The crucial question of Twickenham’s best pub was recently discussed on twickerati. It’s a toughie, a real toughie. But one pub came out of that particular survey very well. It used to be a little bit crap; now it’s rather good. In this review feature, Twickenham resident, pub-goer and beer drinker Newcastle Martin gets to grips with whether the revamped Sussex Arms really is the perfect local pub. Here’s his view.
Twickenham’s Perfect Pub?
In 1946, George Orwell wrote a famous essay on the perfect pub. He nominated a local called the Moon Under Water, specifying its good beer, popularity with regulars, open fires, decent food, friendly service, the “comfortable ugliness” of its Victorian fittings, ample garden and lack of ‘rowdies’ and radio. The only problem was that the Moon Under Water never existed — or at least it didn’t until many years later Tim Martin of JD Wetherspoon fame gave that name to several of the chain’s pubs, thereby creating a modern dystopia Orwell might have satirised.
Of course, pubs and pub-goers have changed. Most of us no longer require the staff to sell us stamps, aspirins or liver sausage, for example, but for many of us the substance of Orwell’s wish-list remains relevant and his taste immaculate. A pub should be a place to drink, chat and pass the time pleasantly. It shouldn’t be compromised by drunks, brewing disasters, miserable staff, garish modern design or deafening sound levels.
And, further to the recent twickerati feature on local boozing options, the wonderful news is that here in Twickenham we have a remarkable pub that passes the Orwell test and is regarded as pretty near perfect by its many regulars. The Central in Gateshead is tremendous, Ye Olde Mitre off Hatton Garden in London is very characterful and of course there are many other places worth getting to know but, having invested over a quarter of a century in investigating the alternatives, I’m not sure I’ve ever been to a better-run pub than the Sussex Arms.
The extensive list of draft beers and ciders offers profound options from all over the country (and further afield by bottle) at lower-than-average prices. The people who work at The Sussex are sensationally good: smiling, offering tasting samples and happily tolerating the odd eccentric visitor. The food is terrific with special mention going to the pies with exquisite signature baked into crust to identify contents. Seating is comfortable and nicely weathered and the light shining into in the room through stained glass provides a perfect ambience.
This is a happy place. I’ve never seen dogs and children so welcome and owners and parents repay this faith by ensuring their pets and loved ones are kept respectively on the literal and metaphorical leash. For those that need the release valve, there is a surprisingly large, well-tended garden.
The details add grace notes. A loyalty card rewards regulars with a free 10th pint. Newspapers and Wi-Fi are provided gratis. Drinkers are offered a straight glass (an abomination to Orwell) or codger-style jug. There are board games, books and music (on vinyl!) at a volume appropriate for those who appreciate the golden age of rock and those that could have lived without it.
For all serious topers, this is a cathedral and miraculous discovery capable of bringing on an overwhelming sense of wellbeing. Sitting on a Christmas Eve lunchtime, listening to Bob Dylan and The Band perform Lay Lady Lay while I nursed a deeply satisfying pint of Mordue’s splendidly named Howay In A Manger, I felt quite suddenly a bond of empathy with the amiable black Labrador lying by the open fire, occasionally exhaling contented sighs (the dog, not me, but it was a close-run affair).
This is as close to heaven as most of us are likely to get: a space to contemplate the passing of the day in good company and ignore the noisy, brutish outside world. All this, and The Sussex is handily located next to a stop serving the 490, H22 and 110 buses — O fortunate routes! A newsagent and bookmaker are also at hand and there are grocery shops for those combining a covert pint with a shopping expedition. If you have boundless ambition and are seeking a crawl of it, it’s easy to visit other very good local pubs, The Rifleman and The Prince of Wales. In a strategic decision to be applauded there is no TV at the Sussex but sport viewers craving a screen can take the short stroll to one of two Fuller’s houses, the Prince Albert and Prince Blucher.
The Sussex is all the better for not being some twee destination or museum-like space festooned with preservation orders or blue plaques listing dead people that have passed through its doors. It sits on the busy Staines Road in a building that would never stop a modern-day Pevsner. And of course pedants might detect some grit in the oyster: some criticise the lack of a regular house beer. In a bid to demonstrate even-handedness, I would add that the bar is sometimes sticky and you can’t always get a seat when it’s busy, which is most evenings. But really, this is as near to perfection you’re going to find in a modern pub.
It’s impossible to know how Orwell would feel on the subject of Toots and the Maytals on the turntable and The Sussex does not appear to offer its ale in china crockery as the great man enjoyed but, were he alive today and blessed to be living in TW2 rather than north London or Jura, he would surely have supped here and appreciated the sheer civility of this place. Twickenham is lucky indeed to have this glorious enclave where, for a few coins, the cares of the shoddy universe can be left at the door.
[Newcastle Martin (not entirely his real name) is a Twickenham local whose only affiliation with The Sussex is that of very satisfied customer]