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The Nag's Head, Belgravia.


“Paris is a woman but London is an independent man puffing his pipe in a pub.” ― Jack Kerouac

The particular pubs selected for the tour, and the gorgeous photos used are all from the wonderful book GREAT PUBS OF LONDON by George & Charlie Dailey, which I'd thoroughly recommend.


I arrive ten minutes late on a sunny morning in Belgravia, to find Nick waiting patiently, (and for some reason sans bière), ensconced in a small nook in the front bar. Although open for business, the Nag’s Head is quiet as a church, and­­­—­apart from my drinking buddy—perfectly empty. Well, I say empty, but only in respect to clientele. For even bereft of punters, this little nineteenth century gem is teaming with, well … stuff, every inch of wall space taken up by a madcap collection of cultural memorabilia of a particularly British flavour—like some decanted time capsule from the twentieth century. There’s Nick, sitting quietly beneath a squadron of tin plate fighter planes, vying for space with the penny arcade machines, militaria, boxing posters, and assorted exotic headgear. And we’re not talking some aristo interior designer’s idea of boho chic here—by all appearances this is the authentic flotsam and jetsam of a long life; and judging from the personal messages scrawled across the publicity photos of the great and the good, a life of some colour and interest. And, as I take my place in front of the handsome beer engine (with its set of faded Victorian porcelain pump handles), like the shopkeeper in Mr Benn, the owner of that life magically appears—our landlord, Kevin Moran.

“Aggressively Rude” Reviewed 3 March 2017.

“Strange atmosphere, very rude staff” Reviewed 4 December 2016.

“Unbelievable hostility and rudeness AVOID” Reviewed 21 August 2016.

“Avoid this pub - rude proprietor” Reviewed 12 July 2016.

Now, as you can see from the above selection of Tripadvisor reviews, over the years Mr Moran has acquired somewhat of a reputation—in my opinion, mostly because, although well into his seventies, he still maintains a tight grip on the peculiar etiquette of the establishment. No mobile phones; no popping in just to look at the décor; no rounds consisting solely of non-alcoholic beverages; no loud kids; no babies. And with the aid of his stalwart Irish barmaid, Anne-Marie, these house rules are applied with vigour and gusto … and my guess is that sometimes he just doesn’t like the cut of some of his punters’ jibs. Having said that, I experienced nothing but polite and courteous service from both of them during our visit. Although Nick did report that when he first arrived, his explanation that he was “waiting for a friend” and therefore didn’t want to order just yet, was met with something of an old-fashioned look. By all accounts he got off lightly, one online reviewer waiting for a friend in a similar manner was ordered to wait outside, in the rain! (Actually, I’m with the landlord here, I mean, who sits in a pub without a drink? When I put this to Mrs L her comment was “Well, it was 11 o’clock in the morning, it’s perfectly reasonable not to want an alcoholic drink at that time of day.” Which is, quite frankly, gibberish.)

The Nags Head9

Anyway, back to the boozer. As I say, with his first paying customer of the day at the bar (me), our landlord apparates, accompanied by a jukebox soundtrack composed almost exclusively of crooners from the 40s, 50s and 60s. After some deft pumping of those elegant porcelain handles, I receive two pints of Ghost Ship and hand over a crisp tenner, which is deposited in the ornate Edwardian till; no digital technology here—and no change, either. This is Belgravia, remember, and I have an inkling that prices in the Nag’s Head are rounded up for ease of mental arithmetic—and probably attain a certain elasticity, depending on how you come across to mine host.

I return to our table to the dulcet tones of Johnnie Ray’s “Walking My Baby Back Home”, and with the first drink of the day going down well (we’d had a late one at Ronnie Scott’s the previous night) I start to sing along with the record. I’ve always liked Nat King Cole’s version of this number, and so joined in with my favourite line: “We started to pet, and that's when I get, her talcum all over my vest …” (for a kid growing up in the 70s, the words ‘talcum’ and ‘vest’ hold a certain comedic quality probably not intended by Roy Turk when he wrote the lyrics back in 1930). Mr Moran—now in old-school fashion on a stool on the public side of the bar—clocks that I know the tune. What was that? Did the famous curmudgeon’s shoulders relax just the tiniest degree?

“Hmm …” he semi-grunts (mentally). Or, I imagine he semi-grunts (mentally), anyway. “Curious.” —That’s him again, thinking (or, me imagining what he’s thinking). Come on, keep up!

I think it’s at this stage that Nick and I are cut a little slack. Thank you, Nat King Cole!

As Johnnie Ray segues into Perry Como, (or Matt Munro, or Dickie Valentine …) the first of the regulars arrives and takes his place next to our landlord at the bar. A smartly dressed man in his late sixties, with a faint (Italian?) accent, he had a touch of the Ricardo Montalbáns about him (and yes, I do know Ricardo Montalbán was Mexican): kerchief in the blazer pocket, light slacks, slicked back hair; he could have stepped straight out of an episode of The Persuaders. He’s closely followed by our barmaid, Anne-Marie (peroxide blonde, Irish charm and a glorious way with an expletive) and a cockney postie with a lovely rich accent, who takes the pew next to Señor Montalbán (it turns out the postman is not on duty but is also one of the regulars). After some initial gentle ribbing, the talk relaxes into a review of the previous night’s drinking session, racing tips and various medical conditions. More regulars appear—including an elderly Indian gent in a suit and another smooth-looking extra from The Persuaders (this time with a notably posh Belgravian accent)—and they take their place in the line-up.

