Borough back-street pubs: South London’s finest
October 23, 2016
Borough market attracts stampedes of tourists, and plenty of great pubs cater for them. Avoid the fudge-eating, double-buggy pushing, half-a-lager-ordering hordes at these classic Borough boozers off the beaten track
Size doesn’t matter, I’m reliably informed. It certainly doesn’t harm one of the tiniest pubs in London, which sits in one of its greatest locations – in the shadow of the Shard and Southwark Cathedral, at the corner of Borough market.
Occupying an admittedly slender piece of prime London real estate, it’s not rammed with tourists, unlike headline-grabbing destinations such as the Market Porter or the Wheatsheaf: squeezed between warehouses and office blocks, this bijou beer-mongers takes a smidgen of seeking out. The bar is tiny and bare, a stripped back pen with walls covered in graffiti – it’s like drinking in a Peckham high-rise lift.
But the graffiti on the walls is by enthusiastic and supportive brewers, and the staff at the bar are knowledgeable, even zealous, about good beer. If you can’t get served for five minutes, it’s because they’re running through, in minute detail, the brewing process and taste spectrum of the beer to the bloke they’ve just served. There’s nothing you can’t get here – an amazing assortment of bottled beers complements the ever-changing range on tap. I checked out the bottle bins outside to see last night’s intake – Kasteel, Frobishers Orange and Timmerman’s Kriek had gone down in huge quantities. And every couple of weeks a brewery ‘takes over’ the bar – in October, Bagby, Atom and Time and Tide all had their spell at the helm.
Take your always-perfect pint and saunter outside to where the Shard and Southwark cathedral loom over you. The deck is a smoking area, a right rescinded when the huge totem-like parasol in the centre is opened in bad weather. But smokers can retire even further, to the edges of the market and under the glass roof, and they do this in great numbers, even though surrounded by huge bins full of market waste.
Talking of waste, avoid the lavs – they’re so archaic and malodorous you feel obliged to write your boss’s phone number and a sex act he’s particularly fond of on the back of the stall door.
Winchester Walk, SE1 9AG
The Old King’s Head
A world away from the silly restaurants and pretentious patisseries across Borough High Street, down a medieval cobbled alley, this one-room, L-shaped pub, established in 1881 and that seems to have smelt of cooking fat for at least that length of time, is a shrine to old London boozing.
Pictures of Southwark, London Bridge and the Great Fire adorn the walls opposite an enormous Tudor-style decorated window, but the clientele, almost all Londoners, are not impressed. They are impressed by the happy hour every Monday to Thursday, 4–7, where every pint or spirit plus mixer costs just three pounds – a price unheard of outside student union bars in London. Tribute, Doom Bar, Otter and particularly Amstel are being ordered in huge quantities by red-faced regulars in packs and Easter Island faced bar-propper-uppers. Staff deal with the crowds with unrelenting good humour and skill.
In the raucous cobbled alley, the Old King’s Head, advertised by a swing board of a surly Henry VIII, pours out its overspill. Unlike the alley to the side of the Blue Eyed Maid a few streets down, cyclists can’t sail down it, knocking your pint out of your hand. Drinkers crawl like ants out of the alley, perch on the bins, smoking and gesticulating, sprawl in plastic chairs higgledy-piggledy over the uneven pavement and cobbled ground, colonising the sills of the Fone Doctors next door and buggering up the journey of every cyclist and walker who wants to navigate the alley. It’s a far cry from most modern pubs in which you’re persistently instructed not to disturb the neighbours, or take your glass outside, or obstruct pedestrians.
I’ve watched many an England game in this alley. On a rainy night, the landlords crank up the window, half-shove the TV out and hundreds of fans watch the game, soaking wet, on the cobbles. As depressing as that sounds, it’s always been such great fun I’ve never wanted to go back to work afterwards. No wonder the Old King’s Head wifi password is ProperJob1. Open till 12, food till 9.
