Friday, 7 August 2015

St Pancras to Pimlico Gardens. Part 3

The recent excavations for Crossrail have changed the junction of Oxford Street, New Oxford Street, Tottenham Court Road and Charing Cross Road. Until recently, to walk from north to south entailed using back roads and alleys east and west of Centre Point. Now you can simply cross the road and continue south. This is also true for the drivers. Centre Point doesn’t exactly look like a roundabout but it formerly acted as an awkward one. I have to say that the Crossrail intervention has actually improved the flow of the area. 

An unlikely former roundabout

When structures are brought down in central London, the chasm they leave behind opens a visceral rip in time. It’s like glimpsing bone and tendons in the trench of an open wound and looking into the past. Views and surfaces not seen in decades are exposed again. You glimpse the forgotten profile of a church transept, the back of terraced housing, the jousts in the brickwork behind a shop front. Sometimes it even exhumes a real gem like an old 1930s shoe polish advert on the side of a building. Around here you see the shy blinking aspects of Victorian terraces that look pink & fresh as though the cement was still setting. 
Building plans an architect sweats over under a naked lightbulb might be immediately compromised when the structure goes up because the intended view in turn gets obscured by the structures going up around it. 
To keep the medical analogy alive, I love these tears in the flesh as they also reveal surgical braces. Steel supports prop up the exposed flesh like orthopaedic callipers or crutches. Bright blue refuse tubes hang heavily like the tubes of a breathing apparatus. Quite beautiful. It's a shame these wounds gets stitched back up again.

To the right is Foyles Bookshop. It has for some time been the biggest bookshop in the world. It was also one of the most anarchic. Customers had to queue three times - to collect an invoice for a book, then to pay for the invoice and lastly to collect the actual book. This was to stop the staff from handling cash wherever possible. It also used to arrange its books not alphabetically by author or theme but by publisher. It has now been thoroughly modernised and dragged onto the internet age. It moved next door to itself at the end of last year. The new store is lighter, more spacious and with state of the art air conditioning. It seems to me that the volume of actual books has dropped. This must reflect the fact that book buying is increasingly done online and it might be that quite soon that the only physical bookshops still trading will be antique book stores.

Whenever I see a bookshop I remember what a member of staff in the Oxford branch of Dillons told me in the early nineties (the chain was later taken over by HMV which also took Waterstones and soon disposed of the Dillons title) - "the question I get asked most often is when is Terry Pratchett's new book coming out in paperback?" Tragically that won't get asked anymore.

Serendipity, owner's joke or vandal's creativity? You decide

We travel down Charing Cross Road until it’s intersected clumsily by Shaftesbury Avenue. To the left, the first street that runs roughly parallel to Charing Cross Road is West Street. It’s famous for Agatha Christie's long running play The Mousetrap, for the fact that English Methodist leader Charles Wesley (younger brother of John Wesley - actual founder of Methodism) lived and died in a house here and for the Ivy Restaurant - a favourite restaurant haunt of celebrities. 
There is something about West Street that is more beguiling though - the shape. It isn’t straight but curves around. Rather, it meanders freely. This hints of things ancient. This wiggle is actually down to the fact this street respects the outline of an original tithe boundary that predates just about everything in the vicinity. This wiggle might even date from Norman times.

At the junction of Great Newport Street and Cranbourne Street is a memorial statue to Agatha Christie. It was erected in 2012 and is by Ben Twiston-Davies. It’s a bronze salute to the author’s contribution to theatre in the West End and I like it for its simplicity. It looks like the cover of a giant novel with her profile as the centrepiece and simply gives her dates of birth and death. Sometimes statues can be straightforward. Part of me is disappointed that the memorial isn’t in fact a dead body lying in the street but so central and close to Soho, I suppose people would just step over it thinking it was a drunk. A committee chaired by Westminster City Council is hardly going to come up with anything as intriguing as her plot lines. 

Agatha Christie Memorial

Continue down Garrick Street to Bedford Street and turn right into Chandos Place. Waiting for you down the road behind stained glass is possibly the best pub in London. I go into the Harp and have some of the best kept cask ale around. 


The Harp has been taken over by Fullers but hasn’t abandoned its commitment to hosting breweries - particularly those from London. On this visit the following breweries were represented on cask: Darkstar, Sambrookes, Fullers, Canopy, Southwark, Bexley, ELB and Harveys.

Best pub in Britain? The Harp.

Fullers Brewery Vintage Ale (cask 8.5)

Utterly astonished to find this. It's the 2015 vintage. It's dark copper like a polished 2p coin. Wispy light beige head. It goes down like swallowing treacle. It's like a liquid ginger loaf. You even get notes of sultanas and brandy soaked sponge. The alcohol isn't shy in announcing itself either. My mouth feels like the inside of a spirit barrel. It's a sticky half pint. It's intoxicating but doesn't reach tipping point. It stays as pleasure. I find my straight angular Mondrean lines softening and melting into Monet. I'm a glacé cherry.

