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Friday, 3 February 2012

Fire Your Imagination: London's best winter pubs

Are the short days and cold evenings of winter reasons to be depressed? On the contrary, says Keith Barker-Main, as he sups cask-conditioned real ales in front of roaring fires. Check out his brilliant baker’s dozen.

Next to Hampstead Heath, this deservedly popular pub and kitchen (pictured, top right) punts a more modern take on trad. Giles Coren is a fan and you’ll likely spot other familiar TV faces, too. Isn’t that Miquita Oliver in the corner? Hog the fire, drink Mad Goose and Black Sheep Ale, and order bar snacks or lunch. More Dazed & Confused than Daily Mirror readers, this is not for the cloth-cap fraternity… unless Burberry or Margiela happen to be selling them this season.

For beer bellies, this old survivor is not a good pub; it’s a great pub that’s akin to a permanent beer festival. Head here from Putney Bridge, after a stroll along the Thames towpath, for Skinner’s Cornish Knocker, Stonehenge Great Bustard, Goddards Fuggle-Dee-Dum, Phoenix Thirsty Moon, Salopian Peccadillo and other intriguing stuff you’ve likely never heard of. A horseshoe bar, two open fires and pleasant staff help cement the Brickie’s reputation.
Just off N1’s main drag lies this cute, friendly corner boozer for locals – which in 21st-century Islington means Guardian journalists, authors, TV comedians and Labour policy wonks. Order modern Brit pub grub, Fuller’s ales and guest beers such as ESB, Red Fox or Gales Seafarers ale. Stare into the embers as you plan your next novel, gag or initiative to wrong-foot Mr Cameron.
For riverside romance, olde Hammersmythe is hard to beat. Lovers Nell Gwynne and Charles II, as well as Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, were drawn to the Wendy house-proportioned, oak-beamed Dove. Other past patrons include Graham Greene, Ingrid Bergman, Ernest Hemingway and Boris Karloff. Check out the smallest snug in England, a tight squeeze that redefines the word ‘cosy’. Local boys Fuller’s provide the pints, and roasts are big on Sundays. A sign of the times, perhaps, but aren’t gas-powered ‘coal’ fires a tad disappointing?
Dating back to 1720, in its time it has served pirates, highwaymen and politicians – spot the difference! American artist and past patron James Whistler, who lived in the East End in the 1850s, would instantly recognise it in all its preserved dark, woody glory and we hope new owner, Sir Ian McKellen, won’t change a thing. Landlord and Marston’s Pedigree lead the draughts, while any draught coming in from the river outside won’t bother those near the fire. Good for a shoal of fish dishes, it prides itself on being a pub for grown-ups. No chance of a latter-day Dickens singing from a tabletop as the novelist did here as a child.

It’s well worth negotiating the confusing Docklands sprawl for The Gun (pictured, left; free taxis are laid on from Canary Wharf). Once Admiral Lord Nelson’s local tavern – his house was next door – Tom and Ed Martin’s baby is now home to modern British pub grub at its best. Pop in for a pint of Adnams bitter or Dark Star Partridge by the log fire and you’ll inevitably end up begging for a table for lunch or dinner.
Does NW3’s altitude account for the number of great pubs with open fires in this postcode? Perhaps it’s always several degrees colder up north. Order Seafarers, Butcombe Bitter, Harvey’s Sussex or London Pride at the pride of Hampstead village, a cluttered, wood-beamed charmer that was once stables, according to the old boy on the next table. There’s a good range of pub staples and prices that won’t frighten the horses.

Stripped back to something resembling its original low-rent, Victorian interior, this fab, no-frills ale and cider house proposes a dozen-and-a-half hand pulls served in dimple pots. Expect amber nectar from Tottenham microbrewery Redemption and Sambrooks of Battersea, and it’s good to find ale from indie breweries further afield, too. Try deep-filled baps, Scotch eggs and pork pies. Crackling? That’ll be the fire.

Have the band strike up ‘Jerusalem’ in celebration of this rickety, quaint tavern straight out of Harry Potter (see right). Don’t tell your tourist chum that it’s only been a pub since the 1990s. Its pared, faux-Georgian interior looks and feels more authentic than many genuinely old pubs and the ex-shop frontage, at least, dates back to 1810. It’s owned by Suffolk brewer St Peter’s, whose Golden Ale is the thing to drink while you enjoy bangers by the Bob Cratchit-style fire.

Dating from the 15th century, this spooky, rambling pile (pictured, left) is steeped in history: Keats, Byron and Shelley were regulars; Dick Turpin is said to have lived here; and it appears in The Pickwick Papers. What the Dickens are you waiting for? After a bracing winter walk on Hampstead Heath warm yourself in front of a log fire with a pint of Landlord while they clean up your pooch in London’s only doggy wash.
You’ll find no music, TV or the annoying ‘yah, yah, yahs’ of the Made in Chelsea set here. This Belgravia belter is good for quiet chat, a pint of Pride and an open fire. The cosy, conspiratorial vibe is perhaps why, in 1963, the pub’s upstairs dining room – still in use today – was allegedly chosen by a bunch of villains planning the Great Train Robbery. Current patrons are more likely to have made their fortune flogging posh handbags (Anya Hindmarch is a fan).

Whisper the word ‘fire’ here, for this authentically olde shambles was rebuilt in 1667 after being destroyed in the Great Fire of London. Once favoured by Mark Twain, Lord Alfred Tennyson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the writers would be stumped for words to behold ladies – traditionally barred – supping by the hearth today. Samuel Smith’s ales may not be everyone’s choice, but if it’s dark, dingy, Dickensian atmosphere you’re after, Sweeney Todd’s local has it by the (blood) bucket-load.
This feature was published in the autumn 2011 edition of Square Meal Lifestyle.