THE WALK THERE:
It was a Saturday and the penultimate day of the month. I left my front door in St Albans at 10am and started my march towards the railway station. I was on my way to London. My target was Bermondsey in the south – more specifically the Kernel Brewery. It seemed early to be leaving the house for a drink but Kernel closes to the public at 2pm. I know very well from past experience that you need to get there well ahead of that to do the visit justice. At 1pm the queue for fresh beer can outstretch the length of the arch premises so I aimed to get there even earlier than that. I also wanted to have time to walk from St Pancras to Bermondsey at a comfortable pace. Walking through the capital is a pleasure; the large detail hardly needs announcing. It’s the finer detail that makes London. There are windows, recesses and streets I’ve passed hundreds of times unaware I was missing the abode of an historical giant, an ancient crypt, an archaic marker, a spot where the gallows used to stand or thousands of other treasures. Even along the most familiar streets, when you zoom in, things stir and awaken.
St Pancras Station is welcoming, energetic and cultured. I ascend the stairs from the underground platform to the sound of a piano playing on the lower ground floor. There are two pianos left out for the enjoyment of the public. In a way it’s fitting – these instruments were once a staple in the city’s backstreet pubs. The upper level boasts two noteworthy statues. The first is by Martin Jennings and is a sculpture of late poet laureate Sir John Betjeman. The statue’s bigger than life-size but still affords a human-scale encounter. It boasts a sharp likeness of the self-titled poet and hack. He is depicted in with a carrier bag in his right hand while his left hand holds his hat down. He is looking up into a lofty distance - possibly focusing on a railway departures board. His coat is caught mid-bellow as if the 15.35 to Bedford is whistling past. Betjeman campaigned during the 1960s to preserve Victorian landmarks and buildings from being destroyed for development. St Pancras Station is possibly the most beautiful railway building in the world yet its levelling was actually on the cards a few decades ago. He helped this bastion survive and it’s why he’s honoured here.
The second statue looms in the background of the first and is called The Meeting Place by sculptor Paul Day. It’s a giant lovers’ embrace - an athletic couple snogging. I like it for its candid passion. British sculpture likes to stay safe or disappear into inoffensive oddness. If there’s nudity it’s in the classical Italianate/Greco style. When there is passion it’s often only from nostril-flaring steeds shouldering stoic military characters. This couple, however, is devouring face unperturbed by their surroundings. It is also bottom-centric . There is a frieze that goes around the base depicting scenes from the railway. Proud bronze buttocks play a strong role in it as well as reflections caught in subjects’ glasses. Both these things are Paul Dayisms and recur in other works. The statue regularly appears in lists of Britain’s worst but I like it. We will come back to both Paul Day and Sir John Betjeman later.
I come out of St Pancras where it faces Kings Cross. Like St Pancras Station, Kings Cross has recently undergone a huge face-lift. The inside concourse is one large ovoid space under a domed lattice roof. If you wander along the platform gates, you’ll find platform 9 and three quarters. I stumbled across it by accident – my attention drawn to a young woman jumping so she could be photographed with her feet off the ground. She was clutching the hand bar of a baggage trolley that was sunk into the wall. I was utterly perplexed until I realised that this is a Harry Potter installation – it’s the platform the train leaves from in the films. The pupils literally run through a solid brick wall to board the train to Hogwarts. I think the jumping is just a social meme from thousands of images of people doing it online (try a quick Google image search) – a tradition exacerbated and confirmed by the action’s reproduction.
A few feet away there is a stairway leading up to an amazing Fullers pub called The Parcel Yard. The premises used to be a Royal Mail sorting office and the area inside is labyrinthine. You walk down a corridor with rooms either side – you can imagine each window looking into an army of uniformed employees sorting through mountains of mail sacks. The building traces a square around saplings in a central atrium. There is a Fullers restaurant upstairs and the whole venue is topped by a glass roof on the third storey flooding the whole premises in light. The whole Fuller’s cask beer range is on the bar along with several guests. Their vintage ale is also available - each bottle’s price rising with its age. Like many central London Fullers pubs, a pint is in excess of £4 and up to £5. It is served in fantastic condition though. The last time I visited I had a pint of Windsor & Eton’s Royal Knot and it was so live it practically leapt out of the glass. Despite the price, one of the things I like the most about this pub is that once you’re served, unless you’re in a group, you can always find somewhere to sit or perch as you take off down the side corridors where there are long waiting room benches, hogsheads and parcel shelves. Today however, I have neither the time nor the budget.