Southwark Brewery Potters Fields Porter (cask 4)

It's not black but dark ruby. Mocca spittle head. First thing I get is deep red fruitiness. Blueberries and blackberries. Then comes an arid Turkish coffee dryness. I like this porter. Once you've acclimatised to the dryness, the red/black fruit keeps coming back. There's a liquorice dimension too.

The Harp pump clip canopy

I go back out into the daylight, turn right and go towards Trafalgar Square. Stick to its outer girth in a clockwise ambit and aim for Admiralty Arch. When you approach Admiralty Arch, there are two arches - one for traffic approaching and one for leaving. Walk towards the approaching arch and study the brickwork inside it. You’ll see a human nose.

in the centre of this image is a nose....

The first time I saw this hooter was in my current job working for the local council. I was on my way to an emergency callout and the traffic halted at the lights before Trafalgar Square. I came to a stop just inside the arch and happened to look out of my righthand window. Little surprises me in London but I couldn't rationalise a human nose in masonry and sat staring at my steering wheel with furrowed brow. I had to put it to one side and concentrate on the matter in hand. 

One rumour is that it’s a mould of Napoleon Bonaparte’s nose and the Horseguards rub it or tweak it as they go under the arch. If this were true, it would be a long posthumous insult. Napoleon  died in 1821 yet the arch wasn't built until 1912. The bogeyman at the time (though related to the British Royal Family) would’ve been the Kaiser Wilhelm.

In fact, it dates to 1997. This should come as no surprise if you see the nose close up. It obviously isn’t ancient. It was put there by artist Rick Buckley and is one of many he glued to buildings in central London. It reflects his dislike for the increase in security cameras across the capital - a snooping nose emerging from the fabric of London’s landmarks and it's moulded from his own schnozz. 
Buckley was influenced by the Situationists of the 1950’s - artists who would put up drawings or installations illegally to outline anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist feelings. This would often incorporate surrealism. As befits Marxists and revolutionaries, they were cut from the most bourgeois, educated and wealthy gene pools.

Vertical Cask Tasting: Harvey's Sussex Best Bitter versus Timothy Taylor's Boltmaker


On a recent visit to the Blacksmiths Arms in St Albans, two familiar pump clips caught my eye. The badges are the faces of two old friends - Boltmaker by Timothy Taylor and Sussex Best Bitter by Harveys. Though I’ve spent golden times with both of them, I’ve never formally introduced them to each other. 

Timothy Taylor displays a barley sheaf and Harveys has an image of the brewery. It’s like the image was taken through the smoked glass of a Victorian picture box. Maybe alcohol has some genetic effect on the genes that recall the past because like a mash rake in a tun, something stirs within me. There is the refined sugar nostalgia of the imagined past; a longing for a harked after time I never witnessed (and probably never was). There is also the more recent nostalgia for when pump clips like these would represent the only cask ale in a pub serving Fosters and Carling Black Label. Those days have genuinely gone.

Timothy Taylor is a brand I can recall throughout my life in Britain. Its more widely found Landlord bitter can be found a long way out of its west Yorkshire homeland in Keighley. I can remember seeing their distinctive green bar runners engorged on spilt beer for decades. Last year Boltmaker won Champion Beer of Britain at the Great British Beer Festival in Olympia.

Harvey’s is a brewery whose badge I only started seeing when I became London-centric. They’re based in Lewes in Sussex and set up in 1790 -  right back in Georgian times. They still deliver their beer to the pubs in Lewes by dray horse. They have always sold beers in smaller 275ml bottles and their website and shop are subsequently like sweet shops with the Willy Wonka colours to match. They have pre-empted the current craft bottle size trend though the lack of heady new world hops easily distinguishes them from it.

Both beers look exactly the same. I try and lever some difference between them but cannot. The liquid in both glasses is clear and of fluxed copper. Both have attractive white hop oil heads. Both have exactly the same ABV and both are in good conditionI start with Boltmaker. 

It’s a fruity natty bitter. The initial taste is of blueberries, redcurrant and orange (Bramling Cross hops?). The taste doesn’t linger on the palate making it a bit ginger biscuity. It has a dry Pumpernickel malt dimension. The aftertaste is a combination of oaty brown bread and ginger loaf with a hint of Demerera sugar too. If this beer were a sweetbread, it would be packaged in red and purple vacuum bags and be suffixed by an “een”.

Sussex Best Bitter:

This beer is deeper and maltier. Dark berries - blackcurrant and black cherry on the initial taste but it’s the backup that’s the main character - luscious mellifluous malt (the word mellifluous was possibly coined for this beer). The malt’s like a butterfly’s wingbeats in milk chocolate. A caramel duvet. It’s a pastelator - sharp flavours are blurred into a myopic warmth. On the nose there’s a secretive whisper of Brandy too. These notes could only be picked out on cask!