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Mar 042012
 

Matt Haynes

There is, Doctor Johnson once observed, no more agreeable a place for an Englishman to unexpectedly find himself stuck than within the four sturdy walls of a well-kept public house: “Sir, give a man a pint of strong dark ale, an audience of keen-witted peers, and the promise of a plump and willing wench at the end of the evening, and a simple and profound contentment will be his.” To which his new young acolyte Boswell responded that, with all due respect, the good doctor really had to stop treating women as if they were lumps of cheese, as this wasn’t the seventeenth century, and that the thirty minutes his esteemed companion had lately spent outside Merriman’s chop house clumsily pressing his suit on a somewhat inebriated flower girl before having to be forcibly extracted by two Bow Street Runners was now the talk of all the coffee shops.

Johnson, though, knew well of what he spoke; and, if he hadn’t been distracted by Boswell’s interruption, would doubtless have gone on to add that, on a hot afternoon, there is no better place for the aforementioned four sturdy walls to be located than beside a river; because, with a briny tincture of a seafaring past endlessly slopping about in his veins, a deep atavistic longing will always draw an Englishman to water.

For any true Londoner, of course, “water” means the Thames. And so it is that, since time immemorial, the more contemplative of the Cockney breed has found himself regularly minded to sit beside this wide muddy stream in order to silently – and sometimes also boisterously – reflect upon the relentless onward flood of history; and to perhaps be humbled by the thought that even those most unerodable metaphorical rocks in his city’s foundations – Gin Lane, the Great Exhibition, Danny Baker – will never, truth be told, cause more than minor eddies in the flow. And if his philosophical reverie can be aided by a little, ah, riparian imbibition, then so much the better; even if he does sometimes get so philosophical by closing time that he can no longer stand up.

The tradition of the Thames-side pub is, in short, something we Londoners should treasure. And I was reminded of this the other week, when I encountered an array of hoardings advertising the string of charmingly atmospheric riverside pubs owned by Young’s of Wandsworth. Erected by St George PLC, these hoardings aimed to entice the would-be sybarite with alluring montages of a classic English night out dahn the boozer – an appeal, essentially, to his or her sense of history. And the marketing people have clearly done their homework because – whether we’re real-ale buff, lager lout, or la-di-da quaffer of merlot – these images of multi-ethnic women in their twenties with fantastically glossy hair drinking brightly coloured drinks from oversized goblets which they find inexplicably hilarious are, without doubt, reassuringly familiar.

The time had come, I decided, to send Smoke’s distinguished Food and Drink critic, award-winning “Saucy” Jack Fiddler, on a fact-finding mission. His brief was simple: to investigate all Young’s riverside pubs between our Vauxhall office and the M25. And here’s his report, filed late last Saturday night from outside the Boathouse in Putney, which apparently has wi-fi.

THE RIVERSIDE

St George Wharf, Vauxhall

Behind Lloyds Pharmacy and the Tesco Metro lies an intricate web of narrow, deep-shadowed alleys. Occasionally opening into secluded piazzas overhung by glistening balconies, these silent pink-walled pathways clearly still adhere to some ancient medieval street plan; indeed, the many private courtyards, replete with gently bubbling fountains, have an almost monastic air. My companion remarks that it reminds her of Granada, where – unable to reach her hotel in the old town using sat-nav – she’d recently been forced to abandon her hired Fiat Punto in tears, along with the remainder of her holiday.

And, at the heart of this beguiling labyrinth, one eventually finds – no, not a minotaur, but the Riverside, one of London’s famous Thames-side inns. Maybe it will be easier to locate once they’ve finished the flats and taken the hoardings down.

Seeing us approaching the bar, a black-skirted member of staff tells us that, if we like, she can bring the drinks to our table. Charmed by this old-fashioned attempt to make us feel at home, my companion and I commandeer a pair of leather-effect wing chairs in front of a chunky wooden coffee table and, reinvigorated by two pints of Special, observe approvingly the high-backed booths, tall steel stools and deep brocaded sofas. The whole theme is, I conclude, a playful as-it-were “mishmash” of modern European and antique Albion that lends the bar an ambience of informal familiarity, though this may be because I recently caught a much-delayed plane from Heathrow’s fifth terminal and keep getting flashbacks – clearly, BAA’s designers supped from the same deep well of inspiration.

The floor-to-ceiling windows provide ample light in which to peruse the lunchtime menu. We decide to “go traditional”, ordering that trusty English standby, the shared Mediterranean platter with hummus, tzatziki, grilled flatbread and a shot of refreshing chilled tomato soup. Plus two more pints of Special to wash it down. The platter, when it arrives, is delicious, and artfully presented on an indented rustic plank which is almost certainly a witty reappropriation of the hand-carved playing board of some classic English bar game involving halfpennies and skittles, though my companion thinks she’s recently seen something similar in IKEA. Sadly, the flatbread proves somewhat minimaliste, so we splash out two pounds and five pence on a selection of artisan breads, four small slices of which arrive on another sturdy slab of pine along with a bowl of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Sadly there is no butter, but my companion and I agree the bread is definitely wholemeal.

We order two more pints of Special, and check our mapsh. Maps. Did I say Mapsh? Sorry.

THE WATERSIDE

The Boulevard, Chelsea Harbour

This hidden gem is also a little tricky to find, but you simply need to ignore any “residents only” and “valet parking” signs – luckily my companion and I are on foot, so the security barrier at the end of Townmead Road isn’t a problem (though designated drivers beware!) – and turn left down a wide paved mall with a most intriguing appellation: “The Boulevard”. With the Thames now visible ahead, this is clearly a droll Mediterranean reference. The Boulevard is lined with un-let shop units and what my companion waggishly calls “really small trees in big wooden boxes”.