I make my way towards Birkenhead Street. I turn left down St Chad’s Street and then right onto Gray’s Inn Road. On a recent trip I noticed there is a Welsh speaking church here. I nipped in for a leaflet. I once did a teaching course where I tried to teach some basic Welsh to a class. As part of the research, I found that Welsh was also an official language of Patagonia and that London boasts around 50,000 Welsh speakers (I believe this should be 50,000 people who claim they can speak it). The London Welsh Centre is an organisation that was founded in 1920 for Welsh immigrants. It moved several times until it found its current site in this church on Gray’s Inn Road in 1937. In 1971 a bar inside was officially opened by Harry Secombe! It’s good to know there’s somewhere I could go in London to get my Welsh back as well as down a crafty pint.
After about 15 minutes’ walk I pass a gorgeous beer shop - Bottle Dog - part of the Brewdog franchise. My journey then takes me left down Clerkenwell Road and then right down Farringdon Road and New Bridge Street until I hit the mighty river.
There is a huge Italian influence in this area. You can find it around Clerkenwell Green and all the way down to the river. It’s an aggregation of about 200 years of settlement.This part of Clerkenwell Road simultaneously curves around and dives downhill like a whitewater course. Opposite the road between Leather Lane and Hatton Gardens, there is a Catholic church. It’s the kind of building that mesmerises me and forces me to cross the road to study it. It seems to me it’s in the same architectural footprint as the buildings that terrace it but it doesn’t belong. What makes you initially do a double take are the warm gay colours. It abandons the traditional British “thick” colours for the levity of Mediterranean azure and peachy orange. The lighter blue (in contrast to the common British navy blue) stands out in London. In Italy the hue reflects the sky but here it doesn’t - ours is more slate grey. The bricks used are also lighter like terracotta and when you see the facade shoulder to shoulder with the other Victorian buildings, it’s almost as if a beam of sun has illuminated it alone leaving the others in shade - divine confirmation! It’s St Peter’s Italian church or Chiesa Italiana di San Pietro. It was built in 1863 to offer a place of worship to the growing number of itinerant Italians. An Irish architect - Sir John Miller-Bryson based the design on a church in Rome. Somehow he managed to get the Lazian sun to shine on it too.
A man approached me at the junction of Clerkenwell and Farringdon Road. He wanted to know how to get to Blackfriars. I was happy to oblige and asked whether it was Blackfriars Station he wanted. He just wanted to be in the area and see the Thames. He both looked and sounded like he was from Glasgow and I fought the temptation to burden him with information he didn’t need. I wanted to tell him to look out for the Holborn viaduct but even more than that, as he had mentioned Blackfriars, I wanted to tell him to check out the Black Friar pub and tell him it might remind him architecturally of another Nicholsons pub in Glasgow called The Granary. Instead, I simply assured him that if he kept walking down Farringdon Road he’d get to where he wanted to be. He thanked me – “cheers pal, ye’re a gent”. As we put distance between ourselves I found myself walking along the pavement with my brow furrowed in self-analysis. When giving directions I’d found myself straining to sound like a Londoner – like a Cockney. Why? I had no idea but I’d done it before.
There is a plaque on Farringdon road about buildings that were bombed from the air in the war. This is unremarkable until you realise it’s alluding to the First World War. It’s less documented but true. Instead of planes these bombs were dropped by hand from air ships in the dark. Very general urban centres were targeted - it was absolutely no threat to any military installation. One zeppelin apparently went so far off course it bombed Kingston-Upon-Hull thinking it was the capital (bizarrely, Hull and Barrow-In-Furness would become major targets in the Second World War). Did it ever make it back to Germany or has the airship finally landed - deflating in a bush in the Faroe Islands with the skeletal remains of the pilot?
