The target: That pinnacle of English cuisine … the traditional pub lunch! The goal (Or in my case pilgrimage!) is to get from Heathrow airport via the Tube (London’s underground train system) to the Albert at 52 Victoria Street at the most breakneck speed possible!
By David Wesley Tonkin
Once I clear Customs and pick up my bag its tally-ho for the airport’s Tube station beneath Terminal 4. Jump onto the first Piccadilly Line train … or the second one if it is an express to the City; you must think on your feet! At Acton Town station rapidly transfer to the District Line train; destination Westminster station. Plan “B” … if the District Line is running slow you transfer to the Circle Line at South Kensington station; it also stops at Westminster.
Theoretically the nearest pubs to the Westminster Tube are the Two Chairmen on Dartmouth Street (18th century gentlemen would summon sedan chairs carried by two chairmen to reach this agreeable tavern) and the Red Lion in Parliament Square, (Which has a bell to summon Members of Parliament when a vote is being taken)however, I much prefer the Fullers London Pride, Courage Directors, Wells Bombardier, Guest Ales, Scrumpy (Cider) and food at the Albert. A man must remain loyal and honorable! By the way of further clarification … the Landlord of each pub generally has a contractual allegiance to one brewing company; useless he has declared his establishment a “free house”
Now it’s the dash past the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abby … cross busy Victoria Street to the New Scotland Yard side … now only half a block further. Quickly up the steps at the side of the pub into the quieter, less used saloon bar. The Albert is a fairly new pub built in 1862 and named in honor of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, beloved Prince Consort of Queen Victoria.
Now, in progression I indulge myself in the attainment of the quest … beer, food and ambiance! I sit back with a sigh and take a gulp from my pint of Directors Ale; all is good with my world. I have already erased recent memories of overcrowded airports, delays, and jammed aircraft with legroom suitable for someone measuring 5 feet tall with very narrow hips and a cabin crew who really, verbally and visually, ensure that you understand that serving you is an abhorrent chore.
A few more flavorful mouthfuls of my ale and thoughts of my pub lunch maneuver themselves to the forefront of my mind. Will it be that truly British board called a Ploughman’s Lunch (Wiltshire cured ham, farmhouse quiche, huge Stilton and mature sharp Cheddar wedges, Branston pickle, a small dressed mixed salad and a fresh and crisp baguette and butter) or a pork pie (a traditional British meat pie. It consists of roughly chopped pork and pork jelly sealed in a hot water flakey crust pastry)?
On the most recent trip the pork pie, two in fact … accompanied by two large onions pickled in malt vinegar won the day. Having achieved pub grub bliss I order another ale and sit back with a sigh.
Ah! The ambiance and history! The Albert has survived virtually in its original form with large exquisitely etched glass windows, the delightfully ornate ceiling and the Prime Ministers Gallery in the stairwell up to the carvery … the photograph at the top of the series is unusual among the preceding stuffily dressed and unsmiling men and one woman. It shows a smiling Tony Blair with collar undone and no jacket! The Albert has survived the bombs of the WW1 Zeppelins, the WW2 blitz by Goering’s Luftwaffe and the encroachment of the bland glass and steel monoliths that surround it. All too soon it’s time to stow another blissful memory of a pub lunch and get to work!
What I have described is one of several traditions (or habitual behaviors?) in the tapestry of my world. Some are of my own creation and other bear significance to generations of my family.
The idyllic pub lunch tradition was recently and wretchedly brutally shaken to its core and the threat of its total extinction may loom on a not too distant horizon. My daughter and son-n-law returned from an extensive tour of the wine regions of France and four days of museum and “pub crawling” in Greater London (composed of the actual one mile square City and 32 surrounding boroughs) bearing a disturbing tale … They went to the Albert for lunch … there were no pork pies available, no pickled onions, not even another pub food staple, the cake and sidney pie (Cockney rhyming slang for steak and kidney pie) … the Ploughman’s Lunch was offered in what seemed to be a low-calorie version with crunchy Red Delicious apples! Its gets far worse than that; the menu included nachos, wraps, hamburgers and, I shudder as I type it … “ Sumptuous whole Camembert baked in its box, served with a sweet balsamic onion and rosemary confit and petite crunchy baguette croutes”. They reported that other pubs had gone completely over to Asian food and one to a Swedish smoked meats buffet! These horrors also extended to the dinner menu!
To purposefully miss-quote Charles Dickens (The Tale of Two Cities) “These are not the best of times and were the worst of times”
It has taken a while to sort this all out in my head and come to the realization that traditions, both large and insignificant, will be bullied by the frenetic cultural change in our society. “Change is inevitable …” and several similar clichés notwithstanding … this was one that was not going to fade away I vowed!
I found an answer! If your tradition is threatened then move it to a place that is safe (at least for the foreseeable future!) … I discovered “The Whip Tavern” in Coatesville PA and “The Ship Tavern” brew pub in Milford NJ. Both of these establishments have tried to re-create (and come admirably close to) a British pub atmosphere and have most of my favorite pub lunch and dinner fare on their menus! So I raise my pint of Fullers London Pride in gratitude and say; Cheers! Keep your traditions alive … and flexible to change! Do not just let them fade away!