Yesterday morning was spent doing jobs around the flat, so I didn't set off until half past two for my chosen destination for an afternoon libation. Hopping on the 40 bus from Algate, my destination was the Charles Dickens in Union St, SE1. This is apparently, that rare beast in London, a genuine free house, selling a range of micro brewed beer. It wasn't that easy though. I'd looked on the map beforehand and wasn't too sure where to get off the bus, but jumped off roughly where I thought I should be. As it happened, it was outside Southwark Police Station, so I nipped in, being of a generation that asks a policeman. There was no-one else there and the helpful civilian behind the desk got his A-Z out and directed me 300 yards left and then it'd be on my left. That took me to an enormous gyratory, with no sign of Union St. I took the simple course and gave up, for the time being at least.
Of course, being a veteran of such setbacks, I had a plan B. That was to visit Harvey's only London tied house, the Royal Oak in nearby Tabard St. This is a pub I've been meaning to go to for some time, so this was my chance. What a cracking pub. It feels like a genuine old style boozer, with a circular bar serving a back room and a snug as well as the neat public bar I was in. Lots of wood and old pictures etc. Pretty damn fine in my opinion. It was fairly empty with four or so regulars chatting away to the barmaid about this and that. What of the beer I hear you say, no doubt by now tired of the whole thing? Well it was Harvey's and none the worse for that. Perfectly drinkable, with that distinct Harvey's house yeast giving it an appetising spicy smack. A pretty full range was on and I tried then all. For the record they were: Mild, Knots of May, Pale, Bitter, Copperwheat and a golden ale, the name of which escapes me, but in any event was vinegar and was exchanged with very good grace. All were decent, all slightly on the warm side and slightly lacking in condition, though in fairness the pub was empty and the beer may well have been sitting in the lines. I probably liked the Copperwheat best as it simply had more about it, the wheat adding an extra dimension, as in truth the rest just tasted like tweaks of each other, such is the dominance of that very distinctive yeast. An honourable mention must also go to Knots of May, a light mild of some poise that I could have drunk more of.
As I chatted to the regulars, I was pointed in the correct direction of the Charles Dickens which was, needless to say, entirely in the opposite direction to that indicated by the cop shop. I left the Royal Oak with a degree of reluctance. I'll be back.
The Charles Dickens is about a half mile off Borough High Street. It isn't exactly charming, being quite dark and gloomy inside, but it is attractive enough, very clean with cheerful bar staff, has some nice pictures on the wall and seems to bring in a good cross section of customers. All good. But it is the ale that is the draw here. Six handpumps dispense beer from small brewers on an ever changing basis. On my visit there were beers from Slaters, Twickenham, Hogsback, Nethergate, Oakleaf and Cottage. In the way of London free houses, all but the Oakleaf were either very brown or in the case of the Twickenham very black. All were in perfect condition and served at a good cellar temperature. Top marks for this. Other London pubs please copy. I tried the Oakleaf "I Can't Believe it's not Bitter", a cask conditioned lager, which just tasted like a not very well executed golden ale. The Summer Beer from Hogsback was, bizarrely, brown, mostly malty with a touch of bitter hops. I really can't understand the thought processes here. Did the brewer really sit down and say to himself "I'll brew a refreshing summer beer. It will be brown and malty because that's just the dab on a hot summer's day!" Well he must have because that's what he produced. The Cottage Broadguage was copper brown and described as a "session ale". All I'd say to that is you're a better man than me if you could do a session on this sticky malt monster. I could have drunk a few pints of the Twickenham Gothick Dark which was roasty, caramel and bitter with a very good body to back it up. A very well made beer. Time was against me, so the Slaters and Nethergate went untried. This is another fine pub that I'll return to. Two in one afternoon (in London anyway) is a bit of a result.
As I was finishing off my drink, I remarked to the helpful barmaid that I was surprised to find only one pale beer out of six. She mentioned that a pale beer was coming on later. "Had I ever had Top Totty?" she enquired. I was able to answer her truthfully that indeed I have.
The Royal Oak is at 44 Tabard St SEI and the Charles Dickens is 160 Union St SE1. Both are Good Beer Guide entries.
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