August is Local History Month on diamond geezer. Over the years I've followed High Street 2012, walked the length of the River Lea and explored Olympic venues outside the capital, to name but a few of my monthly quests. This year I thought I review the ten pubs closest to my home, in distance order, in a series I'm calling Bow Locals.
I'm fortunate enough to live in the historic heart of Bow, which means 100 years ago I could have visited ten pubs within 200 yards of my front door, buttoday not one of them remains. The Rose & Crown is a fried chicken takeaway. The Coach and Horses is a McDonalds. The Kings Arms is a B&B. The Bombay Grab is a mosque. The Moulders Arms is a car park. The rest have been replaced by flats. Other corners of the capital have been far more fortunate.
Tracking down my ten nearest pubs is therefore going to take me well beyond staggering distance, including hostelries on Roman Road, Devons Road, Wick Lane and the Blackwall Tunnel Approach. They're an immensely varied selection, from Telegraph-reviewed gastropubs to white van speakeasies, and most of them I've never previously ventured inside. But I intend to take courage, refresh the parts other buildings cannot reach and enjoy probably the best beers in Bow. Starting with a classic...
The Bow Bells116 Bow Road, E3
You can't miss The Bow Bells, mainly because it's been painted a ferocious shade of bright orange. It's been here on Bow Road since the 1860s and is named after something it really shouldn't be. Traditional Cockneys have to be born within the sound of Bow bells, it's true, but the relevant belfry belongs to St-Mary-le-Bow on Cheapside, not to nearby St Mary's on its E3 traffic island. This hasn't stopped the landlord posting up a full rendering of Oranges and Lemons on a panel outside, in elegant chalk scrawl, the final line concluding with the Great Bell several miles distant.
The pub's frontage scrubs up well, with grape-topped pilasters, ornate copper lanterns and a row of heritage spotlights. The inn sign ticks all the Cockney clichés with a Pearly King raising a pint beside a church spire, and what could be two gold UFOs in the sky but in this context must be a pair of bells. A couple of long bench tables await those brave enough to drink their pints with a dash of carbon monoxide. Last season's Sky Sports licence is almost as prominent in the window as the food hygiene rating is on the door. As for the trapdoor into the cellar you'll spot that only when you enter the tiny porch and step across.
In good news the interior of The Bow Bells resembles a proper boozer, not a poncey bar. The saloon is L-shaped with a bar along two sides, topped and tailed with wooden panelling. The remainder of the space is open, with a cosy corner to the right, a more communal space to the left and a dartboard/pool table combo up the back. Candelabras hang in the corners. Three varieties of barstool are provided at fractionally different heights. The carpet has seen better days, and was once red. Red and gold flock wallpaper completes the Victorian feel, but in fact there's almost nothing of the original fittings left.
The chief Cockney affectation is a sign above the bar which reads Welcome to our Near 'n Far, Get Comfy and Enjoy a Lily the Pink. It's easy to enjoy a drink because the line-up of pumps includes IPA, London Pride, Beavertown lager from N17 and Crate cider barrelled in from Hackney Wick. Dark Star's Hophead golden ale has been on tap for several years. If you insist on drinking fruity Strongbow then that's here too, along with a comprehensive range of gins and whiskies. Ignore the price list above the condiment tray because that's a post-decimalisation facsimile from February 1971 with draught Skol lager at 7p a pint and Triple X at 11½p.
Food is a cornerstone on the modern Bow Bells experience, with the team in the kitchen very much hoping that you like pizzas. They sell a Simple One, a Hot & Spicy One, A Cheesy One, A Veggie One and half a dozen other Ones, all of them comprehensively stone-baked. The clipboard menu does extend to two other sheets, one for Burgers and one for Sides, Wings & More, but they don't look quite so well thumbed. Those keener on bar snacks can rummage in four different coloured boxes of crisps, request the last bag of Scampi Fries or pick from a cascade of Snacking Salami.
The pub's target audience love sport so expect something competitive to be beaming out from the big screen. I got The Ashes, thankfully on silent, but a weekendful of Premier League action kicks off at eight tonight and peaks with Bournemouth versus somebody on Sunday afternoon. The picture of Bobby Moore on the wall looks like a recent affectation, added since West Ham moved into the Olympic Stadium and The Bow Bells transitioned to become a home fans' local. I often walk by on matchdays and see the placed packed out with morose shaven-headed Essex men pulling apart where it all went wrong, which must be great for business but I'd advise anyone else to stay well away.
Those preferring more traditional entertainment can make use of a chessboard, two boxes of Scrabble and one of Trivial Pursuit. The Eggheads card game is kept behind the bar. If unfed with coinage the jukebox churns out an inoffensive stream of pop including Alanis Morissette. The magazine rack contains a copy of The Spectator, the latest London Drinker and yesterday's Evening Standard. Collecting tins on the bar accept small change for the Air Ambulance and St Joseph's Hospice. The bell they ring time with is brass and inscribed on the front with the words 'Bow Bells', because of course it is. The ladies toilet is allegedly haunted, but I didn't check that out.
The afternoon clientele was mixed, from beery builders who'd just down-tooled to contented bar-proppers, plus a young couple (manbun/sunglasses) discussing weekend cocktail plans and missing phone chargers. Things pick up a lot of an evening, the outside benches invariably filled and the big screen football closely scrutinised. The Bow Bells is no Cockney throwback, nor a gentrified embarrassment, but pretty much what you'd hope an East End local might be.
The dg beer review: How better to place all my Bow Local posts on an even footing than to review an identical beer in each establishment? To this end I requested of the barkeeper their finest bottle of Becks, and refused the affectation of a glass. I was immediately struck by the light golden colour of the brew and its full rich head, bubbling delicately beneath the rim. The flavour was very light and dry, with only a slight malty sweetness balanced by a crisp hop bitterness - undoubtedly evidence of a well kept cellar. I should have sniffed the bouquet before consuming. I look forward to seeing how The Little Driver compares.
Update: Except - confession time - even though I asked for a bottle of Becks they didn't have one, so I had to make do with a lesser brand. Indeed most pubs don't seem to sell Becks these days, so my beer reviews won't be consistently comparable, so essentially this feature is unsustainable.