The Seven Stars, London

53 Carey St, London WC2A 2JB
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 7/10
  • Style and Décor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 5/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Claiming to originate in 1602, the building itself containing The Seven Stars has survived The Great Fire of London, and – just as impressively in my view – the next 400 years of change unscathed, all the while serving as a public house. It’s a remarkable feat that places  it as  one of London’s core heritage pubs.

Many pubs trade on their history, (and that of The Seven Stars is an interesting read) , without backing that up by being an enjoyable place to drink in the here and now. Thankfully, The Seven Stars is not one of those places: it’s a little cracker.

Carey Street has a row of townhouses that are overshadowed by the enormous London County Court, Royal Courts of Justice and LSE library, so it is quite easy to wander halfway past The Seven Stars before realising. It’s a very quiet street and doesn’t seem the most likely place for a pub to be situated these days, though that makes it a perfect venue for those in-the-know. The frontage of The Seven Stars is squat and compact with the predictable (but entirely appropriate) gothic signage. It looks like a small place and it is – there’s no TARDIS effect once you walk inside.

 

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Although micro-pubs may now be reversing the trend for enormous, open plan pubs, none of them are made quite like this old thing. You’ll walk through the entrance to find a low-beamed venerable establishment with a bar directly opposite the entrance, and a narrow space set over two rooms. There are stools to sit at the bar and drink, and tables decorated with checked tablecloths and candles (a little dressy for my tastes, but it did make me think fondly of Den Turk in Ghent, which is not dissimilar).

For the last decade or so, The Seven Stars has been the domain of a ruff-sporting and locally famous pub cat who sadly passed away not so long back. Nevertheless, I have been informed a new cat has entered the premises! If you venture into conversation at the bar with the owner Roxy, she may expand on the and possibly get into the tale of one punter who mistook the cat bowl for bar snacks. Don’t be shocked – anything can happen in London.

The décor and ‘lived-in’ nature of the pub is where most of its character comes from, a pleasingly ungentrified and carefully preserved sense of welcome that tends to strike an immediately positive impression with people regardless of any preconceived ideas. This impression is important to cling onto for when you order a beer (or food), because those London prices hit hard and hit deep. This isn’t worth singling The Seven Stars out for, however, that’s just how things are. It is worth bearing in mind a lot of lawyers drink here.

Nevertheless, you’ll find a set of well kept cask ales from regional breweries served via hand pump – it’s a decent if unspectacular range which will keep you satisfied for at least a few.

In a similar way to Whitelock’s in Leeds, the toilets are located above the pub itself via a satisfyingly creaky staircase, where you will also pass by the kitchens and a room crammed full of odds and ends. By any standards these days (particularly London’s), this is a characterful and individual place that isn’t interesting in the Farrow & Ball school of interior design or repainting itself to remain ‘on-trend’ every ten years.

As mentioned above, the pub is popular with local lawyers and court staff, and due to the small size you may find yourself unable to grab a seat. However, trade is brisk in the evenings so be patient and things will move along – grab your chance when you see it. There’s nothing like being seated to enjoy the atmosphere of a tangle at the bar in a traditional pub such as this.

As the lights from the outside dim, and those from the inside take over, there can be no question of whether this is a pub of outstanding merit.

Although The Seven Stars may have lasted 400 years, the obnoxious pace of gentrification in the last 30 years means that pubs like these perpetually under threat from people who simply want to run poor facsimiles of bars they’ve seen elsewhere. This is a pub that demonstrates the importance of being your own thing. That’s worth something.

I’ll leave you with this anecdote from their website:

While enjoying a few Friday afternoon wind-down drinks, a group of 15 or so lawyers (young ones) entered the Seven Stars awkwardly and decamped nearby. There then began a cacophonous symphony of table and chair scraping, until they had blocked all passage in or out of the bar. Regaling of a most competitive flavour followed, ever louder, underwritten by a desperate, pleading “notice me” subtext. Its volume only matched by the ethereal transparency of its content. We drank up and moved on – our seats snatched hungrily into their possession before we got to the door. Congratulations, you’ve emptied the pub! Not all lawyers are like this, true, but this was selfish and shameful behaviour. Hopefully, few noticed.

Have you visited The Seven Stars? Any comments, feedback or suggestions for our write-up? Please get in touch!

Whitelock’s, Leeds

 

Turks Head Yard, Briggate, Leeds, LS1 6HB
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 8/10
  • Style and Decor – 10/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 5/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor – 9/10

Amid a shower of mediocrity Whitelock’s is a beacon of preservation and tradition. You might call the place an object lesson creating a characterful pub.

Whether Leeds is serving up mediocrity in the form of cut-and-paste industrial chic craft ale venues or boring chain pubs, you only have to look at Whitelock’s to tell the difference between a here-today-gone-tomorrow fad, a Greene King IPA/Sports screen piece of gentrified nothingness and character of a sort that endures. Read the Historic England listing if you don’t believe me.

