Taverns in Town #17: The King’s Arms, Cheyne Walk SW10

“Baby when you’re gone, I realise I’m in love”, sang vertically challenged, Canadian rocker Bryan Adams. I like to think that rather than an ode to a past girlfriend, this was a song tinged with regret about his great crime against a traditional London pub. You see, back in the early nineties, shortly after inflicting us with week after week of ‘Everything I do (I do it for you)’ at Number 1 in the hit parade, Adams committed a terrible act of inhumanity. Legend has it that Adams, sick of the noise from the punters at the King’s Arms, purchased the pub, lock, stock and closed it down. Later he would convert it to become part of a Thames-view mega-mansion combined with his home on nearby Apollo Place and another property on Riley Street.

People are perfectly entitled to do what they want with property as far as I’m concerned. This, though, was a great shame. On a street that had seen its fair share of celebrities over the years – Isambard Kingdom Brunel, James McNeill Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Mick Jagger and George Best all lived in Cheyne Walk at one time or another – the King’s Arms had survived as a proper local’s pub. In the face of conversion of boozers to bistros and trendy wine bars in this area, the King’s Arms had stood firm. Until some mildly talented, early rising musician couldn’t get to sleep that is.

In 1973 Taverns in Town described the King’ Arms evocatively:

“Today this is an extremely busy Chelsea tavern, its antiquity immediately attested by its old flagstone floors. The river frontage continues to bestow upon it a certain distinction, of the kind that makes the Londoner at any rate glad that he is a Londoner, and glad that such pleasing places of distraction are dotted about the city to gratify his more expansive and congenial instincts.”

As depicted in taverns in Town, today you can just make out 'The King's Arms' in relief across the top of the pub, one of London's poshest streets - the SW3 end

As depicted in taverns in Town, today you can just make out ‘The Kings Arms’ in relief across the top of the pub, one of London’s poshest streets – the SW3 end

Cheyne Walk is one of London’s most glamorous addresses. Roman Abramovich lives at number 96. I suppose with such gentrification and properties worth in the multiples of millions a pub was always going to struggle to remain here.

As it was, the pub survived until the early nineties, when Adams stepped in and closed his noisy neighbour down. Quite what his Cheyne Walk alumnus, and probably a regular at the King’s Arms, Hilaire Belloc would have made of it, we can probably guess from his famous quote:

‘When you have lost your inns drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England.’

Let’s let Bryan finish with his remorseful verse…

“Baby when you’re gone, I realise I’m in love,

The days go on and on, and the nights just seem so long, Even food don’t taste that good, drink ain’t doing what it should, Things just feel so wrong, baby when you’re gone.”

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Taverns in Town #16: The Phoenix, Smith Street SW3

The next pub on my Chelsea jaunt was another Geronimo Inns pub, but it was a different story to The Builder’s Arms. Smith Street is just off the King’s Road at the Sloane Square end, almost next door to the Royal Hospital, home to the famous Chelsea Pensioners, although I didn’t see any of them when I was there.

If it’s your kind of thing, this is a modern gastropub done pretty well. You aren’t made to feel uncomfortable if you just come in for a drink. This pub is posh, but not pretentious, comfortable and friendly, with a good mix of people. The description in Taverns in Town suggests that little has changed since 1973:

“Such polite functions as the annual Chelsea Flower Show, or many spacious and gracefully laid out thoroughfares lined by fine town mansions that have defied the trend towards transmogrification into apartment buildings, all characterise a part of London into which such a tavern as the Phoenix, with its good array of hot and cold bar food and its air of being a little removed from bustle, fits most successfully and naturally.”

As depicted in the book, as it is today, an interior shot from the pub's website

As depicted in the book, as it is today, an interior shot from the pub’s website

On my visit, it was refreshing to still see a pint of ale for less than £4, albeit only just. I had a perfectly kept pint of Sambrooks Wandle for £3.95. The barman was friendly and chatty and gave me directions to my next destination. There was a good range of beers, although if craft is your thing you won’t find much to please you. There was also a decent range of premium spirits such as Sipsmith, Patron, Grey Goose and Monkey Shoulder and a broad menu of cocktails. This pub comes recommended if you are after a quiet pint away from the noise and bustle of the King’s Road.

