Monday, 28 September 2015

St Pancras to Pimlico Gardens Part 4

I seldom find urban parks interesting. St James Park doesn’t particularly intrigue me but it’s a well maintained green space and very welcome in the summer. It has fostered a couple of zoological oddities: firstly the tameness of the grey squirrels. I watch as tourists feed them and end up with the mammals actually boarding them. Facial expressions suddenly change from wonder to terror as they realise Europe’s largest rodent and its incisors is currently foraging around their bodies in search of juicy protuberances. Secondly, there was a macabre episode involving the lake’s pelicans a few years ago – one of the them started eating feral pigeons alive by flipping them in its enormous canvass bill and throwing it straight down the gullet as they would a fish. It was well documented by the local press.

If you keep the lake to your right and proceed at an angle of roughly 2 o clock, a path leads you directly towards cockpit steps. They act as a little gateway to the backstreets of Victoria. The road running along the southern border of St James Park is called Birdcage Walk. Cross over and head towards a gap in the buildings before you where there’s a railing. It winds around to a small curving staircase called cockpit steps. When I first found this cute cut-through I assumed the cockpit had a 2nd World War RAF connotation as Churchill’s war room & bunker is very close by. Also, the brickwork in the walls above the steps doesn’t seem that old. The steps actually goes back to the 18th century - they were the entrance to the Royal cockfighting pit. Cock fighting pits weren’t generally deemed  posh but this one was an exception and was frequented by the well-heeled. The stairs also have a rather uninspiring headless ghost story attached to them from 1804 when the apparition was seen by Coldstream guards. A driver who wrapped his car around a lamppost close by in 1972 also claimed a woman in a red dress suddenly appeared before his car. I suppose it’s just faith that links the two. Why would a headless female ghost and a woman in a red dress be the same thing? The only factor they have in common is general geography. Once you’ve climbed the steps and come out onto Dartmouth Street, you’ve entered a new world: Victoria.

I have a strong connection with Victoria as I spend so much of my working life driving around it for the local council. You could also throw in Pimlico and Millbank - the districts all merge into one for me. It’s an odd area frequented by civil servants and French buildings. Mansard roofs are everywhere around Victoria Station yet they’re a Parisian staple. A lot of the pubs and businesses shut at the weekend or at least on the Sunday like they do in the square mile though in both cases, this is rapidly changing. Apart from the Mansard roofs, this area has beautiful bespoke pub signs in abundance. The monopoly seems to be with the Taylor Walker pub company but also Nicholsons - both well  represented across London.

Taylor Walker pubs are good at preserving pubs as buildings but don’t do much for the advancement of good beer. They’ve had cask ale on for a long time but it rarely strays from Doom Bar, London Pride, Youngs etc - all beers that can be nice enough in good condition. It changes (as does the condition of the beer) from pub to pub. CAMRA members can get 10% off  pint but I don’t often go into them. I have been both appalled and pleasantly surprised. The Two Chairmen was the last Taylor Walker pub I visited about 3 months ago and Lazarus from the newly formed Truman’s Brewery was in good form. The 3-dimensional hanging signs for the following Taylor Walker pubs are amazing: The Two Chairmen, The Bag O’ Nails, The Adam & Eve, The White Swan and The Albert. The most beautiful used to be The Greencoat Boy but sadly this has been replaced with a more regular flat sign. 
The Nicholson’s pub chain has a much greater variety and turnover of cask ale and regularly have beer festivals on. Again, they preserve pubs well as gorgeous buildings with all the urban architectural idioms that entails. Many have a similar feel to theatres. With regards to beautiful pub signs around here, Nicholson’s hold their own with The Feathers and St Georges Tavern. 
Another candidate I’d add is the weird and wonderful pub The Speaker. They don’t make signs that that anymore. The outside of The Speaker is also a mine of local parliamentary history. It’s run by Enterprise Inns.

