Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Malty musings

Malcolm, after his previous posting (about the Crown Liquor Saloon, in Belfast; with which he beat The Times by a full day), began musing about the congeniality of pubs. In particular, is there some necessary link between age and agreeableness?

This gentle, and genteel, consideration was begun in the very pleasant surrounds, with good company, at the Spaniards on the top of Hampstead Heath. Too many visitors take a casual look, and make totally-erroneous assumptions about the Spaniards. For a start, all the Dick Turpin guff is absolute garbage. Inside, the Spaniards is tatty, substantially furnished with the throw-outs of any jumble sale around (see right). It is, indeed, quaint; and desirably so. In scope and clientele it is not just one pub but several. On warm and balmy weekends it crawls with families and their kids coming in from the Heath across the pinch-point in the road. During the working week it is a haven of peace, quiet and pleasure: logoed tradesmen brushing past besuited types. So Malcolm, after two pints of London Pride and a substantial ploughman's, felt at ease with the world. It would have been even more idyllic had the Adnam's been on tap: it wasn't, but Pride is a worthy runner-up.

A week ago he had one of the finest pints of Adnams Broadside imaginable in the George in Stamford. Now, Malcolm has a very tender spot for Adnams. He had a maternal relative who ran the Lord Nelson in Southwold many years ago, still the nicest pub in one of England's most attractive small towns.

In his early married life, Malcolm drank Adnams in the Angel in Bury St Edmunds; but that was in the days before the Gough family up-dated a respectable and estimable local hostelry and made it into something just too squeaky and streamlined for a simple pint. No worry; Bury is well provided with other places of resort, most of them serving Greene King Abbot Ale: younger Malcolm spent too many hours in the Fox in Eastgate Street, then on the outskirts, now hemmed in by new development and the A14 ring-road.

For years, though, Malcolm fought shy of Adnams off its own Suffolk turf. It seemed not to travel too well. That was an impression helped by some dodgy beer keeping. More recently the brand has been turning up more widely; and seems to have gained seven-league boots. This implies either a change of the basic formula, or (more likely) better carriage and cellaring. Either way, it is a serious improvement to English drinking.

Back to Hampstead

The turn of the millennium has not been kind to the NW3 drinker. Both the Nag's Head (a.k.a. The Cruel Sea) and the Horse and Groom (a.k.a "The Remorse and Gloom") are lost and gone. Malcolm misses the latter (a decent Youngs house in the trappings of a small gin-palace), but not the former: he does wonder, however, how the literati and thespian communities survive without either. The Flask, just down the Walk, is still there (though there are severe qualms about the imminent "touching up" being promised).

Jack Straw's Castle, at the top of Heath Street, was never in recent memory a wholly successful experience, and has now been converted to apartments. In passing, Malcolm urges all to ignore any claim to it being the "highest pub in London": that is The Gatehouse across the Heath in Highgate (of which more, doubtless, in a subsequent posting).

The Olde White Bear is not to be totally by-passed: it has a good beer selection. For Malcolm, it lacks that X-factor ingredient of atmosphere, of "agreeableness", as the necessary concomitant to the fullest enjoyment of good ale, which is the main issue of this posting.

After the rush to gentrify and gastro-pub anything in sight (which takes the worthy Wells Hotel—and its now-missing bar stool, identified as "Elizabeth Taylor sat here"—out of consideration), the serious drinker in search of gritty authenticity is left with only the Holly Bush, up the hill.

Malcolm likes the Holly Bush. The steep hill, the secluded position off the tourist-beaten track help to divert the less knowing to other watering-places. The clean exterior disguises the artful clutter, the domestic proportions, within.

He cannot help reflecting on its history. It was originally the stables of the painter, George Romney. So, next door and later at the lady's house at 10, Edgware Road (now, perhaps appropriately, an Odeon Cinema), Romney repeatedly—perhaps as many as a hundred times between 1782-1786—painted "Mrs Emma Hart", the late teenaged mistress of the Hon. Charles Grenville (example, see left). Not so much a commission, more an obsession, one might fairly think. However, "Who she?" one may well ask. Well, she was formerly Amy Lyon, daughter of a Cheshire blacksmith, and later Lady Hamilton of Nelsonian fame.

Say no more ...

... except that the Holly Bush serves Adnams.
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