As part of the #ShowUsYourLocal campaign started by Jamie Oliver’s Drinks Tube channel, here’s a look at a much-celebrated north London pub with beer in its heart and soul: my local, The Southampton Arms.
It might seem strange to some people, in London especially, to think of a pub fifteen-minutes’-walk away as your ‘local’. In London a fifteen-minute walk can take you past a great number of pubs. But really, of course, your local isn’t the nearest pub to where you live, but the nearest pub in which you feel at home. Whether it’s on the way to or back from Gospel Oak Overground or Hampstead Heath, or a wide, looping ‘shortcut’ to Kentish Town just to pay a visit, I often find myself in The Southampton Arms. It is what many London pubs, new or old, aspire to be.
In a way, it’s that walk up from Archway up Cathcart Hill and down Chetwynd Road to Highgate Road that really earns, and demands, that first pint. Oh, and it absolutely must be a pint. On occasion I may throw caution to the wind and dabble in a half from the two keg taps, but The Southampton Arms is a bastion of well-kept cask ale, and you would have to be crazy not to partake in that all-too-rare experience of a cask beer in perfect condition. Will it be Marble Pint, or Dark Star Revelation, or Siren Broken Dream, or something new? It’s that thought at the front of my mind throughout the journey, and as I find myself on the corner of Chetwynd Road and Highgate Road, the pub’s sign of ‘Ale Cider & Meat’ calls out like a mythic beacon.
The entrance to the pub is the one you would immediately summon in your mind if asked to describe a “pub entrance”. The feel of the floorboards underfoot as you step through the door and hear authentically scratchy records on an LP, or better still, the rumbling tones of an antique piano, transports you not back in time but, somehow, more vividly into the present. This is what great London pubs can be. This is what great London pubs are.
Twelve handpulls of beer and cider stand proud on the bar, whilst several casks of still cider stand beside the till. A hot plate behind glass on the bar displays a huge piece of pork with glistening crackling at most hours. It’s a heart-warmingly simple and down-to-earth experience in a place that is very much the intense, raw essence of pubness. It has a flexibility to it thought – malleable enough to be a boozer for throwing back great pints with mates, or something quieter, slower, friendlier, or something else entirely. Like all great pubs it lives, and becomes what you need it to be.
Out the back you’ll find a pretty little walled beer garden filled with tables and corners designed for conspiracies and mischief at any hour. In summer, expect it be busy, but always worth fighting for. But beware, a chalkboard outside warns that the beer garden closes at 10pm, and that “the leopard is released at 10.02pm”.
After a near-leopard experience, you might want to strengthen your resolve with a pork bap (with crackling, naturally) for £4, or perhaps a scotch egg, or a sausage roll, or a pork pie perhaps? Wait, how about a pickled egg? Good choice. Perhaps you don’t need persuading. Perhaps you do, because all that stuff is overpriced hipster grub, except, erm, it isn’t, and actually it’s so good you can’t stop eating it. It’s not food to change the world or to sate a family of four, but it’s more than enough to keep you and your drinking partners staunch and hearty for a liquid afternoon or evening. It’s what pub food is for.
Now you’ve got the wind back in your sails, another pint for the road? After all, the buses, whether by design or accident, leave from just outside. It’d be rude not to. No, I insist. My round.
The Southampton Arms will be featured in Beer & Craft: Britain’s Best Bars and Breweries, coming soon.
The Southampton Arms,139 Highgate Road, NW5 1LE