Review: Claret Free House, Croydon
February 25, 2016
Beer-loving locals’ haunt that’s unashamedly old-fashioned – and not in a quaint, English Heritage-approved, selfie-stick kind of way. Think 1985 not 1885.
Don’t be misled by the name. This is no wine bar – if you ask for a glass of claret, you’ll be handed a mini-bottle of commercial plonk as if you’re descending into Luton airport. Here, in this unassuming and lo-fi pub in Addiscombe, Croydon, it’s all about the beer. And there’s a lot of it, mostly in my stomach. This is my local, after all.
Guest ales are on constant rotation, unlike the limpet-like regulars stuck to the bar (yeah, okay, me again), who won’t find anywhere else in the area that gives them such a good, cheap pint, homely atmosphere and as many Frazzles as they can guzzle.
The Claret Free House on Lower Addiscombe Road sits between the Welcome Friends Chinese restaurant, the sign of which is so decayed it reads CE FIENDS, and Tatlers, a much-needed hair salon in the Croydon area. The pub sits opposite Café Adagio, the People’s Choice for Croydon’s best independent café according to the Croydon Citizen. Why do you need to know this? Just setting the scene, and if you smoke, you’ll be seeing a lot of these places. Despite its old-school credentials in all other respects, unfortunately you still can’t puff on a Silk Cut at the bar.
The windows at the front don’t let in much light to the mock-Tudor, wood-beamed, single-room bar, which is just as well with the thickest paint on the wall I’ve ever seen combed like brylcreemed hair into quiffs.
But the atmosphere is far from gloomy. Constant Smooth FM helps, as well as a colourful array of vintage brewery decorations from the likes of Shepherd Neame and Hurliman. There’s a small shelf of books consisting of Good Beer Guides from 1980-1998, to match the array of CAMRA awards the pub has won for its beer, and manuals on metric pattern cutting that other pubs would buy in for a shot at ‘authenticity’ but here you know haven’t moved for 20 years.
On a pinboard, above an old grey BT payphone, a local cat league implores for help in catching the Croydon cat killer, who has been terrorising some locals by not sufficiently carrying out the disembowelment of their own annoying pet, and the family of an old regular invites fellow drinkers to a funeral.
This is a locals’ pub, and a men’s pub. I brought my sister here once – she was courteously laughed at for trying to buy me a beer. If there were any more pheremones in here, I’d bottle them and sell them out of the back of Razzle. There’s often a collection of steaming day-glo council worker jackets thrown over the backs of chairs, or into the comfy pews by the half-curtained windows. Local teachers, printers and builders drink in here. They’re all very friendly, loud and fiercely loyal to this pub. The general manager, Don, reminds them constantly that if they don’t like some perceived insult (such as being refused free beer or not supporting Leeds United), they can drink down the Alma (further up Lower Addiscombe Road). They tend to stay – the correct decision.
There’s no real secret to running a pub like this, the manager might say. Keep it cheap, keep it good, keep it varied. There’s no trouble here, unlike other pubs in the area. Behind the bar, amongst the boxes of crisps and a very modern cordless telephone, are deals to be had – house doubles are £2.50 and beers, which change weekly, are priced at around £3.50. Opposite is a blackboard, with a link to the Claret’s (dead) website and a grid of slates hanging up, showing what’s on tap and what’s coming next week. It always makes tempting reading.
At the time of writing, pints were poured from beardless young Islington microbrewery Hammerton; East Sussex brewer Franklins and its sticky, coffee-ish Pudding Stout; Derbyshire outfit The Raw Brewing Company’s seasonal New Dawn American Amber, the colour of autumn leaves but without the taste; York Brew’s hauntingly good Ghost Ale, weighing in at a deceptive 5.4%; and Kings Heritage Poachers Moon from West Sussex a steal.
Always on (and always will be) is Palmers – the pub sold its millionth pint of the Dorset brewery’s best bitter in 2012 and, looking at the gannets in this place, they’ll be on their two millionth next Wednesday. Probably the most profitable relationship between London and the West Country since Conan Doyle cashed in on Sherlock Holmes doing a Barbara Woodhouse down in Dartmoor.
Was there ever a sweeter sign seen in a pub window than this? Darts, Sky Sports, beer garden, erotic dancing – no. Part of the charm of this pub that draws me in is this one: No Children Allowed. And I say this as a father myself. A great pub to while away the time reading a book, doing the crossword and, to be honest, fending off text messages from mother of said child. Still, if children aren’t allowed, there are more than enough tubby, hairless, unruly men in unseasonally short trousers to make up for them.
No hot food is served, but if a drinker needs more than Frazzles, there’s Brothers Kebabs across the way, established in 1973 and describing itself as the first kebab shop in the south of England. As the landlord would say, if you don’t like it, go and drink in the Alma.
The Claret Freehouse, 5a Bingham Corner, Lower Addiscombe Road, Addiscombe, Croydon CR0 7AA