“Ah oui,” I say, seized by l’esprit de la Côte, “les petites arbres dans les boîtes de bois.” [Note to subs: could you check the French spelling, please, I don’t want to look like an idiot!]

Finding the downstairs bar empty, we locate a surprised barman on the mezzanine and order two pints of Special. As we wait, we admire the reflections of giant flower-filled vases in even gianter mirrors. I ask my companion if that’s a word, “gianter”, but she doesn’t know. Sometimes, I don’t think she knows anything, despite all those books.

“And, look,” I point out, “they’ve got those chunky coffee table things like boxes on legs, with the pebbles and dried grass and stuff under the glass. It’s there, but you can’t touch it. Because of the glass.”

As we settle into the brocade, my companion observes approvingly over the sound of distant light jazz and chatter from the open-plan kitchen that, despite not lacking any 21st-century essentials such as over-sized white dinner plates and Rothko-esque wall prints in various shades of earth and ochre, the Waterside still provides traditional pub entertainment; today, this is silently scrolling updates from the Championship play-off final on Sky, and Blackpool have just gone 3-2 up against Cardiff City.

“Come on you tangerines,” I remark, possibly too loudly and belligerently, and with a probably unnecessary corollary that all people from Wales are over-familiar with the posterior passages of sheep. A black-skirted member of staff comes over and asks if everything is OK, and we ask for two more pints of Special. When she brings them my companion says, with only the faintest of hiccups but with some rather odd emphases, that we were merely adMIRing the décor, adding that she’s no interior… desIGNer but, honest to God, it wouldn’t look out of place in Habitat, it’s that good. The waitress replies politely that she’s been told it’s a melange of contemporary styles.

“Melons,” I say, winking at her in what, my companion informs me afterwards, loudly and in the middle of Wandsworth Bridge, is an unnecess… unnecess… is an unnecessarishly lashivious… civious… way, but she walks off and starts talking to someone with a teeny weeny beard who we think might be the manager so we go and sit outside under the umbrellas, only none of the other people there will tell us if the sheepshaggers have equalled… have equalised, despite this being Chelsea bloody Wharf and most of them actually being footballers, almost certainly. In fact, I’m pretty sure I see midfielder John Obi Mikel eating a flaked salmon and puy lentil salad at a neighbouring table, but when I tell my companion this she just says, “What, from Star Wars?”

And I’m just about to explain that shesh getting muddled with Obi Ken Whatsit when this great big bloody duck walks across the pavement, and I get all – what’s the word? Y’know. And then my companion says ’s a bloody goosh norra duck, though I know she’s just saying that to annoy me like she doesh. Does. Canada goosh, she says.

Then she points at John Obi-Wan Kenobi.

“Use the forks!” she shouts. He looks confused, staring down at his lentil fish stuff.

“She means forsh,” I say, moving towards him to apologise, cos you can’t go round shouting at people from Star Wars like that, even if they are Chelsea wankers, but I acshi… acshidentally stub my foot and knock his table over, pow, so we decide to go.

THE WATERFRONT

Juniper Drive, Battersea Reach

“Candelumbrum,” I say, waving my finger at my companion and then at the ceiling, “there’s candelumbrums, candelabras up there, with all those pendu… pendu…”

“Pendulums?” she says, adjusting her position on the high steel stool, and nearly falling off.

“ExSHACTly. Pendulous.” I gaze around the bar. They’ve got these big big BIG circular seating bits like you always get in English pubs, if I remember rightly, though I’m not sure I do. And big big BIG glass windows. That’s the cement works over there. On the other side. Of the water.

A black-skirted waitress brings two more pints of Special, which one of us must have ordered.

“You’re lovely,” I tell her, but my companion says no she fuckin’ AIN’T, pointing out that we’re AKshully having to pay more for these drunks, these drinks, to be delivered than what we would if we went to the bar, cos of service and capital gains tax and stuff.

“But,” I say, “if we go to the bar, we’ll need to stand up.”

She conshedes this is a valid point. ConCEDES.

“I like what they’ve done here, I say, with all the… chairs, and cushionsh… ’s like a contemporarish meringue.”

“MeNAGE.”

“’S what I said. A ménage à trois. Issa sort of postmodern hotchpotch. I like it here. D’you like it here? Issa bit like All Bar One, only empty. And with Peroni on tap. Tha’s like beer, only Italian.”

We both agree with each other that we like it in the Riverwaterfront, because it has beer and you can see the cement works, but we have some trouble leaving on account of all the doors looking like windows, and versa-vice. Vice-versa.

THE BOATHOUSE

Brewhouse Street, Putney

There’s women everywhere like in the pictures only they’re being LOUD and getting Pimm’s on tap so we go up further, up to the mezzanine where there’s EVEN MORE womens and my companion gigglesh and says “’smore like a lezzanine” and we both fall about cos isho funny and she can shay tha cos sheesh a girl and I’m norra girl… then… yeah, then we go way way up, way up to the top deck where there’s big floor window things and I point outside and say “boatsh” and she agrees and we order two pints of Shpecial I mean SPEshal and then because ish… because ish dinnertime… we want FOOD, and I say melons to start please, big PENDULOUS melonsh and then a postmodern hotpot with a sideboard no side-order of modern European mishmash and a contemporary meringue for afters please…

… and then I think I fall over but it might have been her. ’S definitely one of us, cos we’re different ways up. Tangereensh! Go tangereensh!

I like tangereensh.

Wezza food?

[This piece originally appeared in Smoke 16.]

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