pub primatology

pub primatology

I am a voyeur. Not in the 1970s Robin Askwith “confessions of..” sense, but in a more holistic one. Wherever I am, I’ll be keeping a narrowed eye on those around me. I like to people-watch. This is just as true whether I’m drinking a pint, an americano coffee or sitting in traffic.

I love the body language of converse. At a table, men sit and lean back to talk to one another and raise their voices to be heard. Men seem to hold their abdomen proud so the chest and stomach are exposed to each other – often with arms folded back over the chair. Women are more inclined to lean in towards each other. In conversation, they often look like they’re playing poker – each holding her cards close. They sometimes keep a hand over their mouth – only removing it to talk. When the plot thickens, their eyes widen and necks extend to close the gap between them.

Women have also developed a way of removing their handbag from the shoulder and setting it aside that tells me they’re having or are about to have a row with their partner. It’s actually the over-care and the slowness with which the bag is put down that instills fear.

But with regard to pubs – they’re the best place to be a voyeur. The kind of behaviour I watch might also be dependent on the kind of pub I’m in. I’m going to call type A the singleton pub and type B the group pub. In a singleton pub, you enter alone then “become” part of a group around a bar (if you want to). In a group pub, you enter or congregate as a pre-organised group and stay insular from the others in the pub.

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Also, I’m not talking about tap rooms or breweries which I think have a more varied demographic to pubs.

Type A and type B represent the extremes with most pubs occupying the vast space in the middle. But how did these types even come about? Let uncle Alec try and tease a few threads apart.

The singleton pub, in my opinion, is a public house of long standing to which the interior has changed little. The culture of mainly just men going to the pub has endured enough to still be noticeable. By this, I mean that most “singletons” are men whether they’re in a relationship or not. Music is either absent or background only. Also, there’s a small television in the corner – usually with sport – that can be as equally followed or ignored.

I find that group pubs are often ex-restaurants. A restaurant has a higher stock than the pub and this perceived classiness still clings. They are venues that tend to be candle and soft light heavy. Flowers are another ingredient. Group pubs have more seating around the bar. Fewer people can stand – hence fewer singletons frequenting them. They’re also likely to play music so shouting is necessary. Again, this would deter the singletons. There are no televisions in group pubs, either.

Some of these pubs can make you feel like you’ve come to a swingers’ party alone. There’s nothing to do but to get a facial tan from the scroll of your smart phone while fondling the pump clips on your tod.

The more these demographics occur, the more they establish as the singletons and the groups seek out the places that reflect them. But then again, it’s just my theory.

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primatology observations from type A:

Wherever there’s a bar with men in, an odd posture is adopted: first, you lean onto your elbows and let them take the stress of about forty per cent of your body weight. Then, you try and put a hinge in the small of your back where there isn’t one by extreme arching. The effect of this would be quite provocative in other circumstances – you’re actually pushing your bottom out to form a shelf (I’m afraid I’ll return to the issue of male bottoms in pubs later. Please bear with me). Then you stand on one leg – usually the left – while your right one bends around it so only the toes at the end of it make contact with the floor. Straining on just one elbow, you could also hook a thumb through a belt loop of your jeans if you wished. Texans accessorise this look best (probably) with a belt, a couple of holsters and a tilted Stetson. Here in Britain, a rain-spotted copy of the Guardian and a brolly isn’t quite as manly.

The bizarre thing is that this position – public statement of male relaxation – gets really uncomfortable. After all that heightened relaxation you need to sit down somewhere to recuperate from it.

This is a learnt male behaviour you can see across the globe. This posture also advertises that the stander is open for business and proficient in a very special discipline: the fantastical and ancient art of bollocks – a language rooted in beer.

There is something magical about beer and bollocks. A few years ago I was in the Blackies’ (Blacksmiths Arms, St Albans) standing at the bar adopting the requisite position. At some point, I got talking to an Irish man who was also assuming the stance. Between us, over the course of a couple of hours, we put Britain’s farming problems to rights. I’m not a farmer and neither is he. I did once work on a farm near Loch Gruinart in the Inner Hebrides when I was sixteen (this actually sounds like bollocks but it’s true!) and that served as the basis for my authority. I eked this out to about thirty years’ experience man and boy with the environment minister having my number on speed dial. I was a consultant. He’d probably once owned a pair of wellies, so he was an expert too.

I’ve seen him about and we acknowledge each other whilst not being in the zone. We’re normal punters going about our business, but at a given signal, if both of us cross a certain threshold whilst being in the same pub, we can take on new identities again. I fancy the one where I almost qualified as a winger for the England Rugby team. If I can have that, he can have almost being a scrum half for the Irish one. That’s the beauty of bollocks.

Like Dorothy, all we need do is tap our heels together. And raise the wrist….

primatology observations from type B:

I once witnessed a car crash of a first date – and, as I’m sure, dear reader, you’ll agree – last date.

There were some small tables and stools in that pub and this “couple” was sat at one. It gave the impression I was looking down from an elevated floor.

I could tell by their body language they didn’t know each other. She’d dressed up. He’s dressed down. I watched him laugh at something on his phone while she was trying to talk. I got the impression the venue was his choice. It was hard to tell whether she wasn’t into beer or just not into him or both. He was certainly into beer. He drank fast – having to go to the bar to get himself another pint as her stalked half pint glass stood virtually untouched.

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What had originally drawn my attention to them was actually two of sides of pink mutton – his bare haunches squashed above the driveway to his builder’s bum. It was all on display and because it was summer, it had a dewy glisten-on too. His jeans and belt were too tight and his T-shirt too small. The effect it made was his rear seemed like a fat child’s face smiling at me. I smiled back but that wasn’t the worst thing – this was: every time he wasn’t using his right hand to hold his glass, he was tucking it snugly into the hind cleft like it was a docking station.

One grace might have been that his date was spared this knowledge as she didn’t have my view of the house.

When they got up to leave, he swiped her glass off the table and drained it in one go – waste not, want not. The look she gave was pure rennet. And then, dear reader. He attempted. To plant. A kiss on her. I’m not talking about tonsil-devoration but an affectionate lip-purse to the cheek. Instead, he puckered the dry air in the space her head had just taken evasive action from. He then proffered a hand (that one!) which was left hanging.

Meanwhile, her entire body channelled an arrow being fired at the exit and then she was but a memory of footsteps. He looked confused and hurt and I snapped my gaze to the ground as I thought we were about to make eye contact.

We were the same species. I was feeling humiliation, shame, impotence all on his behalf. I felt like a beetroot roasting in its skin because I knew that there was more that connected me and him than separates us (though not the hand down the trousers!). His inability to read other people is something that goes to my core – I have personally been human illiterate too many times. And yet there I’d been “reading” his companion perfectly from a safe distance as he fulfilled his own dire prophecy.

If you want to know yourselves, then scrutinise the people around you. I find that the pub is the best place to people-watch as it exposes our quirks and vulnerabilities through the gentle unwrapping of alcohol.