My point on this walk is now Farringdon Road. It is in fact another river feeding into the Thames - the Fleet. The Fleet river has been excised from living memory, culverted and built over but it courses under the traffic still. Look to each side and you’ll notice the side streets slope down towards it - they were the banks where coal was unloaded off boats. From the incline of Smithfield Market, offal, intestines and carcasses were ejected staining the landscape with a fly-clouded blood trail for centuries. Under the tarmac, the gore might still fester. As well as the butchery it was an open sewer and public chemical dump. This was one river you didn’t want to slip into
The Holborn viaduct is almost 150 years old and in bright sunshine looks like it’s been photoshopped into Farringdon Road. British design of the industrial age has a kind of elegance about it but you really need to stand a long way back to appreciate its feminine side. Victorian industrial build was first and foremost practical. The flourishes and paint were added after and are as becoming as a sequined ruff on a nightclub bouncer. The sweet shop primary colours were not used to go unnoticed. Imperial colours don’t dim when you squint through your eyelashes - they remain as the structure they dress vanishes and the viaduct’s rhubarb hue would originally have been much brighter.
At times a gale blows down Farringdon Road where it’s given a wide gangway – an indicator you’re nearing the water. The high ground in London is overwhelmingly north of the river. London slopes down to its life source. I’ve particularly noticed this from the Strand. From Maiden Lane, there are narrow passageways like Bull Inn Court that feed through into the Strand and from the Strand further alleys like Carting Lane that continue the descent. At this point the blue-grey bulge of the Thames can be glimpsed through trees on Savoy Square. This feeling of going down to the water’s edge is also felt when coming down Chancery Lane, crossing Fleet Street and continuing through one of the many cells of Temple (Fountain Court offers a stunning area of quietude from the rumble of Fleet Street. It acts as a kind of insulated bubble). Nearby Devereux Court stands tall looking directly down at the water. It’s both refreshing and reassuring – you can see an area where London’s lungs finally get the room to breathe in deeply and exhale. The water is a break from the long running blockade of the built environment. The streets, courts and alleys are like the veins and capillaries leading to the the oxygenated aortic blood. It always seems as though you’re going downhill towards it and from Cricklewood through to Islington you are.
There is something special about coming out at the Thames’ edge - the climate changes and the wind picks up. The sky opens up - something that hasn’t happened since the top of Hampstead Heath where you can look down on London’s unkempt skyline. The ozone is different here. There is a suggestion of salt on it - the distant sea in the air. It’s the combination of that and the wide glowing expanse of heaven - no longer obscured by brick, glass and steel that makes you realise the capital is but a neighbourhood in something much bigger. The water can be quite choppy. The rest of Britain and the coast is out there. It’s exhilarating. London becomes diminutive again under this sky.
I think back to my encounter with the (possible) Glaswegian. Why do I suppose I force an accent? Am I trying to represent London? I’ve worked here now since 2006 and it’s completely in my system. I like being asked directions too. I get myself pumped for it - eager to be someone in the madness that knows the way. Did I overdo the patois as a counterbalance to his Glasgow brogue? I once visited Coniston in Cumbria which is host to The Black Bull Inn – home of The Coniston Brewing Company. Each time I went to the bar the stealth Cockney came out too. Who is he for and why does he think he’s necessary? When did he enter my life?
I love crossing all the bridges in London. Blackfriars has changed recently. It’s dominated by the new Blackfriars station complete with gleaming photovoltaic roof panels. It in turn is haunted by the pillars of an invisible bridge. The eight bare pillars of the old Blackfriars bridge however, are much more than that. Despite their stoutness and incongruous maroon pride, they also come across as doleful and empty. They seem to reach up like open palms, begging, beseeching. The pillars are functional and highlight the vast empty space above them thereby highlighting the theft of their own function - their pride indefinitely suspended. We can’t do this to them. They’re calling out for employment.