Whitelock’s itself was first founded in 1715 as The Turk’s Head, and served as a city centre mainstay in the Georgian era, although you’ll find the current state more akin to late Victorian in style, with mirrored panels, stained glass, tiled bar and tarred black wood, a strange halfway-point between the opulent and the down-to-earth.

The pub functioned as a ‘Luncheon Bar’ after being taken over by the Whitelock family in the 1880s, and in the daytime the place has much the same feel as it would have had a century ago; a bustling busy atmosphere (partly due to the compact space) with food service and drinking intermingling. Whenever you visit you always feels like you are part of a grand old tradition.

Situated down of one of Leeds many arcades off Brigate, the pub used to stretch along the length of the yard, albeit part was rarely used for years. It’s a narrow snaking venue, now effectively two bars, one of which is now a stylish cocktail and craft ale bar called The Turk’s Head in homage to the original name, but which typifies everything Whitelock’s isn’t – this may be a good or bad thing depending on your preferences. The pub can be approached from either side of the arcade, although I recommend approaching via the Trinity Centre entrance where it is hiding in plain sight surrounded by modernity. You access a quiet corridor, still called Turk’s Head Yard, which builds into rabbit-hole like escape from the noise of the street and shopping streets – it really makes you feel like you’ve been transported back in time. You will find benches outside, which can be nice to sit out on a warm evening but are not the main reason for venturing down here. Head inside and chance your arm at finding a seat – not always the easiest easy task in here.

The crowd at Whitelock’s rises and falls in swells. In the space of half an hour the scene at bar can change from a breathless tangle vying for space to calm and sedate. It’s really quite interesting to spectate.

The bar area itself is unusual and –of course– old-fashioned. Despite the pub having a low ceiling, the bar itself seems raised above the level of the pub so after pulling your pint it seems like they are lowering it down to the bar top where you are stood. The toilets are accessed via a narrow little staircase at the end of the bar, which is quirky, almost like being on a ship rather than a pub.

The best beers by far in Whitelock’s are the cask ales, as the lager offerings remain a little behind the times. You’ll find some of the classic real ales kept well on cask, along with some interesting local options. They have some forays into what are deemed ‘craft’ styles, and a sister partnership with the (in my opinion) bang average Five Points, but the guest cask ales feel far more in keeping with what the place should be about.

Although I am largely interested in a pub as a place to drink, for a change, I would like to enthuse about the food. They have put a lot of thought into how to bring the idea of Luncheon menu into the 21st century, and have largely managed it, with most dishes having an English pub heritage, and they use fresh ingredients, the majority of which are sourced from Kirkgate Market, which shows in the flavour. You pay for it, yes, but it’s well-prepared. It isn’t just a generic pub grub place, as Leeds University alumni and restaurant critic Jay Rayner remarked in his review.

It doesn’t stop there, as Whitelock’s and the Turks Head now host beer related events, annual festivals and suchlike, so you can’t go around Leeds for too long before your head is turned back to Whitelock’s.

Once you’re inside and sat down, with only the dappled light coming through the frosted glass, you can really soak up what is an extraordinary environment. With it being a typically cosy old pub, this works particularly well in autumn and winter – once holed up it won’t feel like there’s any reason to move elsewhere. Whole afternoons and evenings can come and go here supping quality pints of ales safely swaddled by its comfortable surroundings.

Whitelock’s is by far the best of the category ‘traditional pub’ in Leeds and due to its very particular preserved features and it could stake a fair claim to being one of the very best in the United Kingdom.

In the ‘40s and ‘50s Whitelocks was a haunt for artists and has been deemed characterful enough to be a subject of artistic study, as this vivid artwork demonstrates. John Betjemen, who always had a taste for the preserved, compared Whitelock’s favourably to another venerable public house, The Cheshire Cheese in London: a ‘less self-conscious’ equivalent.

I have linked to a 1968 video documentary of Leeds, ‘A Poet Goes North’ where this features. Highly recommended as a terrific watch.

In 2006 Whitelocks was awarded an overdue Civic Trust plaque for historical importance.  Therefore, if the team running Whitelock’s can deal with all this level of praise magnanimously then I assume my more modest inscription on European Bar Guide won’t alter their unabashed heads-down on-with-the-job approach. Viva Whitelock’s!

Yarborough Hunt, Brigg

49 Bridge St, Brigg DN20 8NS
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –8/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Some of you may have been wondering when I’m going to profile an English pub, so I’m pleased to keep you in suspense no longer. After all, England is going to feature heavily on this website one way or another given the quality and sheer number of good pubs (regardless of whether that number is going up or down) and given it’s where I happen to live, making these places much more accessible than, for example, the bar scene over in Belarus.