Taverns in Town #15: The Builder’s Arms, Britten Street SW3

This was a slightly eye-opening experience because, for the first time since I was a much younger drinker, I felt like I was treated like a second-class citizen in a pub.

The Builders Arms was originally erected to serve the needs of the workers building St Luke’s church, opposite. Taverns in Town informs me that the first rector of St Luke’s was the Duke of Wellington’s brother, Gerald Wellesley and that Charles Dickens was married there. So it is not unlikely that famous people also graced the tavern during the 19th Century.

Described in the 1970s, The Builders Arms was:

“No longer the domain of carpenters and stone masons, it is highly popular among nearby residents, who frequent it in large numbers. The interior is spacious and pleasingly decorated with wrought-iron work. The array of food available at the bar is really extensive, and constitutes one of the Builders’ Arms principal features.”

As it is today, you won't go short of bubbles, as depicted in Taverns in Town

As it is today, you won’t go short of bubbles, as depicted in Taverns in Town

On my visit I was greeted by an incredibly pretentious gastro pub with chalk boards advertising super-premium spirits and a large range of champagne. I had plenty of time to take in the surroundings due to the arrogant and rude bar staff who left me standing for five minutes, with no acknowledgement and then served somebody else before me. It was like I was invisible. Or perhaps my face didn’t fit – I just wasn’t posh enough. This is a Geronimo Inns pub, which used to be a sign of quality in London, but these days I wonder. The pub was pretty busy and I chatted to a few of the locals. I couldn’t get past the nagging feeling that some of them were looking down on me. I felt a little like the confused old chap in Wetherspoons who people chat to in a pitying way. It was very odd.

This pub is slick, it has contemporary décor, a brushed metal bar top, posh bar snacks, with great reviews for the food, and a decent selection of ale (I had Sambrooks Pumphouse Ale at £4.35 a pint). But the clientele are like (or might even be) the cast of ‘Made in Chelsea’. It’s not a friendly and comfortable pub experience. Towards the end of my visit, a very plummy young man, perhaps just of drinking age, ordered a large round coming to well over £100. His card was rejected and his response was to say “Can you put it on my tab? You know I’m good for it.” This was met with meek acceptance by the bar staff, who were suddenly much friendlier. Would I have been afforded the same treatment?

Taverns in Town #14: The Red House, Elystan Street SW3

As I approached the Red House I could see that it was boarded up and looking a little sorry for itself. This looked like a location where a business, be it a restaurant or a pub, ought to be thriving, so I was surprised.

Taverns in Town is relatively brief in its entry on the Red House, but does provide some clues as to the possible reasons for the demise of the pub:

“Outside it still presents something of the appearance of a village pub, even though the green has long since vanished. This tavern is well worth taking note of, perhaps for when one…wishes to escape as quickly as possible from the King’s Road. It lies amid houses that, by and large, are smaller than those on the south side of the King’s Road, but this is a fashionable residential district nevertheless, and the Red House enjoys a steady local trade.”

Situated on what remains of the old Chelsea village green, this should be a good location. It sits at the meeting point of several local residential streets and there are several shops and restaurants nearby.

The key phrase in the book is probably ‘enjoys a steady local trade’. This area has become one of the most expensive in London. Residents these days tend to be mega-rich foreigners, who are not as likely as the residents of the 1970s to be popping down to the pub for a pint.

In addition this area is only a stone’s throw from the King’s Road, where there is plenty of competition for trade and as the book implies, you have to leave the King’s Road to seek it out. Therefore, one suspects that only a true destination pub or restaurant could work here.

As depicted in Taverns in Town, as it is today with the green, remnants of a pub

As depicted in Taverns in Town, as it is today with the green, remnants of a pub

A little digging online reveals that this building has struggled to sustain a business over the last decade or so. It has variously been Café Bodega, Album Bar and Kitchen, The Markham Inn, Cahoots and The Red House.

In its final incarnation, echoing the 1970s pub, it was an American-style bistro run by top New York chef John De Lucie. However, reviews of the place suggest that it was doomed from the start. Further investigation suggests that the best format was the Markham Inn, which was the closest to a traditional pub. But the evidence is that, while popular, it struggled for passing trade.

As I post, this building on a seemingly jinxed corner of Chelsea Green is being re-opened as Niku, a restaurant serving ‘Chelsea based Japanese cuisine’. One day it would be nice to see a pub back on the site – but it would probably need to be something very special to survive.

