Fame, George Harrison, from the lofty crenulated tower of his three hundred and seventy thousand acre, two hundred bed-roomed, moated castle estate, complained, ruined The Beatles. There is a danger with the Lamb & Flag on Rose Street, Covent Garden – like the Fab Four – as with many of London’s other ‘hidden’ pubs, that it gets (even more) discovered; and, like Brian Epstein civilised The Beatles, tourists will destroy what they came to experience. Because in this post-modern, post-antiquarian, post-historical age, authenticity is an endangered species. As Dear Oscar said: each man kills the thing he loves.’
The Lamb & Flag is tucked down one of those living alleyways that London Olde London, that is; the London of ochre bricks and York stone flags, of Henry Mayhew’s Coster Mongers, Donkey Boys, Lumpers and Muffin Men, the London of Phossy Jaw and Cholera; the Great Wen inhabited by the grotesques of Fielding, Smollett and Dickens seems to have just for the sake of the sheer romance of them. Most guides describe the Lamb & Flag as hard to find, but Google Maps – despite the worst intentions of the latest upgrade – has made everywhere findable; Narnia takes only five minutes by bus from Victoria Station on the 170, road works permitting. I personally think Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is harder to locate. Just keep your eyes peeled as you walk along Garrick Street and you can’t miss it.
Approached from Garrick Street (as directed), the initial delight of the wooden frontage with its bi-folding windows (there’s nothing new) at ground level is quickly tempered by the incongruous upper facade which looks recent – the bricks a shade of orange favoured by reality TV stars, and un-aesthetically too well aligned – in contrast to the much yellower and slightly wobbly bonding that flanks it. It’s like Meg Ryan’s facelift – good in isolation, but somehow at odds when viewed a couple of paces backwards as a whole. To flog the simile of Hollywood cosmetic surgery further the bricks look like a shoddy filler job; too clean, too sterile, too perfect for the rest of the aging setting. That said, the sign looks like it’s been rescued from the past (rightly or wrongly it was probably knocked up last week and weathered in’) and nailed up on the new wall, being suitably worn and semi-religious in a way that the sits well with the philosophical conundrum that the best pubs promise. You can imagine it being carried to Jerusalem by a regular back in the mists of time and then brought back, a pint of London Pride as reward. Plus some sponsorship money.
The interior, which you reach after you’ve jostled past the smokers congregating behind the roped area keeping them from the cobbled roadway, has that seventeenth/eighteenth Century dark wood on the floor and walls that is so evocative of warm lighting, open coal fires, rich food, strong drink and convivial company. Together with the ceiling beams, it’s as if the pub is made out of Bourneville’s 75% cocoa chocolate. The Gents and Ladies are marked up with lettering that must have looked glaringly modern a hundred years ago (prompting outraged letters to The Times and all that), but now gives the pub a certain sense of temporal continuity. Further to this, the Lamb & Flag is wedged smack bang in the middle of Theatre-land. Ta-dah! You can hear the tap dancing and waves of laughter as you stand at the bar waiting to be served. Due to this, the pub’s shadowy regulars are drawn from the world of greasepaint and spotlights. In December 1679 the playwright and poet John Dryden took a right hiding by street ruffians (allegedly) hired by the Earl of Rochester (if you haven’t read the saucy poems (very much in keeping with the spirit of the Restoration and Charles II’s libido), you’ll probably have seen Johnny Depp play the Earl in the film The Libertine) in the alley that runs down the right-hand side of the pub. Three hundred years later, in 1979 Larry Grayson kicked the smoke out of John Inman in the upstairs room of the pub for ripping off his act, and tried glassing the Are You Being Served? star, until he was restrained by Isla St Clair. And in the backroom with its odd, strategic little mirrors, where I enjoyed a very tasty helping of fish and chips washed down with two pints of George Gale & Co. Ltd’s Spring Sprinter’ light, refreshing and bursting with zesty hop flavours. 4%ABV there are memorial photographs (generally their old promotional stills) to the actors and musicians who have quaffed in the pub mostly in the last fifty years of C20. Other regulars have been awarded small brass plates screwed haphazardly into the bar and its fittings often cryptically; who was Nobby’ and why did he come by such a salacious soubriquet? The pub (as most guides will delight in telling you ghouls) was formerly known as the Bucket of Blood’ due to the bare knuckle boxing bouts (like those depicted in Robert Downey Jnr’s Sherlock Holmes and described by William Hazlitt in one of his finest essays The Fight’) that used to take place in the back.
But to return to what George Harrison, the Quiet Beatle the Spiritual, shagging Beatle had to say about fame. Pubs like the Lamb & Flag have become another tick in a box on the tourists’ itinerary. Clearly many of those in the bar were passing through (either that or the locals were exhibiting their cultural superiority and innate Southern sophistication over a Northern Monkey by speaking French at the table next to me), and initially I found the mood fairly bland and somewhat uninspiring. So what can be done? It is times like this that you realize that it’s not the Hansel and Gretel building materials or the age of the building that (necessarily) make a pub it’s the people. And if the punters who have come to drink are spectators in the drama as opposed to players (see how I’m dialling in the pubs acting associations? Clever stuff), then the importance of the staff in historic pubs becomes immense if the experience is going to be something other than a trip to a licensed museum piece. If I were to run one I’d wear an eye patch and have a trained cat that sat on my shoulder. I’d employ the most curious and outgoing staff classic punk rocker hairdos, people from Tribute Bands (imagine getting your steak and kidney pie brought to your table by Marc Bolan or Diana Ross), and employing at least one that had Tourettes. And it was the staff that rescued the Lamb & Flag from the apathy that was starting to spoil my first pint. The bar manager is a portly middle-aged Australian who serves (sic) as a chatty mein host. He chivvied the slightly bewildered (but friendly) barman, and took an interest in people (me) who took an interest in the pub. If only he had a wooden leg (lost to gout, or in a bet), he would have been perfect. Still, even with both his legs and no eye patch, and not even a cat in sight, he made me want to sit and drink there all afternoon. And he made me want to go back. Perhaps the past has a future after all.
Visited Saturday 22nd March 2014