Pub/Bar of the Month July 2014: The Southampton Arms, London, UK
The Southampton Arms, Kentish Town, London, UK
One of the great things about the so-called craft beer boom is that it has seen the rejuvenation of many a struggling pub.
A lick of paint, a change of mindset and a complete overhaul of the beer range have transformed the most run-down boozer into a real crowd magnet.
I visited one of these recently. The Southampton Arms Ale & Cider House stands in the north of London. Its location is the busy Highgate Road, surrounded by shops and housing, but, until 2009, it was not a cared-for local.
'Decaying' is how Des de Moor describes it in his Guide to London's Best Beer Pubs & Bars, before going on to celebrate its rebirth as one of the capital's top beer destinations.
As has happened in many such revived pubs, the new ownership has decided to make a virtue out of its simplicity.
There's just one open-plan room here, wider at the front to make the most of light from the tall, shop-style windows, and narrower at the back towards the tucked-away patio.
The floor is bare-boarded and swept clean. Elaborate mirrors reflect the days of brewing names such as Lacons and Bass, and, along with light bulbs swinging naked from the high, red-painted ceiling, help brighten the atmosphere.
A central fireplace looks like it has been warming this pub for many decades and the upright piano has probably belted out a few tunes in its time, although perhaps not in here until recently.
Customer comforts – if the words church pew and comfort are not entirely incompatible – are best described as functional and sturdy, although well in keeping with the down-to-earth tone.
Centrally placed is the bar, quite rightly the focal point of the pub. It's a clinical set-up with white butcher's shop tiling as a backdrop and no fewer than eighteen handpumps – twelve on the front counter and six behind – worked to deliver cask ales and ciders.
Small UK Breweries
This is what has brought people thronging back to The Southampton Arms. A Courage cockerel still struts above the pub sign but the bird has long flown the roost.
The beers today come only from small, independent UK breweries, as is boldly declared on a blackboard that also suggests that the pub is the only dedicated ale and cider house in London to adopt this purest-of-pure approach.
To reel off the names of some beers on sale would be to exclude hundreds of others that have featured, and continue to feature, here. But think along the lines of Dark Star, Summer Wine, Howling Hops, Camden Town and Marble breweries and you'll get the picture. There are, of course, keg taps, too.
Beers are served in dimpled, handled jugs, but, if this offends the senses, just ask for a plain glass. A suggestion book is provided in case you wish to volunteer a beer choice of your own.
Keeping things simple, the food provision majors on the likes of scotch eggs, pork pies, cheese platters and hot roast pork baps. Entertainment, for most of the time, boils down to vintage blues pumped out from the vinyl player behind the bar, but there are also quizzes.
From all this you can see that there are no pretensions at The Southampton Arms. The building is basic, pared-back and worn by the passage of time but, while the body may be old, there's a vibrant new heart beating within – all thanks to the beer revival.
The Southampton Arms, 139 Highgate Road, London NW5 1LE.
Opening Hours: 12–11 (perhaps later)