Herts and Souls: abroad in Hertfordshire

Herts and Souls: abroad in Hertfordshire

Watford has provoked fear in me for some time because I’ve usually driven in and its road system was designed by Hieronymus Bosch. Circling the town centre, you build momentum through centrifugal force and are either flung from the circuit into deep Hertfordshire or brought in by its gravitational pull. In fourth gear, you realise you need to cross four lanes of agitated motorists in the space of twenty metres. You exit like a dart to breach a chicaned car park entrance. I’d recommend drinking Red Bull before attempting it – in fact, the traffic could be sponsored by it.

I didn’t need to worry about that this time though, as I got the train that shuttles between St Albans and Watford Junction which is a genuine delight. It trundles back and forth along a route of just six stops and takes but sixteen minutes. Each time it sets off after a station, a recording of a “ding ding!” is played. I thought I could hear Ringo Starr’s voice narrating.

I was commuting to Watford to visit a unique local hero: Pope’s Yard Brewery – this way please ladies and gentlemen.

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under the road system can be more aesthetic than above it

Considering their almost walking distance proximity, the difference between St Albans and Watford is striking. St Albans is a cathedral city of strict masonry, building discipline and conservation areas but Watford feels very different. On the walk into town, it veers off in every architectural idiom at once. The office buildings at the top of Clarendon Road look like the round-cornered and smoked glass futurism of the 1980s and 1990s. The Victorian era Beech Grove Baptist Church boasts its ship-like hull. Then there’s the stocky frontage of the Palace Theatre, Edwardian in age. Deeper in, St Mary’s Church roughly dating from the 1200s squats awkwardly among the multi-storey car parks.

There is a tangible pride here too. It’s seen it in the murals on the walls along the subways that give pedestrians safe passage into the town’s heart. Watford is written in big colourful letters and illustrated in spray paint pictures.

The market here is an institution that goes back 900 years and still dominates. Part of it has been repackaged into a structure made from shipping containers and renamed New Watford Market.

The town centre is a bric a brac of chronology and style. It seems both up-and-coming and run down. Gentrification sits shoulder to shoulder with destitution. B&M Bargains neighbours Pret a Manger.

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does what it says on the tin

But there’s a creative energy here that St Albans is too prudish to acquire. St Albans has too much rectitude. Trashiness – a quality Watford has, comes with a kind of hunger for new blood. St Albans practices self-deprivation in this respect – its city centre looks like the browning photographs of itself from the nineteenth century and will be just as recognisable centuries from now. Watford is a bargain bin of civic projects. It’s alive.

St Albans is a tucked-in shirt, cobbled, IT manager-y, Waitrose-y, Jack Wills-y. You just know its pretty streets are heaving with conservation orders and neighbourhood associations that do mulled wine evenings – and they are! Whereas Watford has the freedom to keep redefining itself.

There’s an awkwardness to Watford too, though. When said aloud, it even sounds like it’s annoyed. The town’s chaotic but through some cosmic fairness, it’s just as difficult to negotiate through it by car as it is on foot. It’s like the town was planned to make life harder for both modes of travel without putting bias on either. Maybe the planners just got a fantastic deal on concrete.

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the flyover – Exchange Road soars straight over the town centre

And another thing, why does everybody cycle on the pavement here? I keep almost getting mown down.

Perhaps what tops it all is the brutalist concrete flyover careering straight over the main drag – Exchange Road built in 1972. That carriageway needs to stay because one day soon when 1970s brutalism isn’t the recent past but the sepia history, that structure will be as symbolic for Watford as the bridge is in Avignon. It will become a listed monument closed to traffic with a public walkway, visitors centre, viewing platforms and a sustainable coffee shop. Watford, the town on a roundabout, will become a UNESCO site.

A cold grey version of the Jetsons – vehicles orbiting in rings around the town and even soaring overhead on roads through the air. This was the future as we used to imagine it. Kudos to Watford for trying.

Pope’s Yard Brewery

Pope’s Yard Brewery

Hertfordshire is a very traditional county in regards to our national drink. The difference in beer culture between here and London who’s doorstep we’re on (or vice versa) is something increasingly apparent in my mind. I associate Hertfordshire with cask heritage, with CAMRA, McMullens Brewery and an apprehension towards the new – but maybe that’s pushing it.

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Pope’s Yard in Watford is doing things very differently. In fact, Watford tends to do a lot of things very differently – town centre planning being one of them. I went down to the brewery to meet the two brewers – Ben and Geoff.

I strolled down the everlasting Whippendell Road and eventually made it to the building the brewery is located in. It’s part office, part workshop and maybe even slightly factory. The structure was once owned by the Ministry of Defence. It’s the kind of building I associate with scout or brownie meetings and polling stations. Pope’s Yard Brewery occupies a ground floor space.

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located in a large ex-Ministry of Defence building on Whippendell Road, Pope’s Yard Brewery is also the closest to a speed camera in Hertfordshire

They have a one barrel kit and a five barrel kit. Brewing hasn’t yet become regularised to a specific timetable but they have mastered a commendable portfolio of styles.

For a new brewery, Pope’s Yard has a lot of space in comparison to new startups in the capital. What it also has when it opens its doors to the public is convenience – a symphony of lavatories. When I entered the building the ladies’ were to the right and the gents’ to the left. And on the brewery floor is another stealth multi-toilet chamber behind a secret door. This is a stark change to the fifteen minute conga lines that develop under London’s railway arches for a single pan. The many cubicles no doubt reflect a large ex-workforce, but I’m digressing.

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club hammer – winner of beer of Hertfordshire at St Albans Beer Festival

What’s particularly pleasing to find is that Pope’s Yard isn’t blinkered about real ale. It has a preferred dispense method for each of its beers. To illustrate this, I mentioned my fondness for Hibiscus Sour, a cask of which sold recently at the beer festival in St Albans. It was my beer of the festival, in no small part because it was so different to the surrounding cask staples. Ben pointed out that it had to be casked back then as that festival only serves cask ale (foreign bar aside). But ideally, keg would be better for a sour and keep it cooler, consistent and more carbonated. I agree.

Conversely, Quartermaster – the amber bitter they were pouring – is so full bodied and malty that to afford it any respect it could only ever be served on cask. I said that it reminded me of Fullers ESB and they confirmed that’s what they were going for with its crystal malt base. It’s gorgeous.

The second cask ale on tap was the Club Hammer Stout (it was originally called Lump Hammer but this name was shared by another brewery). It’s chocolatey, fulsome and perfect for sipping in the winter chill. Luminaire was the third – a more refreshing citrussy beer that slides down easily.

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The brewery isn’t just a tap room but a grotto with a table of collector’s items. There is a beautiful sign for the Fish and Eels – a pub in Hoddesdon which criminally decided to “update” its signage. This is the discarding of art – just look at the image! Why are so many pubs doing it? On the table there was also a collection of Benskins pump clips and what looked a bit like pepper grinders were in fact German sachrometers – the tops unscrew to reveal the probes.

