I’ve yet to live in a London neighbourhood with more than a handful of decent pubs. In Bethnal Green we had the Pride Of Spitalfields, The Owl And Pussycat and our regular haunt, the Carpenters Arms. We visited so frequently that the sweet old landlady cried when we moved away. Back then I suspect that the biggest seller was that uniquely London drink, Light and Bitter. The pub was once owned by the Kray Twins who bought it as somewhere safe to take their mother before they went out to choir practice. It was a bit of the ‘old’ pre-gentrified Bethnal Green, and six years on the pub’s been reborn as a successful nu-alehouse with sun-baked parsnip crisps.
When we moved to Leytonstone, a local bobby told me I’d do well to stay away from every pub on the High Road except The Bell. Well, things have moved on since then. The Croppy Acre with its photographs of alleged IRA members is now a mini market, and Erosion (ahem) is now a Camden-style music pub, and pretty good it is too. The management of Lincolns – a waste of a beautiful building if ever there was one – are about to lose their licence after a drugs bust. Good riddance. The Bell remains a good community pub with a brilliant quiz night and a surprisingly good pint of Abbot. There are loads of other average pubs doing an average trade selling average lagers alongside a solitary pump of Courage Best. Some of these are great for what they are – I always enjoy a visit to the Rookwood for example, which sells the only pint of Kronenbourg I’ve ever enjoyed. If you want a selection of real ales, your only options are the Birkbeck Tavern round the back of Leyton Tube, and in Leytonstone proper The Walnut Tree or the North Star.
The Birkbeck is a large, well-kept workaday pub with some original features and three rooms served by an island bar. Out the back there is what must be one of the largest beer gardens in London. Over the back wall is where you’ll find the grave of Mary Kelly. It’s a friendly place and the beer is good when it’s on form, but it can be a bit hit and miss. There are usually 4 handpumps on. The permanent beer is ‘Rita’s Special’ (named after an old landlady and apparently Courage Best) and some ever-changing micobrews. On saturdays It’s the pub of choice for older Leyton Orient supporters, many of whom seem to wear corduroy jackets with leather elbow patches. The Walnut Tree is a Wetherspoon. It’s not a bad one, the beer is always well kept and I do drop by from time to time to use a CAMRA voucher. It’s a bit like having a pint in the 1990s, although back then the interior wouldn’t have been so tired.
By a mile, the best pub in the area is the North Star. It’s a slightly surreal experience, turning into a street opposite McDonald’s and abruptly finding yourself in a Victorian village. This is Browning Road, a conservation area and the oldest bit of Leytonstone. The narrow street is lined with small cottages, and right in the middle of it all is the North Star. Opened as a beerhouse in 1861, the pub has only had a full drinks licence since 1959. Inside there are two rooms – each a former cottage – partly lined with brown tongue-and-groove panelling. For some reason, the walls are covered in railway memorabilia despite the pub being named after a ship. The dark, knocked about and appealingly shabby interior dates from a 1961 refit by then owners Charrington. It’s a cosy place with usually 5 ales on handpump, with enough beer coming through the pipes to ensure that it’s usually on good form. Guest ales recently have included Taylor’s, Butcombe, Woodforde, Harvey’s and there’s always yer bog standard Bombardier on. It’s good place to call in at on the way back from a cold-eared walk round Wanstead Flats with an enthusiastic dog. As with all good pubs, something happens to time as you cross the threshold. You enter at 7pm and seemingly half an hour later the guv’nor is calling last orders.
Image of the North Star from Dayoff171