Old King’s Head
King’s Head Yard
45-49 Borough High Street, SE1 1NA
The Lord Clyde
This glorious Edwardian pub, built in 1913 and named after a Crimean War hero, combines enough modern London sass and old-school liver pickling to satisfy the pickiest of customers – no wonder it’s never short of customers. It also pulls off the remarkable trick of remaining cosy and dark in the brightest of sunshine. Isn’t this the mark of a great pub – to be more comfortable than your own home?
On a sparkling September afternoon, behind the beautiful faience earthern tiles, it feels like a 2am lock-in, but it’s even more atmospheric in deepest winter, at Christmas time, when thick velvet curtains around the doors keep the heat (and you) in and the light (and tourists) out, and it’s as cosy as the womb – admittedly the womb of a wayward mother with a placenta engorged with gin.
The beer’s okay, but nothing special: Southwold, Doom Bar, Hogsback Tea, San Miguel, Kronenbourg, Foster’s, Meantime Pale Ale, all at around £4 a pint. So what keeps me – and many others – coming back to the Lord Clyde?
It’s a perfectly stirred London cocktail of tattoos, builders’ bums and smashed scaffolders, alcoholic office workers, hipsters, drunk dads with their kids, old men in caps with sticks, council estate boys in tracksuits and council estate men done good in pink shirts drinking white wine.
The bar glitters with tankards, glasses and bottles of Hardy’s never looked so attractive amongst the brass fixtures and mirrors gleam and you sit down on a squishy, perfectly sprung red banquette and drink and before you know it you’ve ended up watching the entire first day of the Ryder Cup.
Drinkers spill out on to Clennam Street (named after a Dickens character in Little Dorrit), a tiny pedestrianised nub just off Marshalsea Road (named after the debtors’ prison Dickens described in the same novel). There’s not much to look at, but no-one really cares about that – this pub is about conviviality and characters and doesn’t give a hoot about class, and you can’t get more Dickensian than that.
The Lord Clyde
27 Clennam St, SE1 1ER
The Gladstone Arms
It’s last orders at the Gladstone Arms – if you haven’t been here already, you may be too late.
On a site that’s been occupied by a pub for the last 150 years, the popular, music-friendly Gladstone Arms is currently under threat from developers who want to turn it into – yawn – high-rise flats. While it’s easy to get depressed by the vampire squid of central London developers, the owners of “the Glad”, as it’s known, have been fighting hard to keep its doors open. The pub was successfully registered as an asset of community value, but Camra’s London Drinker tells me that the current tenant only has a short time left on the lease. So get there while you can.
The outside is Victorian pretty – painted black and festooned with flowers. Prop your pint up on a sill or sit at a table on the narrow pavement out – Lant Street (where Dickens lodged while his pa was incarcerated in the Marshalsea prison nearby – he found the street’s “dullness … soothing”) and Sanctuary Street are free enough from traffic despite being a minute from Borough station. Inside, there is scuffed wooden furniture on dark wooden floors, a piano and a pot plant in a cornet. Upstairs, pass the quirky lounge to reach a ramshackle roof terrace – it’s tiny enough to make it an eavesdroppers’ paradise fringed with garden canes, sheltered by a mossy plastic corrugated roof and with a soundtrack from an air con unit. This isn’t a cuss – I love a pub that unapologetically celebrates its urban environment. Anyway, more pleasing sounds are available downstairs, where the Glad stages intimate gigs at least three times a week.
The bar is small but crammed with good staff and good fare – there’s an attractive selection of beer – Doom Bar, Tribute and Hophead – all at 3.90 a pint, and Leffe, Lowenbrau, Yakima Red, Goose Island PA and Meantime PA. There’s a wide range of single malts and they serve Pieminister pies. Get them while they’re hot – it looks like the punters at the Glad may not be so happy soon.
The Gladstone Arms
64 Lant Street, SE1
This big, buzzy triangular corner pub juts out like the prow of a ship into Great Dover Street. The plum spot to sit is at the front on a brown sofa, where you can look out at the flotsam and jetsam of Borough lapping around the windows. It’s a massive high-ceilinged pub but when the weather is good, the overspill clusters around the fringes, on tables out the front and on to the municipal benches, mixing with the courier cyclists and dog walkers.
