Booze might now be banned on public transport, but that doesn’t stop us getting trolleyed in the stations. The Betjeman Arms recently opened at St Pancras, bringing a much-needed touch of class to London’s catalogue of terminus taprooms. To celebrate, we decided to go on a campaign for rail ale. Despite objections from our livers and serious renal remonstrance, we spent last Saturday working our way though a laevorotatory pub crawl of the major London termini. Here’s how they shape up.
King’s Cross: The Duke of York
Cohabiting platform 8 with the station toilets and a Cornish pasty stand, the DofY is as grafting a railway boozer as you’re going to get. The nostrils are immediately assaulted with the whiff of batter and beer. The ears are overwhelmed with shouted orders and station announcements for those on their way to Hell…wait, Hull. At the bar, a stag party and a chap with some teeth missing compete for attention, ignored by that broken, middle-aged man who sits in every such pub watching the fruit machines. This Mos Eisley of station bars nevertheless has some charming touches, such as the imitation rail lamps and a WC with a ‘magic access button’ (inquire at bar). Black Sheep and Pride on tap.
Beer: £2.99; wine £3.55; free wifi via National Express.
St Pancras: The Betjeman Arms
The Betjeman Arms lies just 100m from the Duke of York, but comes from a different planet. A comfortable lounge area is brought to life by light jazz last seen leaving Pret for finishing school. Two dining rooms slot like Tetris blocks along the eastern wall of the station and there’s also an ‘outdoor’ seating area beneath the great arched roof of St Panc. The bar serves Adnams, Pride and the eponymous Betjeman ale (which, claimed one Londonista, “smells of plasticine and gym socks”). Food is jaw-droppingly expensive – we’re talking £7 for a Scotch egg here – but looks good. Temporary toilets force the male customer to bashfully tiptoe through the ladies to a lone cubicle. Plenty of talking points, then.
Beer: £3 a pint; wine £3.40; premium lager £3.30. No wifi.
What’s the alternative? None needed, but you might also check out ‘Europe’s longest champagne bar‘ on the main concourse.
Euston: The Britannia
Oh, the bleakness of it all. The Britannia sits above the Dresden-like concourse of London’s plainest and, on our visit, quietest terminus. There’s no Le Pain Quotidien here, just a lonesome Swatch (remember them) a flagging Paperchase, and the eerie feeling of being in Dawn of the Dead. Upstairs, the bar area is pleasant enough – the free crisps a thoughtful if unhygienic touch. IPA, Pride and Black Sheep are on tap. In a place of few highlights, our attention was drawn to the peculiar pub sign, which shows Britannia resting on half a lion.
Beer: £2.99; wine £3.40; patchy wifi via BT Openzone
What’s the alternative? Slow, painful suicide, or else there’s the Doric Arch just outside the station.
Paddington: The Mad Bishop and Bear
The most unusually named of London’s station pubs, the MB&B sources its nominative moieties from a local clergyman who once owned this land, and a certain ursine immigrant connected with the station. It’s not a bad place this – tucked away from all the platforms and noise in the glass food area. Pot plants and wickerwork give the feel of a colonial bar. After the jazz of St Pancras and shopping mall emptiness of Euston, we’ve never been so relieved to hear Robbie Williams. And is that the Traveling Willberries? A hardworking team keep the pub running from 7am to midnight each day. This being a Fullers pub, the beer selection is excellent, with several real ales on tap. The toilets are decent and support a diverting collection of portraits of London, Tube roundels and mysterious doors marked ‘Private’. And look, look, there’s a pigeon in the bar!
Beer: £3.10; premium lager £3.80; wine 3.90; no wifi.
What’s the alternative? You’ve also got The Isambard on Platform 11 and various other cafe-bars hereabouts.
Perhaps unwisely ignoring the platform-level Mash Tun, we climbed the stairs to Victoria’s Wetherspoons (it seems to carry no other name). A busy bar, this, with schizophrenic taste in decor, trying to look fresh and polished while going for carpets and soft furnishings. It doesn’t really work, and feels like the whole place has been helicoptered in from a production line. On the wall, train times are displayed from a web page that no one can read. The best appraisal anyone gave was to compliment the condiments, in bounteous technicolour variety on every table. In summary, not awful, just boring.
Beer: £2.39; wine £3.85; lager £3.10; wifi through BT openzone
What’s the alternative? The Mash Tun is just across the concourse, but doesn’t attract glowing reviews either.
Charing Cross: Boadicea
We’re having trouble remembering this one. Not through beer intake, but because it was so underwhelming. A limited beer choice, about three tables and no toilets (and on our visit, the station’s loos were also closed). Yuck. The one redeeming feature is a decent MP3-powered jukebox. Avoid.
Beer: £2.99; premium lager £3.40; no wifi.
What’s the alternative? For god’s sake, drop down to Villiers Street for your booze. Gordon’s Wine Bar is a true London great.
Waterloo: The Reef
Bigger, brighter, brasher. A spacious first-floor bar peppered with tiny aquaria. The Reef feels a little out-of-place at Waterloo, but isn’t a bad spot to wait for your train. Inevitably, the toilets require a combination lock from the bar to protect the income from the public toilets (now running at 30p a pee). The current combination (Shhhh) is set to 1066 – as though the Waterloo staff have got their famous battles mixed up.
Beer: £2.99; premium lager £3.40; wine £3.75; no wifi
What’s the alternative? Head below the concourse to The Wellesley, which gets a decent write up from Fancyapint. Damn, we should have gone here.
London Bridge: The Oast House
Egad, this little boozer was just closing shop for the night as we arrived (8pm). “Are you closing?” we said. “Yes,” they replied. “It’s early,” we observed. “Yes,” they agreed. We left, gaining little knowledge of this one. Ousted from the Oast House, we dreamed of heading downstairs to Shunt, but had a schedule to keep. So we crossed the river and headed to the former precincts of Bedlam, where now stands…
Liverpool Street: Hamilton Hall
To conclude, we swavered into this most opulent of Wetherspoons. The pantomime Versailles that is Hamilton Hall is always full, and usually with suits. Even on a Saturday, the place is still rammed with those returning back to Essex after a day in the capital. With its ornate ceilings and sweeping staircase, Hamilton Hall should be among the best City drinking venues. Unfortunately, it is too busy to charm and, when the crowds do drop away, too large to hold much atmosphere. By this stage – our eighth pub of the day, let’s not forget – we were beyond the point of making coherent notes. Suffice it to say that the HH is a must-see among railway bars, but a must-avoid among destination bars.
Beer: No more, thank you.