temperate intentions

temperate intentions

Letchworth Garden City is an odd place but well worth a visit. Its oddness is the attraction.

Around a dot on a map – the old village of Letchworth – a new garden city was envisaged by quaker Ebenezer Howard in the late 1800s. The idea was for social reform – for people to live in a community where they could breathe fresh air, reconnect with a countryside idyll and escape the smog of industrial Britain.

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The new garden city was designed and laid out by urban planners Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin and went on to inspire garden cities the world over. Its success was possibly because it was devised without the central diktat that often accompanies new age projects. It left its denizens or “pioneers” to decide matters rather than a preacher.

I came here to complete the Letchworth Garden City Greenway – a thirteen and a bit mile path that circles the town, but also to check out its beer culture.

Tracing the circuit has twice defeated me now. Even the woman in Tourist Information who gave me the map – a native since birth – admitted she got lost when she tried to follow it.

Within minutes of leaving the town centre, I find my first marker badges at the entrance to Standalone Farm and I’m soon exploring rolling crop fields. Church spires and water towers appear in the distance like the masts of ships on the heaving sea. The landscape sits somewhere between rural and urban. The soundtrack is a combination of roads rumbling and the celestial symphony of skylarks.

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this is a peeking black squirrel and the inspiration behind Letchworth Gardens City’s first town centre pub in the 1970s

I get lost pretty quickly. I negotiate my way though wave after legion of tidy closes and crescents. Communal greens here are huge. Last week I was ejected from the Greenway into an industrial estate. You feel like a bit of a prat finding yourself on a building site with binoculars and camera. The builders probably thought I was a niche pervert. The week after my trail goes dead and I trudge along the main road from Baldock. The binoculars do lend an advantage here: you can read roundabout signs a long way in advance and decide whether or not to swim through the blue exhaust fumes in that direction or turn back.

Back in the town proper, walking around Letchworth Garden City is a bit like wandering around an elaborate film set. The buildings are faithful reproductions from around the Tudor age – old enough for lichen to have accumulated on the pitched roofs but too young for any subsidence or warp. Historical buildings minus the history. These green streets of tidy period cottages look ideal – but it also makes them creepy.

The Spirella building – what used to be a clothing factory – is so vast that to get it all in one photo, you’d have to take it from satellite. It earned itself the moniker Castle Corset. It just seems too big for a British venture and in fact this is the case – the company was from the US.

In a way, the pioneers that came to settle here were proto-hipsters. They were generally middle class and associated with the arts and crafts movement. They were big on theosophy, vegetarianism and ascetic clothing – namely smocks made from Ruskin flannel from the Isle of Man and sandals even the middle ages wouldn’t touch.

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the Settlement used to be the Skittles Inn. In summer locals would line along the long seated stoop with glasses of Cydrax

Apart from some private clubs and hotels, Letchworth Garden City didn’t have an actual beer pub until the early 1970s when the Black Squirrel (no longer there) was included in a new town centre redevelopment. In fairness though, up until that point the temperate intentions – from families who witnessed the capital’s gin melancholy – were democratically instituted each time through local vote. They opted against for most of a century though there was friction amongst some men that the vote kept not going their way because the women’s vote (mostly nays) was included here before the Suffragettes gained it nationally.

There was a public house instituted by the First Garden City L.t.d called the Skittles Inn that served food, had a skittles alley, a library and sold absolutely no alcohol. Instead, the staples were Cadbury’s drinking chocolate and Cydrax – a non-alcoholic apple wine. Lover of beer though I am, I can appreciate a public house that kept men sober – especially with the high rate of what we’d now deem violent alcoholism in many working families.

But let’s never forget that it was this vision of Ebenezer Howard’s that also inspired prince Charles to cough up the hideous settlement of Poundbury; a village that sounds like a discount home store but has less class.

