Mind Drifts

The Art of the London Pub Crawl – Part Two

‘The point was to encounter the unknown as a facet of the known, astonishment on the terrain of boredom, innocence in the face of experience. So you can walk up the street without thinking, letting your mind drift…’

Greil Marcus


Twelve Pins

This post is about the first leg of my pub crawl, following the route of the book Taverns of London by H.E. Popham. This was a long time ago now, and much of it is from memory, so hopefully I remember it fairly faithfully.

We start at Finsbury Park. I invited my friend Kate to come along, and we joined up with Mr Popham as he was part of the way round his journey. This is what the old man has to say:

‘Now, take one of the ‘buses that run down the hill to Finsbury Park Station, noting the Archway Tavern on your left at the bottom of Archway Road. Alight at Finsbury Park, and cross Seven Sisters’ Road to Blackstock Road. A continuation of this road is Highbury Park…’

Blackstock Road is a very different place now than it was 90 years ago as Popham made his way down it. Perhaps, in this sepia-tinted time, the Hackney Brook still flowed past, sporting a sluice gate where the Arsenal Tavern now stands, meandering up to Wilberforce Road.

According to legend the people of Blackstock Road and Stoke Newington would wave to one another across the river, giving rise to the name of the Bank of Friendship pub, with its sweet pub sign of hands shaking. A sign of how times may have changed are the posters on the doors declaring it to be a drug free zone.

The river, driven underground by the unstoppable growth of the city, was full of brown trout that could be fished for by local children. Nowadays, the smell of fish would not be unusual on Blackstock Road’s bustling market-like parade of shops, along with whiffs of curry and kebabs and chips, of meat and fresh laundry. I used to live just off this road, and I find it chaotic and unsettling, but also full of energy and life and wonder.

Before we follow Popham on his route, we take in a handful of taverns that he didn’t mention and which, perhaps, did not exist in those days, though the stain of age has crept over them both. Firstly, left out of the station on Seven Sisters Road we cheerfully start our crawl in The Twelve Pins, a gloomy pub both in and out, with Irish staff and Gaelic sports.

As we each enjoy a Guinness, we consult Google to discover that the Seven Sisters were, according to legend, a pagan sacred circle of seven elms around a walnut tree where – maybe – an unfortunate Protestant met a fiery doom. We think of the dark, wild earth beneath our feet, breathing still beneath the tarmac.

On the opposite side, on the corner of Blackstock Road, is The Blackstock. As we approached the open door we were hit by a waft as solid as a wall, of hot moist peasoup air that smelled equally of beer and sweat and urine. We let it fill our lungs and it tasted like smog, like Fagin’s breath, like smallpox.

Outside, on the corner, was a small gang of grizzled old men and toothless crones, smoking by the yellow-green light of the pub windows. We had a quick cider here, that sat heavily in our heads for the rest of the crawl. There was a timeless quality to this gloomy space that was exactly what we were looking for.

Bank of Friendship

Further down the Blackstock Road we pass the King’s Head (a football pub for local old men), the Arsenal Tavern (a pleasant family place and backpackers’ haunt), the Gunners (the traditional pub for Arsenal fans for a pre-match drink) and the aforementioned Bank of Friendship. We stop for a swift half in the Woodbine – for students and professionals, it seems, and pleasant enough, but we didn’t linger long, or we’d be destroyed before finding even one of Popham’s pubs.

We pass Mediterranean restaurants and antique shops and nail bars and bakers and launderettes and although we should be appreciating the walk we become lost in the chatter of old friends. Eventually we reach one of Popham’s choices.

The Highbury Barn is a nice, large pub with friendly staff and a light atmosphere. Popham tells us that the pub ‘could accommodate two thousand persons, and as many as eight hundred have been seen dining together with seventy geese roasting for them at one fire. Early in the last century, dancing and dining-rooms were added’.

We enjoyed a pint each of golden lager. The staff here were curious about our book, and were delighted to find their pub featured in it.

We then press on, past houses and an impressive church and onwards to the Hen and Chickens. This is a lovely example of London’s pub theatres, proving once again that drinking and culture are happy bedfellows.

The situation of this inn, near the site of the old monastery, affords ground for the conjecture that the sign may have the religious significance that it usually has in Christian art, and be emblematic of the Divine providence to man,’ Popham tells us helpfully. Sadly for us it is closed.

We next head for the Pied Bull on Liverpool Street, which is a bit of a walk, but there is no sign of it. A quick search reveals that it has long gone, but that it was a lively music venue and hosted lesbian-friendly nights. I like to think that Popham was a man ahead of his time and would have appreciated this.

Watercolour pens

So we jink down Barnsbury Street onto Upper Street and head to the King’s Head pub theatre where I once saw a performance of La Boheme that was down and dirty, and spilled out into the bar area. That was the night and the pub where I met Suggs. The audience was as wild a jumble of people as you would find in any pub. When Kate and I go, it is quiet, a table of three old men with little to say, and a dandyish young man in the corner who may be an actor. The King’s Head is not on Popham’s list.

Highbury Barn.jpg

And here the journey, and the drinking, ends. For now…

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