Two brewers barrels on the shop floor carried an unorthodox cargo: evolving inside was a Brett sour beer that was being aged on spruce tips. By their own admission, the beer wasn’t ready but we were treated to a taster. There is currently no carbonation but the Brett aroma is an almost physical barrier it’s so ripe. The spruce added a fresh not-quite menthol note to the finish – almost a cool draught rather than a taste. I look forward to when this beer’s properly come of age.

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Pope’s Yard’s beer range doesn’t reflect the greater brewing scene in Hertfordshire but neither is it a clone of any of the output in London. It’s bespoke to its own taste. Most of its beer is sold in 330ml or 500ml bottles. They have an impressive range including whisky aged beer, strong dark mild, and single hop varietals.

On sale at the tap on this visit were the likes of Hibiscus Sour, Vanilla Milk Stout, Galaxian IPA and Lapsang Souchong Porter. They’ve even developed an Abbey style ale in tribute of St Albans (its cathedral/church is locally known as the abbey as it used to be one) – St Albans Abbey Triple. Finally, their Never Surrender is an ale that puts malt in the spotlight. Six malts and as the label states: “just a hint of hops”. How often would you hear that bold claim in Hackney?

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the best beers out in 2016

the best beers out in 2016

It’s time to reflect on 2016, its beers and the places I drank them in. Frequently lugging a camera about has helped preserve my memories and added some nice detail to blog posts. The unsung hero, though, is the mobile phone which is always in pocket. Swiping through the image archive is a resource we didn’t have just a few years ago. It’s amazing how many (mostly dreadful) photos I took but without it, many recollections would’ve been lost. Admittedly, this can often be attributed to the drink itself.

I’ve decided on a list of seven to sum up beer in 2016. Some I blogged about, some I didn’t. Each is included for a different reason. I rarely leave the orbit of St Albans or London so they all take place there. I also want to keep the focus on the pub, bar, brewery or taproom so I’m not regurgitating experiences I had at home.

The garden of the White Lion, St Albans:

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One thing I love about summer isn’t so much the nuclear light of early afternoon but how long into the evening it takes for the sky to darken and how many transcendent colours it turns. In St Albans the celestial streaks from aircraft contrails add a Jackson Pollock flourish to the canvas too – both Luton and Stansted airports are very local. On the pub’s lawn, burning brasiers provided a primal warmth. When the heavens finally deepened to indigo, the fires radiated their orange and hunched over, people sat around as they have done for thousands of years with their shadows flickering about them. It felt so natural and timeless and it intensified conversation to the clandestine. On pallets we sat back to back with a friend or acquaintance without even realising it as they were engrossed in equally intense exchanges. What was the beer I was drinking? I’ve no idea but it was good and came in rounds. Elemental and outdoors, it just felt like freedom.

The London Craft Beer Festival, Bethnal Green:

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I want to avoid cliché here and not use the sweetshop analogy but can’t. It was a full-on Willy Wonka extravaganza but I can at least customise it a bit by specifically referring to the 1971 version with Gene Wilder. That film had technicolor psychedelia and a brooding menace. It was like having free reign in a sweet shop because this festival has dispensed with cash, pint measures, tokens and (virtually) queues too. It’s one swig of beer after another. All the hipsters with their common sartorial pomp served well as updated Umpa Lumpas too. I usually keep tally of how many pints I’ve drunk but that measure – for good or ill – has also taken voluntary redundancy at the Oval Space. No idea how much I drank and difficult to even remember which I consumed. Only the most memorable gobstoppers punctuate the memory. Somehow I made it back home. The recollection will be forever date-stamped by the geometric hulk of gas holder five – the gasometer cage that lends the venue its name.

Paradigm Brewery, Sarrat:

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I spent an hour or so exploring a quiet village in a low hanging mist. It was the first chill of winter and Sarrat seemed deserted – a perfect Midsomer Murders venue. I descended into the Chess Valley to find a commercial watercress bed and bought some by leaving money in an honesty box. Watercress has a long history of being stream-farmed in Herts and Bucks. I then dropped in unannounced to Paradigm brewery who brew a beer with it. It was in the fermentor on my visit. I met the two brewers going about their grind in a converted pig house. They were hopping, taking orders, driving, collecting, delivering and good enough to show me around. I was given a glass of a Mosaic-hopped beer straight from the cask in a cool room. It was carbonated, cold, zinging and utterly refreshing in a way I don’t usually associate with gravity dispense. Paradigm is a brewery successfully exploiting the traditional and the present.

St Stephens Tavern, Westminster:

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This is the only entry I include where the beer was bad. It was a pint of First Call by Hall & Woodhouse and it was awful. Despite that, it makes it into this roundup for the location’s surreality. Even if the beer had been good, it would never have matched up to the sights and sounds – the unreal view of human and vehicle traffic teeming past parliament. It made me want to pinch myself. The architecture of the pub interior had window panes soaring towards the sky. Summer was rearing up. The scene from the service bay looking towards Queen Elizabeth Tower was like standing in the aisles of a giant movie screen – the backdrop to a documentary about parliament you could walk into! Just order a half.

The Six Bells, St Albans:

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I can be a bit of a ticker (less so these days as it increases the amount of crap beer you pay for), but when Timothy Taylor’s Dark Mild and Ram Tam come around, the stakes change. Both are ales I’ve been aware of for years, they just don’t break out of West Yorkshire much. The feeling was like celebrities coming to visit your home town. They were here as part of a tap takeover and food pairing that had happened a couple of days before which I missed due to work. But I crossed the threshold at my earliest opportunity. Even though the Six Bells had few customers at the time, I ordered a half of each together in case one cask ran out. I then returned for a pint of each at a more civilised pace. I had the chance to savour them, talk to them, listen to their concerns and make plans for our retirement together in the Pennines.

The Harp, Covent Garden:

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The relaxation and comfort I associate with a pub I don’t expect to sit down in speaks for the pub’s conviviality. This is the feeling that’s been reinforced over a decade. The Harp is the kind of pub that gives a backbone to pub mythology. Not only that, but this glow was made even more cosy by a glass of fondant manna – Fullers Vintage Ale straight from cask. You don’t so much drink it as absorb it like a vanilla sponge soaks up brandy. The Harp is one of those pubs where you feel yourself willingly becoming part of the structure – you start to melt into the wall you lean against like you’re becoming one of the many characters portrayed in its paintings. I hope to be reincarnated as part of the decor so I remain forever.

Craft & Cleaver, St Albans:

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In London you could probably tap one of Cloudwater’s 2016 smash hit DIPAs and turn an hourglass over next to it to see if there’s any sand grains left in the top before the keg runs dry (especially if you’ve Tweeted about it too). In St Albans, it lasted a week and I seemed to be the only person drinking it. I went back to the Craft & Cleaver four or five days on the trot like an addict returning to the drug. Each time I sipped it in quietude – I think it’s best savoured this way. I don’t want anybody speaking and interfering with the taste. This is good anti-socialism: the kind you sometimes need. Cloudwater DIPA is a beer you need to shut your surroundings out from to allow a large empty space for contemplation. I witnessed so much footage gazing down at the headless surface. Beers that force you to drink them slowly have this power. The price was worth it.

