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Sunday, 5 December 2010

Hot on the Trail - The Golden Heart, The Samuel Pepys, The Banker

The Golden Heart, 110 Commercial Street, London E1 6LZ
Bar Music Hall, 134 Road, London EC2A 3AR
The Banker, Cousin Lane, London EC4r 3TE
The Samuel Pepys, 48 Upper Thames Street, London EC4V 3PT

Sometimes you have to establish your priorities. And stick to them. Job or hobby was the issue, and I had chosen the professional option. I ordered another drink to toast my dedication. The location for this celebration was The Golden Heart on the corner of Commercial Street and Hanbury Street, Spitalfields. A honest-to-goodness pub so I’d heard.

Quite standard inside, certainly, and reasonably welcoming in a wood-panelled fashion. But that was almost irrelevant because the weather on this August Saturday afternoon meant drinks were taken outside to the sunshine. But not before I queried the missing ingredient within my G&T with the sour manageress. She’d been tutoring, in a desultory way, a trainee from Eastern Europe at the time but that was still no excuse for missing the G in my drink.

Eventually the drink was reluctantly reconfigured and I could join LJ – minus the jacket – outside. He was talking to a couple from Milton Keynes. The bloke was an ageing ex-casual it seemed, dressed in an expensive but too baggy black leather jacket. His vivacious lady companion rather more fetching in a red corset top and blue jeans.

They spent most free weekends in the city, due to the, apparently, barren cultural nature of their hometown. A North, East, South, West tour was their itinerary, the next stop being south of the Thames under the Vauxhall Arches. Sounded interesting but we had our own plans.

Those plans were to continue my exploration of Thames-side bars, begun some months previously. But to do that I had to forego indulging one of my interests, namely the Whitechapel murders of 1888. This interest is a combination of Victoriana, whodunitry, and a lifelong fascination with the labyrinthian nature of the fog-bound, dark heart of the then greatest city on earth.

The day today was far from foggy and the tight east-end streets and alleys have long-since been eviscerated – 60s planners more to blame than the Blitz - but on the train in I even toyed with the idea of joining one of those tourist rip-off Ripper tours to pit my wits in person against the thousands of theories that have surfaced in the last century.

But no, despite being amidst evocative names such as the afore-mentioned Hanbury Street, Brick Lane, Goulston Street, Whitechapel Road, booze, sorry work, had to take precedence. Hence the G&T in The Golden Heart.

It wasn’t the second of the day, that had been up in the Bar Music Hall on Curtain Street, a large, airy live music bar that only comes into its own at night when the amps are on. The pint of Vedett there was a little too strong and a little too similar to Stella for us after the previous heavy night in the towns of Essex, but at least it made the decision for us as to the kind of day it would be.

From there we crossed Old Street into the rest of Hoxton, looking to find the hype within this area of great nightlife repute. We entered the Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen, a minimalist joint with a slightly subterranean look. Again it was too early in the day to properly judge the place, but I have since learned that the staff are unhelpful and too self-absorbed to be an asset.
Halfway through our drinks we faced a dilemma. Stay around this area sampling its ambience on into the evening in order to do the district justice or move along. In the event we headed south, back towards the City, popping in to the Rainbow Sports Bar and The White Horse on Shoreditch High Street, pubs we had sampled some years ago on a different kind of weekend entirely. Only the latter came anywhere near our memories, it being the more traditional, indigenous of the two with a battle-scarred semi-island bar. Both were quiet, lacking the presence of City gents – sorry we don’t call them gents anymore – it being the weekend.

Thence to The Golden Heart and an enjoyable hour spent outside on the corner watching East End locals and market shoppers go by. We were off before our Milton Keynes friends, along Hanbury Street then down Brick Lane, stopping off in a Bangladeshi fried chicken café that put KFC to shame.

Aldgate East tube was just round the corner. Cannon Street was my planned destination but weekend closures meant it had to be Mansion House. During our underground interregnum the weather had turned to heavy rain so LJ and I had to scurry along Upper Thames Street peering down the adjoining lanes looking for The Banker, a riverside pub situated under Cannon Street bridge.

Eventually we located it and hurried inside, eschewing use of the patio and its superb close-up of the river. The low-lit interior and scattering of leather couches across the wide floor was welcoming us as we crossed the threshold. But that was as far as we got. A staff member was upon us in a flash. Private function. “No problem, mate,” I said, “We don’t mind sharing the space.”

Walking away in the even heavier rain LJ was laughing. Next time it would be his turn to persuade entry, I told him. “Next time?” he replied. The next place on my list was The Samuel Pepys, just along the Thames walkway from The Banker.

The Samuel Pepys has a reputation as a gastropub as well as for its riverside location. A re-conditioned former warehouse that sits down an even narrower lane than that of The Banker. This time no barperson was on hand to give us bad news and LJ had no need to use his silken tongue. A sign at the door was enough. Another private hire was excluding us from our investigations.

The London waterfront does seem to be an exclusive place, as I had found out on my previous riverside expeditions, of which more on a future blog. Also, this being in The City, and on a weekend, footfall is scarcer for bar owners and they are pleased to hire out to parties and guarantee some income.

It was time to cut our losses and head for a rendezvous with a pal in the West End, exact time and location as yet unknown. So it was up to Fleet Street, the link between The City and The West End.

I directed our route via Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese tavern on the north side of the street. This famous pub dates back to the 17th century and was a Dickens’ haunt gaining it much repute ever since. Its dusty, dark nooks and alcoves fit with our modern conception of an old tavern, and this and its seemingly untouched nature draws in the tourists.

Too many of them, in fact for LJ, he took one look round its doorway and decided we should continue along Fleet Street. Fair enough. But his eventual choice, on The Strand, The George was even more touristy. It too, claimed a centuries old history but this only applies to the site not the actual premises.

Inside there’s an overdose on wood and little atmosphere, with those tourists looking underwhelmed by their English pub experience. Still, we were out of the rain. And the night lay ahead. I took the time over my pint to reflect on our riverside ramble. Our quarry hadn’t been run to ground, that was true, but the fun is in the hunt itself. A bit like Jack the Ripper theorising really.

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