Home Beer How to find decent cask ale while amusing kids in London

How to find decent cask ale while amusing kids in London

CATEGORIES: Beer   International Feature   Travel  

A pint of cask ale in a London pub

Photo by Joe Stange

Perhaps my proudest moment as a father came during our recent trip to London, on our last day there—New Year’s Day, in fact. In front of solemn, inspiring Westminster Abbey, my 7-year-old son turned to me and said, “Daddy, can we go to a pub now?”

My eyes moistened. We embraced. “I love you, son,” I said. Then we left to find ale, hot cocoa and meat pies.

We brought the kids there for six days after Christmas. It was a family trip: Harry Potter, castles and museums were higher on our priority list than pubs. But, wouldn’t you know it, we went to pubs. They are utterly useful when faces are cold, feet are tired and mouths are thirsty.

There are a couple of things to know about London, if you go as a beer-preoccupied traveler—with or without kids. The first is that London is pricey. No way around that. On the bright side, the exchange rate is better for Americans than it’s been in years. The missus and I suffered nearly $2 per pound a decade ago. Today the rate is $1.26.

So a typical London pint is going to run you about $5 (bear in mind, an imperial pint is more than 19 U.S. ounces). Prices are lower once you leave the capital. It’s not bad value, given today’s exchange rates (though it’s unclear how Brexit and the policies of our new administrations will have on the relative strength of our currencies, long term.)

Point is, we used the exchange rate to rationalize an expensive family trip. So can you!

Photo by Joe Stange

The other thing to know is that cask ale in London is a crapshoot, in terms of quality. My take on that, based on sporadic experience, is that cask ale anywhere is a crapshoot … unless you do your homework. For that matter, why limit the assertion to cask? Sampling novelty beers from new breweries—and there are many of those, in London—is a dicey prospect no matter where you are, no matter how the beer is poured.

The trick is to know where to go. Six days in London, I never had a bad pint—and yes, I do know what those taste like. Thing is, I did my homework. And the homework was easy.

We relied mainly on the Good Beer Guide, published by the Campaign for Real Ale. We supplemented it with the Good Pub Guide, less preoccupied by “real ale” and more attuned to atmosphere. I chose those two because I knew our pub time was limited, and I was more interested in cask ale and atmosphere than the clever sort of craft beers that can be found anywhere these days. Both guides have easy-to-use apps, if you don’t want to carry books.

Other handy resources that I’ve used in the past include London’s Best Beer, Pubs and Bars, the unrelated London Beer and Pub Guide website, and the Craft Beer London app. All have their own strengths.

Another trick: Fuller’s pubs tend to have well trained staff who know what they’re doing in the cellar and behind the bar. Know where they are and take advantage when convenient.

Here is where we wound up:

DSC_0096Railway Tavern Ale House was the nearest worthy one near the flat we rented in Stoke-Newington, north London. On the evening of Boxing Day we walked here in chilly darkness to find a friendly welcome and crackling fireplace near the Christmas tree. Not long ago, brown ales and porters were—despite their U.S. popularity—scarce in Britain. I had a pint of each here, brewed by nearby Five Points, while the missus enjoyed her kegged IPA. The kitchen was shut for the holiday, so we ordered pizza to the pub while the kids played cards. A fond memory.

Parcel Yard at King’s Cross Station kept the railway theme going. We came here after the kids saw Platform 9¾ and picked out souvenirs, enjoying bitters and juices and pork scratchings. This bustling, sprawling Fuller’s pub is just up the steps from where a horde of tourist waits to have their photos taken at the platform from which Harry Potter left for school. My son kept his wand in his coat pocket the rest of the week, careful not to point it at strangers.

Mother Kelly’s has no cask ale but is one of the better known beer bars in the city. We came because it was a convenient place to meet. It’s not the coziest spot but I noticed that there were other kids there. We appreciated the pitchers of sparkling water. Earlier that day we waited in line out in the cold for two hours to see the goddamn dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum. Everything else seemed warm after that. I drank something strong and dark and it was nice but I missed the handpumps.

Snooty Fox was another near our flat, with friendly people, locally brewed cask ale, good snacks from the open kitchen, and a jukebox. It struck me as a great local to have around. There were other kids there too. I enjoyed a pint of dry, lemony, 3.5%-strength Mary Jane from Ilkley of Yorkshire. “More please,” my notes say.

Photo by Joe Stange

Slug and Lettuce is a chain of more than 70 pubs across Britain. Not our first choice but it was handy while waiting to get into the Star Wars Identities exhibition at the O2 Arena. The pint of London Pride was bright, tasty, and most welcome after marching the kids all the way around the North Greenwich peninsula.

The Gun is just across the Thames from there, though it took some tubing and walking to reach it. (Too cold to swim.) We started with a drink by the waterside before moving indoors by the fire for dinner, a highlight of our week. The sausage roll was enormous. This is also where my infatuation with Fuller’s Oliver’s Island began. I thought it smelled like elderflower honey. I wish I had one right now.

The George is a famous one, and it was even before Pete Brown wrote about it. We earned this one after a day exploring the Tower of London, then walking the length of Southwark hunting for decent curry. It’s a Greene King pub though, and that means bland, if well kept and drinkable. The ambiance more than made up for it. Wouldn’t you know it? There was a table by the fireplace again. We had good luck with that all week.

Royal Oak in Southwark is one I insisted on, since I hadn’t been before. Its old-fashioned yet unpretentious atmosphere is well known; the bar divides the pub in half, plus there is a window on the end to buy beer to go. It’s an outlet for Harvey’s—the Sussex Best a favorite among many of us who favor boring brown bitter (neither boring nor brown nor especially bitter, but never mind). The 3%-strength Dark Mild became a new friend on this night. I look forward to becoming more intimate one day, with the beer and with the pub. Without the kids next time, and for longer.

Sanctuary House is the one we visited in Westminster on our last day because the kids asked so nicely. As a Fuller’s pub with hotel attached (or vice versa) it opens early (7 a.m.) for breakfast and has a kids menu. The kitchen specialty is savory pies; we shared a tasting board of them while I got reacquainted with Oliver’s Island. Unreal location near Big Ben and such, if you need to tick off that tourism. I’d stay here if I had the budget for it.

A final dad tip: Invest liberally in card games and art supplies. Keep them in your pack, in there among all the guidebooks.


Joe Stange is the author of Around Brussels in 80 Beers and co-author of Good Beer Guide Belgium. Follow him on Twitter @Thirsty_Pilgrim.


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