Conclusion:

In 2016 going out to drink has lead to a wealth of experiences – some opposing, some complementary. They have reflected not just socialisation but introspection, heritage as well as modernity and both solitude and conviviality. The feeling of outdoors has been as remarkable as the awesome anatomy of architecture and it’s been a year where institution can equally accommodate innovation.

the tilting sea

the tilting sea

There was a darker side to my beer and oyster pairing. Firstly I discovered that I don’t actually like oysters. Then I found that the oysters didn’t suffer me gladly either. I’ve seldom had them in my life – maybe as little as twice – so didn’t realise this. On the few occasions I had them they were part of a more varied meal which largely absorbed them. But when I paired them with beer, they were naked and uncompromising and in the middle of the night they sent me on a journey I wasn’t prepared for.

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I thought of these molluscs as simple sources of protein to complement beer like Salami, Wurst or beer sticks but those are sides that have been cooked and processed – they’re basically benign. These creatures are raw and elemental and may as well come from the cold of deep space they’re so alien.

They put up a fight too. Cracking them open unleashes the Djinn. The reek clings to your hands, to the sink, to the table, the floor, the screwdriver. It lingers in the fridge from where they spent some time on a plate. Likewise, the bin is now haunted. Even the bottles of beer, cider and mead stank of the maritime as I bundled them into the recycling bin outside which in turn stinks like downwind of Whitstable docks.

img_0890Our Labrador doesn’t like oysters either. It’s not the taste nor the smell but the fact I had to push a couple of the armoured molluscs against the inside of the sink and bash them with a hefty screwdriver. Bits of shrapnel rained down on me and the kitchen floor. Milo (the poor canine) trotted away to sanctuary underneath the living room table.

I had to pace myself with each oyster and take a breath before devouring. Towards the end I actually chanted a countdown. Six was the absolute maximum. As the last went down, a bead of sweat emerged.

I retired for the night not just with the oysters dissolving in my gut – a species that evolved within the acid bath of the ocean and then got ingested by a distant land-bound relation with a body temperature the like of which they’ve never experienced. We are furnaces to them. Also within me was most of six bottles of booze or whatever I’d managed to finish before pouring the remainder down the sink.

As I laid back, a foretaste of the sea came with my stomach rolling up towards my chin and flopping back towards my groin heavy with the evening’s bounty. It uttered “splewongel” and aped the tide going in and out. I then regressed into a shallow sleep for a few hours.

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Around dusk I suddenly fell at the sea’s edge. The wet sand was abrasive to the skin. The fug of the churning waters, the seaweed and the barnacles clinging to green-cloaked rocks gasped through me. A wave thumped at the coast, the vibration from the impact pulsed up my spine.

In the dark, I checked my breath, the palms of my hands and the bedclothes but I hadn’t inhaled this aroma via the nose. Rather, it was inside me already. It had returned, torn from my memory without me calling it back. There’s a direct link with the olfactory bulb and recollection. It was like a warning.

dsc_0065I found myself at the mouth of a cove with the stench of kelp turning me a limpet pale. Vapour poured off my breath and the elemental stood before me in the gloom. It spoke – its lips the scraping of shells, its tongue a living bivalve rasping wet visceral sounds as it flexed to form vowels. I didn’t make eye contact with the deep blue eyes. I just nodded with humility. Things couldn’t be made clearer.

Directly above my head where I sleep is a small luminous cluster of stars and galaxies. This isn’t an hallucination but a decoration put up by the previous owners of my house for their little girl. I’ve never removed them. They’re of the glow-in-the-dark variety and took on a malign dimension – seemingly in cahoots with the tilting sea. They’re invisible in the light – only shining in the dark. For a moment, they quivered together as if on the surface of a body of water disturbed by the ripples of me treading water. They then coursed to the left on a riptide.

I blinked and had to sit bolt upright in bed and focus on the strips of light coming under the door and tracing the curtains’ edges. I needed a fixed point – a mast or railing to cling to. And then it passed.

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This is not a computer graphic – this is actually the plastic glow-in-the-dark constellation on the bedroom ceiling taken on the night setting of our SLR. Try looking at it with a couple of litres of booze, six oysters and a whispering fever in the small hours. But don’t stare at it for too long…..

It made me think of all the spiritual attributes given to game and food in folklore. To have had a neurologist and biologist taking readings during this night interlude would’ve been interesting. Fly Agaric mushrooms, burning hydrangeas, Peyote, the fine patina of lysergic moulds on barley during the hungry gap in Saxon times. The visions, the experiences, the journeys and the stories that tried to make sense and structure of them. Well, I went back there for a while. It was definitely brought about by an overdose of a food I’m not accustomed to mixed with a load of beer (of which I am). I can also report an absolute zero on the aphrodisiac front. I’m fine now thanks for asking.

The message kids is treat oysters with respect. I’m quite certain those six were my last.

Hertfordshire Stream Beer

Hertfordshire Stream Beer

In the midst of all the events taking place during the summer, I visited the Lower Red Lion in St Albans (the comparative prefix comes from the fact there used to be another Red Lion up the hill). On cask was an ale with an extra element that divided the customers: watercress. On the palate, there were sparks of green and blue in there amidst the chorus of orange and pink – that’s the synesthesia of my drinking recollection. This was a beer you rolled around the tongue.

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photo taken in the Lower Red Lion from the now distant summer

Watercress Ale is brewed by Paradigm Brewery in Sarratt. At first glance, Sarratt (pronounced to rhyme with carrot) looks like a place name from Brittany or even Catalonia but it lies to the south west of Hertfordshire near the Buckinghamshire border. Watercress will undoubtedly have been added to ale before – especially in the pre-hop days of hedgerow gruit, but I don’t recognise it as a thing and there are few breweries currently doing it.

Brewing with botanicals has become a new norm. I hate the term botanical when it’s used in brewing because of its shampoo advert sterility. It should also be noted that the hops and the malt are botanical too but the moniker never applies to them! In any case, what’s rare in Britain is to find a brewer that exploits the local flora for these ingredients. There are examples – some of the mead makers in London use Hackney honey and some Kent brewers use native molluscs in their oyster stouts. Williams Brothers in Clackmannanshire have also made ales with local kelp and heather.

But nowadays it’s more typical to brew with imported ingredients whether that be tea, cocoa nibs, coffee, molasses, chilli, blood oranges, mangoes, vanilla, coconuts or the most imported ingredient of them all – the new world hops.

dscf4882In the context of cooking up the local greenery, Paradigm brewery makes me think of another rural producer: Jester King in Texas. Just hear me out here: Jester King’s website is basically Edenic rural porn. Each image is of glowing refraction through stemmed glasses, weathered casks, sunlight dappled across verdure, high fertile canopies and mountains of nature’s harvest: oranges, peaches, melons, squashes, lemons, loquats (look it up), apricots, grapes – all ripe and glorifying in the Texan sun. Well stick with me here – this is our toned-down home counties equivalent. Our version however, is a land of trickling, of wetness clinging to brambles, low mists and slate skies. A watercress bed is such a perfect emblem of the local geography of the Thames Valley. It bears the same gentle characteristics.