55 Broadway was one of the most ambitious building projects in London yet you barely notice it when walking around it. It’s a mountain. How does it remain hidden? Under it is St James Park Tube Station. 55 Broadway was built in 1929 and housed the headquarters of the Underground Electric Railways Company of London (UERL). This was a forerunner to the London Underground we know now. The grey brut concrete that seems to be perpetually weeping causes the walker to simply walk on. You’d never know that it was for a while the tallest office building in the capital. One reason for this is it’s now dwarfed by the buildings that have gone up around it. Just a block away on Victoria Street, the rear of every building looks down on it so in this crowded gallery its might is completely lost. Standing alone (as illustrations and the original designs by Charles Holden demonstrate), the building is solid and imposing. It’s in cruciform shape – something else that’s missed from the street and it tapers up in steps towards a broad hulking clock tower. An underground flag flies from it - possibly the highest in London. This building is also cowed in brute strength (pun intended) by the Ministry of justice on Petty France. Its menace and top heaviness almost lead you to throw yourselves to the ground in subjugation and self pollution. The slab-like aspect of its walls and muscular overhang put me in mind of the bomb-proof Flakturm in Berlin that survived the war. The irony is that the best views of 55 Broadway are from the buildings that tower over it – the only aspect which will afford you its full shape. How do you hide a mountain? In a mountain range. 

North Wind by Eric Gill

There is something about it which does cause you to do a double take. As ever, you need to look up to see it. There is a frieze of an adult with a child which is unsettling. The infant’s head seems to be turned away from the viewer but the genitals (believe me it’s a boy!) are pointing outwards. Originally, this unintended water spout was even longer – 1 and a half inches to be exact because that’s how much was chipped off to quell a public outcry when the building was first unveiled. The artwork in question is called Day and Night by Jacob Epstein and is part of a series of carvings by various sculptors including Eric Gill – a man who conducted sexual experiments on his sitting models, his sister, his children and even his own dog. With a CV like that his own contributions here  – South Wind and North Wind - are quite restrained and in any case a bit too distant from ground level. 
Virtually opposite 55 Broadway  is the iconic revolving sign of New Scotland Yard. I’ve snuck surreptitiously behind newsreaders as they do a piece to camera many times. At the bottom of Broadway I cross Victoria Street and enter Strutton Grounds. 
There is a pub on this cobbled pedestrian street that has a fantastic story to tell: It’s where The Goon Show was first recorded. It’s another Taylor Walker venue but they agreed to change the name almost to what it had been in the 1950’s. It was known then as The Grafton or Grafton’s. It changed to The Strutton Arms. In 2011 a recording was made to celebrate the 60th anniversary of The Goon Show. It featured Jeffrey Holland of Hi-De-Hi as well as Harry Secombe’s son. Now it’s been renamed The Grafton Arms to pay homage to this piece of radio history. 

Plaque on the renamed Grafton Arms

We now go south, turn right onto Greatcoat Place and then 2nd left around the mini roundabout onto Rochester Row. Vauxhall Bridge Road flows east to west at the bottom. Cross over again and go under George Eliot House. There’s a caged children’s playground on your left. Come out on Tachbrook Street and turn left. After a couple of hundred metres you’ll find the pub that changed the way London drinks beer - The Cask & Kitchen.
Red Willow Brewery Feckless Best Bitter (cask 4.1)
Dark bronze with a light brown spittle. The colour is actually gorgeous. It reminds me of polished mahogany. It's a light sweet nutty first taste. Very gentle body -  it's quite milky. Mild bark dimension. Easily quaffable. The aftertaste is sweet and nutty too.

Northern Monk Brewery Black IPA (keg 6.7)
Black and impervious to the light. It has a milky coffee head and the aroma is of blackjacks and liquorice. It's quite easy drinking. The carbonation gives it levity. The liquorice continues on the palate. It's not a complex beer. The mid-high ABV lends it a stickiness.

