I can’t really call what we did a ‘pub crawl’. That usually requires one or more people drinking in multiple bars in a single night, and shuttling/stumbling/crawling (probably in that order) between the pubs as the night grows old. My effort to sample the best historic maritime drinking establishments along the River Thames had a higher purpose than simply getting blasted.
I was doing some serious journalistic research for an upcoming article that I’ve titled, Fluid London. The plan was to roughly follow a small section of the Thames Path, a national hiking trail that meanders 184 miles from its source in the Cotswolds, through London’s throbbing urbanscape and finishing at the Thames Barrier in Greenwich. Without pub crawl requirements, I took my time—five pubs in three days along the Thames Path—and absorbed the historical ambiance as well as well as a few pints of smooth, hand-crafted English ales.
First stop was the curiously named Town of Ramsgate. This long, narrow pub is located next to the Wapping Old Stairs, an aged stone passageway where Ramsgate fishermen used to sell their catch of cod, mackerel and eel. But the drinking establishment was also a place where convicts and crooks were pressed into service for voyages to the American colonies. The Town of Ramsgate sits in the shadows of the dreaded Execution Dock where Captain Kidd and other pirates were unceremoniously hanged by the neck. Head out to the bar’s lengthy riverside balcony and you will see a noose hanging from the rafters, a gentle reminder not to misbehave like a rogue.
The first day also included a visit to the nearby Prospect of Whitby, named after an old sailing ship. It claims to be the river’s oldest tavern dating back to 1520. The Prospect was a bawdy meeting place for sailors, smugglers and thugs during Britain’s golden age of sailing. Sir Hugh Willoughby, an early Arctic explorer, sailed from here in 1533 in a disastrous attempt to discover the Northeast Passage to China. Willoughby never returned alive. All that remains of the original tavern is the 400 year-old stone floor. But sipping on a cool Doom Bar Ale here while gazing out onto the Thames, it was easy for me to conjure up the maritime past of this grand old pub.
Day Two entailed long tube rides upstream to the far west London suburb of Chiswick. We finally arrived at the cozy City Barge. Built in 1484, the pub was then called the Navigator Arms where boat builders, ferrymen and farriers gathered for centuries. The old bar was bombed by the Nazis during the Battle of Britain, but was carefully rebuilt retaining its true character. The Thames changes at this picturesque shore called Strand on the Green. It’s a kicked back view where customers enjoy the wildlife on nearby Oliver’s Island or a sweating rowing team as they grunt and glide through the brown water. It was at The Barge where the Beatles were filmed for the movie, Help!
Help is what we needed getting to the next pub, the Bricklayer’s Arms in downtown Putney. A series of buses finally delivered us there and what a delight. The pub is not that old, opening its doors in 1826. Formerly called the Waterman’s Arms, this rugged watering hole of beam and brick quenched the thirsts of watermen, those who ferried people and goods across the Thames. They were joined by lightermen, beefy dock workers, who unloaded the cargo brought from British Empire ports from around the globe. Today, it is a tranquil spot to drink beer and view the historic photos of maritime folk who once stood at the same bar. I chose a Titanic Nautical Ale, full with smoky malt and burnt sugar flavors. Then I attempted to play a game of 9-pin, a skittle game where you swing a weight connected to a string and attempt to flatten the 9 pins set up vertically on a wooden board. You get three attempts to clear the deck. I soon learned that more Titanic Nautical would be needed to improve my accuracy.
The last day was spent at the Mayflower pub. It was here that Captain Christopher Jones selected his crew of local mariners and departed with the Pilgrim Fathers to Massachusetts. A pub has been on this spot in continuous operation for over 400 years and it still sports thick black beams, deep red walls and planked floors that squeak like the deck of a wooden ship from yesteryear. I couldn’t resists having a Mayflower Scurvy Ale brewed at the Greene King Brewery in Suffolk. The food was so good here we returned a second time to dine on fish & chips, grilled tuna and Sheppard’s pie.
Captain Christopher Jones returned to London after delivering the Pilgrims to America. During that epic voyage, Jones lost his boatswain, his gunner, three quartermasters, the cook, and more than a dozen sailors due to the same nasty illnesses that plague the Pilgrims. The captain’s health was also badly undermined. He died the next year and was laid to rest in the Saint Mary’s churchyard across from the pub. I plan to visit the grave of Captain Christopher Jones on my next trip to London. And afterwards, I will lift a pint at the Mayflower in his honor.