London Pub Group: Belgravia SW1

Date: Saturday 28th September 2002

On Saturday 28 September the London Pubs Group did a pub crawl of Belgravia, SW1 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the original crawl that took place shortly after the formation of the group. As I used to work near Belgravia in the 1980s and used to drink in some of the pubs, I thought that it would be nice to come along and have a look at some old haunts of mine.

Belgravia is an up-market area of London and most of the pubs are small and expensive with most of their customers being locals and regulars rather than passing trade. They are mainly in side turnings and mews rather than the main thoroughfares and most of them date from the early to mid 19th century. Originally the pubs were intended for the workmen building the area and then the domestic servants working in the houses. The strict social hierarchy of the time led to the building of lots of small pubs instead of several large ones, so that different groups could drink in different pubs. Even though they are small, most of the pubs were multi-barred, although most of them have been converted to single bar pubs. Some of the pubs do retain distinct separate drinking areas though.

Those of you who know the area will notice that the route we took is not the most direct route and does double back on itself. This is because not all of the pubs are open all-day on a Saturday. One pub that does not appear to open at all on a Saturday is the Plumbers Arms in Lower Belgrave St, which I pass on the way to the starting pub. The Plumbers hit the headlines in November 1974 when Lady Lucan rushed in one night screaming that her children's nanny had been murdered. Another pub on the way to the start is the Rising Sun where I pop in for a quick half of Youngs Bitter for 1.08, which turned out to be the cheapest beer of the day.

The crawl starts in the Orange Brewery in Pimlico Road, a brewpub until this year. Currently Greene King IPA and Abbot are available and just before we leave a barrel of SW1, now brewed for the pub by McMullens, comes on. The current management did consider recommencing brewing on the premises but this is not now likely to happen.

The next pub is the Antelope in Eaton Terrace, a former Nicholsons pub now run by Six Continents. The beer range is the usual Six Continents one of Greene King IPA, London Pride and Adnams Bitter and I have a half of Adnams for 1.35. Built in 1830, the Antelope has many original features, including wood panelling and an oak floor. However some changes have been made and one of the party produces Ted Bruning's book of classic London pubs and we start comparing the current pub with the pictures in the book. Personally I believe that the alcove on the left of the pub in which we are sitting was not there in the eighties as I remember the whole wall on the left being full of old rugby memorabilia. There are still some memorabilia on the wall and the pub has its own cricket team.

There is another pub in Eaton Terrace, the Duke of Wellington, now a Shepherd Neame pub, so I pop in for a half of bitter. On the way to the next pub we should be passing two more pubs but the Lowndes Arms in Chesham Street is no longer there and glancing through the window of the Tattersalls Tavern in Knightsbridge Green I can't see any handpumps so I presume it is now keg. As the Tattersalls has also been refurbished in a modern wine bar style that I don't care for, I don't bother to go in and check.. (Since I wrote this I have been advised that the Lowndes Arms was closed in the late 1990s and rebuilt as residential accommodation.)

The next pub on the crawl is the Paxtons Head on Knightsbridge which, unlike the other pubs, is on a main road and so gets a lot of passing trade. Like the Antelope it is a former Nicholsons pub now run by Six Continents and has the same beer range with the addition of Youngs Bitter. The pub is built in the late Victorian gin palace style and was originally a hotel. The first floor is now a restaurant and the upper floors are now offices. Unfortunately the pub is too crowded to fully appreciate the architecture and fittings and I found the background music too loud for comfort. Perhaps it would be better to visit the pub earlier in the week when it might be less crowded.

As we head to the next pub we notice a police helicopter hovering ahead. No doubt this was observing the day's anti-war march rather than a CAMRA pub crawl. The next port of call is in Kinnerton Street, a small mews turning just off Knightsbridge which, according to the South West London guide, has four pubs. It would be a quiet backwater but for the helicopter overhead. The first pub we come to is the Wilton Arms, not officially on the crawl but as it is a Shepherd Neame pub a few of us decide to try it. I try a half of Late Red, an unusual beer with a sweet, almost sickly taste reminiscent of Fullers Red Fox and O'Hanlons Red. Although the beer is in good condition it is not really to my taste.

The next pub on the crawl is the Nag's Head, a very small pub with two distinct bar areas on different levels and a lot of memorabilia decorating the walls, giving it a somewhat cluttered look and feel. Three beers from Adnams are available: Bitter, Broadside and Fisherman. As I cannot recall having seen Fisherman in London before I try a half of it, which for some reason I don't particularly enjoy although it is difficult to find any thing particularly wrong with the beer. Perhaps my taste buds are still affected by the Late Red from the Wilton. One problem with small pubs is they do get crowded quickly if a few non-regular customers come along, so a few of us step outside - but unfortunately the helicopter is still overhead.

The other two pubs listed in the South West London guide are at the other end of the street but on arrival I find that the Horse and Groom has been converted to an office. The Turks Head is still there but seems to have become a bit smaller than the pub I remember from the eighties. It now sells Bass, London Pride and Youngs Bitter.

Fortunately the helicopter has gone as we head towards the next pub on the crawl, the Grenadier. This is a small pub, down an exclusive private mews, that must be one of the most difficult pubs to find in London. Courage Best and Old Speckled Hen and Charles Wells Bombardier are the normal beers on but the Bombardier has run out by the time we arrive. The pub was supposed to have been originally used by the Grenadier Guards as an officers' mess and is alleged to be haunted by the ghost of an officer who was caught cheating at cards. However the guide claims that this refers to an earlier nearby tavern called the Grenadier and that there have been three separate taverns of that name in the area. The pub has two dining areas at the back, lots of military memorabilia and a pewter bar counter dating back to 1837. Given the military connections of the pub it is somewhat ironic that the crawl has now been joined by an anti-war protester and that there are several others in the pub.

Leaving the Grenadier I wander back to Belgrave Square. On the south east side is a mews turning called Groom Place with a Shepherd Neame pub, the Horse and Groom but it was shut. Further round the Square brings me to Belgrave Mews West and the Star. The Star is an ever-present entry in the Good Beer Guide, former Evening Standard Pub of the Year and former Society for the Preservation of Beer from the Wood Pub of the Year. The latter award is commemorated by an inscribed society mirror on the left as you enter but I notice that it is no longer there. When I ask the landlady about it she is amazed that anyone knows about it but tells me that the mirror has only just been taken down and put away as the pub is being refurbished in early October. She assures me that the mirror will be returned to its rightful place after the refurbishment. (Since I wrote this article I have visited the Star again. The refurbishment has been completed with no apparent changes to the pub, just a general tidy up and the SPBW mirror has been restored to it rightful position.)

The Star has the full Fullers range, Chiswick, Honey Dew, Pride, and ESB, although no ESB was available on the night. This is probably just as well considering the amount we had already had to drink. Bottles of Worthington White Shield are also available.

By now we are rather behind schedule when we leave for the last pub of the evening, the Fox and Hounds in Passmore Street. This was a former Charrington's house that was the last pub in London and possibly the whole country not to have a spirits licence. Only beers and wines, including fortified wines, could be sold. The idea behind the concept of a beer and wine only licence is that by denying workers access to spirits some control could be kept over their drinking. However in the 1990s the pub was taken over by Youngs and in 1998 they obtained a spirits licence, although only a limited range of spirits are sold. They have also refurbished the pub in a light brown wine bar style that I don't care for. However all three Youngs beers are on.

By now the crawl is breaking up and people are heading home. On the way back to Victoria Station I pop in the pub opposite Victoria Coach station, but I can't remember its name or what beer I had.

Colin Price