There are two more sculptures/statues to see before we get to Pimlico Gardens: In my opinion, the awful and the obscure. Leave The Cask and Kitchen, turn left and a few hundred yards away is the entrance to Moreton Street. Amble down to the bottom towards the junction of Vauxhall Bridge Road for a quick little detour. 

Roller Skate Sculpture is by Andre Wallace. It’s a girl on roller skates travelling across a bench with the g-force of the motion presumably making her hair flare out behind her. It looks awkward to me and bears no connection to anything. A lot of his sculptures have a theme of human faces and bodies being part of other forms – sometimes hatching out that can be quite captivating. He also does two person sculptures where he captures the relationship well like two women gossiping or a motorcyclist with a passenger clinging to the back. 

Answers on a postcard....

Get back onto Tachbrook Street, turn left and cross Rampayne Street to find Pimlico underground station. Wander around it and you’ll find the last installation.This sculpture brings the end of this journey neatly back to the start as, like the statue of Blake in the gardens of The British Library, it’s by Eduardo Paolozzi. This one has the sculptor’s trademark machina theme and also has a purpose – it’s an air vent for Pimlico underground station. The decoration looks a bit like an aerial view of a military installation. There’s  also a giant grasshopper amongst the shapes. Whatever the thinking behind this 1982 piece of art, it’s neat and charming as well as practical.

Beware the giant acrididae

I cross the road over Lupus Street and go down Aylesford Street towards Grosvenor Road. Grosvenor Road is a panoramic road and cycle highway that skirts the north bank of the Thames. It affords amazing views of Battersea Power Station to the west and leads up to the palace of Westminster. I go through the small public space of Pimlico Gardens and follow the shore wall until I can perch on it to eat chunks of cooked bacon. 

I love coming down here and if you shut your eyes you could believe you’re out of the capital and at a small quayside in Kent. I hear the wing splashes of a cormorant taking off from the surface of the Thames and the clanking of shroud on mast. With eyes open, though. It’s back to science fiction. The newly built shining skyscrapers and Chelsea & Westminster Hospital flank the southern wall across the lazy silver ribbon. I look directly down at the narrow strip of shore. Now there are crowds of Feral Pigeons and carrion crows scavenging on the mud with more cautious pied wagtails wagging at the bank edges. Elsewhere in Britain there’d be oystercatchers, common sandpipers and redshank. The river Tyburn spills out into the Thames here, finally exposed from its descent down through Hampstead and Swiss Cottage, under Regents Park through Marylebone, the West End and coursing under St James Park and Pimlico. It trickles out anaemically. In another age there would’ve been the mudlarks and toshers - often young boys whose trade was to scavenge around in the tidal mud or patrol the city’s sewers. Today the human and trade traffic isn’t even a memory but a scene from another world. The city that led the world in brewing, however, is no longer just a chapter in history but a nascent second coming.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

London Light


Over the past few years craft brewing has plundered the world of heavy alcohol beers - it’s become synonymous with it. Until recently, beer with a similar alcoholic content to wine was associated mainly with Belgium with its Dubbels and Tripels. British Barley wines - now commonplace - were more the stuff of legend recalled only by the flat capped toothless Djinn that haunt Britain’s pubs.
Now the hive has registered the vacuum left at the other end of the spectrum and beers from the 2-3 ABV range are legion. Not only are we lucky in abundance, but in variety too. From sours and fruit beers to milds and tonic ales, low ABV beers are a growing trend. In that culture, flavour and refreshment have blossomed and body needn’t always be compromised either. High alcohol content can hide many a sin. The low ABV beer is more naked by not having the fog of booze to blur the edges around it. Its assets and faults are fully exposed.

This appetite for “naked” beers is growing across the country and London’s no exception. Berliner Weisse sours are a particular specialty which, unlike our Teutonic cousins, we mostly drink neat without fruit syrup. Here is a roundup of some of the low beers glimmering in the big smoke. The breweries range from Hackney, Peckham Rye, Stratford and Tottenham to Kennington, Notting Hill and Bermondsey.