The early citizens employed the word temperance correctly – to temper something is to moderate, not to forbid. The First Garden City L.t.d also ran two more pubs about a mile from the town centre: the Fox at Willian and the Three Horseshoes in Norton. Both were allowed to serve alcohol. So if you wanted a pint, you simply girded your smock and went for a stroll in those sandals to get it.

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the Fox at Willian with All Saints church peering over its shoulder

The local Wetherspoons is called the Three Magnets and is a decent gallery in itself showcasing the garden city’s history. Wetherspoons pubs are good at gathering local curiae and being museum-lites. There are, for instance, paintings of Ebenezer Howard and information plaques about Spirella corsets that changed the manufacture away from whale bone.

But maybe what’s most interesting is the reason behind its name: the Three Magnets is based on one of Mr Howard’s diagrams about the formation of society. The first two magnets are the town and the country – the pros and cons for people living there listed for both. The third magnet – representing the garden city – is attributed with the amalgam of the pros for the first two but none of the cons. Idealist? certainly. If the pub’s name used current jargon, it might be called Ye Three Socioeconomic Pull Factors

If our boy Howard were alive today he’d absolutely love Powerpoint.

But the jewel in the crown here isn’t the Wetherspoons, courteous as it is to its host, but a newcomer: the Garden City Brewery down the picturesque shopping lane called the Wynd (as in WIND-up toy).

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Every Thursday some cask ale in stellar condition is tapped and served from gravity along with some guest beer engines. If you’re lucky, you might also get your chops around a Bedfordshire Clanger – a home counties take on the Cornish pasty with meat at one end and fruit at the other. The pudding side has score marks in the pastry so you know which end to devour first.

Spring Saison is the perfect thirst quencher. A 5.3 ABV spritz of a beer; it leaps over the gullet and fizzles on the roof of the mouth. Then the glass is empty. To CAMRA members, £3 a pint. Proof that a trip to Letchworth Garden City is good for you.

The venue is filled with light. It’s airy, colourful and tidy. Donations are made from some of the beers to local charities so even in its own way, Garden City Brewery keeps the local legacy of community and betterment alive.

You can still get a feel for Letchworth’s new life roots: it’s to be seen in adult education centres, urban farms, an NHS clinic calling itself a wellness centre and the International Garden Cities Institute.

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a pint of the brewery’s own Armitage ale and a Bedfordshire clanger. Neither lasted long.

For its size, Letchworth now has at least the national average of pubs. So what caused the city to abandon its spirit of temperance? Well the context that spawned its necessity faded. Britain’s industrial age passed away so the very thing the garden city was set up to escape – the drudgery of the factories, mills and pits – disappeared from Britain.

During the queen’s coronation, members of the first migration celebrated together and reminisced about the difficult first few years while the town was being shaped. Many people that left for this corner of Hertfordshire really did find a better life in the long run. This re-imagining is what makes Letchworth Garden City’s odd outlook so unaligned with the rest of Britain.

 

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 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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GBBF 2016

some thoughts on this year’s festival
 
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This year I arrived at Olympia from Kensington High Street tube station. It’s just a fifteen minute walk and feels more free and breathable than getting the overland train. As I passed some of the borough’s street signs, it struck me that W8 mirrors E8 if London were a folded Rorschach blot. The former postcode marks creamy stuccoed splendour with wide avenues, the latter designates working class terraces but also an emergent brewing epicentre. Hackney’s leases are beginning to rise by as much as 400% as the city creeps east. London eh? It’ll catch up with you in the end.
 
When gaining on Olympia, you see the ambition in its Victorian stamp (built 1886). Massive steel-latticed arches haven’t been constructed like this since the monarch of empire passed away. The only problem is you can’t get the view the architect (the aptly named Andrew Handyside) intended because of the cramp of London’s built environment; the places where you’d stand to take a picture of Olympia face-on have been built on themselves. The only way is to get onto the upper levels of the buildings the other side of the railway track. I therefore have no image of Olympia as the oblique angle down the service road just doesn’t do the beast justice. 
 
