Writer, pub aficionado and Clerkenwell old-timer Johnny Homer can’t wait for the area’s excellent pubs to open again.
One of the many things to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic is a realisation that pubs matter. Certainly, as someone who was born and bred in EC1, I am only too aware of how important pubs are to our area – and how special some of these pubs are.
We are again in lockdown as I write these words, and I hope that by the time you read them we might have returned to some kind of ‘normal’ which will allow pubs to open and trade (although in what form is anyone’s guess).
Meanwhile, here are a few of my favourite EC1 pubs, past and present, with some personal history.
Until I was ten we lived in Braithwaite House, Bunhill Row. My parents’ local was the nearby Artillery Arms, a compact but atmospheric local that still ticks all the right boxes today.
We then moved to the Earlstoke Estate in Spencer Street, the pub of choice becoming the New Red Lion, St John Street. The pub attracted a mix of customers but at heart was a real local’s local with a clientele that could have come straight from an episode of Minder.
The guv’nor was Arthur, an old school landlord and something of a local legend. They don’t make pub landlords like Arthur anymore. The New Red Lion (not to be confused with the Old Red Lion further up St John Street) was a truly great example of a proper London boozer.
The pub is still with us today, now calling itself the Dame Alice Owen. I hate it when pubs change their name, but here there’s at least a nod to local history.
The EC1 area is culturally diverse and historically fascinating, something reflected in its many pubs. A stroll around St Luke’s, for instance, might involve a light and bitter at the Britannia in Ironmonger Row, a reassuringly old school street corner local, or a pint of cask at the Old Fountain in Baldwin Street, its name inspired by London’s first outdoor public swimming pool, the aptly named Peerless Pool.
While many of the pubs I once knew around Goswell Road have sadly gone, the Old Ivy House remains. I first knew the pub in the 1980s when it traded as the Pheasant and Firkin, part of the Bruce’s Brewery brewpub chain. Back then beer was brewed in the pub cellar, a glass floor allowing drinkers to admire the fermentation vessels below. Having now (thankfully) returned to its original name it remains a great pub.
Plunging into deepest Clerkenwell great pubs abound. The Crown, rather swanky these days, has looked out at Clerkenwell Green since at least the 1740s, although the current building is of 1815 vintage. The Three Kings in Clerkenwell Close remains resolutely quirky, and I love the nearby Horseshoe too, a slice of the old working class Clerkenwell.
I am also partial to a glass of something crafty at the Craft Beer Co (formerly the Clock House) in Leather Lane, while the Sutton Arms in Great Sutton Street has an authenticity about it that is hard to beat.
But when the pandemic has been finally conquered, there are a handful of Clerkenwell pubs at the top of my list to visit including the Sekforde in Sekforde Street and the Betsey Trotwood in Farringdon Road, which is one of our most essential watering holes, atmospheric and slightly bohemian. An evening of good beer (courtesy of Shepherd Neame, Britain’s oldest brewery), a bite to eat and some live music or stand-up is hard to beat here. Even the distant rumbling of tube trains underfoot is comforting.
Since it opened in 1996, I have loved and frequented the Jerusalem Tavern in Britton Street (pictured). I love the beer (from Suffolk’s St Peter’s Brewery) and I adore the almost tangible sense of history that hangs in the air. There has been a Jerusalem Tavern in Clerkenwell – in one form or another with slight variations of name – since the 1600s and this latest incarnation is wonderful. Finally, I often make a point of nipping into the Peasant in St John Street. A grand old former Truman’s pub, it was the George and Dragon in my day and it was here that I downed my first pint in the company of my dad. This was, without a doubt, a landmark event.
Built in 1889, this handsome building boasts many surviving original features, not least a spectacular tiled mural depicting George doing battle with the dragon. It’s worth the visit alone.
Johnny Homer was born at Bart’s and has lived most of life with an EC1 postcode. He is a journalist, broadcaster (BBC Radio London) and author of several books, including Clerkenwell and Islington Pubs, City of London Pubs and Brewing in London, published by Amberley, www.amberley-books.com