England was merry England when
Old Christmas brought his sports again
Twas Christmas broached the mightiest ale
Twas Christmas told the merriest tale
A Christmas gambol oft would cheer
A poor man's heart through half the year
Sir Walter Scott
Welcome to another seasonal excursion into a magical world where apathy, ignorance and sheer bloody-mindedness are briefly forgotten (only to return later, usually by the fifth pint).
Yes, it is time to fling ourselves into festive action once more, as King Eric said:
"When the pissed gulls follow the pub crawl, it is because there is no more booze indoors". Or something like that.
Towards the beginning of the second world war, Bloomsbury had passed it's 1920's heyday and the centre of avant-garde intellectual life moved a few hundred yards west to the other side of Tottenham Court Road, to 'Fitzrovia'. In this area, bounded by Oxford St., Euston Rd., Tottenham Court Rd. and Great Portland St., flats were numerous, good restaurants were springing-up, the British museum reading room was still within walking distance and.....there were lots of good pubs nearby.
Fitzrovia takes it's name from the nearby Fitzroy Square and has long been known as a haunt of artists and writers, or, as they are frequently referred to, Bohemians.
Bohemia - Slovanian kingdom of central Europe. Became a province of Czechoslovakia by the Treaty of Versailles (1919).
Bohemian - Person (esp. artist or writer) of free-and-easy habits, manners and sometimes morals (from mistaken belief that gypsies came originally from Bohemia).
In Fitzrovia, the archetypal Bohemian artist, Augustus John, introduced the archetypal Bohemian poet, Dylan thomas to his future wife, Caitlin. George Orwell also regularly drank in the pubs of the area and George Bernard Shaw did what came naturally to him. What times they were, as Dylan Thomas explained:
"Oh how I hated those recumbent Bohemians! Slowly, I went upstairs to bath. There was a man asleep in the bath. And tears ran down my cheeks. Two creatures stretched dead in my bed...............
P.S. I am sorry to add to this that by the end of the day I was happy as a pig in shit myself, and conducted the singing of hymns with my broken arm, and chased people and was caught, and wound up snug as a bugger in Rugby. Oh, my immortal soul, and oh, my tissues!".
Fitzrovia has lost it's Bohemian air, now being full of 'mee-jar'-types, but, as we shall see, it still has some fine pubs (and a lot of them) with a wide range of the best of British beers (as well as 'Hooch', 'K' and 'Diamond White').
The first pub is:
"...To Mister Whitbread forth he sent a page To say that majesty proposed to view With thirst of wondrous knowledge deep inflamed His vats, and tubs, and hops, and hogsheads famed"
A crowded, lively pub with an unusual layout, a loud jukebox and a wide range of beers, several of which are in barrels behind the counter. A huge lamp, with 'Pub' written on it, reminds you of where you are. More seating can be found upstairs but will, invariably, be busy. A 'sun-trap' roof garden is here, if anybody fancies visiting in warmer months. Beers from Castle Eden, Wadworth, Greene King and Marstons, plus several guest beers were on when I visited. The pub is decorated with a rainforest of posters advertising various drinks and Sky TV.
Suitably protected against the, no doubt, biting wind we now cross Fitzroy Square. You want to know why it's called this? Well......
Henry Fitzroy was the son of Charles II and was married by the age of 9 to the 5-year old daughter of Lord Arlington (This was later known as 'a 9 to 5 job'). Between them, these two were given a lot of land: she was given the manor of Tottenham Court, he was made the Earl of Euston and later, the Duke of Grafton (hence the Grafton Arms). Now, the son of these two, Charles Fitzroy (2nd Duke of Grafton) built the Euston Rd. and their great grandson, the 1st Baron Southampton, developed Fitzroy Square. The famous Adam brothers (no, they were not trapeze artistes) designed the east and south sides, which were built in the early 1790s. The south side was destroyed in the second world war but has since been replaced. The west and north sides were added in 1825-9. The square is a pedestrian precinct. Various notable people lived here including George Bernard Shaw (blue plaque at #29), Lord Salisbury (prime minister) and Robert Adam. The park contains a sculpture, 'View', by Naomi Blake to commemorate the Silver Jubilee. We initially pass by the London Foot Hospital, where we'll lose all of those who fancy a toe-job.
As we leave O'Neill's, you may notice a huge erection up ahead. The G.P.O., sorry, British Telecom tower looms. Opened in 1965 and standing 620ft (or 186m, as we should say) high, the building has become one of London's landmarks. Eric Bedford was the man responsible and he and his family live at............
Beer! Happy produce of our isle,
Can sinewy strength impart,
And weaned with fatigue and toil,
Can cheer each manly heart.
So, the walk to the next pub (5 minutes) should be easy.
Out of hope and right into Whitfield Street, which takes it's name from George Whitefield who founded Whitefield's tabernacle (Methodist) in Tottenham Court Road in 1756. Now known as the American church, in 1760 it was the largest non-conformist church in the world, holding 7-8000 people and was called 'Whitefields soul trap'. It has been rebuilt several times due to fire and war damage. Down this road , we pass Pollock's Toy museum. Benjamin Pollock (Penjamin who?) was one of the last publishers of toy theatre sheets which in Victorian times were sold for "a penny plain and two pence coloured". "If you love art, folly or the bright eyes of children, speed to Pollock's", wrote Robert Louis Stevenson. Further down the road, we pass the 'Cyberia' cafe, where you can surf the Internet over a cappuccino.
Right, now, into Goodge St. Can you believe that this street was built on a meadow called Crab Tree field which belonged to the wife of John Goodge, a carpenter and that their nephews began developing the field in the 1740s? No? You need another drink then, to hear those lush, green pastures call out to you.
Decorative (some might say) plates are around the walls and Sky TV probably shows some British team getting hammered in one sport or other.
Across the road to:
Finally, we reach the most famous of the Fitzrovia pubs
The pub, built to the designs of W.M. Brutton in 1897, is on the corner of Windmill St. which takes it's name from an old windmill, probably of the old Tottenham Court (Totnam Court), that stood at the junction with Charlotte St until the middle of the 18th century. The road was, therefore, originally a farm track but was developed by 1770.
And so it is over for another year, perhaps now is not the time to attempt the mediaeval rhyme in praise of good ale:
Bryng us in no browne bred, for that is made of brane,
Nor bryng us in no whyt bred, for therin is no game;
But bryg us in good ale
But perhaps you can now understand what Sigmund freud was saying:
"I do not think that anyone completely understands its mechanism, but it is a fact that there are foreign substances which, when present in the blood or tissues, directly cause us pleasurable sensations; and they also so alter the conditions governing our sensibility that we become incapable of receiving unpleasurable impulses"
And, lest we lose our heads, a cautionary tale for the journey home:
Krzysztof Azninski, 30, had been drinking all day in his garden with three friends. The four men put on traditional ‘toughness bonnets’ and played macho games. Franciszek Zyzcosusko, 41, put his hand on the chopping board and dared Azninski to cut it off. Azninski hacked at it with a knife, partially severing the wrist, then put his own head on the block and challenged Zyzcosusko to chop it off - which he did, with an axe. The revellers then decided things had gone too far, stopped the contest and began to sing a folksong called ‘Roll the head of the giant’, waking the neighbours.(Polish News Agency, 25 October, 1994)
So, remember this when your relatives suggest party games after Christmas dinner.
Well, we've done it again and are now fully-fledged Bohemians. Christmas will be a let-down after this, I'm sure.