Brigg is a typical Lincolnshire market town, yet crowded with more pubs than you’d think would be viable for a place of its size. A 5 minute walk through its small centre will take you past a dozen pubs, each of which manage to remain open despite the recent appearance of a Wetherspoons and the ominous threat to local trade that represents.

My favourite in town by some distance is the Yarborough Hunt, based on a small back street over the river Ancholme, which until very recently had three pubs within a stone’s throw of each other, making for one of the easier pub crawls out there! There’s a bridge and a picturesque stretch of river lined with willow trees, often with a family of swans terrorising anyone trying to use the water for barging, rowing etc.

The pub building is one of those typical venerable townhouses you find across the East of England with weathered brickwork and an architectural style calling up stereotypes of rural life in the 18th Century.

While the buildings themselves go back a long way, the pub itself is a relatively new venture from 2003, making use of the old ‘Sargeant Brewery’ buildings and carefully designing a bar and pub rooms into the ground floor in a traditional rustic style.

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“The Yarbrough” manages to be a country pub in a slightly different way to some, with some touches which give the place a preserved character, and eschewing a lot of modern pub features – music, cooked food and fruit machines for a start. The main sound you’ll hear is the chatter of conversation and perhaps the occasional dog barking. The sense of calm is often missing from pubs these days whereas there are times, especially during the afternoon, when that’s precisely what you want.

This place isn’t ‘Inn’ by any stretch, it isn’t large or homely enough for that. It’s a workmanlike barn type pub, and before you think I intend that as a criticism, I don’t! I mean that in a very good way.

You will notice the exposed beams and tiled floor when you walk in. Take a few steps to your left to enter the bar area where the ceiling has been removed to expose the rafters which gives it a characterful feel. The central area of the pub is mainly tiled but there are comfortable carpeted areas in the sides rooms to your left and right with huge sturdy wooden bench seats.

Almost a pre-requisite, the fire is kept going for months on end which adds a warm cosy feel to the otherwise upright sturdy main pub area.

Despite being a pub, the place does more like café-style trade during the day, as young families, old fogies and retirees potter down here to drink coffee and read the paper. However, there are some reliable intransigents propping up the bar drinking cask ale, and when you look at the range of options it’s clear these chaps have the right idea over everyone else.

Rather unusually, the Yarborough has a multitap keg ale panel behind the bar in addition to several cask pumps in front. It’s a curiosity in an otherwise old fashioned place, but the joy is that there are several unusual beers to try. Unfortunately they have ceased to do the line of beer from Brauhaus Riegele which is a great shame as that is barely available anywhere in the UK, and knocks a point off, but the range still extends beyond what you’d expect for the place. Without the specialist beers on offer you’d still be right at home with a pint of thick brown cask bitter, kept as well as you would hope and expect.

On Saturdays the pub often plays host to friendly away fans travelling to football matches in Lincoln, Grimsby, Scunthorpe and the pace certainly livelies up a touch when they arrive. The Ancholme can be good for rowing and often rowers head over for a pint after their exertions.

During the evening the Yarborough escapes first gear, with a different crowd gathering and a hubbub developing. I would recommend sitting towards the end of the bar area for the most atmosphere as the fairy lights around the beams and general ambience around the bar is pleasant and jovial. The high ceiling in the main room betrays what is otherwise a ‘nook-and-cranny’ type pub.

They have made some strange design decisions in some of the smaller side rooms which are wholly regrettable and not in keeping with inn-keeping (bdum tish), but hopefully soon someone will see sense and consolidate the whole pub back to its core and stop trying to use it as a canvas for dodgy amateur interior design.

The same extends to the beer garden where they have seen fit to create heated beach huts, presumably to try and keep smokers satisfied. Odd to say the least.

There were also some wranglings in the last few years with the owner Tom Woods whose brewery’s mediocre ales (in my opinion) were being outsold, unsurprisingly, by the other, superior options. It seems that this has now been resolved by moving on from that connection altogether. I’m pleased to say on each of my visits in 2018 there has been a wide range of cask and keg is on offer.

However, despite the usual provincial quirks that stop the Yarborough reaching its potential, the pub is managed by Lucy, a very enterprising woman and a core of committed employees that are clearly proud and determined to keep the pub in good shape. This shows in nearly everything the pub does, and despite the healthy competition for bums on seats in Brigg, they enjoy committed repeat custom, quite rightly, and the strongest reputation as the reviews on Google will attest to.

You’ll find the staff up front and welcoming; it’s one of those places where groups of people know each other very well. The essence of being there is the simplicity and the ritual a social tradition untouched by centuries, which is the genius loci of this place. Given that’s the case, I’d strongly advise them to concentrate on preserving that and trying not to turn it into something it isn’t.

I have no hesitation in recommending paying a visit if you’re anywhere near Brigg.