When I first moved to London, human traffic along the South Thames Path was definitely on the increase but parts of it were inaccessible - this was in part due to building work going into Blackfriars Station. Today it is positively heaving and it should come as no surprise. The view along the mighty Thames becomes more and more like science fiction - the massive glass structures piercing the sky. Most notably of all - the Shard which looms over your right shoulder and keeps reappearing between gaps in the buildings you flank. The hulk that is HMS Belfast sits on the water. Nearby is the surreal Hays Galleria. There is something of note every few metres along this walk.
Our path comes away from the water and finds London Bridge Station and Tooley Street. Past The London Dungeon and The Britain at War Museum. Past Borough Market. Down Druid Street to shadow the nascent businesses in the railway arches. It’s an exciting sign of the times that the term railway arch now conjures up breweries, charcuteries, bakers, cheese makers and delis.
I walk through the Kernel Arch at 12:04. Two hours and four minutes exactly since I left my front door in St Albans. I cross the threshold and daylight is stolen. The inside has a war room feel to it with long tables and strip lighting. On days when I get to visit, there is always a feeling of suspense which just makes it more special - the list of fresh beer frequently only appears on the website the day before and even that can alter. One of the beers I wanted was the Biere de Saison but it’s gone! I need to concentrate. The fruit sours are a triumph but I need to try new things. I study the board and decide to stay light - it’s only just gone midday after all. I don’t expect to sit when I come here - you’d have to come pretty early for that. I get the next best thing though - an upturned hogshead all to myself to use as a table. All Kernel beer must be consumed within the premises. I try to take pictures of the beer with my phone but the darkness thwarts it - it has no idea what it’s supposed to focus on. It puts the cask wood into sharpness, then the jeans pocket of a man standing nearby, then the edge of the toilet block but never the actual glass. Never mind. I have chosen two beers:
Farmhouse Table Kernel/Jester King 4.1 Key Keg
The Jester King Brewery is near Austin in Texas. A collaboration with an outfit from Texas and one from under a railway in Bermondsey would’ve seemed utterly surreal a few years ago. It’s a testament to the international fandom of brewing that this is quite normal now. I have long gazed at the images on Jester King’s website - the Texan sun drenches everything. Shots are taken of mountains of clementines, blueberries, apples, grapes, mushrooms, squashes - you name it. Each heap is in preparation for a special brew. The setting is a paradise of abundance. Photos of stemmed glasses perched atop wooden casks refract the blazing sunlight. In the background through the shimmering heat lie farmhouses and lush agriculture. It’s a kind of rustic beer porn. I’ve often been puzzled by collaborations between British brewers - I feel it’s sometimes a symbolic and quickly forgotten gesture after one crew visits the premises of another. With this mennah from Austin though, something new could actually be brought to the table because the climate is so different.
The beer is a dingy lemon squash in colour (I must stress that it’s dark under the arch though) with a cuckoo spit head. The aroma has a certain metallic quality but not like the oxidised tastes of some cheap canned beers. It’s more like milk of magnesium. The palate pushes this slightly bitter zinc note to the roof of the mouth and I get a sensation akin to the dryness of sloe berries. Through all this, the mouthfeel remains milky. It’s refreshing and dry. There is also an unctum of damp straw and a cidery quality too. Has the term Farm House prejudiced my thoughts? I do like the beer and have never tasted a beer quite like it. Maybe these flavours derive from the Texan yeast. I move onto my next glass.
Kernel Brewery Table Beer Key Keg 3.2
Light custard on the eye and cloudy. Milky hop oil top. Fruity nose like red grapes and pineapple. Full carbonation that tingles through the body – not at all forced like Coke. Chewed grape skins on the palate. White wine note. Such a fulsome glass for such a light indulgence. Mild grapefruit taste – not astringently so. I love that beer too. Out of the two it’s actually my favourite and I love the fact so much taste can be delivered by such a low ABV beer.
I no longer have the hogshead to myself as the place starts to get busy. Ideally I’d like to sample the whole range but I drink up and go back out into the daylight to Brew By Numbers.
Brew By Numbers Porter 03/02 – Liberty 6.1 Key Keg
This ale is black but dark crimson at the edges. Even held against the sunlight the body fights transparency. There's a moussy dark beige head. Dry dusting chocolate/freeze dried coffee granules on the nose. Black garibaldi biscuits on the palate. Some black cherry notes come through too. A dry aftertaste ensues. Liberty hops were used but overwhelmed in that somewhere.
