I had one goal on my extremely short trip to London: drink as much good cask ale as I could find. It turned out to be a bigger challenge than I expected! I had everything from the clearly very old to the straight up vinegar (looking at you The Royal Oak.).
I have to thank Bill Simpson (and also maybe fate??) for recommending The Princess Louise just a week before I left for my 50ish hours in London. Marked only by the standard hanging bar sign the facade doesn’t lead to much expectation.
Inside, there are a bunch of booths separated by ornate wooden and glass walls surrounding a giant oval bar in the center. Most of the structure of the bar is original from 1891 it’s so well preserved that it is protected as a historical site all the way down to the marble urinals in the Men’s room. (I didn’t get to see these but I hear they’re pretty neat!) The booths give you a feeling of a loud and lively bar environment without being crowded. It made us want to sit there for hours in our little private booth and watch all the Londoners trickle in for an after-work beer. But alas, Princess Louise is owned by Sam Smith’s and I needed to get my hands on other varieties of cask ale.
The other pub that really made an impression in both quality and character was the Harp. Upon walking in it’s hard to miss the walls plastered with labels from Fuller’s beers (and that’s mostly what they are serving on tap) but the real atmosphere is waiting out back and up above the bar.
A crowd of pub-goers gathers in the alley behind and beside the building and even up the street aways. I guess in London they don’t have a problem with glassware growing legs and walking off the premises like we do in the U.S. because no staff was visibly keeping watch. The people outside aren’t too boisterous, they (mostly men) are just getting a pint or two after work peppered with the occasional passionate conversation about sports (yes, of course I mean football).
A winding staircase behind the bar takes you up to the second floor that is bursting with old world time. Tiny tables fit with even smaller stools (I truly felt like I was crouching) fill every inch of a wooden room that seems unchanged for at least 50 years. The walls are adorned with Victorian era paintings (many of them depicting beer or drinking). It felt like an authentic British experience that was once more prevalent in London. (I get into the craft scene here!).
All this before I even say a word about the beer! My goal was thoroughly accomplished at The Harp with more than half a dozen hand-pulled casks plus a selection of beers on tap that wasn’t exclusively Fullers. It was also one of the few bars serving a mild on cask (a dark British session ale that has waned in popularity in the last couple decades.) Between the fresh air in the back alley, the loud bar area, and the quaint if crowded upper level it would be easy to lose a whole day at The Harp.
The Best Little 15 Minute Beer Tour in London
The Princess Louise and The Harp were my *top picks* for traditional bars in London. But, Covenant Garden is packed with quintessential English pubs including some that serve food. I stopped in both the White Lion, a great location for people watching, and The Lamb & Flag, at one time a favorite of Charles Dickens, for its old fashioned construction and real ale.
With so many pints along the way this short journey needs a non-boozy stop that is easily fulfilled by the free to the public National Gallery. The collection is astounding and can be enjoyed by both the art-inclined and tourists. In my opinion, one of the highlights is the only equestrian portrait Rembrandt ever painted located on the second floor. I have heard that the tea room at the National Gallery is an unforgettable experience, but I didn’t make the time on this trip…too many beers!