Taverns in Town #13: The Hour Glass, Brompton Road SW3

As I made my way to my next Tavern in Town, I found myself drifting in to one of the flashiest shopping districts that London has to offer. I passed by Stella McCartney, Chanel and the famous Bibendum restaurant. Some locals were dressed in clothes and shoes worth more than I earn in a year.

One girl in particular was of interest to a passing motorist named Oleg (I gleaned his name from the OLEG1 number plate on his sports car). He stopped to chat her up, switching between English and Russian with ease.

I was now entering oligarch country.

But I digress, I was here to visit The Hour Glass. Known locally as “The Wedge”, this was a micro pub before they even existed.

Taverns in Town describes the 1970s customer:

“Just around the corner from the pub is an open-air fruit and vegetable market…conducted by a deeply entrenched body of ordinary London trades-people. As a reminder however of the multifariousness of London’s populace, also around the corner from The Hour Glass, in another direction, lies a highly fashionable residential sector, centred around Egerton Gardens.”

It would be fair to say that the ordinary London trades-people were priced out long ago. And most would have winced at the £4.85 I paid for my pint of Portobello London Pilsner (the only ale on was London Pride).

As depicted in Taverns in Town, as it is today, a stool and coat hooks!

As depicted in Taverns in Town, as it is today, a stool and coat hooks!

The pub could squeeze in about forty people at a push, but when I visited there were less than a dozen drinking. This made for a gentile hour sat reading the paper and taking in the conversation at the bar.

While I sat at my table, there was a decent turnover of customers and the barman was kept pretty busy. It seems like a popular local.

There is nothing ancient or of historical note, but the pub is worth a visit just to enjoy the quirky building. And it’s nice place to spend a little time escaping the madness of the world outside.

Taverns in Town #12: The Zetland, Old Brompton Road SW7

Some pubs will never die and The Zetland is a prime example. It is the quintessential meeting place pub near the tube station (in this case South Kensington). Pre-event or post-museums, this is an ideal place to come, either to meet up or wind down with a drink.

Taverns in Town picks out a key feature of the 1970s incarnation:

“This is essentially an active pub; and for the stranger who wishes to sample first hand a little typical London life as manifested in the bonhomie of the pub, this is the place to come to…its patrons do not visit it, they use it, it is a positive part of their lives. People come to a pub such as this to while away an evening in conversation; but for some reason they do not as a result cause it to seem a private club.”

On my visit I was somewhat less impressed. Unfortunately this is now part of the Taylor Walker chain. This is a company who seem hell-bent on removing the individuality from their pubs. At the same time they can be an attack on the senses. If you like ‘pubs-R-us’ piped music, gaudy fake chalkboards and encouragement to drink Coke with your burger, rather than a pint, this could be the place for you.

As depicted in Taverns in Town, as it is today, the bar was an attack on the senses

As depicted in Taverns in Town, as it is today, the bar was an attack on the senses

Not that you’d want to pay £4.50 for a pint of flaccid, over-warm St Austell Tribute. It was a rugby day when I visited too, which meant it was particularly busy and it was hard to find a spot to perch.

This summed up the pub. Doing a roaring trade, due to its location, but not quite knowing what it wanted to be. The Zetland is like a teenage girl. Not comfortable in her own skin and lacking the confidence to let the inner beauty shine through, then in some way over-compensating with a lot of unnecessary noise,  make-up and baubles.

I left the pub to hurry on to my next destination. As I departed, a flash chap in a Ferrari, not paying attention, did his best to knock me down as I crossed the road. It was an early sign of what an interesting place the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea was going to be.

Taverns in Town #11: The Holly Bush, Holly Mount NW3

The tour of some of the outer reaches of north London ended with a popular Hampstead pub: The Holly Bush.

Taverns in Town describes the pub in a particularly complimentary fashion:

“This fine building accords wholeheartedly with those surrounding it, and this is no mean compliment, for the residences in the immediate vicinity of this tavern are enviably attractive. Nearby Church Row is one of the most often photographed collections of private residences in the whole of London…”

And so you get a feel for the kind of place this is – an upmarket outer London suburb. This shouldn’t put you off though. Once we’d negotiated the steep climb from Hampstead High Street, we found the customers to be a mixed crowd. This is often the case in a Fullers pub and the atmosphere was excellent. London prices being what they are, expect to leave with a lighter wallet. But sometimes it’s worth paying that little bit more just for the surroundings.