I visited Sarratt on Tuesday. I could see the first signs of winter – the grass in the churchyard bore a frosted tinge like the bleached highlights in hair. Breathing in was fresh and life-affirming but coupled with an urge to cover up the throat. The chill was tempered by the aroma from cattle which was strangely comforting. Tramping across the fields was like entering into a cloud and I loved it. The atmosphere hangs ancient and still as you descend into the cleavage of the Chess valley. Cool moisture, serene and refreshing. With the sun hidden, there were no shadows and the edges of everything disappear into the shroud. These are also fitting conditions to acquaint myself with true watercress; the aquatic plant packed with iron.

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The chalk streams of both Herts and Bucks are ideal for farming watercress beds. In the 19th century it was a business that thrived and the yield would get sold in London in places like Covent Garden. The adjacent land to the chalk rivers was also conditioned for the growing of wheat. The heads and chaff were used in the brewing and milling trades, the stalks were used in the straw plaiting process. Places like Luton, St Albans, Watford and Hemel Hempstead had literally thousands of people working as plaiters and hundreds of hat makers (hence why Luton FC fans are known as the hatters).

E Tyler & Sons Watercress bed straddles the river Chess. It has a well-weathered fridge in the front garden from which the public can help themselves to bags of fresh watercress and leave the money in an honesty box.

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the river Chess, a bank of watercress and the public fridge and honesty box can be seen on the left

My teeth rent into the leaves and stalks. Initially they tasted a bit like tonic water, then came the grassy chlorophyll followed by the radish-like dry heat. But then it reverberated like an iron sheet struck by a hammer – that metallic note just resonating like a tuning fork. You end up blowing clouds of vapour to try and reduce the temperature. I could still taste it when I got back home a couple of hours later. This is potent stuff. If the beer tasted like this it would be undrinkable. The tiny shamrock-sized leaves you get sprouting from a sponge square in small plastic containers from supermarkets are a world away from the lolloping triffids that thrive in the chalk streams of the Chess.

 

dscf48915 kilograms of watercress go into a 550 litre volume of beer. This is enough to cause the drinker to take notice but not enough to overwhelm. At 3.6 ABV it’s a gentle beer as restrained as the landscape it’s cultivated and brewed in. At the time of writing the liquid was fermenting in “Pinky” (the vessel in the background is Perky) ready to be bottled for the first time.

I like this ale for two reasons: firstly, I simply liked drinking it in The Lower Red. I had a trial half followed by a confirmatory pint. Secondly, it stands for a place, a trade, local flora and a heritage that all get captured in a fermentor and end up presented in a glass. It deserves Protected Designation of Origin status.

I’d love it if in a few years’ time in Colorado, a bearded customer in a baseball cap and shades scanned the chalk board to see the beers on offer and asked the host:

“What I was really looking for was a HSA. Do you have one?”
“Hertfordshire Stream Ale? Sure. We got this one. It’s come all the way from Sarratt” (except now it rhymes with cravat).

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a predilection for sour?

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Llyn Padarn (Padarn Lake) with Llanberis on the far shore. This lake is a remnant of the last ice age.

It hasn’t taken long for sours to take off in Britain. From the Benelux countries northwards, sour fruit has been at the coxycc of desserts and fermentable drinks. In Britain we’ve traditionally sugared it up into jams and chutneys. In Poland, what they can’t do with plums and cherries isn’t worth knowing. The further north you go, the more varied the yield; colder climates – especially with altitude – seem to favour the dispersal of small fruit and berries. Norway, for instance, is rich with cloudberries, lingonberries, bilberries and loganberries.

My first taste of sour beer several years ago was a mild shock to the system but my palate instantly adapted and I’ve been wondering whether it’s been in there all along – a re-acquired taste. Looking back, it strikes me that the apples I always plumped for were the greenest – the ones that discharge electricity when you sink your teeth into them. Maybe I’ve had a predilection for sour because – in north west Europe – that’s the taste sensation I was actually brought up with.

I grew up in north Wales in the mid 1980s under the auspices of Snowdon in the small town of Llanberis. The area is dominated by slate, mountains, mossy bogs, sundew (our native little venus flytraps), ferns, glacial lakes and the ruins of miners’ dwellings and their chapels. It was a gorgeous landscape in which to be raised. When I taste things, my mind can go a long way back and it often gets sent back here.

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mountain goats on the ruins of miners’ huts. All buildings here are made from slate. The edge of one of the bonks blasted out by gun powder can be seen in the background.

Being reductionist, I could split my childhood experience with fruit down into three categories: satsumas, tinned fruit and wild fruit. The first was widely available when I was growing up in North Wales and little has changed – they came in a little red net bag from the local Co-op. Satsumas were also what were given to us each Christmas at school once we’d sat on Santa Claus’ knee (a diminutive teacher called Mrs Owen wearing a beard). The tinned fruit was the “official” food. Peaches and apricots swimming in sugared juices were doled out from industrial sized cans in the school canteen. The third category is more clandestine: the fruit or berries we’d scavenge from the countryside.

During the lighter months, upon leaving school, after flying around on a tree swing, scaling the rock screes or building dens in the undergrowth, we’d go off into a wooded area and sate our appetites in the bramble bushes. We’d always reach for the higher plunder and pick the fattest blackberries and dewberries. Each was scrutinised for mould, maggots or money spiders and then ingested. We sounded like pigs jostling for swill. Our sweaty little hands would turn pink and purple from the juices; it was like fruit henna. Fat berries contained the sweetness but lacked the cut through, the zing you get from the rosy sour ones lent a little frisson to the spine. There’s still some tartness when I buy blackberries from the supermarket now but they’re blousy and uniform in a bland way. I miss that little forager. His tastes were developed in the scrub.

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fallen crab apples bletting and mouldering

Sloping back roads had slate-encased drains on either side to channel the rainwater away and prevent the tarmac disappearing under floodwater during downpours. These smooth gulleys were fantastic when it was cold – the running water would freeze and we’d have a slalom. We’d adopt the pose of the Silver Surfer and plunge down scoring the lichen, moss and ivy stalks along the dry stone walls on the flight down. I recall the vapour billowing from my mouth in the dusk like the clouds trailing a steam train. Above, the sky evolved into a violet nebula pierced by powder scatters of stars. The ice channels glowed in the dark.

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the remaining turret of the Norman Castell Dolbadarn (Dolbadarn Castle) obscures Snowdon in the distant background.

Back home, our back garden was on a split level. The bottom half housed the coal bunker and the top half had a small lawn. There was also an old fish tank up there with gooseberries growing inside. Translucent and veined like mutant grapes, gooseberries are a shortcut to my childhood. The panes of the tank were broken and I tested the sharpness by gently teasing an edge with my index finger. There was a squelch as my flesh got unzipped by a shard. An inward gasp and I wrenched it free. Blood welled up immediately and I plunged the digit into my mouth. There was that rich taste of copper coins and that meaty sweetness of cytoplasm you taste when you cut into a joint. I still think about it when I write tasting notes. It can be found in beers as diverse as lagers and stouts as well as fruit sours. It’s not just the taste of fruit I remember.

