The deserts of the central west

Well, the WC1 postal district is not quite a desert but there were plenty of deserted streets; never before have I been able to stand in the middle of some major thoroughfares to take photos and not get run over as was the case pre-lockdown. Furthermore, the lack of traffic and people gives you a real opportunity to see the beauty of some of London’s buildings, particularly the pubs.

COVID-19 has clearly taken its toll but like a green spring, shoots are beginning to show, although another lockdown will be like an early frost so it is beholden on all of us to abide by the guidelines, even if they seem a bit bureaucratic at times.

Although there are pubs open in WC1, the cultivation is patchy. Greene King and Young’s have taken the plunge in opening their pubs even though income may not outweigh expenditure. All credit to them. They are clearly there for the long term. Sadly, it was not all positive. There were plenty of boarded up pubs and others where, staring in the window, you could see that the fixtures and fittings had been stripped out, which does not bode well.

Wandering around, what was striking was how welcoming all the staff were and how much the customers who were in the pubs wanted to chat. This whole experience reinforces the belief that pubs bring a solution to social interaction like nothing else. What was also noticeable was how much effort the pubs that had opened had taken to keep customers safe. For them to stay open however, they need our custom. So, if you are nervous about going out, WC1 on a weekday afternoon could just provide you with that toe in the water experience. Here is a small pub crawl for your paddle.

Start at the ornate Museum Tavern, which might be one of the busier pubs because it is opposite the British Museum and reopened at August Bank Holiday weekend. As a member of staff said, although they have usually relied on tourists, they were thankful to the number of locals who had popped in and were enthusiastic (an understatement) to see the pub open again. Instead of their usual fine selection of guest beers which usually complement the Greene King beers, the range was confined to two from the latter, reflecting the current low footfall.

A short walk away in Herbrand Street is another Greene King pub, the Friend at Hand. It too had a reduced range with just two GK beers. It’s a lovely looking corner pub overlooking the Horse Hospital with some outside seating. ‘Trade is slow but improving. The Eat Out scheme has really been positive. We have had no problems whatsoever – people are behaving nicely’ were the comments from behind the bar.

Next a visit to a Good Beer Guide pub, the Swan in Cosmo Place which is another Greene King pub. Chatting to the landlady whilst sitting on the sheltered patio, she too sang the praises of the Eat Out to Help Out (EOTHO) scheme. “Sorry the cask range isn’t up to our usual standard but we will increase it as custom increases”, she reflected, pointing to the two handpumps with Abbot and Green King IPA. “But custom has been better than expected”, she added.

Just a few doors down is the tiny Queen’s Larder, which looks as if they have extended their outside seating. With four beers on (Fuller’s London Pride, Timothy Taylor’s Landlord and two Greene King beers), this provides an alternative drop-in point on the way to the Lamb.

The iconic Lamb, with its historic snob screens, is in Lamb Conduit Street and is owned by Young’s. Inside, a lot of the seating has been removed to meet the need for social distancing but the pub applied for outside seating at the front and this now complements the seating in the walled area at the rear of the pub (my favourite spot in summer). Their experience of reopening was, ‘Not bad and we got an initial burst from EOTHO. But most of our regulars are office people who are not yet back’.

Our final pub was the long standing Good Beer Guide entry, the Calthorpe Arms in Gray’s Inn Road (Young’s). Inside, large plastic sheets provide screens across the pub and seating has been reduced. The outside seating has however proved helpful in the warm weather. The landlord,
Adrian, commented, “We have been really lucky as ITN, along the road, has been operating throughout and they are bringing in business. This has meant that we have been able to extend our food offering to five days a week.”

There is no doubt that central London pubs are suffering and if ever there is a time to visit them, it’s now. You will be welcomed with open (socially distanced) arms.

For other pubs nearby (and pictures of some that haven’t opened at the time of writing, which was the last week of August), go here.
Christine Cryne