Ales of the Riverbank
Our riverside review started badly when Half-life showed up to meet me under Tower Bridge not only without his bike, but dressed as a Bedouin.
‘Cycle? In this? Are you mad?’ he protested, tugging his thobe. ‘Anyway, look at the crowds along here. You’re not in Charlton now, chuck.’
I had planned to ride to the eight Thames boozers between Bermondsey and Wandsworth, to complement the eight we visited between Charlton and Bermondsey in May. He’d planned for global warming.
‘People used to mistake me for Peter O’Toole, you know,’ he said, comparing himself to the impossibly handsome actor who played Lawrence of Arabia. He was indeed wearing eyeliner like O’Toole, but instead of enclosing the celebrated thespian’s infinite blue eyes, the makeup highlighted the bloodshot, addled peepers of a middle-aged dipsomaniac who’d had his first spliff of the day in bed with Loose Women.
He went on to tell me I knew nothing about this next stretch of the river, that there were more like 25 boozers between here and Wandsworth and I would never make it out of SE1 sober.
‘I know I rarely do, anyroad,’ he said, laughing to himself.
So I locked up my steed and escorted this sweary giant in flowing robes and guyliner through the throng of tourists, all walking in slow motion, as if the pubs weren’t open yet.
It wasn’t long before Half-life was proved right about my bar omissions. My pub-centric mind had already forgotten there was one by the HMS Belfast. The Upper Deck Bar had now evolved into Tom’s Kitchen, serving cocktails and Curious Brew beers along with its fine views over the warship and Tower Bridge. Half-life, though, took exception to being surrounded by juice drinkers and olive eaters after opening time, so we strolled on.
The first pub we came to was The Horniman at Hay’s: A big, shiny, disappointing boozer. Impressively, it opens at 10am, yet we weren’t tempted in. It just didn’t feel like it was ours. We pressed on, two bars down and still without a drink, like monks, or idiots, when Half-life insisted on diverting to The Mudlark, the pub in the shadows of Southwark Cathedral.
‘Oh no,’ I protested. ‘Rules is rules. You cannot see the river from The Mudlark.’
‘Follow me,’ he said. Grabbing a couple of pints of Old Dairy Brewery Summer Top and leading me outside to a waterside vantage point, at a place he called ‘Dirty Bit-on-Sea’.
Half-life explained that he used to meet the Raider for a smoke by some bins round the corner, known as ‘The Dirty Bit’. When they evolved to multitasking – taking in views while toking – they ended up here, overlooking London Bridge. It’s new name was born. Unfortunately, it’s been smartened up, making it a spot for tourists to pause too, with their backpacks and bottled water, puzzling at the Scouse desert nomad, chuffing on a fag, with a pint.
‘Here we go,’ he said as an earnest Japanese tourist came towards him with a camera. ‘They can’t resist this get up.’ I sniggered when the visitor asked Half-life to take a picture of him and his missus. Half-life avenged himself by cutting hubby out of the pictures and focussing only on his pretty wife.
There were plenty of tourists at the nearby The Old Thameside Inn too, a pub that sounds lovely, and indeed usually serves a decent drop, but suffers from a transient crowd and City bores. The Thameside does have seats on the water, which is nice in January when everybody else has fucked off. You can often get away with smoking a number down the end without disturbance, apart from in the tourist season (February to December).
Next up was Bankside’s oldest pub and former brothel, The Anchor, also known to us as Spider’s Reach. It’s hugely popular with visitors in summer, but they often close the outside section in winter, like people who live here don’t count or something. It was here that our old mucker Spider stripped off and jumped in the Thames when he first returned from a spell in Africa. Africa changes people. For a start it makes them talk about Africa for about a year, though to be fair, it seems longer.
About 50 people are hoiked out of the Thames by the Marine Police Force a year. About 20 of them are Spider, who thinks the rest of us are mad for not jumping into dangerous currents at every opportunity.
After his dip, Spider sat on top of an outside tables, still completely naked, like he was a tribal visitor and not at all from Oldham.
The Anchor feels a bit like a giant fish and chip shop with a bar, giving how much of the stuff they shift. We didn’t stop for an average beer there. We moved along to the Swan at Shakespeare’s Globe, where we had a very welcome Anspach & Hobday Pale Ale in a chilled glass. Civilisation. Delicious civilisation.
Sadly, they had removed the best sofa by the Thames. It used to sit on their balcony, giving you a lovely view of St Paul’s, the river and the Globe. It had been replaced with three high tables to fit in more people, reminding us that pubs are not just here to enhance your soul. Some git has to make some moolah out of them too.
It was enough to force us to move a few metres to the next bar – the Member’s Room at the Tate Modern. It’s always had sumptuous views but now it has incredible booze offerings. In addition, the family crowd that used to fill it have migrated to the members room in the new building, or the terrace bar, leaving this jewel to your arty drinkers.