The Nags Head4Soon the front bar has developed a pleasant buzz, and with my liquid breakfast nicely reviving my blood sugar levels I find myself beginning to regard the crazy interior of this joint as perfectly normal. As Nick and I sit putting the world to rights, and the Moran Drinking Club warm to their task in hand, every now and then the odd punter blunders in from the outside world (looking like a Pevensie emerging from the back of the wardrobe). For the most part, these civilians are served without incident, and then dispatched out into the sunshine with their drinks. There is, however, one faintly worrying moment when a young woman comes in and asks if they have Crabbie’s Ginger Beer. The initial look of disgust on Anne-Marie’s face is, in my opinion, worth the schlep up from the West Country on its own:

“No, dear. We do not have Crabbie’s Ginger Beer ... Will yer have a shandy instead?” She will! Ah, there we are then … and we all breathe a sigh of relief.

Time for more beer, and maybe some bar snacks. So, what’s on offer? Wasabi peas, perhaps? Parmesan and chive popcorn? Ox cheek nuggets with kimchi dip? Ha ha! This is the Nag’s Head. It’s crisps, that’s it. Golden Wonder crisps (Golden Wonder! I didn’t even know they still made them!) in two flavours—Cheese & Onion, or Salt & Vinegar (reassuringly bagged in the correct colour). That’ll do nicely … combined with the warm yeasty fug of the beer it’s like a long cuddle from your slightly pissed nan. I tease a plug of beer-sodden potato from a back molar as I gaze nostalgically at the Spangle poster on the wall, take another slurp of beer, and let out a little whimper of pleasure.

But, hold on, what’s this? I come to, rudely awakened from my reverie. The juke box volume has been yanked down and Kevin Moran is standing up and silencing the whole pub. Oh my God! What is it? Has someone been caught secretly checking Facebook on their iPhone? Has the Crabbie’s fan returned to complain that there’s no Molton Brown Orange & Bergamot hand wash in the ladies? Did … did someone … did someone ask for … for a mineral water? But no, no … it looks like it’s OK. The regulars are smiling, it’s some kind of joke. Please say it is …

“It’s of professional medical opinion that I won’t last long enough to see Christmas this year,” says Moran, to a few titters. “So, I thought I’d better get this in while I still have time.”

And then, at full volume, we are treated to Bing Crosby crooning through ‘White Christmas’, while the summer sun beats down hard on the puzzled brows of the tourists seated outside. With a great sense of relief, those of us inside relax back in our chairs, and—now well into my third pint—I start to sing along again. “You know what?” says Nick. “This isn’t like being in a pub at all, it’s like sitting in someone’s front room.” And, having agreed with this comforting observation, I nip off to the gents.

Now, a trip to the gents in the Nag’s Head is remarkable for two reasons: firstly, the lobby to both WCs is festooned with antique toys and ‘what-the-butler saw’ machines. And, secondly, from the toilet lobby, you have a clear view through the open door of the pub’s small kitchen, where, if you get the timing right, you can observe Anne-Marie putting the pies in the microwave (even though that’s not a euphemism, in some way it still doesn’t feel quite right to do this).

Returning from my call of nature I arrive at the table just as the cockney postie is delivering another two pints of Ghost Ship (bit of a busman’s holiday for him, I guess). Thinking that Nick has been to the bar in my absence I thank him, and then thank the postman for passing the drinks from the bar. But it soon transpires that Nick didn’t buy the drinks—in fact, he thought I’d got them in. After a little investigation, it soon transpires that we have been bought a pint by one of the regulars, the elderly Indian gent in the suit, (PJ, or BJ, I don’t quite catch it). “That’s very kind,” I say. “But … why, exactly?” It turns out it’s because we appreciated the ‘White Christmas’ joke. I beam proudly at Nick, and then gaze at the line of faces in the little exclusive drinking club at the bar, wondering what I’d look like in a blazer and slacks.

The Nags Head3The Nag’s Head is like a little part of history, trapped in nicotine-stained amber. It’s a reminder of a time when all pubs had landlords—and landladies—who sat in pride of place at the bar, and filled in, behind the ‘jump’, when the bar staff got too busy. And no, I’m not evoking some sub-Faragean idyll, set in John Major’s ‘country of long shadows on country cricket grounds’. I’m talking about frowsy city pubs full of character, places like The Antigallican in Tooley Street (now sadly shutdown), where I celebrated my twenty-first birthday, run by the ever-entertaining Taffy. Or The Goldsmith’s Tavern in New Cross (now reinvented as an upmarket watering hole) where I met first met Mrs L – this one run by another ‘character’ landlord, Les, who made the cast of Guy Ritchie’s films look like choirboys. Not another Wetherspoons, or an All Bar One, but individual boozers full of character. Chatting to one of the Nag’s Head regulars, (who routinely travelled all the way from Bristol to savour this unique drinking experience), we asked ourselves what would happen to the place when Kevin Moran had gone. Sadly, a rhetorical question, I think.

As Nick and I got up to leave I asked the Indian guy what he’d like to drink, wanting to return the favour. “Oh no,” he said. “Don’t buy me a drink. Just come back.” And you know what? I think I probably will.


All photos used are from the wonderful book GREAT PUBS OF LONDON by George & Charlie Dailey. I'm sure you all know someone who'd love this as a present.





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