Pubs With Tales: The City Barge In London

An occasional series about bars with interesting stories. This time: The City Barge in London, a pub that gets occasionally flooded by the Thames, and where RIngo was once menaced by a tiger.

If you're ever in west London and in the mood for a beer beside the River Thames there are dozens of pubs to choose from. One of these is the City Barge (known by locals as simply 'the Barge') at Strand-on-the-Green in Chiswick, on the north bank of the river and just a short walk downstream from Kew Bridge. A drinking establishment of one kind or another (though not always of the same name) has stood on the site for five centuries and has, over the years, seen the surrounding area change from a quaint village to a rather posh and exclusive riverside enclave where former fishermens' cottages can fetch seven-figure sums. And as if that isn't enough, the pub has also featured in a film starring a well-known popular beat combo from the 1960s.

"Built as The Navigator Arms in 1484, The City Barge was renamed in the 19th Century when the State Barge of the Lord Mayor of the City of London had its winter moorings on the River Thames outside the inn. The steel door to the Old Bar is needed when the Thames runs high and the front of the pub is cut off, whilst in summer patrons can enjoy the pleasures of the tow path."

 

Looking at the pub today you'd be forgiven for thinking that the building doesn't appear to be 500 years old, and you'd be right. It was largely destroyed during a World War Two bombing raid and the outside was rebuilt in a modern style with plain brickwork.

Inside, the pub is divided into two areas - the old bar and the top bar. The old bar, as the name suggests, retains the feeling of a cosy old inn, with a low, exposed-beam ceiling, plaster-and-beam walls, a couple of fireplaces, wooden settles, a red tile floor and brass knick-knacks covering the walls. This is where most of the pub's regulars congregate to drink and pass the time of day.

The top bar has a much more modern feel with a polished wood floor, comfortable seating and decor based on a boating theme. This section of the Thames is home to several rowing clubs and you're very likely to see singles, pairs, fours and eights sculling their way up and down the river on most evenings.

There are tables on the pathway outside the pub and on balmy summer evenings it's not uncommon to find more patrons outside than inside as the crowd spreads along the towpath and sits on the riverbank, with drinkers idly dangling their legs over the edge. From here you can often see spectacular sunsets over Kew Bridge.

The river, affectionately known to Londoners as Old Father Thames, is both the reason for, and the greatest threat to, the City Barge. The small riverside settlement which is today called Strand-on-the-Green had already been in existence for at least a hundred years before the Navigators Arms was built and at the time was simply called 'Strande' after the narrow strip of gravel which lined the riverbank along that stretch of the Thames. Its inhabitants made their living from fishing and other water-related occupations such as ferries and boat-building, and for a while there were six inns along this half-mile or so of the bank.

 

Despite being almost 40 miles inland, the Thames is still tidal at Strand-on-the-Green (in fact it's tidal all the way to Teddington Lock, about six miles further upstream) and will rise and fall twice a day by as much as 23 feet, so if you look out from the pub and see the river flowing backwards it's not that you've had one too many pints, it's just the tide coming in.

At certain times of the month, when the Moon is in its new or full phases, the tide will be high enough to cover the riverside walk for up to half an hour at a time, to the extent that it would flood the old bar if not for a steel door (similar to bulkhead doors found on ships and submarines) that can be closed tight shut by means of several nuts and bolts which are tightened with a large spanner. A thick rubber gasket around the edge of the door provides a seal against inundation. Sometimes the seal doesn't seat properly and staff can be seen frantically mopping the tiles because by the time the door starts leaking it's too late to undo the bolts and re-close the door; doing so would flood the entire bar. It's at times such as this you begin to understand the meaning of the phrase 'force of nature'.

Around the times of the spring and autumn equinoxes when the tides are exceptionally high, the river can almost cover the tables outside on the footpath, rising to only a few inches below the old bar's windows. The top bar doesn't have such problems, being situated about seven or eight feet higher than the old bar. Nor does the river flood the pub's car park or the neighbouring houses, thanks to several high walls and sets of steps.

Consequently the City Barge has no cellar since twice a day it would be below the level of the river and prone to flooding. As most serious beer drinkers know, a cellar is essential to any good pub because that's where the beer is kept, and kept at just the right temperature. Instead of a cellar, the Barge's kegs, casks and barrels are kept in an air-conditioned shed alongside the car park.

Fans of The Beatles will remember a scene from the film Help! where the Fab Four find themselves taking a stroll by the river. After being chased by a marching band of bagpipers in full regalia playing 'Scotland the Brave' (an incongruous sight on the banks of the River Thames, although some pretty weird stuff went on in London during the sixties) they duck into a pub and decide to have "two lagers and lime and two lagers and lime". Ringo's glass seems to be stuck to the bar, and when George tips it forward a trapdoor opens and Ringo drops into a cellar where he finds himself being stalked by a tiger. The three other Beatles see one of the baddies (Leo McKern) behind the bar and exit the pub by jumping through the windows onto the footpath, but then rush back in with the police to rescue Ringo and everyone ends up singing Beethoven's Ode to Joy because that sends the tiger to sleep and Ringo is saved from a gruesome demise. This scene was shot in the old bar of the City Barge and on the footpath outside the pub.

Wait a minute... let's go back a few paragraphs: "Consequently the City Barge has no cellar". Obviously the cellar in the film is a bit of artistic licence. The interior shots were filmed in a studio re-creation of the bar, and a pretty good one too. The cellar that Ringo drops into looks like a bona fide pub cellar, and the words 'M x B Bitter' chalked on the wall make me think that this part of the scene might have been shot at a nearby pub that really did have a cellar and also happened to stock beers from the Birmingham brewery Mitchells and Butlers.

The pub often features in organised tours of "The Beatles' London". Buses will sometimes pull into the car park and disgorge 50 or so tourists (Japanese, more often than not) who will spend about 15 minutes absorbing the atmosphere, taking photographs and/or filming the pub and the bar staff who, frankly, have seen it all before. Afterwards it's not uncommon to find several half-pints of Guinness scattered about the pub, each one having had just one sip taken from it. Irish stout does not suit the Eastern palate, apparently.


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