The pub has a wonderful Victorian feel to it, with lots of wood panelling in a bar area and some well-preserved etched glasswork. One can see why The Holly Bush merits an entry in CAMRA’s book ‘London Heritage Pubs’.

As depicted in the book, the atmospheric interior, some pub trivia

As depicted in the book, the atmospheric interior, some pub trivia

There seem to be fewer historical connections than with some of the other pubs I’ve visited so far. But if it takes your fancy you can visit the grave of the great landscape artist John Constable in the church yard nearby. And before it was a pub, the eighteenth century portrait artist George Romney had is studio in the building.

I drank a Fullers pint of some description, which I failed to record in my notepad. We then moved on to try out the Camden Brewery Tap, The Horseshoe, on the High Street, for a taste of something rather more modern. If you are in the area sampling the ‘craft’ delights down the hill, be sure to pop in.

Taverns in Town #10: The Spaniards Inn, Spaniards Road NW3

Pub number ten was a very famous outer London landmark that I had heard all about, but never visited myself. The Spaniards Inn is an iconic pub, with a famous beer garden and is perhaps one of the most filmed and photographed inside the M25.

Taverns in Town describes the Spaniards as “still essentially a village pub” that has been subsumed by London life:

“Opposite this fine old inn stands a seventeenth century toll house, a firm reminder of the time when Hampstead really was an isolated community, not connected with the mass of Greater London in the way it now is.”

The toll house means that traffic past the pub is reduced to single file, such is the narrowness of the road and this in itself gives the pub a quaint, countryside feel. Both the pub and the toll house are listed, which means they are protected from schemes such as one in the 1960s to demolish the toll house and widen the road.

As depicted in Taverns in Town, as it is today and a shot of the bar from the pub website

As depicted in Taverns in Town, as it is today and a shot of the bar from the pub website

It is reputed that there has been an inn on this site since the sixteenth century (as it says on the outside of the building), but records can only date it to the early eighteenth century, when the inn had no name. The story goes that the landlords were two brothers from Spain and their names were difficult for the locals to pronounce so the pub simply became known as the Spaniards’.

It’s difficult to know whether to believe the stories of historical connections to pubs. Are they real, or were they conjured up as a means of attracting more customers by some previous landlord? The Spaniards’ has variously been linked to the famous highwayman Dick Turpin (his Dad once ran the pub, don’t you know), Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale (which he apparently wrote while sitting in the pub garden) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (which was based on one of the pub’s ghost stories).

One thing that is certain is that the pub is mentioned in Dracula and also in Charles Dickens’ The  Pickwick Papers. So both authors were likely to have been familiar with the pub, if not regulars.

It was pretty chilly on my visit, so no one but a few smokers were out in the garden. The low ceilings and wood panelling in the bar area suggest the perfect mix of countryside and city. The pub had a decent mix of real ale and more crafty offerings. I had the draft Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale. Prices were pretty eye-watering, but you’re in Hampstead, so it’s going to be upmarket. The food looked very nice, but I didn’t try any and, in line with the beer it looked pricey. All in all, a visit is recommended and I’ll be coming back for a visit in the summer when the garden gets into full swing, perhaps combining with a visit to Kenwood House across the road.

Taverns in Town #9: The Flask, Highgate Village N6

My next Taverns in Town foray took me to some of London’s affluent northern suburbs. It is a steep climb up the hill from Highgate tube station into the village: A very thirst inducing journey, even on a bitter cold winter day. So it’s fortunate that Highgate has some excellent pubs on offer.

In 1973 Taverns in Town chose The Flask from a choice of many pubs to be discovered in the village:

“Today the Flask is an attractive village pub on the outskirts of north London, extremely popular and rarely uncrowded. Its façade is beautifully proportioned from an architectural point of view, a perfect example of an eighteenth century tavern; its interior likewise leaves little to be desired in a physical way, and has been well preserved. The building has necessarily undergone a succession of minor alterations; but essentially it is the same Flask as it was in 1767.”

Further research suggests that a pub has been on this site since the early 17th century and possibly earlier. The oldest part of the building is the stable block which dates from the mid 17th century, while the main part of the building was built, as Taverns in Town suggests in around 1767. The name of the pub is related to the natural spring water from Hampstead Heath being sold in flasks to weary travellers. Indeed there is another pub of the same name in Hampstead itself.

