It’s show-time! That phrase sings in my head each time I visit London’s Blackfriar pub. If Walt Disney had been a pub designer this is what he would have devised. Every surface of this spectacular Arts & Crafts/Art Nouveau hostelry is decorated and then decorated again. More is more is more. If minimalism is your style then either wear sunglasses in this pub or go to the post-industrial concrete bunker boozer nearby.
The Blackfriar is a tall, narrow wedge-shaped edifice marooned between busy roads and a railway bridge. It was built in the 1870s but the interiors we see now were installed between 1905 and 1915. Acting as sentinel above one of the doors is the cartoonish statue of a corpulent but jolly monk dressed in the black robes that earned the Dominican order their nickname – the Black Friars. It is also a visual clue to the history of the site. The Blackfriar’s area corresponds with the site of the medieval Dominican Monastery that was torn down during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the late 16th century.
Enter the pub through the rear side door under the trees, not forgetting to gaze up above the doorway where a colourful mosaic depicts monks fishing and celebrating the catch of the day. Look closely at the capitals of the columns. Greek these are not. Porcine monk greedily tuck into pies and wheels of cheese. Ironic rather than Ionic.
Now walk through the door for a first impression like no other. Spin around and behold the beaten copper bas-reliefs of monks going about their business (fishing, gathering fruit, singing, praying), solid walls of brown, green and yellow Carrera marble, carved wood, mother of pearl decorations. brass devils riding on the back of toads.
Explore further through the archway into a marble lined room with a barrel ceiling adorned with intricately chequered golden mosaics. In each corner of the room just above eye-level sits a black marble devil amusing himself with an entertaining pastime – accordion playing, painting, reading, play-acting. As a reminder that this is the Black Friar and not the Black Magic, the décor returns us to Christianity in the guise of the Seven Deadly Sins which are displayed on the ceiling as silhouettes of monks’ heads portraying a particular transgression. Look there is Vainglory with a smug appearance of self-satisfaction, and Wrath, with the monk’s eyes firing off the evils. And that one with the protruding ears resembles Yoda as he gobbles his plate of food to represent Gluttony. But hang on one of the Cardinal Sins is missing. A quick mental recitation. Envy, Sloth …… Oh that’s the missing one, Lust!
Then look at the bar and prepare to commit that very sin. Ten hand-pulls for cask conditioned ale. Some are stalwart brands that are served year-round and the remainder is an ever-changing selection from family brewers, large regionals, and small independents based around the country. As sunlight streams through stained glass windows the ecclesiastical atmosphere is palpable and a reminder that you are here to worship at the church of beer.
For some people the draw of this Nicholson’s pub is the convenience of a venue next to their commuting station with beautifully kept cask ale courtesy of the manager John who loves beer and ensures his customers have the best drinking experience. For others, especially tourists, it is the astonishing interior. For me it is both the beer and the interior. It is easy to describe why a pub is so incredible and reasons for patronising it. But how it makes you feel can be indescribable. It is the soul imbued in the pub that affects each person in a way that is unique to them. Each time I visit the Blackfriar it makes me joyful, excited, thrilled and very grateful to the people who campaigned to save the pub from demolition. Hard to believe now, but in the modernist 1960s where minimalism was favoured, maximalist structures like the Blackfriar were reviled. The pub’s location also happened to be in the way of the proposed route of a train line from the adjacent Blackfriar’s railway station. Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman successfully led the campaign to save the Blackfriar pub and now fittingly it now has the highest heritage listing possible for a pub – Grade II* which will preserve this priceless gem for the future.