‘I’m afraid your membership expired in 2007, sir.’
‘Get out! Try this one,’ said Half-life, offering another card.
‘Jemima?’ queried the lad behind the counter, who then declined Half-life’s offer of an anatomical inspection and waved us through.
Though greatly tempted by Siren’s phenomenal Vermont Tea Party, we treated ourselves to a new collaboration between Tate and Fourpure Brewing – Switch House Pale Ale, possibly the best thing anyone has put in a can since Heinz figured out they could hide sausages in beans. The can is designed by graphics legend Peter Saville; the beer is by Bermondsey miracle workers. So, it is beautiful on the outside and on the inside, much like myself.
The balcony brought back memories of Half-life’s fifth floor danger vom from a few years back, but at least we could see the tide was out, and behold our fair city. We would continue our stroll on the sand, missing out The Founders Arms, whose fabulous location was already rewarded by a full house.
By Blackfriars Bridge, the redoubtable Doggett’s Coat and Badge pub sits. The pub’s name celebrates the oldest boat race in the world, which has been run every year since 1715, from London Bridge to Chelsea. The pub has a few riverside seats, a beer garden, an upstairs bar with fine views and a terrace bar, all in a Brutalist setting. For a pub that struggles to generate an atmosphere, it has a lot going for it.
What I hadn’t taken into account on this stretch was the crop of new bars available amid the blossoming South Bank concrete. The Mondrian is a spectacular newcomer, replacing some dreary offices with a boutique hotel and Curzon cinema. It has a swanky bar, the Dandelyan, and a rooftop cocktail bar, the Rumpus Room. It was a sweltering day, so we popped into the comfort of the Dandelyan’s air conditioning. Half-life studied the bar menu and declared:
‘I won’t let you pay £7.50 for a small bottle of pale, mate,’ to my relief. ‘That’s nearly fifteen quid a pint.’
I went to check the Rumpus while he chatted to the super-chilled bar staff but I thought I heard him say something like:
‘I dunno. Something with gin. Maybe melon, truffles and elderflower.’
Whatevs. I went to the twelfth floor to find the Rumpus opens at four. When I returned I had a £13 bar bill for a Natural Born Gatherer, a cocktail comprising Ford’s gin, melon wine, truffle apertivo, elderflower and soda.
‘Oh mate, you should have tasted it,’ said the cheeky cunt. ‘Still, I saved you two quid.’
At least he’d skinned up. Plus we were by a number of fine riparian spliff spots; jetties and beaches, made for the herb. We had one on the sand by Gabriel’s Wharf, marvelling at the city’s loveliness from down there, in the crack of the capital.
When we returned to earth we were just in the mood for somewhere like The Understudy, the craft beer bar at the National Theatre. Normally, we’d get some elevation on the Baylis Terrace, (now catchily known as the Bank of America Merrill Lynch Terrace) where we’d knock back a bottle of wine and do any drugs we had on us. But The Understudy is younger, has more energy, good kegged beer and not too many tourists. Plus Half-life got a kick out of telling people on the phone, ‘I’ve just slipped into the Understudy.’
After a nice but costly pint of Weird Beard Pale, we pressed on to the BFI bar, Riverfront, next door, which gave us shade under Waterloo Bridge and lovely pints of Chelsea Blonde on cask – a firm favourite from the London Beer Factory, despite the name.
We didn’t have one on The Roof Garden between the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the South Bank Centre, as its bar only had Moretti and we were in a position to be picky. The Royal Festival Hall was out too, as its beer selection hasn’t changed since the Festival of Britain, it seemed. Theakston’s? Why, oh why?
Instead we popped to Beany Green, which probably does coffee but is also a pop-up, pop art, local craft beer gaff. We grabbed a pint and took it up to the RFH’s fifth floor balcony for one of the finest views in town, mixing the merits of different venues.
Hunger came suddenly and without mercy. Luckily, next to the container that housed Beany was one that contained Bleecker St burgers, cooked medium-rare from aged, rare-breed beef. While I will never understand the point of importing American cheese, it’s all about the meat and even the world’s least distinguished dairy product can’t hide that.
Luckily, food made us thirsty again and the very next container housed Look Mum, No Hands, with its ace selection of brews and excellent summer garden, devoted to broadcasting cycling. We even managed to slip back out on the sand for a smoke before the tide came in, to celebrate another victory for Chris Froome in the only way we know how.
It had been a dizzying day of excellent ale and exceptional vistas. Half-life was right. I didn’t know dick about this stretch. It wasn’t the traditional pubs that provided the flavours to remember. It was the Tate Modern, the BFI, the Swan, Look Mum – the arts bars and the pop-ups. The pubco boozers are serving average fayre, resting on their landmarks. We’d missed out The Horniman, The Thameside, The Anchor, The Founders and others, yet this was our seventh pint of distinction.
‘The seventh pillar of wisdom,’ breathed Half-life. ‘You’re welcome.’
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