Culture Magazine Pints

Looking for Bagley’s

Our pints correspondent went for a night out in King’s Cross.

London nightlife, they tell you, is dying on its arse. Soho has lost its lustre – there are currently 45 pubs located within its once-sleazy trapezoid, and five of them are Simmons Bars. Unless you’re a member of a club, your after-hours options in Soho are limited to a couple of very mid-tier basement venues that spiritually belong in Leicester Square, all backpackers and 2003 chart hits. To the east, Shoreditch is now nothing more than the gakked-up pied-à-terre of Essex; an immaculate, infantile expanse of Barrios, Brewdogs and adult ball pits. In Peckham, south-east London’s gentrification battleground du jour, they shut down Canavans, did up the Nag’s Head, and opened more rooftop bars and austere cocktail cantinas than the whole of Lower Manhattan combined. Mayfair is monotonous. The South Bank plays it safe. But, look north, and there is still one place worth getting sozzled in. On the periphery of the capital’s inner core, as the boroughs of Islington and Camden intersect, you’ll find a drinking district where the pipes are pumping and the saturnalia of old London still clings on: King’s Cross.

King’s Cross used to be known as Battle Bridge. Supposedly Boudicea, Queen of the Iceni, valiantly fought her final fight against the Romans here in AD 61, on the marshy banks of the River Fleet. As London expanded outwards many hundreds of years later, the area developed an iniquitous reputation: pollution, prostitution and crime plagued its streets following the construction of the Euston Road in 1756. In 1830, in a bid to clean up Battle Bridge’s image, a monument to the recently deceased King George IV was erected, complete with a police station built into the bottom. The dead royal’s cenotaph was unfathomably ugly. Cheaply constructed, this ridiculous octagonal structure lasted only 15 years before it was unceremoniously pulled down – replaced by what is today a branch of Five Guys. But the name ‘King’s Cross’ stuck, even if the efforts to spruce the place up failed. By the end of the 20th century the sex workers and drug addiction remained, but most of the industry – coal, gas, goods transportation – had moved out; banished downriver or out into the edgelands. In their place came the pingers. For a certain generation of brain-damaged dreamers, King’s Cross is part of the promised land: Bagley’s, The Cross, Egg, The Key, Canvas, Scala. Doves and Mitzis. 2-step and hardcore. The melancholic beauty of York Way as the sun finally comes up. What beautiful proof of God everyone thought it was.

Today, the warehouse that housed Bagley’s is a Copenhagenesque shopping centre. York Way has seven burger joints. But there is still a grit to King’s Cross and the surrounding area; still undoubtedly a bacchanalian edge that marks it out from the rest of Zone 1. For the seventh time, The Fence wanted to send me on a boozy mission to find something out about the state of the nation’s drinking. I considered the plight of the Iron Duke in Great Yarmouth. I considered, briefly, a weird weekend trip to the Isle of Man.

But I wanted to try and find out exactly what makes a good night out in London, and why King’s Cross for me comes out right at the top. So I decided to dust off my latex Ian Nairn mask and dictionary of architectural terms, and started thinking about our grand evening out in the district of the two termini.

I wanted to ease myself – and a ragtag bunch of hastily assembled piss artists – into the tempo of King’s Cross slowly, with a few ambrosial halves in some of its many public houses. The sudden closure in September of McGlynn’s, the charming, carpeted Irish pub beloved by boozehounds and Central Saint Martins students alike, may have caused a shockwave through the pintman community, but there is still a very generous amount of fantastic boozers knocking around. The Dolphin, The Skinners, The Cock, The Boot, King Charles I, Millers, The Lincoln Arms, Somers Town Coffee House, The Queen’s Head, The Northumberland Arms – can any other area of London boast a collection of pubs this good within a five minute walk from one another?

Whistles wetted with the mellow fizz of a few continental lagers, we were to then grab a cocktail. There are, despite what the purists say, many other very good boozing options beyond the public house even if, as a nation, we don’t generally tend to do The Bar as well as our cousins across the pond – the measures here are too miserly; the prices too high; the ambience too try-hard. That being said, King’s Cross comes as close as anywhere in the capital, with a number of excellent places to get a gin martini – from the colonial luxury of the Gothic Bar to Sweeties, the seventies-inspired cocktail lounge located on the tenth floor of The Standard hotel. The Standard arrived here midway through 2019, a refurb of borough architect Sydney Cook’s magnificent 1974 Camden Town Hall extension, and today acts as a direct comparison to an aspect of the old King’s Cross that still somehow exists: those strange, off-brand hotels that make up much of Argyll Square and the surrounding streets.