As I drain the glass, my thoughts return to the lugubrious pillars of the old Blackfriars Bridge. Maybe the vacant supports could host sculpture and statues in the same way the plinths in Trafalgar Square do. A sculptor or artist could put their installations up for a few months. I dwell on this for a while but realise it wouldn’t work. Plinths only work if you can walk around them - you shouldn’t have to pick out the details by hanging over the bridge with a pair of binoculars. I retire that thought and proceed to Anspach & Hobday instead.
Anspach & Hobday have started cultivating their own yeast which they have termed Arch House. I think it’s a testament to brewing. It’s the only part you could truly bring in-house if you’re based under a railway arch.
Anspach & Hobday Arch House Sour 4.1 Key Keg
This beer pours a dirty yellow. I find myself doing a mental peg puzzle where I try and match a gustatory peg to the hole made by this beer. You find yourself closing your eyes and watching an array of ingredients pass by on a conveyor belt like the generation game. It conjures up two main tastes for me: vinegar and custard. Written down this seems unappealing but I use both those words as the beer itself defies all my attempts at painting its picture in words. It reminds me of their Peated Gose though without the emulsified creamy mouthfeel (Gose is a Germanic sour beer made from a mash that is at least 50% wheat and then soured with salt. Coriander is also often added. Anspach & Hobday recently made one with malt roasted over peat).
The vinegar here is mainly identified by the nose. It must be from the house yeast. Hop character doesn’t feature prominently. This tasting flags up a need for a wider beer vocabulary. There was a time when citrus and piney notes in American-hopped beer were described as cat pee in Britain. This is why custard and vinegar are not meant as terms to denigrate the beer. It’s just that the beer stands outside of familiar confines.
THE WALK BACK:
On this occasion I take the same route back. There are many others which will enable you to haunt other watering holes. The crowd builds up outside The Old Thameside Inn (another Nicholsons pub) because of the photo opportunity amongst tourists for the permanently harboured replica of The Golden Hinde. The Rake is another fantastic pub around the corner but I need to walk on to feel how much the alcohol is affecting my stamina. Walking circulates it around the blood more and I believe actually makes you feel drunker than you would if you were stationary.
As I plod along I think back to my Glaswegian on the way down. Maybe the guy that asked for directions wasn’t actually Glaswegian. Maybe he wasn’t even Scottish! Perhaps he was approaching my role play from the other side - he was actually from the Cotswolds or Royal Windsor but wanted to seem less posh. Maybe I should stop obsessing about it.
I walk back over Blackfriars Bridge. On a previous jaunt, both sides of the bridge were dotted with people holding up placards against abortion. They didn’t meet the eyes or confront any pedestrian on the bridge and I remember thinking why here? Also why would a piece of card reading “end abortion now” settle anybody's mind on the subject? I recall thinking something else too: Coming across something like this my reaction had been to reach for the phone to take a picture before I chided myself for that very action. Generations ago diarists would’ve stayed awake all night growing myopic by candle light to record the goings on in the capital. These days we simply take shots of it with our phones and reduce any accompanying words to an abbreviation – LOL!
At the bottom of New Bridge Street stands The Black Friar. The pub is unique. You now look at a bizarre wedge-shaped building standing alone with a portly black friar above the doorway. When it was built, it would’ve fitted snugly into the streets surrounding it. The neighbouring buildings got demolished and leave The Black Friar looking quite vulnerable. It’s only 110 years old. The site it was built on was the original Dominican Friary that gave this whole area its identity (hence Blackfriars). The architect and builder were both members of the arts & crafts movement and there is overwhelming evidence for this inside and outside. To the sides and above one of the doors there are brass rubbings made to look medieval (until you realise they’re advertising Charrington ales) and a panel that has been put together with tesserae like a Roman mozaic. Inside in the snug, the back end of the pub recalls a guilted Coptic crypt more than it does a tap room. Again we bump into someone we should be thankful for - Sir John Betjeman. He saved THIS fine building from demolition too.