The book goes on to talk about some of the famous visitors over the years, most notably William Hogarth the artist famous for his engravings of Gin Lane and Beer Street. As an old coaching tavern there are links to Dick Turpin, the legendary highwayman, who is said to have evaded justice in the pub cellars.

There is also a paragraph on the Highgate tradition of ‘swearing on the horns’. This basically involved swearing an oath confirming one’s dedication to merriment and debauchery and kissing a set of horns. That’s the kind of dedication I could make, but alas I was not offered the chance while I was there.

As depicted in the book, as it is today and some interior shots from the pub's website

As depicted in the book, as it is today and some interior shots from the pub’s website

On my visit the pub was packed with diners enjoying their Christmas holidays in the warren of little rooms, passages and nooks, with open fires roaring. This made it rather difficult to get a decent interior photo, so these are borrowed from the pub’s website. There was no sign of the pub ghost on this visit, but further reading suggests that she can be quite cantankerous. The clientele of this world is what you might expect of one of London’s most affluent suburbs and the prices for beer and food were in alignment too. These days this is a Fuller’s pub and stocks their standard range. A welcome addition is two local guest ales, which on this occasion were from Signature Brew and Clarence & Fredericks.

This is a really nice pub, but perhaps one to come to for a meal, rather than just to drink. If you are in Highgate, be sure to pop in. This is a worthy diversion from The Bull or The Duke’s Head.

Taverns in Town #8: Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, Wine Office Court EC4

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is another pub that I had visited before. Its place in London pub history is firmly cemented, which means that anyone with an interest in pubs should take the time to explore it.

By its normal standards, Taverns in Town is not that effusive about the pub, perhaps reflecting that is was already part of a well-worn tourist trail, even in 1973:

“The Cheshire Cheese presents one with a perfectly preserved example of the eighteeth century City tavern. Like most other buildings in the neighbourhood, this tavern perished during the Great Fire of 1666; but the rebuilding dates from 1667 and it seems hardly to have altered since that date, apart from the introduction over the years of the latest aids to dispensing drink and serving food.

In addition to being a unique tourist attraction, it is an efficiently functioning City pub, and it is much favoured by people who work nearby.”

As depicted in Taverns in Town, the sign today, some of the famous clientele through history

As depicted in Taverns in Town, the sign today, some of the famous clientele through history

On this occasion I visited towards the end of a cold, early winter Friday night. The fires were roaring and this added to the already very atmospheric surroundings. On approaching the pub, up the narrow Wine Office Court those unaware of this history within could just walk straight past the rather unassuming entrance. On entering, though, the visitor is presented with a dark warren of rooms and passageways. The lack of any noticeable windows takes you back to a bygone era of gas lamps and open fireplaces. The decoration and signage helps take you back too. As I was admiring some of the ancient artworks on the wall I noticed a sign above one door which read ‘Gentlemen only served in this bar’. There were no ladies in my party, but I think you’d be fine these days!

As with several of the other Taverns in Town I have visited in the Fleet Street area, this pub has strong literary connections. It is well known that Charles Dickens was a regular and probably penned at least parts of some of his great works here. The Cheshire Cheese steps it up a notch: Voltaire, Twain, Conan Doyle, Goldsmith, Tennyson and Yeats are all said to have been regulars here. Not to mention our wartime leader Winston Churchill and the Queen’s late sister Princess Margaret.

A little more research tells me that there used to be a very famous talking parrot at the pub. Polly was apparently the biggest personality in Fleet Street. At the time of her death in 1926 she was deemed to have achieved more fame than any bird before. Over 200 newspapers in multiple countries around the world wrote an obituary. The Bolton Evening News said “No really illustrious visitor to this country failed to gain an audience, at which the parrot always took the honours”.

And in the 1960s the pub gave the Museum of London several sexually explicit, erotic plaster tiles from an upstairs room, which was likely used as a brothel during the eighteenth century. This is something that has certainly altered about the pub since it was rebuilt.

The Old Cheshire Cheese is one to visit for ambience and history, rather than for a great pint. Run by Sam Smiths, you will not be ripped off as in some other tourist traps, but your ale choice will be limited to their rather average Old Brewery Bitter.

If you’ve never been this is a ‘must visit’.