By Andrea Kirkby
Hampstead and Highgate are both set high above the Thames basin – so it’s all uphill from Central London. That’s my excuse for needing a pint of beer when I get there, though I usually use the Northern Line rather than my feet!
Both these areas were villages quite separate from London right up to the nineteenth century, and retain much of their village feel, so it’s not surprising there are some historic pubs with a definite flavour of the past. For instance there’s The Flask on Highgate West Hill. Highwayman Dick Turpin is said to have hidden in the cellar and both the rollicking painter William Hogarth and more studious political philosopher Karl Marx (buried up the road in Highgate Cemetery) drank here.
The Flask was known for an ancient ceremony, the ‘Swearing on the Horns’; actually, it wasn’t a Saxon rite but rather an 18th century tourist trap, involving the initiate taking an oath of commitment to debauchery and merriment. I’m told the ceremony is still held occasionally, though I have no idea how you find out when the next one will be (short of visiting the pub).
Now if you’ve sworn on the horns and had a couple of pints of Fuller’s, that being the local tipple, you can easily get your Flasks confused. There’s a Hampstead Flask too, which used to be known as the Lower Flask while the Highgate version was known as the Upper Flask. This pub has had a controversial makeover but the ‘public’* remains much the way it always was, with fine panels of decorated glass. The pub now serves beers from local micro Sambrooks as well as from Youngs.
Hampstead’s prosperity began in the eighteenth century when it was discovered that the waters of Hampstead Wells, though tasting foul, were rich in iron and good for the health (probably one reason the tubercular Keats moved here; the air was healthier than the fetid smog of the valley too). The Flask was actually built on the site of the Thatched House, which originally sold the spring water (I have to say I’d rather have a pint of Winter Warmer than the bad-eggy chalybeate spring-water any day!).
Music-hall fans will know Florie Ford’s song ‘Down at the Old Bull and Bush’. The old coaching in on North End Way is still there, but it’s been modernised so let’s move on.
Hampstead Heath was a wild place up to the eighteenth century, with highwaymen and footpads lurking as well as Londoners taking the air. The Spaniards Inn dates all the way back to 1585 and though it would be easy for it to become a tourist trap serving fizzy keg lager, it actually serves a decent selection of real ales. It’s a tollgate inn – the toll-house is opposite – which marked the border between Hampstead and Finchley. Inside, it’s all low ceilings and wooden beams, very picturesque; Dickens’s Mr Pickwick came here – I sometimes think there aren’t many pubs Mr Pickwick didn’t visit – but Bram Stoker also mentions it in Dracula and on a winter evening when the sun has gone down by four in the afternoon, it can be a bit spooky, though the real danger is the busy traffic outside.
Avoid it on a summer weekend as it is likely to be too busy for comfort. Head up here midweek if you have a day off and it’s much more relaxed.
What do think of the idea of a pub with no alcohol? The Clifton in St John’s Wood features a huge etched mirror proudly displaying the legend ‘Assirati’s Temperance Bar’ – probably from Wales where many Italian families ran non-alcohol establishments selling drinks such as dandelion and burdock or Vimto. Fortunately you can get a pint in the ‘Clifton Hotel’. The ‘hotel’ monicker comes from the days when Edward VII used to meet actress Lilly Langtry here (royalty does not go to the ‘pub’), and it’s got a marvellous Edwardian feel, with rich colours and old lamps (if you do fancy a drink in a real luxury boutique hotel with a Royal feel then I’d recommend a pint in the Palace Lounge at The Rubens opposite Buckingham Palace’s Royal Mews).
Another decorative pub is the White Horse, a little corner pub dating back to 1827. Fine bar panelling, floor tiles and stained glass make it a little jewel of the pub trade, and it has Thai food as well as real ale.
However my favourite pub in the area, Crocker’s Folly in Maida Vale, is unfortunately now closed and cuts a very sad figure. Officially, it was the Crown, a palatial pub with two bars, a grand saloon and a billiard room, built by Mr Crocker who thought the railway was going to terminate here and he would own the station pub. In the end, the station was built at Marylebone instead, while the expected business never materialised and Crocker went bust and jumped out of an upstairs window to his death.
It’s been boarded up for a while but even so, it’s a spectacle worth seeing. It’s on The Victorian Society‘s top ten endangered buildings list; let’s hope someone makes it a going concern again soon.
* Note for non-Brits; traditional pubs were divided into a ‘public’ bar for the proles, and a ‘saloon’ or ‘lounge’ bar for the better sort. The ‘public’ might have a wooden floor, spit and sawdust; the ‘lounge’ might have a carpet and more comfortable seating than wooden benches or stools. The division of class has largely disappeared, but you’ll still often see signs for the two separate bars and they often retain quite distinct atmospheres.