In 2009, a six hour flight over the Atlantic Ocean landed Joe Rapolla Jr. and I in London. We were on Spring break during High School visiting my sister who had been studying abroad in London for a college semester.
Joe and I were two young and eager 18 year-olds about to go on vacation for the first time together in a different country, a different city. From day one we knew the vacation had the potential to be the trip of a lifetime.
We went “all in” for our journey to the U.K., and prepared ourselves for what we were about to ourselves get into.
Five months in advance we researched online, asked relatives, and asked any acquaintances we knew who had been there before about their experiences and recommendations for things to do. We even took trips to bookstores to check out travel books and guides on London – talk about enthusiasm.
The details, advice, and information we gathered about which pubs to check out were what we poured our most attention into.
Did I mention the drinking age in the United Kingdom is 18?
As soon as we arrived Joe and I hopped onto a two-story red tour bus which took us all over the city. We personally asked the tour guide questions about the pubs we had heard of and any ones he would recommend.
He served our brains with all the pub information we needed.
Of course, it was the little things about London’s pubs where we found and experienced the city’s energy and flavor.
All of London’s pubs are hundreds of years old, and quite classic and historic looking. They were always either two stories high, or had an underground basement below the first floor.
The ceilings were always very low, and their names were typically creative that carried a special meaning behind them.
The first pub we arrived to was called the “Hog in the Pound.” It was an all gray building on a slope of a corner side street with a few empty kegs lying outside of it. I knew we were in the right spot after I saw the proud but lifeless empty kegs sitting there just waiting to be used again.
When we walked in it was exactly what I had imagined.
The pub was dark, old, and built mainly out of dark brown wood inside. We walked down the winding, old, and wooden stair case to discover the smell of fish and chips – which was something else London is notorious for. The downstairs was filled with empty small tables all around which covered the floor.
London is also known for their “warm beer,” so we had to order that as our first legal European drink. Our fish and chips and first warm beer gave us our first taste of London’s unique flavor. The beer was extra smooth and comforting as it hit your lips, and gave us a feel of what London was all about.
Afterwards as we roamed the busy streets of the city we came to a halt when we saw a small and dark side street that was only about twenty yards long with a dead end. As we curiously peered down this alley we could see a pub sign hanging ten feet from the ground that read, “Spread Eagle.”
Somewhat amazed by this hidden pub we had to walk in.
The Eagle was cramped inside; all the tables and seats were tightly fitted next to each other to the left of the old maroon painted entrance door going in a straight narrow path, with the bar parallel to the right. There were only five guys in there enjoying their beers, smokes, and laughs.
It had a genuine comfortable feel to it though. I felt like I had been here plenty of times already before, like a regular.
Over the next three nights Joe and I went back to the Eagle just about an hour before closing time. Most pubs there actually close early at 10, but the Eagle would stay open a little later for its “boys.”
Every time we’d walk into the Eagle, it would be the same five guys, bartenders, and other regulars we saw the first time, and then our young American selves. We’d gotten pretty friendly with the regulars; they gave us great advice on places to go and simply shared great stories.
The owner was a Liverpool Football Club fan, as were as all the regulars in there. We had found out that basically the Eagle was a Liverpool bar in an area of London that was all Chelsea fans, their biggest rivals. So picture a Boston Red Sox bar in New York City…
On our last night we walked in to find a completely new scene at the Eagle. It was crowded out the door with people, and we could hear the noise from down the road. Joe and I looked at each other in an excitement like we just got backstage passes to a Bruce Springsteen concert, as we hustled into the crowded bar with our Irish lids almost falling off.
There was Liverpool game on against Chelsea, and I’d never seen a sports scene anything like it before. I could sense the passion from the fans yelling and screaming excitedly with everyone having a high football IQ; and their display of disappointment both verbally and facial expression-wise after their team had lost.
Garreth Davies, was one of the crazy fans we’d gotten to know to pretty well. He was at the game, but got thrown out, so of course he ended up back at the Eagle posting up with a brew.
He bought us a few rounds and explained the whole history of the team in full detail and his experiences of going to so many games over the years. Then, he got very serious about one story…
He explained that in 1989, 96 Liverpool fans died outside their stadium. They were crushed into one another by the police. “The Sun,” a newspaper in England, reported false information on how the people died and came up with statements that truly went against the poor fans who were crushed to death.
He was very intense with telling this story and you could tell he took a lot of pride in his favorite sports team. He even gave us a vintage sticker that says “Don’t Buy the Sun.”
Our final pub visit had come to an end, we thanked and hugged all the guys and parted ways – promising we’d come back one day.
After our experience in London I’d go back in a heartbeat. In fact, I always say it’s one of my dream places to live one day aside from California.
The little things like the crowds, stories we heard, laughs over beers, and meeting guys like Garreth Davies at the pubs made London’s experience extra special and memorable. I think I learned more about London in its pubs than I did on any of the tour guides too.
The little things gave us a taste of London we’ll never lose.