The Happiest Room in London:
One summer’s day I was close to Covent Garden and walked past what seemed like a small back street boozer. It looked packed – even though it was the afternoon. Hanging baskets whose floral contents ranneth over gave succor, shade and colour to the frontage. The windows were of stained glass and portrayed a certain stringed instrument. They had been opened to reveal a host of sepia faces blinking in the sunlight. It looked dark on the inside and I pretty much dismissed it at the time. In any case, I couldn’t see any beer range from the street. Oddly enough, I don’t remember the first time I went in. Except that I would have realized that the pub was a deep vault on the inside like a tardis. The bar was sideways on to the door so obscuring its secrets. As far as I can recall, it was the first and only time I entered that pub from the front.
When visitors come and we meet up in London, this is the venue I bring them to. I have brought family from Britain as well as abroad, met up with friends from work and one from school I hadn’t seen in 20 years. I’ve also brought overseas friends to this temple. The trick is to take them down St Martin’s Lane in the heart of theatre land and then plunge them down one of the narrowest alleys in London – Brydges Place. Daylight gets cut off and your shoulders virtually scrape along the walls as your eyes scan the shadows in each hidden doorway. It seems like a mugger’s paradise until you reach a black wooden door with a shining brass boss – it’s flanked by two hogshead halves used as pint shelves. Ivy climbs the wall, engulfing the gutters. Sometimes some of the doors adjacent and opposite burst open to reveal other bars or even opera staff desperately seeking the comfort of a roll-up and sanctuary from the divas inside.
Push against the boss and the heavy door heaves open. You’re hit by a wall of warmth, the buzz of conversation and you are bathed in a red carpet glow. The gallery before you stretches out and the shape and placement is almost like boarding a ship from the poop deck. There’s a twisting staircase to your left leading to the upper floor. Ahead a bric-a-brac of paintings and mirrors adorns the walls – ballet, portraits, opera, romance. The lighting is soft – given off by both lamps and chandeliers. Ceiling fans keep the place temperate. All the decor oozes a nostalgic charm. Contented humans fill the long floor space. It’s one of those rooms where you navigate through bodies with but an inch – often with foaming pints taking the lead like antlers through the herd. When you draw level with the bar, it’s under a canopy of pump clip shields that have accumulated over years. They overlap like iridescent scales and have taken up so much space it’s like there’s a psychedelic zeppelin moored permanently above the bar. It gets slightly bigger on each visit. The bar boasts ten gleaming hand pumps that dispense some of the best kept ale in London.
|A beer canopy|
This is one of the pubs I don’t seek to sit down in. There are several tables, wall shelves and many stools but my very favourite spot is directly facing the pumps with my back against the wall. It sounds odd but you’re probably in a line of people doing the same thing. This pub achieves a service feat I’ve yet to see equalled in any other pub – when a pump clip gets turned away – meaning the cask is empty; another clip will revolve 180 degrees from the very same beer engine within 10 minutes proclaiming a new beer! This means the line has been cleaned and the cask replaced. Though you don’t see the elves responsible below deck, it happens live like pit stop engineers tending to a formula 1 car. To a beer fanatic the changes become a spectator sport. My heart leaps when the clip reveals a brew from Thornbridge, Green Jack, Oakham, Crouch Vale, Whitstable or many others.
Watching the bar staff (many of which have been there for years) is like watching army medics calmly operating under heavy shelling. It’s also a great place to people watch. Many celebrities and MPs come here. I’ve seen Melvin Bragg, Tom Watson, Ben Bradshaw and I’m pretty sure I saw David Mitchell running outside to take a call on his mobile recently. You watch the pumps and you gaze at the aforementioned pump clip cloud, kaleidoscopic, heavy and pregnant as though ales of all hues are about to start pouring down with a clap of thunder. This is also where the number of humans reaches critical mass in the evenings – something that only enriches the conviviality.