Inside, a horseshoe bar dishes out brightly marketed craft beers to a youngish crowd who appreciate the quirky cactus collection, but old fogies can eat at a quieter reservable part at the back (the base of the triangle). And well they might – locally sourced produce garnered this pub the ‘most improved sustainability’ title at the 2016 Food Made Good awards. They show films on Movie Mondays.
Drinks on tap include: a Southwark Full Sail, hoppy, light and refreshing at 3.90 as well as Ubu, Sagres, Amstel, Portobello, London Pilsner and Guinness. A craft bottle range is sterling (deep breath): Partizan Porter, Baron North Earl Grey Black, Bethnal Pale, Siren Undercurrent Oatmeal, Five Points IPA, BBNo Saison & Witbier, Partizan Lemongrass Saison, Hiver Honey Beer, Camden Hells, Moncada Notting Hill Blonde and Howling Hops Pils Bohemian.
And the beer list is bolstered by a fine selection of spirits: Monkey Shoulder, Teeling and Peat King are the pick of the whisky offerings; Kraken, Duppy Share and Red Leg showcase rum and El Dorada and Don Papa the tequila. There’s a spacious lounge upstairs where Charlie Chaplin is reputed to have performed as a lad – a standard unprovable south London pub boast.
50 Great Dover Street SE1 4AR
Abandon all hope, lager drinkers. This homely back street alehouse is all about the Harveys – mild 3.50, pale 3.60, best 3.90, to be precise. Far from the madding crowds of Borough market, in a street so quiet you can happily while away the hours on the street, on spindly outdoor furniture – as if you lived in Surrey – this beautifully tiled pub with a lovingly restored Victorian interior down to its net curtained windows is urban drinking at its best.
As you might expect, as Sussex brewery Harveys first London pub, the Harveys best is exceptional, a mouthful of sticky toffee pudding with the added bonus that it gets you drunk. There are two wings to the pub, but I love the centre vestibule – it’s stacked with boxes of books for sale, a jar of pickled eggs and pots of home-made chutneys. So there’s a kind of Sussex village hall vibe successfully imported to central London. In the left-hand bar, there’s an old-fashioned coin-operated pay phone, music hall artefacts (including prints advertising “I’ve got a lovely bunch of cocoanuts [sic]” and regulars clustering at the carved wooden bar. The rug under their feet is so well trodden it’s almost transparent – that says a lot.
But it’s not completely old school – the menu is surprisingly posh, offering hake meuniere at 11.75 and goat’s cheese and beetroot salad for 9.25. A tempting wine list displays a Macon rouge at 24.50 and a Cotes du Rhone 19.95.
44 Tabard Street, SE1 4JU
A NOTE ON BOROUGH
What a liberty! In Shakespeare’s time, to get really naughty on a night out, you’d have to travel south of the river, across London Bridge (then the only bridge) or on a cramped wherry (a water taxi) to the liberty of Southwark, where you could gorge on cheap ale, prostitutes, a bear-baiting show – and a four-and-a-half hour tragedy in blank verse – all to be enjoyed outside the jurisdiction of a spoilsport City of London. I like to think south Londoners still have a healthy contempt for any edicts delivered from City Hall – if you’ve ever driven down here you’ll know that they do.
For centuries, the Borough was the place London dumped everything malodorous and shameful – its breweries, tanneries, abattoirs, hospitals and prisons. But from the 1200s to the 1800s, it also sported the best inns, hosting the medieval pilgrims, gout-ridden aristocrats and south London chancers immortalised in the works of Chaucer and Dickens. On foot or by coach, if you wanted to come into London from the south-east, and from across the Channel, you had to navigate the Borough. So it was a district notorious for its terrible traffic, public order offences – and its drinking holes. The railways put paid to that; only one much-truncated coaching inn remains (The George), but the Borough is still one of the best districts of London for having an unpretentious knees-up.