I used to spend a lot of time at the lagoons. Like everywhere around Llanberis, the ground is a jigsaw of slate which makes it an ideal arsenal for for skimming stones across the still waters. Alder and willow trees border the lagoons. In the low canopies, siskins flitter. On the water, the silent aerodynamic goosander goes about its hunt. Clouds of midges congregate, each seemingly trying to get sucked up your nostrils. It’s where I used to go to swim.

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the edge of the lake where the lagoons are. I have watched siskins in this very tree

For my ninth birthday I got a pair of flippers and I used them at the lagoon. They were obviously completely useless in such a small pool. I’d already been wearing them around the house – they made it very difficult to go up and down stairs but I insisted they would.

I’d ease myself into the pool, edging carefully in as you could both slip on the subaqueous slate or get cut by it. The water was chilled. Submerging the core between the groin and the chest was the point of no return – if you could push that under, you could swim but often my breath would hitch in shock hiccups from the cold. My abdomen used to display the tube map of green and blue veins under my pallid skin. Goosebumps would render my body the coarseness of sandpaper.

Below a certain depth, the slate became carpeted in green which was like walking on velvet. We were also aware of dangers in the waters of this post-industrial town: the water could hide the metal carcasses of ancient mining machinery. It could also harbour spools of rusting barbed wire. I know of one pupil at my school that got tetanus after such an encounter. I remember vividly the smell and even taste of the lagoon water. Submerged so just my nose and eyes were above the water, I got my own breath deflected back off the surface. It reminded me of salted vegetable soup. The salt was the mineral-rich lake, the vegetables the plants and algae. This recollection, believe it or not, comes back to me when I sample Goses.

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roseships or haws – the seeds are perfect for stuffing down the clothing of pupils you don’t like

After trying underwater somersaults and seeing my swimming trunks inflate from the bubbles I churned up from the floor’s organic bed, I came up for air and surfaced to an audience: there was a small group of little boys in perfect little suits pointing at me. They stared at me in disbelief – I could only stare back at them. The adults appeared behind them and I witnessed my first ever Sikh family identified by the father wearing a turban. The mother gave me a smile like aunties do and I recall finding comfort in it. That was the stand off: the little boys in suits gawped and the creature in the lagoon leered back. All I needed was a large lily pad to squat on. The thing that bound us was our common fascination. I went on to show off by doing forward rolls and when my quivering pot-bellied form emerged dripping up the opposite bank, It was Schwarzenegger’s torso from Commando.

I’ve taken you on a little detour here. What does this have to do with sour fruit? Let me take a few back steps. These lagoons were home to wild strawberries – small red bullets of sweetness in the undergrowth. The strawberries I buy from the supermarket suffer from gigantism and have no resemblance to their diminutive kith I knew from Llanberis. Wild strawberries are the size of a pea – concentrated sweetness unless they were still green in which case they tasted the same as their stalks and a bit like celery. There was a local government/council warning on sign posts about foxes and dogs urinating on or spraying strawberry plants which unfortunately always grow at ground level. We just never really paid much attention.

On the roads leading up the mountainside, rosehips or haws were everywhere along the fences. You can get rosehip tea and it’s been brewed with beer. However, we loved them because you could tear the flesh open and scrape out the fluffy seeds and dump down the back of the T shirt of the boy in front. As an itching powder, it’s unsurpassed and can actually leave welts.

As a rite of passage, you’d learn to tell the difference between stinging nettles and dead nettles by the drooping flower heads. This enabled you to show off by pretending you were so hard you didn’t care about getting stung. It could backfire sometimes if someone else thrashed you with real nettles thinking you were impervious. The best was when an uninitiate plunged his hands into a crop of real nettles to join in. A boy screaming from the pain and realisation has its own special pitch. From the welts caused by rosehip seeds to the swelling and hives from stinging nettle acid, why are young boys such bastards?

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sloes – the bitterest sourest flesh in the hedgerow

A vanilla pod nucleates anything you cook it with and dominates. It can be beyond sweet – sickly so. A Jamaican scotch bonnet sends the heat of spice soaring and can even be deadly for some people. In a similar vein, sloe berries sit on the throne for sourness. They were abundant where I was brought up. Visually they’re dull blue/green and absorb light through a fine coating of powder. They’re the most sour, bitter thing you can put in your mouth. I can recall my first foray – you bite into the matt flesh and there’s a pause. Then you can’t feel your mouth. Then as your tongue panics and searches for moisture, it finds fur growing on your teeth and gums. Try it yourself. The effect lasts quite a while too. My cousins and I used to chomp on these!

Is it any wonder I’m so comfortable with sour beers in my adulthood? Beers like these. Every beer has a backstory about how it came to be, but every drinker also has a backstory that can match it in taste. This was mine.

The Oval Space

beauty within and without
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It’s just the name I don’t like. It’s too contrived. The Old Gasworks would’ve been better. I came here to experience the London Craft Beer Festival – just follow this sentence.
 
I hadn’t counted on the awe of the Oval Space. I’ve tramped up and down Mare Street many times completely unaware of the sleeping giant in the neighbourhood.
 
You see a gas holder cage as you approach the venue but it seems underwhelming, barely peeking over the low buildings you walk by. It’s only after you’ve crossed the threshold of the Oval Space that reality distorts with crab nebula beauty. Once you enter the building and go up a flight of stairs, the wall and roof are cut away. The sky becomes the ceiling and the wall becomes a breathtaking industrial panorama: you gaze directly at the metal skeleton of gas holder 5 in what used to be the Bethnal Green gasworks and the blazing azure summer framing it. You’re bathed by it. As you look up from your low elevation, it’s like you’re kneeling in its presence. 
 
Though we don’t think of them as such, Kentish oast houses and Norfolk windmills come from the industrial age. The gruelling days of physical labour we have the fortune never to have known in our own lifetimes have robbed these buildings of the oppression they once bore. in the 21st century, they’re the rustic postcard pin ups of the English landscape.
 
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So it might be for gas holder 5 built in 1889 – the smaller tower – holder 2 that stands behind it is a couple of decades older. Though we still have working gas holders or gasometers, they’re gradually departing the scene splitting people between those that would love to see them demolished and those that nail their hearts to them. In just over a decade, I’ve experienced the same regard towards the buildings of Battersea power station. 
 
Some feats of architecture were never meant to stun but do so in their industrial largesse. Others diminish like Marble Arch. It’s now dwarfed by the buildings that surround it and seems so puny.
 
Gas holder 5 reminds me of something ritualistic – a circular standing formation. Arenas in the Acropolis, the Colisseum, the Calanais standing stones on the Isle of Lewis, a circle at Carnac, Stonehenge. 
 
I can imagine sacrificial offerings being made under its steel struts at the winter solstice.
 
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I’m not sure of the age or origins of the Oval Space unlike the Pickle Factory behind it that reveals all in its name. Looking into it’s creation does turn up an irrepressible Lithuanian priest who tried to stop the change of premises to a music venue:
 
 
Maybe what makes this metal guardian so compelling is that it’s fading into history as you look at it like a relic in the making. You can see it turn sepia and the periphery of your vision curl and brown like an old photo.
 