I  love entering Olympia and getting bathed in its soft platinum light. At the same time, you enter its echoing sound bubble – something well-tuned as the day wears on as glasses break to local cheers. 
 
I like that the GBBF has come back down to earth this year with regards to its theme. This year each bar is named after a pub that has won CAMRA’s champion pub of the year so I felt a tingling feeling near The Harp bar. Last year the explorer theme felt a bit laboured – the banners hanging from the ceiling had curled up and there was a general feeling of fatigue. The circus theme the year before that was jolly but I couldn’t work out the connection it had with beer. But then again, I’m a grouch.
 
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Harvey’s Brewery has come up with a heading based on Sussex’ county motto – “we wunt be druv” (we won’t be driven). Maybe it’s a fitting tribute to the brewery’s impermeable stubbornness through three centuries but it does sound like it’s being said by someone with a lobotomy scar spanning their scalp. In their new, more minimalist branding, they’ve also added an apostrophe after the “y” to the delight of grammar pedants. This little change also differentiates them from the popular furniture storeroom. I had three glasses of beer from this bar – the Dark Mild, the Green Hop and of course Prince of Denmark – an ale worth the visit to the GBBF each year in itself. 
 
The Tiny Rebel bar demonstrates what can be achieved in such a small amount of time for a startup brewery (it started brewing in earnest in 2012). This presence is no doubt in connection with Cwtch winning champion beer of Britain last year. Following an article in the Autumn edition of CAMRA’s Beer magazine, the brothers are very careful to hold cask ale in high esteem and seem very much to want to keep CAMRA on their side in contrast to many new urban breweries. Maybe it’s about hedging bets: if British keg comes to Olympia they can exploit it. If it doesn’t, they can exploit that too. Their Loki Black IPA is delicious in any case.
 
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One of the simple pleasures of the festival is aimlessly wandering around. I love the characters that are drawn out each year – many look as though they were created by Tolkien – Middle Earth’s most hirsute snd wobbly.
 
The upper gallery reserved 75% of its orbit to its VIP lounge, corporate, and other restricted events. In the 25% that remains for the general public, extra barriers have been erected to keep you about twenty feet back from the original railing. This is frustrating as it’s the only “aerial” viewpoint you can take of the festival by camera and you have to crop the barriers out of the picture later. You can’t take a shot downwards. 
 
My beer list this year was as follows:
 
Dark Mild, Green Hop, Prince of Denmark (Harvey’s), Menha Du (St Austell), Toasted Brown Ale (Aeronaut – American cask), Into The Mild (Cambridge Brewing Co – American cask), 1872 Porter (Elland), Cantillon (Cantillon – on keg), Loki Black IPA (Tiny Rebel), Alvinne Stout (Alvinne – oak barrel), Vintage Ale 2016 (Fullers) and Pine Porter (Rameses – Netherlands).
 
My top three beers of the festival in no particular order were Fullers Vintage on cask, the aforementioned Prince of Denmark and Belgium’s Alvinne stout served from an oak barrel – it had a tart red wine nose but fruity portery body. 
 
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Third measures are definitely the way to go. I found that in the five minutes before Fullers vintage ale was due to be pulled through at 16:30 (and it was – on the dot). I ordered a third from an adjacent bar and then had plenty of time to drink it whilst waiting in the queue for Chiswick’s finest.
 
I left with a warm feeling that isn’t just the alcohol. It makes me think of when I was about nine years old and a keen palaeontologist (into dinosaurs). One year we took the trip by rail from my home in Bangor, North Wales to the Natural History Museum not far from this festival. I left with that same sensation of awe that I do when I leave here. The impossible size of the venue, the exhibits, the buzz.
 
I think CAMRA is increasingly putting the pub at the centre of its campaigning – even above the primacy of “real ale”. From all the differing opinions I’ve heard about The Revitalisation Project, everyone seems to agree that saving pubs should be paramount.
 
Maybe next year the bar names could either represent pubs threatened with closure or those that have been saved after a successful ACV campaign. Keep the focus on the pub!

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.