One of the things that I have always loved so much about my London – the city I grew up and lived in until almost three years ago is the pubs. A proper old British boozer is like an extension of your living room: warm, inviting and cozy. In the South-West London town of Putney, which is where I lived until I moved to California, there is a gem called the Bricklayer’s Arms. I lived in Putney for five years, but only discovered this beauty around three years into my time there; given my love of trying out new pubs and discovering new ales, taking this long to experience it was rather surprising. A good friend and I would meet up roughly once a month for a catchup and a few beers, and we would aim to seek out a pub we’d never been in before: one could live to a ripe old age in London, and still not set foot in many of its fine drinking establishments. But this is one of the charms of the Bricklayer’s Arms. Tucked away on a side street next to a council housing estate, with no other commercial establishments nearby, it really is the kind of place you’d be lucky to find unless you knew it was there.
When I first heard about the Bricklayer’s Arms I wasn’t actually in London at the time as I was some two hundred miles away visiting my family in a tiny village in the Devonshire countryside. I had gone to meet my brother at the hotel he worked at and was sat at the bar waiting for him to finish his shift, when one of the locals started up a conversation with me (that’s how it is in the countryside). He was a grizzled old man with the classic rolling Devon accent, a shock of wild white hair and huge white bushy eyebrows. He was wearing a fishing vest as the Fox and Hounds Hotel is a haunt for local trout fishermen. He sprinkled tobacco from a pouch sat in a pocket of his fishing vest as he asked where I lived in London. I told him that I live in Putney and he loudly exclaimed “So you must know The Bricklayer’s Arms, then!”. I told him that I didn’t, and that I thought I’d gone to all of the pubs of note in Putney.
“Oh, you must go!” he said, “Especially,” he gestured at the pint of Tribute in my hand, “As you clearly appreciate proper beer”. He rolled his cigarette and licked the paper to seal it.
I supped from my pint, pleased that he recognized my appreciation of real ale. As if in response he said “The variety of real ales at the Bricklayer’s Arms is bloody marvelous, boy. And they have this wonderful real ale festival there every year.”. He stopped to drain his pint of what looked like Doom Bar (like the Tribute I was drinking, a fantastic Cornish beer), and gave a nod to the barman who took the empty glass and then proceeded to pull him another one. “I can’t believe you’ve never been there!”. I assured him that I would head there the moment I was back in London. The barman handed him his pint.
“Make sure you do!” he said as he clapped me on the shoulder with the hand holding the cigarette, sprinkling tobacco on my shirt, his other hand holding the pint of beer that he amazingly managed to avoid spilling as he turned and headed outside to enjoy a smoke.
Before long the Bricklayer’s Arms had become my favorite pub in London. When people visited from out of town I’d take them there, and any kind of social event that happened in Putney would invariably start with a couple of jars of ale in the Bricklayer’s. My bachelor night was a Putney pub crawl and I insisted that it start at my favorite pub. Being lucky enough to have a job that allowed me to work from home quite often meant that I’d head in there with my laptop to, er, ‘work’. There were evenings when I would go there alone to find a quiet corner to write in. The pub’s charms were many. Dark wooden beams rose up to a low vaulted ceiling, with cream-white plaster in-between the beams. All around the walls were posters for the annual Real Ale Festival and each one was designed in a style that suggested a rustic Britain from a bygone age, with anthropomorphic animals in costumes of yesteryear holding pints of beer; each year had a different animal – a badger, a fox, a duck, all British woodland animals. In the winter, my friend and I would always head to the fireplace where there were two leather wingback chairs; drinking a winter ale from a handled beer glass as we watched the flaming logs whilst sitting in the comfort of those wonderful seats was incredibly satisfying, like slipping on a pair of comfortable old slippers (I think we might even have floated the idea of bringing some slippers in with us some time). On one side of the room, there was a table skittles set that was always in use – it’s so rare these days to find a pub that has classic pub games, particularly with the trendy bars and chain pubs that are popping up in place of traditional pubs at an alarming rate. On the first visit to the Bricklayer’s, upon producing a bank card to pay for our drinks, my friend and I were politely – apologetically – informed that they only take cash. This would normally be an annoyance but in this place, with its old-world ambience, it made it even more charming.
The smell of the place . . . I wonder if I’ll ever smell it again, and so be transported back there. In the colder months, the dominant smell was the wonderful fire scent. During the summer, the perfume of honeysuckle that grew in the pub garden would waft in through the open back door, often accompanied with the hoppy smell from the used beer kegs and casks that were stacked up for collection outside.
But the best part was the beer pumps and taps. I have never been in a pub that had so many different real ales on tap – fourteen gleaming metal and wood pumps stood all along the top of the bar, ready to dispense the glorious ale that they served. There was always a beer I had never tried, and I would always go for that one. I’d switched from drinking bland lager to real ale about six years before finding the Bricklayer’s Arms, and I was happily enjoying the larger and more interesting world of real ale. They always have the best names – like Hobgoblin, Bishop’s Finger, Fursty Ferret, Gandalf’s Beard, Hobbit’s Elbow, Athena’s Nostril (ok, I made those last three up) – as well as lower alcohol percentage (always good) and a far more interesting taste. And so, stepping into the Bricklayer’s Arms and seeing the variety of beers on offer was pretty fantastic. They did have some of the standard Foster’s et al, but the clientele in the pub all seemed to be sampling the finer beers. I loved those people – they were all so interesting, having conversations about art, politics, films, books, music, rugby. These felt like my people. Good, proper, British pub people.
Appreciation of good beer has become a big part of my life. I don’t drink in great quantities (I’m far too old to be able to bounce back the next morning) but I do like to try interesting beers. The Bricklayer’s Arms really contributed to that part of me. Furthermore, it was an incredible space for me to catch up with certain friends who wanted to go to a pub for an in-depth conversation about the important things in life, to argue about how terrible the current British Prime Minister was, England’s chances in the next Rugby World Cup or Six Nations competition, or how terrible the state of Hollywood film was at the moment. I also got more into writing in that place – sitting by the fire as I worked on writing a screenplay for a short film, or sometimes sat and edited whatever short film I had recently made.
I miss the Bricklayer’s Arms, and I miss British pubs generally. Don’t get me wrong, there are some fine bars and brewpubs in Northern California. Not long after I got into real ale, microbeers and craft beers took off in a big way, and Northern California was at the forefront of this explosion. But a British pub, with the history and character seeping from every old wooden beam, chipped brick, and sooty fireplace, there’s nothing quite like it. It’s in the pubs of London and Devon in general, and the Bricklayer’s Arms in particular, where who I am today was partially formed.