickens and Patrick Hamilton and Peter Ackroyd, I went to museums and theatres, to pubs and music halls, to parks, to canals and to skyscrapers, and I barely scratched the surface.
One scheme that I began years ago, and intend to revive, revolves around a book that belongs to my father, that I stole from his Hampshire shelves and secreted back to the city where it belonged. Now it is smuggled again to my flat in Bournemouth, and it longs to go home. The book is called The Taverns of London by H. E. Popham, first published in 1927.
The book charts many of the genuine old time London boozers, from the Queen’s Head of the West End to the Five Bells & Bladebone of Shadwell. It is the mightiest pub crawl of its time, and I intend to rediscover it.
There has been a lot of history between 1927 and now, and many of these pubs will be long gone, lost to Blitz or economic collapse, to natural disaster or ruthless development. They are a heritage every bit as endangered as our museums.
Opposite Pentonville Prison on the Caledonian Road is the wonderfully named Breakout Café. To the side of the building, on the wall of what is now flats, there used to be a sign of peeling paint, cracked by time and weather, that read ‘Free House’.
Freedom, it promised, but that’s gone now, along with all its stories, punters, ex-cons, bar tenders, cattle-drovers, laughter, tears, odd corners, quaint things, old customs and queer characters. It doesn’t appear in Popham’s book, as far as I can tell. I could research it, but I prefer it as a mystery. It is like a fragment of a name on a gravestone worn smooth by the years. It is a ghost, and I am chasing ghosts.
With this project, I am looking for a place, a time, a feeling that no longer exists. I am looking for a dying culture, and what little remains of it. I am looking for a past that probably never really happened, a Dickensian, smog-bound, gothic, bawdy dream of West End glamour and East End gloom. I am looking for the face of Mr Hyde through the grimy window of a pub whose beer will still stir my head, whose fireplace will still warm me in the winter. That is what this project is all about. Who can tell if I will find it?
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