Back up Farringdon Road and under the viaduct. Past Smithfield Market and a slight detour off to the left down Leather Lane to the first of London’s Craft Beer Company sites (The Cask and Kitchen in Pimlico was the proper original but doesn’t bear the Craft Beer name). It can sometimes be a bit of a difficult bar. When it’s busy it can actually be difficult to get into the building but not today. The atmosphere is convivial and there is even a spare seat at the beer engines. I notice a pump clip on the beer engines by a brewery called Vocation. I’ve not heard of them. The woman behind the bar had a Tuatara Brewery T-shirt from New Zealand and a matching accent. I asked where Vocation are from. “Hibdin Bridge” is the answer. She knows her stuff. I look them up later - sure enough it’s Hebden Bridge - another new Yorkshire brewery. Divide & Conquer is a robust 6.5% Black India Pale Ale and I have a half.
I was going to leave but I notice Wild Beer Co’s Millionaire is on cask. I need to have a half of that too in case I never get the opportunity again. It’s 4.7 ABV and an impenetrable walnut - black at first glance. There is crimson to the edges. It has a beige cappuccino head. I’m surprised by the first sip as it tastes of roast beef crisps! I don’t remember that from the bottle. This quickly malts out into a sweet pastry - the initial taste vanished. Salty note on the aftertaste. Liquid flaky pastry or flapjack with raspberry or caramel. Seems to me even sweeter than its bottled form.
I look up at the ceiling. It’s captivating – a patchwork of mirrors like a Mondrian tree with a chandelier rupturing through the epicentre like the glowing heat shield of a spaceship. I find myself being a voyeur of myself. I spy on me to see if I’m doing anything interesting at the bar below and try and take pictures of said espionage from my phone.
I leave the Craft Beer Company and get my bearings. Though not on my itinerary, the eponymous well of Clerkenwell is down the road through a glass frontage. You have to cup your hands to the glass and look down. It’s about 3 metres lower than current ground level. To view the well properly would be by appointment of the Finsbury Historical Society.
This particular area pulsates with radical history both political and spiritual. It has been the base for Lollards, Quakers, Rosicrucians and The Order Of The Golden Dawn. On the green, Wat Tyler and his followers watched after they’d torched the priory of St John during the peasants’ revolt. The Tolpuddle Martyrs were welcomed here after transportation to Australia in the 1830s. The Chartists (precursors to the Labour Party) held their meetings here. The Pro-Fenian Irish Radicals of the Patriotic Society (they preceded Sinn Fein) met regularly in a pub here. A young Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin) would use a printers here to publish “Iskra” – “The Spark” for export to pre-Soviet Russia. It’s now the Marx Memorial Museum. More recently, The Morning Star – a British Communist newspaper set up headquarters here as well as The Big Issue. Clerkenwell Green itself is pretty nondescript and gives no hint to its left-leaning and deep historical seams. The buildings are mostly modern - nothing really going back earlier than late Victorian. The only clues to its more ancient identity come from narrow curving roads radiating off the green like Jerusalem Passage which has a Belgian-themed estaminet called The Dovetail I’ve yet to visit. The green is also not green but tarmac or cobble and the area is completely unphotogenic.
The walk continues uphill towards Grey’s Inn Road past innumerable blue and brown plaqued buildings. The plaques serve to remind the traveller of how ignorant they are. I still cross the road to read them but rarely have I heard of any of the people commemorated.
St Pancras Station is a pleasure to return to. It has a decent public toilet on the lower ground floor that doesn’t require you to put 30p in a turnstile. I always make full use of that facility. There is also a shop called Sourced opposite the barriers to the First Capital Connect lines. It has a good range of beers from London breweries but charges about twice as much as anywhere else. I’ve already been by The Bottle Shop (close to Anspach & Hobday) and Bottle Dog and will be going via The Bottle Shop St Albans on my return so spend no money here. I descend to the lower floor to get my train back. I’ve had the right amount of beer to have enjoyed the outing and the walk but not to fall asleep. It’s a learning curve - I’ve twice woken up in Bedford late at night having missed St Albans.