Howling Hops started out in the cellar of The Old Cock Tavern in Mare Street in Hackney. It’s turned the pub into a hub for beer fanatics across the capital. The interior is dark wooden panelled with shutters that open outwards to let the sunshine course in, or conversely inwards to keep the nuisance sunshine and public scrutiny out - a more urban architectural pub idiom you’ll not find. An impressive back catalogue of beers have been brewed - mostly with a high US hopped influence.

Howling Hops Brewery Riding Ale (keg 3%) 

This cloudy pale beer looks a lot like a witbier. It has a moussy white head in no rush to leave. On the palate it's puckeringly dry like chomping on grapefruit rind. All the scorching is done at the front so your tongue's like a scrap of sandpaper. The aftertaste is quite mild though. It's well carbonated and utterly refreshing in the summer heat. There's also a background lemony sweetness that sees this half pint go down quickly like a glass of Victorian Lemonade.

Brick Brewery set up in Peckham Rye at the end of 2013. It’s one of four breweries listed here housed under a railway arch (the others being Anspach & Hobday, Orbit and Kernel). Little Lenny has been doused with US hops and is named after the recent birth of brewer Ian Stewart’s son - little Lenny.

Little Lenny (key keg 2.7 %) 

It’s hazy bright orange with a milky hop oil head. Gentle carbonation can be seen through the glass. A fruity orange/peach aroma. A cool, tangy & calming mouthful. There's also a starchy tuber side to it like sweet potatoes or parsnips. At the edges there's a battery terminal bitterness too. The body doesn't come across as being too thin. It carries the beer adequately.

I first tried Tap East’s Tonic Ale at the London Drinker festival earlier this year and it was my absolute favourite. I remember a sharp citrus and pineapple character buoyed up by the sparkling body and being amazed it had an ABV of only 3%. I have resought this beer and gone all the way to its source - Tap East at Stratford International station. My second experience however, was but a shadow of the first. 

Tap East Tonic Ale (cask 3%) 

Light honeydew melon in colour with a light white foam. Piquant first note on the palate. It's citrus sour but not astringently so. The aftertaste is smooth and fruity. I get lemon juice and melon. I have had this before when I got much higher notes - pineapple and peaches. That's the problem with cask - condition can vary. On that day at Tap East itself, the beer needed a bit of CPR.

Redemption Brewing started up as recently as 2010 but is already one of the longest in the tooth here (narrowly beaten by Kernel - see below). Core beer Trinity is so called because it’s brewed with three kinds of malt and three different hops. The generous malt dimension helps the body to carry the beer. It has won beer of the festival in the London Drinker, Luton, North Oxfordshire, Hitching, Watford and Worthing beer festivals.

Redemption Brewery Trinity (cask 3%) 

Light glowing clementine with a white sponge head. First draught takes you into an orange peel compote. It oozes fruity hop oils and retains levity with a gentle peachy mouthfeel. The aftertaste is dry but in a soft way. It's like drinking blood oranges. Again, the body carries it along so it doesn't feel weak. There's an after-zing like sherbert which tingles on the palate.

Orbit Beers set up in a railway arch a couple of blocks away from Kennington Tube Station last year. Right from the outset they demonstrated that they wanted to emulate beer styles from a wide scope and didn’t start with the almost compulsory massive new world hop bombs. Their beers - often a nod towards the continent - are perfectly balanced and above all refreshing. They’re perfect for drinking outdoors. Their core range includes a Koln (they can’t use the term Kolsch as it isn’t brewed in Cologne), a Rauch Alt and an Alt Bier.

Orbit Brewery Eve (key keg 3.3%)

This is an elderflower sour. It's completely cloudy and the colour of lemon curd. A very tart bretty aroma straddles the threshold between white wine and white wine vinegar. The taste is a bit like sour underripe cooking apple skins. No head can be swirled up with this. Dry & astringent yet fruity and extremely
moreish. A drinker of more traditional bitter was visibly frightened by this beer and backed away clutching his pint. 