Just as with other anachronistic Old London areas like Paddington and Gloucester Road, it’s pleasing to see weirdly low-budget places with evocative names (European Hotel, Carlton Hotel, Excelsior Hotel) still surviving in a city that’s becoming increasingly homogenised. Like chemists, launderettes and average Italian restaurants, the independent hotel stuck in the 1970s is a part of London’s cityscape that seems impervious to redevelopment.

After a few cocktails, we were to cap off our night at one of the many late venues of King’s Cross. Critics of London’s ‘night time economy’ maintain that there’s nothing to do after a certain hour. King’s Cross has three places open until 2am. There are seven establishments locally that stay open until it’s gone 3am, ranging from basement cocktail endeavours to three-story bar-cum-clubs. And then, of course, there’s Egg. But I had my eye on a drunken fumble up Pentonville Road, to a place where it’s perennially 2006: The Lexington, which on weekends is open until 4am.

The day of the adventure came. It was an unseasonably golden day, tinged with soporific ambience. We met in the late afternoon at The Dolphin, a family-run affair tucked away from the grime of the Euston Road and with a gorgeous cream and green gloss façade. Weirdly, in a world of Thai or wood-fired pizza offerings in pubs, The Dolphin stands out for serving up an excellent Peruvian menu. The beer is very reasonably priced. There is outdoor seating. The landlord is just the right amount of cantankerous. It was the perfect place to begin our expedition.

Unfortunately, when it comes to matters of booze the best-laid plans often go awry. Time moves in different ways when you’re deep in refreshment. Going out for a few quiet pints on a Friday and somehow crawling back into bed at 11am on the Sunday is such a well-worn trope of the sesh that an entire social media cottage industry has sprung up dedicated to this act of reckless, grog-eyed decision making. As I sat on a bench outside The Dolphin and more and more people began to turn up, I started to feel less confident that we’d ever make it to King Charles I, or to The Lexington or even just over the road to The Standard’s rooftop.

‘I’m getting a drink, do either of you want a pint?’ the third arrival asked after they’d said their hellos. Go on then, pint please. We talked about the current conflict in the Middle East. Another arrival. Pint? Pint. He sat down, and it was quickly onto the topic of bed bugs. Another arrival. ‘Sorry I’m late’. Pint? Pint. The London media scene. Liverpool’s midfield. The next arrival didn’t even ask if we wanted one, for it was now an unspoken truth self-evident: pint. An early departure from the group threatened to de-grease the whole woozy little system – but my outgoing companion very kindly wanted to complete his round. Pint? Why not, pint. Pint, pint, pint.

‘I really think we ought to be getting on to the next pub’, I meekly protested once everyone had arrived and the sun had gone down, knowing full well that trying to herd 11 people in various stages of inebriation around a five-leg trip of King’s Cross was an utterly pointless exercise. I was immediately met with a barrage of reasons to stay put. There were too many of us. Someone wanted to get something from Burger King to eat. The vibe was right. In truth, the vibe was great – everyone was on the kind of electric form that comes once in a blue moon, where every in-joke is met with spilled drinks and tears of mirth, and every story becomes an after-dinner speech from Kenneth Williams. I was holding court like Dean Martin. Everything was easy, natural and deeply, deeply fun. So we stayed in The Dolphin for the rest of the evening, drinking pint after pint and telling story after story, until the bell abruptly rang for last orders. I had, even on drink number seven, still hoped that we might get around to a few more places, and that I might find some of the answers I sought, but the tinny clang of time swiftly ended that fantasy. The night was over. I had nothing. Thankfully, I didn’t have too much time to wallow, for soon someone had ordered the inevitable cab back to a flat, and the rest of the evening was lost to a fog of brandy and incoherent conversazioni.

I had set out to capture what makes King’s Cross the best place to drink in London, but had instead been confronted with a reminder of the futility of such an exercise. What stopped me completing my mission wasn’t that it’s not the best place to get pissed – take my word for it, it is – but the very reason we go out in the first place: the act of losing yourself for a few hours in the company of friends. I’d failed because getting pissed with your mates is one of life’s last delicious pleasures, and I am susceptible to its charm.

Yes, King’s Cross might have better pubs and greater options than anywhere else in the city, but really, does it matter? A good night out is rooted so much more in the people you’re with than in the place you’re in. It’s the laughter, it’s the gossip, it’s the camaraderie. And really, all of that can thrive just as well whether it’s Clapham, Clapton, Clacton or King’s Cross.

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