It’s still bright daylight. As we near Verulamium (Roman name for the city), the cathedral is like a bouncer in the distance. It goes into stealth mode for a while around Radlett as it disappears behind a few miles of unbroken hedge but suddenly re-emerges bolder and much bigger. The north and south transepts look like huge gym-sculpted shoulders. There are a few tall buildings in the area but they’ve been kept away from the city centre. St Albans cathedral still dominates the skyline facing its only historical rival – the 14th century clock tower on the High Street – ecclesiastical power versus trade power. By contrast In London, the spires that could once be seen (and heard) as landmarks to London’s parishes have been completely dwarfed by high rise buildings. One of the most tragic examples of this is if you ever come into London on the M4 - you see the actual steeples and weather vanes within a few feet of the edge of the carriageway. In your car you’re riding higher and looking down on them. In the distance, 1970s tower blocks stand like towering sentinels.
It’s still early in the day and St Albans is bathed in a gentle pastel light. There is a background hum in London which comes from the vibration of traffic and thousands of air conditioning units that is absent when you come back to St Albans. The air seems cleaner and is a degree cooler. Drivers on the road clench their jaws less and give way more. Along London Road I hear swifts careering above and see a red kite soaring on a heat thermal. I hear pied wagtails hopping across the low rooftops and dunnocks singing from back gardens. I also hear coal tits calling from copses around churches and schools - a rare sound in the capital. London is a bustling metropolis that belongs to the world. Here, however, we are back in England. From here the fields of rape divided by sloe and bryony thickets spread out across the flat loam of East Anglia until they find the coast.
I stop in The Beer Shop St Albans, pick up some bottles and chat about the beers I had in London. Before the day is over I have one more beer to try in a local pub made from cherry blossom.
The cherry blossom beer was a bit of an anti-climax. To be fair I’d been told by the brewer that it was taking longer than hoped to clear - I had the beer on that precondition (no pun intended). Botanical – a word employed more and more in the beer world - is an epithet that requires respect. It requires an education of local flora. I think there needs to be clarity in the ale to actually show the plant’s (the botanical) attributes off. This beer was cloudy in both appearance and taste. I got a general hedge flavour - a bit like how the smell of emptying a lawnmower hopper might taste. It wasn’t unpleasant but the dimensions I seek in ale - the malt, the hops, the carbonation, the body - were all obscured by the cherry blossom which had little distinction in itself. It was like an Ink blot over written prose. One potential problem with adding plants is that you can’t be sure whether the beer will drop bright – the plant is an unknown quantity whose molecules might be completely soluble in water. I applaud the experimentation though. Ironically, we are trying to regain a knowledge about ale that was ubiquitous before the fashion for that amazing green flowered bine used on the continent. We need to be saying a beer tastes of Douglas fir pine or of sweet woodruff, never that it tastes or smells “botanical”. We are still training ourselves with these rekindled ingredients. It’s worth remembering that our skill with hops is still a work in progress. Historically, they were the unknown quantity. Hopefully I’ll get to taste that beer when it’s been given a bit more time.
It takes the day drawing to a close to come up with an even more radical idea for the forlorn Blackfriars pillars: As this outing to London started in the vicinity of the huge statue of a couple kissing in St Pancras station - The Meeting Place by sculptor Paul Day, why not give him his biggest commission to date: a couple in complete horizontal coitus straddling the mighty Thames would return purpose to our dispossessed supports. It could take up the 4 central pillars - any longer and the couple would get too elongated. The lovers could face the new glass Blackfriars railway station and commuters would pull in as if acting as the interruptus to their coitus. Maybe the pair could be on their side in a kind of doggy style so only the new arrivals could see the facial expressions and other fine anatomical detail. The station could have an extra profit margin just from people paying for a platform ticket to see the couple from the front. This would help dispel Britain as a cold repressed nation and put a spring in commuters’ steps. Meanwhile, rumpside viewers could see an immense example of what Paul Day does very well - proud polished bronze buttocks.
That day’s celebration of beer, reflections on London’s architecture, physiognomy and my own general musings all pre-empt the coming June. If I’m in a pensive mood it’s because I’m making this June a dry month - dry January was deferred to avoid the crowds.