There is another shore to this oasis and it’s upstairs. Up the narrow twisting stairs and past the broom closet toilets (the gents is in any case but it’s well tended), there is a very attractive space. It looks very much like a lounge in a theatre or opera house where people take drinks during the interval. More paintings on the wall add to that effect along with a leaflet stand for local attractions. There are a couple more ceiling fans and the low seating is plush. Deep leather armchairs congregate around small coffee tables. There is also now a running shelf that accommodates a row of stools along the wall. A window opens out onto the sounds of the west end. Inside though, it’s still and quiet. Elegant though this room is, if I’m alone, I prefer to be back downstairs in the thick of it. The two rooms are stylistically the same yet feel as though they could be in completely different buildings.
With regards to the beer range, it has consistently been one of the best outlets in London to get cask beer from the newest London breweries. It is part of the CAMRA Locale scheme. In recent years it always served Dark Star Hophead, Harvey’s Bitter and Sambrooks Junction. More recently, I’ve noticed that there is often a Palmers Brewery beer from Dorset on. Otherwise its constantly rotating guests come from every corner of the British Isles. Binnie Walsh, a London legend originally from Ireland is the woman responsible for turning this pub into the establishment it is today. She retired last year but there are still regular sightings of her prowling the joint.
The pub was recently bought by Fullers Brewery. The brewery hasn’t simply loaded the pumps with their own beers however, and considering the pub’s glowing reputation for variety is well minded not to. On my last visit, London Pride was on (where isn’t it?) along with Firecracker by Gales (it’s also in the Fullers’ portfolio). The rest were as varied as ever. Real cider and perry are sold too. There is also some craft keg coming into play – Kernel Brewery always has a tap. A good bottle list steadily grows though I’ve never wanted to deviate from the perfect condition of the cask beer to explore it. There are other pubs for that. This pub is cask.
Over the years I’ve had some very positive beer experiences in here. Here are some of the ones that stand out – not necessarily in chronological order:
Saltaire Brewery Cascadian Black – a beer which I found compelling at the time as red fruit in the body conflicted with the dry citrus hop character. There were notes of cranberry syrup cordial (like a popular French drink called Grenadine). I even picked up star anise. It was the collision of roasted dark malt, sweet fruit and the cascade hop that stuck in my mind.
Thornbridge Brewery Wild Swan – this sparkling glassful knocked me sideways. At the time it was my first encounter with the full force of new world hops. The ale was crisp, very pale and clean with a glowing white head. The hops were a grapefruit explosion. The malt a respectful custard crème acting just as the support act.
Clarkshaws Brewery Gorgon’s Alive – I’d tweeted to the brewery about how the body was like mineral water: lifted, vaulted with even a hint of sodium. They use burtonisation. The body still has a glorious toffee depth to it though. It was the first time I’d really appreciated how that can change a beer’s profile as, being a London brewer, the local water’s very soft. Accordingly, there was a mineral water quality to it from the gypsum salts.
Dark Star Brewery London Brick – this was a meal in itself. It poured a viscous body (6 % abv) with tastes of bitumen and ginger loaf. It was like chlorophyll versus unctuous malt sweetness and was the same dark red as its eponymous tile.
There are fantastic new places opening on a monthly basis in the capital and I try and seek out as many as I can. Even though more and more bars are run and staffed by beer fanatics and the quality and variety of beers out there becomes giddying, this pub predates that boom and is still my favourite.
The staff team is attentive and toil professionally at the coalface during serious crowd heat. You’re served quickly, warmly and considering it’s in the west end – at very reasonable prices. The hospitality and service is second to none and despite its recent takeover, the original members – bar Binnie Walsh – are still there. It’s truly a super magnet that bends the roads and alleys around it so they all lead to its back door. I feel it had a part in bringing me up.
Within metres nearby are the Crypt of St Martin in the Fields, Trafalgar Square, the Strand, the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery as well as dozens of theatres. However, when I’m in London my way of thinking is this: the best thing about this pub isn’t its proximity to them, the best thing about them is their proximity to this hallowed bastion. By the way, it’s called the Harp.