The Moncada Brewery is in part of the London landscape that’s a bit of a desert for breweries. It dwells in the shadow cast by the foreboding Trellick Tower and is a short walk from the Grand Union Canal. 

Moncada Brewery Notting Hill Summer (bottle conditioned 3.2%)

The word summer is well justified in the title. It pours a hazy orange and a white constellation builds up on the surface. Sweet citrus is prominent on the nose - it’s like the zest that sprays out from under your nails when peeling a naval orange. The hops used were Galaxy, Motueka and Mosaic. It sparkles with a tonic water carbonation. Out of all the beers in this article, it has the fullest body, maybe helped by the addition of oats in the mash which might also lend it a cereal note to the mouthfeel. There’s a refreshing chilled fruit squash quality to it and it would be perfect to sip as you watch the longboats go by along the nearby waterway.

Anspach & Hobday are part of the vibrant brewing scene in Bermondsey but even in that challenging context, manage to put out original beers. As far as I’m aware, they are the first brewery in London to start cultivating wild yeast under their railway arch (termed Archouse yeast). They have also started brewing with botanicals, have made a peated Gose and their own take on an American Cream ale which is brewed with corn and both lager and ale yeast. For real value for money though, you can’t beat their Table Porter that punches above its tiny alcoholic weight. 

Table Porter (bottle conditioned 2.8 ABV)

Treacly mahogany and utterly opaque. There’s a high mocca rocky head and a deep resinous liquorice aroma verging on rubber. The aroma by itself is desiccating. The mouthfeel is silky but with a sticky edge. A red wine sourness/tartness haunts the back of the gullet. There’s burnt ash & blackjacks in the elixir. The dark caffeine flavours easily outwrestle the body but the beer sits easily on the palate. It’s a bit like having a vivid colour illustration without the page hosting it. It’s a big beer for such a low ABV.

The number of breweries along and under the railway line in Bermondsey hasn’t just developed into a weekend beer event in itself but has helped other businesses such as the Druid Street Market (pictured above). Under the glowering presence of the Shard, these quiet streets are filling up with punters once more after decades of decline; proof that beer can be good for the local economy.

I end on what I regard as THE London light: Table Beer from the Kernel Brewery just a few minutes’ walk from Anspach & Hobday. 
Table Beer can be found in many self-respecting licensed venues across London. 

On my most recent visit I saw it on tap in 4 bars though I wasn’t consciously looking for it. The ABV was different in each pub. This inconsistency isn’t down to a lack of discipline but is more from a point of honesty. The brewery doesn’t do “permanents”. There might be a beer that features regularly but even if it carries the same description and title, each batch is unique. The ABV is more a projection of what the beer will carry. The actual alcohol level can vary (by law) by 0.5 in either direction so the varying ABV simply reflects the batch it came from. Kernel celebrates its passion for continual experimentation and tweaking. 

Letting the ingredients speak for themselves is very much in Kernel’s ethos. The beer is served fresh or bottled with minimal branding and little fanfare (though the plain cork tile minimalism has itself become iconic and imitated). You won’t find words like “premium” or “best” on their bottles, just what’s actually in the liquid. The brewery has helped educate us about hops by making them the focus. Kernel had a big part in the resurgence of older London styles like porters and is now making low ABV beers into a fine art. 

Table Beer (2.9 - 3.2 Key Keg)

This beer is pale custard yellow and opaque except at the edges. Bright white foam on top. It's sheer taste. Watermelon and blood orange. Citrus fruit rinds too. It dries the palate leaving a sensory zing. It also has a melon rind edge with a dry finish not far behind. Like all Kernel beers, the carbonation lends it a lifting tanginess which never crosses over into gassy. There's a milkiness to the mouthfeel too. I start to get green apple peel and a cidery note too. The body still carries it all with the nano ABV. The empty glass is left with a web of milky white lacing and a longing for more.