Bacon sarnies thick as a phone book. Pints of brick-red tea. Spring is properly here. The house this fine morning seems lit from within. A good day for a proper walk.
The first bit of the Olympic Park reopens in July. It’s just down the road from us. Until then our way West is barred by a North Korean-style electric fence. So, we knock the corners off our hangovers with a meander past Westfield, along Stratford High Street and The Greenway. The Carpenters Estate has signs protesting against plans to build a campus for UCL. As always, when an area ‘improves’ someone suffers – usually people who lived there when nobody else would touch the place with a bargepole. Off the Greenway and then along the towpath up the Lee Navigation, and off at White Post Lane. The area is literally unrecognisable from what it was pre-Olympics. All the tyre yards, mountains of scrap and torched cars are gone. One of the units that was here made those elephant leg doner kebabs. All swept away in a tide of Bright Young Things. Hackney Wick and neighbouring Fish Island – just over the Hertfordshire Union Canal – are the New Shoreditch. We pass Foreman’s, the long-established fish smoker, and are startled by a doorman who seems very keen to invite us in for a look around. The Wick is also home to a couple of breweries. Truman – another exile from E1 – is to be reborn at Stour Road. Another is Crate, in the White Building at the very far side of that Korean fence.
Down the steps to the canalside, a great setting between two bridges. People lolling all over the towpath like seals at Pier 39. Crate is in a typical East London post-industrial unit, smaller than we expected but tall and airy. It opened last july and reviews have been mixed but largely positive, any negatives mainly about the staff or the food. We didn’t try their pizza, and the staff seemed OK. Even the girl limping around with a bleeding kneecap.
Crate’s Lager actually fulfils the promise in the beer menu that it’s got a load more flavour than average. And so it should, at four quid a pop. I still haven’t found my Great British Lager, but this is well on the way to being The One. Really excellent – and if we were sat here on a hot summer evening I’d imagine it would be really, really excellent.
On again. Through lovely Victoria Park where dogs are catching frisbees and sunday league footballers are cursing each other. The trees are in bud, the ocean of grass a dazzling emerald in the early spring light. Over there is the house where Mrs Wheels’ dad and granddad repossessed a Ford Zodiac from Frank ‘The Mad Axeman’ Mitchell (“We just knocked on the door and asked for the keys. Good as gold he was”). Down to the Regents Canal, off again at Broadway Market a mile or so to the North West. As a full-time media ponce and former resident of Shoreditch – let me tell you – i’ve been guilty of some appalling hipsterism in the past. But Broadway Market on a sunday is something else. It looks like hundreds of members of a cult have assembled for an imminent Hipster rapture. Each adherent in the creed uniform of Deidre Barlow specs, neat moustache or King Leonidas beard, chemise breton and tight, rolled-up jeans. And they’ve all arrived on a singlespeed bicycle.
Broadway is where you’ll find the Dove Freehouse, one of the pioneers of interesting beer in London, long before anybody had come up with the moniker ‘craft’. It was the first place I ever tried Duvel. Today, it’s swarming with hipsterati. No room at the inn. We give it the swerve and carry on through London Fields and onto Mare Street, Hackney’s Golden Mile.
Hackney – like Brixton and Camden – is one of those areas of London that provoke fanatical loyalties. You’ll know when you’ve met someone from Hackney, because it’ll be the first thing they’ll tell you. Perhaps even before you know their name.
The Pembury Tavern sits on a hideous five-way junction just up from Hackney Downs station. It’s a huge, brick brute of a building and it looks more like a town hall than a pub. In my early London days I remember it being a place to avoid, like a lot of local pubs at the time. Surprising, as circa 1990 this was apparently owned by Banks And Taylor and even appeared in the Good Beer Guide. For many years it was derelict, closed after a catastrophic fire in 1996. It reopened as a freehouse ten years later in what was still a real ale desert. The interior is large and echoey. It reminds us of an NUS bar or one of those pubs which serves as anteroom to a music venue out the back. The braying of a tableful clearly the worse for a couple of bottles of wine bounces off every surface. For some reason we shun the 16 or so handpumps and chose Moravka, cool and bland and with all the character of Stella 4. The Pembury clearly has its fans, and it might come into its own of an evening, but we don’t feel the urge to linger longer.
Among the crowd in The Cock Tavern on Mare Street there is a man wearing a fez. Actually, there are two. There’s an old man and his dog. There’s a bloke in a fedora and rhinestone-studded cowboy boots, what look like a group of hare coursers and a couple of characters straight from a certain Viz cartoon strip. We’re lucky to find a table. The interior is postwar utilitarian chic. Glazed tiles, wooden floorboards and the original Truman panelling. There are nice touches like proper, handwritten signs. Bare bulbs light the room, with the ones over the bar covered by workshop-style enamel shades. Knobbly beer mugs, obviously – but it all works without feeling contrived. The Cock is brought to us by the people behind Kentish Town’s Southampton Arms and opened in its current incarnation only last year. There are sixteen handpumps lined up like the Foot Guards at the battle of Waterloo. We counted ten for beer, six for cider and about ten keg fonts round the corner, Kernel’s London Sour among them.
Somewhere in this smallish building they’ve managed to fit in a microbrewery – Howling Hops. The European Pale Ale is standard-issue zesty fruitiness. Great. But the Smoked Porter is in another league. Fresh and punchy, the smokiness comes through instantly, leaving a sort of very pleasant ‘coal tar’ aftertaste. It actually feels like it’s doing you some good. Absolutely the best pint I’ve had so far this year. So good that we stay for another four.
It’s an often valid suspicion that pubs with multiple handpumps can suffer from quality control. From our corner we watched the two barmen take regular samples; sniffing and tasting and lifting the glass to the light. The two blokes never stopped moving. They seemed to know everyone, and everybody in the pub seemed to know everybody else. It’s hard to judge on a single visit, but it certainly gave us the impression that the Cock was already at the heart of this community.
Back home in glittering Leytonstone we were politely turned away by the staff at old favourite The Red Lion. We’d been seduced by a Vietnamese café on the way home and left it too late for a nightcap. Still, Lee and I managed a two-day crawl full of high quality beers in high quality pubs, something that would have been impossible even a couple of years ago.
East London – you’ve come a long way, baby.