The Oval Space has the biggest lounge conversation piece on the planet. Please let’s not demolish it.
 
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A call to arms – the pub division bells of Westminster

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I push through the glass door of the Blue Boar and ascend up a curving stair to be met with what looks like a concierge. He, like the others around and behind the bar, is dressed in a smart black waistcoat with a pressed white shirt gleaming through the lapels. Everyone sports a name badge.
“Is it okay just to come in for a drink?”
“Of course, sir – it’s a bar!” He gestures towards it. 
Outside the summer’s blazing. The fridges and beer founts glow in the comparative darkness making them all the more alluring.
“And er… I understand you have a division bell on site for MPs when there’s a vote?” Further words trail off as he arrests me with an eager beam. He turns and I follow him under glass cases housing models of politicians past and present. We come to a polished metal boss on the wall – I’m looking at my first ever division bell. 
 
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Around the palace of Westminster, division bells haunt six pubs and a multitude of restaurants, bars and clubs. They’re called division bells because when they go off they recall MPs to a vote. The MPs divide by chamber to vote into the ayes and the nays. 
 
Though I’ve included the Blue Boar as a pub, I’d make a distinction and call it a bar despite its pubby title. It’s dark and cool – shelter from the baking heat outside. It’s tidy, shining and clean but not sterile. The staff are friendly and perambulate as official welcomers. There is no cask beer but there is keg from Meantime so I climb up on a stool and hang my bag from a hook under the lip. I order a half of Yakima Red and it’s served in the brewery’s balloon glass with beads of condensation trailing their way down its bulge. It’s chilled, cherry-like, resinous and dry. It really hits the spot and is as photogenic as an advert.
 
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As you don’t pay up front, I do begin to worry how much this refresher might cost. When I settle, the bill’s served to me on a little tray and I’m relieved to find it’s only £2.70. For those of you channeling your inner Arkwright and screaming “Ow much?!”, anyone familiar with central London will understand that it could’ve been much worse. 
 
They let me keep the beer mat and I even leave a £0.30 tip. Visiting a cubicle in the gents, I find the end of the toilet roll has been folded into a point. After I’ve finished, I use my best origami skills to reinstate it. There are no hand driers – just laundered individual flannels. Absolute class.
 
I leave the Blue Boar and proceed down Broadway to my second destination on Storey’s Gate: the Westminster Arms – a Shepherd Neame pub. I walk in and it’s wood panelled everywhere. Soft leather stools describe the room’s circumference under neat elbow shelves. There is no furniture in the middle of the floor which means that when it’s busy, it’s a hive of humans buzzing in symphony. There are also upstairs and a downstairs rooms which are more for tourists looking to eat. I don’t explore them. 
 
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There’s a young man and an older man serving. Both seem to be French or Belgian so I suspect father and son. When you cross the threshold the elder asks “can I ‘elp you?” There are ceramic demijohns perched on high and I also notice some of the upper panelling at the wall/ceiling junction: old brewery advertisements proclaim Stock India Pale Ale (KK) and East India Pale Ale (AK). What I love the most is the pub’s original telephone number: simply Westminster 365. I’m looking for something else though. I approach the younger barman and get as far as the word division and he points it out on the wall behind me – it’s a beauty of walnut, bakelite and iron.
 
DSCF3869Often when a two thirds majority is needed to pass a motion, the speaker (currently conservative MP John Bercow) will shout “empty the lobbies -divisiooon!” and the bells will then sound for exactly eight minutes.
 
 
I order a pint of Master Brew and sit at the window. Like the decor, the beer glows like burnished oak. On the taste buds it’s treacly and malty. It’s desperately English and reminds me of a Werthers Original dissolving on the tongue with a background hint of leaf litter. I never used to regard staple Shepherd Neame beers in this way – this has come about due to the comparative harsh, garish and aggressive souls of modern craft brewing. When you go back to them, older bitters taste more and more like Nesquik.
 
To get to the next pub you to go straight past Parliament Square and the east wing of the houses of parliament then traverse one of the busiest pedestrian crossings in Britain to visit St Stephens Tavern. It’s one of a handful of London pubs run by Hall & Woodhouse, aka Badger from Dorset.
 
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Both the interior and exterior of the pub are amazing. The outside is a sloping goods delivery access that looks directly at Queen Elizabeth tower (remember – big ben’s actually the bell inside). It’s at once a cacophony of sound – vehicles beeping, engine noise, tourists, people playing music – and complete serenity. I think it’s the surrealness of facing a postcard brought to life that takes the auditory sting out of it. The staff all have ear pieces – they’re “plugged in” – like the agents in the Matrix.
 
Inside the ceiling seems to make a bid for the sky and the windows follow them all the way up. Each vertiginous pane is also etched and has its own taylor made curtain which in turn has its own taylor made cords with tassels. Mirrors behind the bar are backlit. There are double-topped circular perch tables (similar to a cake stand on top of a coffee table). There’s a TV screen on mute showing BBC parliament.
 
Most beer engines dispense Fursty Ferret but there’s also Tanglefoot and First Call. I order a pint of the latter. It’s dark, sweet and tangy. Again, it’s been awhile since I had any of these beers and part of me wonders if they forgot to add the hops.
 
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In the run up to the division, the preceding debates can last hours so many members of Parliament scurry off to nearby watering holes instead and remain there until their respective bells ring.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
I gaze up at the division bell which I saw as soon as I walked in. It’s high up the wall here fronted by a grille. It looks like the bottom half of a grandfather clock; an actual clock face right above it bolsters that comparison.
 
I choose to cross back over the road and walk directly under the Queen Elizabeth tower in order to cross Westminster bridge and backtrack along the southern bank of the Thames. It’s worth it just to photograph the palace over the water. I cross back over Lambeth bridge into Millbank to get to Romney Street and the Marquis of Granby – a Nicholsons pub.
 
The Marquis of Granby is a one room pub. It’s busy but most of the customers stand outside. There are luxurious burgundy leather couches and copper-topped tables. Two electric chandeliers give the interior a yellow feel. In a recess behind the bar, I’m surprised to see four casks on gravity tilted forward but none of them are yet ready to dispense. I opt instead for a pint of Trumans Runner – it’s dark amber and balances the malt with a sharp citrus zest. It’s the best thing I’ve had on cask today.
 
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The obvious question pops out and a woman behind the bar points me towards it. She surprises me when she says that it was going off every half hour on the day the commons voted on whether to keep Trident – Britain’s nuclear defence system. I presume there must have been other votes on the day. 
 
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Members of Parliament have just eight minutes to get to the relevant chamber in the palace of Westminster and vote. Once the eight minutes are up, the chamber doors are barred.
 
 
 
 
 
The Marquis’ division bell is the most interesting thus far. It looks a bit like a pair of binoculars mounted on a wooden noggin. Below it, a few sentences about its function have been hand painted in italic. Spotting my interest, a woman called Prue gives me her own little hand written card. So far I’ve been impressed by the hospitality of staff in all the pubs – especially since they’re toiling in one of the most tourist-saturated slices of the capital. They’re true grafters.
 
