Karl Marx: Thinker, philosopher, theorist, sociologist... and drunken yob. That’s right, the beardy communist was something of a drinker. One night in the late 1850s, he embarked upon a famous pub crawl that would see him arguing with the locals before running down the street smashing gas lamps.
Gathering together some boozy friends, the young Marx endeavoured to 'take something' in every saloon between Oxford Street and Hampstead Road... that is, to have a drink in every pub along Tottenham Court Road.
The challenge would have been somewhat more intoxicating in Marx’s day, when something like 18 pubs lined the street. Today there are just six, but we can still have a beery old time following in his footsteps.
The Jack Horner
234-236 Tottenham Court Road
The Jack Horner sits, appropriately, on a corner. And like its nursery-rhyme namesake, it has a fondness for pies. Stick your thumb (or fork) into any from a range that includes good old steak 'n' ale, Stilton and stuff, and a meaty house special. Beer is by Fullers, with six on cask including a guest. Otherwise, it's a fairly unassuming bar with the brewery’s usual trick of dark wood, brass trimmings and random prints of ye olde London. Not a bad place to start.
The Rising Sun
46 Tottenham Court Road
An L-shaped stalwart of TCR, the Rising Sun is gloriously Victorian. Marx himself might have popped in here on his fateful bender. Who knows? Anyhow, the beardy one would possibly feel at home here today, if he could stop marvelling/shrieking at Sky Sports and the blandpop aural furniture. The bar is otherwise a relic of bygone days, with an oxblood ceiling and tactile wallpaper that must have been painted over a hundred times and looks like it’s melting. The beer selection is decent and variable, with Youngs, Fullers and St Austell on tap during our last visit. This place has its flaws, but enjoy the decor, for the Rising Sun is perhaps the most characterful stop on our crawl.
182 Tottenham Court Road
The website says this is a 'style bar'. Maybe once upon a time, but now the TCR looks a little dated and careworn. It's not without its merits — a lively scene on a Friday night, and a little-known beer garden (rare in these parts) hidden round the back. It does have a spacious, relaxed feel on a weekday afternoon, and more of a buzz in the evening, with thumping music. It's caught somewhere between a pub and a bar. The drink selection tends more toward the latter, with lagers and cocktails being the house 'thing'. One lowly cask ale, Greene King IPA, caters for beer fans. This would be the point on the crawl where Marx would be getting a bit jolly... but still a way to go.
The Fitzrovia Belle
174 Tottenham Court Road
The former Mortimer Arms is now associating itself with Fitzrovia, despite being — to most people's perceptions — on the wrong side of TCR (though technically in the Fitzrovia conservation area). Tiny front room, lengthy back room, and all is abuzz with thumping beats and Sky Sports — not really our idea of a 'belle'. The Greene King beer was well kept, with Deuchars as another option, but there's not much more to add.
108a Tottenham Court Road
The Court tends to attract a young crowd, drawn from UCL and the nearby teaching hospital — though the copious passing trade brings in all-comers. With burgers, curries, pies and other favourites at superbly low prices, it's no wonder that this is a student haunt. Bar offerings are eclectic; five real ales jockey with bottled fruity things and pretty much every mainstream lager you care to mention. Unless you're a massive grumpian, you can't help but smile along with the positive mood in this place, but you wouldn’t want to make it your regular. If Marx were with us, this is the point he’d start tugging at his beard with nascent thoughts about smashing things.
The Northumberland Arms
119 Tottenham Court Road
It's hard to classify the Northumberland. Perhaps it's because, like Marx at this point, we're sozzled. It's a fairly small pub with ideas above its station. The menu flourishes words like 'organic', 'fresh' and 'handmade'. If you've got this far, you'll see the novelty. The music's also cool as cucumber (by TCR standards). Hot Chip and Broken Bells take turns on the stereo, contrasting with interchangeable chart popstrels in most of the previous venues. The pub even serves as a Pokéstop, and we observe several monster hunters during our brief stay. The beers are mainstream, but good mainstream, including the ever reliable Mad Goose on our most recent visit. The diminutive drinking space make for a cosy place, where it would be easy to eavesdrop on the next table.
Honourable mentions: The Flying Horse, right back at the start, might also be included but has its entrance on Oxford Street.
Dishonourable mentions: Spearmint Rhino. Shudder.
It was somewhere around the Northumberland Arms, at the northern end of Tottenham Court Road, that Marx and his friends got into a spot of bother. According to the memoirs of Wilhelm Liebknecht, those in the final pub took to lampooning the Germans — a custom that can still be observed among boozy Brits to this day. Marx took umbrage and began listing the great achievements of the German people. This didn't go down too well, and the group decided to flee before things turned ugly.
Liebknecht writes about their return to the town centre:
Now we had had enough of our 'beer trip' for the time being and in order to cool our heated blood, we started on a double march, until Edgar Bauer stumbled over a heap of paving stones. Hurrah, an idea! And in memory of mad students' pranks he picked up a stone and Crash! Clatter! A gas lantern went flying into splinters. Madness is contagious — Marx and I did not stay far behind, and we broke four or five street lamps.
The act of vandalism attracted the police, but the quick-heeled Germans were able to evade pursuit. The father of communism was never arrested for petty vandalism.
A version of this article appears in Londonist Drinks, our book about pubs, bars and the history of drinking in the capital.