Being a paid up CAMRA member I recently received an email from my local South East London branch about nominations for the branch Pub of the Year. Depressingly I had only been to one of the pubs on the shortlist, the excellent Park Tavern in Eltham. I had been meaning to visit the other pubs on the list and the email gave me the kick up the arse I needed to go out there and give them a go. Of course a single visit isn't enough to get a true feel for a pub and nominate it for the award, unless the place serves free pints of perfectly conditioned real ale served by dazzlingly beautiful bar staff in a opulent Grade II listed interior. But at least I could say I'd visited these pubs, and I get a blog post out of it as well.
First up was the Blythe Hill Tavern. I'd heard good things about this place but I'd never visited even though it's only a 30 minute bus ride from my house. This is probably because it involves going to Catford - an area that always seems to be on the brink of "gentrifying" but the hipsters and professionals just can't bring themselves to do it. The Blythe is a good looking traditional street corner boozer from the outside, and I gingerly went to one of the three entrances hoping I wouldn't have to face the locked door of shame. Luckily I chose wisely and walking in I was greeted by a small seating area and bar. Initial looks proved to be deceiving, as there was another room behind the bar and a further room around the corner, making the pub surprisingly spacious - and also explaining the numerous entrances.
Five ales were on offer including firm favourites Harveys Best and Dark Star Hophead. I went for Whitstable Centinneal, a single hop beer which was very pleasant. I took a seat next to a telly showing the (Irish) horse racing, and was amused by the posters advocating temperance dotted above the bar. The pub was very quiet with only three other punters in - but it was a Thursday lunchtime, or perhaps those temperance posters did have an effect. The beer was good, the pub was good and I imagine on a Friday evening quite an atmosphere gets going. A decent boozer.
Next up was a pub that wasn't up for nomination, but as it has received a lot of good buzz and was nearby I thought it rude not to drop in. The London Beer Dispensary is the tap for trendy brewery Late Knights. Even though I knew that this place didn't have a traditional "bar" I was still amused by the set up. In one corner of the pub there is a wall with some handpumps, a barrel with a keg dispensary stuck on top and a rack with some cask ales lined up. This is all out in the open, so you walk up, the friendly bar staff pours a beer for you - as this place is "on trend" only jugs are available - and you enjoy the beer. I went for a Late Knights Penge Porter which was really rather good, but unfortunately the keg delivery meant it was served far too cold. After a few minutes to settle the pleasant mocha and chocolate flavours starting coming through a treat. I also enjoyed a half of Crack of Dawn, also from Late Knights, which was on cask and was very good - an easy drinking, hoppy pale ale.
The place had the feel of a craft beer take on the micropub - with the focus on ale and the tables close to each other to encourage conversation it shared some of the same ethos. A food menu of burgers and, inevitably, pulled pork was available, plus some bar snacks. Sadly they were out of black pudding pork pies. A second room at the back of the bar was done up like a posh living room, complete with stately leather sofas, and an impressive fireplace with a stags head looming above. The cheery staff made me feel welcome, and overall I was impressed with the place, although I imagine it gets a bit cramped on a busy evening.
My final stop on this mini pub tour was the one I was looking forward to the most, a pub with a heart-warming history and a splendid interior. The Ivy House is a barn of a pub nestled in a residential area of Peckham. Walking in you're first greeted by a small room with cosy furnishing and a serving area in the corner. Walk through the doors at the back though and you enter a much larger, and very impressive, main room complete with a stage. The fit out is very plush, all deep dark woods, and the stage area is very ornate. It looks absolutely fantastic. Being a pub in a rapidly improving area of London it was due to be converted to flats but thankfully a local campaign managed to secure around a million quid in funding and it was bought by the residents of the area. It is now run as a co-operative. A wonderful story for a wonderful building.
The beer selection was top notch with a good collection of traditional ales and more crafty selections as well. I enjoyed half of Cottage Brewery Aphrodite, a straightforward pale ale. The pub does food as well, a small menu with pretty much every pub classic represented - pies, fish and chips and so on. I went for the bangers and mash and they were superb, three plump meaty sausages on a creamy mash bed. Great stuff.
A couple of days later I paid a visit to the final pub on the nomination list, The Fox on The Hill. This is a very large Wetherspoons in leafy Denmark Hill. The first thing that struck me was the impressive size of the garden, and it was packed with drinkers doing the traditional British thing when the sun comes out for the first time in months - sitting outside and enjoying a beer even if the weather is actually a bit chilly. Inside the pub is split into several large rooms, with a L-shaped bar dishing out drinks to thirsty punters.
I had a few beers here, for research purposes of course, and also because the beer is keenly priced thanks to it being a Spoons. Clarence and Fredericks Cascadian Black was a highlight, a "Black IPA" that maintained the malty goodness of a stout with the hoppy madness of an IPA, a very solid effort, and a steal at £1.75 a pint after using my CAMRA 50p off voucher. I also enjoyed Wettons Golden Taff, a crisp pale ale from Wales that had a very pleasurable dry finish. Spoons full "craftwork" offering was available, and I enjoyed a Sixpoint Bengali with my chicken burger. You can't really complain about getting a well made 6.5% IPA free with a meal. I gave the Devils Backbone IPA a try as well, a good interpretation of the classic American IPA by the Banks Brewery.
I enjoyed my time at all the nominated pubs, and to be honest it would be difficult to pick a winner. They're all cosy, welcoming boozers that are an asset to the community they serve. Definitely worth popping into them if you're nearby, and The Ivy House is worth a special trip for the amazing interior alone.