The next stop is on Parliament Street for a pub that stands virtually opposite Downing Street. The Red Lion is a Fullers pub. The inside needs to be visited to be believed: there are round window recesses perfectly encompassing their round tables. Hogsheads are also used to put drinks on. Behind the bar, and arguably forming it, is a one-piece wooden scaffold accommodating clocks, bottle shelving, ceiling columns and fridges. There are political portraits on the walls and two massive chandeliers. Even the hand pumps are taylor made – the most sturdy brewery-branded pulls you’ll see.
 
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On the downside, the Red Lion has the least majestic division bell so far to the point that the woman serving is quite apologetic about it. 
 
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I order a pint of Oliver’s Island and take a few oblique shots with the camera. Because of the crowd, I can’t get a straight shot at it. As you’ll see – my photo is as underwhelming as the bell.
 
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Members of the public and tourists often run outside at the ringing of the bells – they assume it’s the fire alarm.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The last stop is a Taylor Walker pub called the Prince Albert on Victoria Street. The division bell is upstairs in a dining lounge with restrictive opening hours so it’s actually a return visit. When I go upstairs to immortalise it, it’s a beauty. The twin bells gleam in the peachy light.
 
To get from here or indeed the Blue Boar to a voting chamber in the house of commons within eight minutes would require an MP to break Usain Bolt’s sprint record in my opinion. It’s not just the length of Victoria Street or Broadway, but having to negotiate the traffic lights around Parliament Square and then getting into the palace and its labyrinthine corridors itself.
 
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When you think about it, lots of MPs must stagger through the chamber to vote when they’re under the influence of alcohol.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The Prince Albert interior is a mecca to Victorian pomp and confidence. The colours are walnut, burgundy, cream and black. Every pillar, table, elbow shelf and chair leg seems individually turned on a lathe. Light is multiplied through mirrors behind the bar. All the windows including the panes on the saloon doors are etched. I have a half of Trumans Swift – it’s golden, clean, dry and lemony.
 
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It seems our MPs would rather be out drinking than taking part in a debate. Perhaps they’re more like us than we give them credit for.
 
I found that the pubs containing division bells are utterly proud of them and keen to point them out. Most installations look lovingly polished too.
 
 
 

Albion: the first days of July

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From behind the tree line, a red kite ascends with the heat. Its blazing orange wings and tail twist to knead the thermals’ contours. It hangs in slow motion above the canopy and then, in silence, drifts diagonally like flotsam on a tide. Below, tiny red UFOs hover and alight on the white umbels of cow parsley: Soldier beetles are mating in their own tiny canopies. It’s summertime in Hertfordshire.

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In the park, a large human male with bleached white legs plods along with all the confidence of a man who’s had his trousers stolen. He wears new sandals from TK Maxx. His partner accompanies him, studying his expression. 
“So what should we do then?” she asks with arms firmly crossed. It’s a summer’s day after all, the possibilities are manifold. The Neanderthal feigns racking his brain but she reads it out for him.
“You just want to go to the pub don’t you?”
The man falls even more silent. Memories of wanting to jump back into the pool as a young boy are blinding all rational thought.
 
Summertime in England doesn’t just mean exposed flesh and a few weeks of warmth, it heralds a change in a town’s acoustics. This is achieved by pubs simply leaving front doors wide open. During the other three seasons, the babble of conversation can be heard but stays locked within the pub’s walls only briefly breaking cover when a door heaves open to unload a punter. Otherwise to passers-by, it’s like Radio Luxembourg with the dial set at one. In the summer the noise ambushes the lazy streets – outbursts from an invisible crowd bayonet the peace: Sonic irruption.
 
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I walk past the Six Bells on a sweltering day. A Sid James-esque laugh booms out from the open doorway and I immediately know who’s inside – it’s not his usual local. I can picture his stance, the way he holds his head and grabs the bar like it’s a railing on a heaving ship. I can even see the mischief and the spittle glistening on his grin.
 
It’s amazing what else you can see. You don’t actually have to be there, you just need to let your sensors reach out. There is zen in this.
 
I pass the White Swan and a cry erupts out of the door and windows like lava. An emergency consultation in my head identifies it as a goal being scored. England must have scored, but wait – this pub’s the Irish pub. Maybe it’s Ireland that just scored. I walk on. Moments later, I hear the same throat-rending scream almost cause two other pubs to collapse. Wingbeats chop the air as pigeons scatter upwards. Now I know that England have scored and I don’t just know when they score but when they get close. The customers’ eyes are my eyes. I hear pained exclamations wailed in perfect chorus. Even though my sight can’t pierce the brick, I can see their hands rammed against their temples as if to stop their heads from coming apart. The other side has just scored against them. Downy pigeon feathers fall slowly back to earth.
 
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On the inside in the comparative dark and cool of the snug, a man with leather skin tries to master his sea legs. He gains on the bar. The publican he was expecting to speak to isn’t there or is hiding – a young woman’s serving instead. Two identical hands are raised – each holding aloft a trembling index finger. He squints so that they merge back into the one.
“Tell…tell Justin ‘e’s a good man.” He draws breath anew as if a powerful tagline is about to follow. 
“Tell ‘im from me ‘e’s a good man…. and you’re a good man too.” For a second, the lucky member of bar staff toys with finding a compliment in that. That second evaporates. With what might’ve been a flourish in a soberer dimension, he turns and sways like an worn MFI bookshelf towards the bright rectangle of outdoors. His head and shoulders are red and smouldering. The union jack shorts and white Nike socks give him the air of a toddler taking his first steps and then he’s gone – enveloped by the light. A moment later a sound like sizzling bacon can be heard. The barmaid goes back to staring at her smartphone.
 
Teen males walk around bare chested – their sweaters looped back over their heads so the sleeves bounce on their shoulders like wobbly antennae. CAMRA veterans wipe the perspiration from their foreheads and look around to check who’s watching before eyeing up the corporate lager taps.
 
DSCF3674 St Albans morris dancers
 
It’s the annual St Michaels Village folk festival. The pubs disgorge themselves – they turn inside out spewing the drinkers onto the road. The streets become the public bar and inside is transformed into outside. The Rose & Crown has raised the standard of Britishdom by holding an ice cream van hostage in its own car park. Men and women in straw hats and bondage gear charge at each other and smash sticks. Obscure little gaggles demonstrate their ethnic group’s traditional dancing inability. Alcohol is served in the grounds of both the parish church and the primary school.
A man with a white beard and a paunch edges through the throng with bells strapped to his ankles. In his left hand is a pint of bitter and a clashing stick, in his right a ninety nine with a flake. He looks from one to the other realising he hasn’t thought this through. His blouse inflates for a moment as a breeze picks up. The ice cream runs down his wrist and a dollop hits his wooden clog with a splat. In summertime in England, this display of sartorial mental illness becomes the most normal thing, and I for one feel reassured.