Between Gospel Oak and Kentish Town stations, almost at the south-eastern corner of Hampstead Heath, is an old-fashioned pub that has recently undergone a remarkable transformation. By all accounts, the previous incarnation of the Southampton Arms was a fairly uninspiring one, but that’s certainly not the case any more.
We were surprised, when we visited on a late Sunday afternoon, to find the place doing a brisk trade – it has clearly not taken long for word to get around about this pub’s merits. And what merits – we were immediately greeted by a pleasant but busy atmosphere in the high-ceilinged traditional premises, and shortly thereafter by the wondrous sight of about a dozen or so hand pumps lining the bar, dispensing seven real ales and several ciders and perries (or ‘pear ciders’, for the Generation Y-ers), all proudly proclaimed as originating from independent breweries. We also noted a couple of decent-looking Meantime lagers on draught.
The inside of the pub was initially too busy for us to find much space, so we ventured into the outside drinking area at the back of the premises. Calling it a ‘beer garden’ might be a bit of a stretch, as its most decorative features were the men’s toilets and a large pile of bricks, but it did slightly redeem itself with a small covered area and some stools fashioned from old beer casks. Fortunately, as evening fell, the pub yielded a couple of seats indoors, so were soon able to enjoy the superior environment inside.
And so on to the beer. Our first trip to the bar provided the biggest surprise of the afternoon. As we ordered a pint of Stonehenge Ales’ Sign Of Spring, the friendly barman informed us that we had chosen a ‘green beer’. Unsure of what specific eco-credentials he was implying, we asked him to elaborate on how exactly the beer was ‘green’. His answer: “It’s green.” And he wasn’t joking – drinking a pint of ale that closely resembles washing-up liquid is quite an unfamiliar experience, although thankfully it tasted better than it looked, even if it was a tad too sulphurous for our tastes.
The other beers, whilst less visually remarkable, were all impressively well-kept. Once again, it was clear that there is a regular rotation of ales here, so the line-up will likely differ on future visits. From our sampling, we discovered a butterscotchy and satisfying pale ale (Oxfordshire Ales’ Neck And Neck) and a smooth, rich and malty chocolate stout (from College Garden Brewery), amongst several other eminently pleasant ales.
Despite its undisputed beery excellence, the attractions of the Southampton Arms are not limited to the drink. Food options include magnificent-looking giant scotch eggs and substantial pork pies, the latter of which we sampled to some satisfaction. Roasted meat also appeared to be in evidence, along with Mr Porky’s ‘Best Ever’ pork scratchings (sadly misnamed). The pub’s furnishings are basic, yet comfortable, and clearly angled towards groups rather than lone drinkers. And indeed the pub was popular with groups on our visit – largely made up of well-spoken chaps and gals in their 20s and 30s. Old wooden floors, an open fire, an upright piano and a hint of background music under the hubbub of conversation rounded off the ambience nicely.
Put simply, the Southampton Arms is the real deal. Go and visit while you can still get in the door.
The Southampton Arms, 139 Highgate Road, London NW5 1LE.