The Harp in Covent Garden is named CAMRA National Pub of the Year 2010 today — the first pub in London to receive the accolade. Licensee Bridget Walsh tells Michelle Perrett about her recipe for success.
How I got here
I've been in the trade for about 44 years and this is my fourth pub. I've been here for about 17 years, taking on the lease from Charrington's, which was then bought out by Punch. Punch offered me the freehold last year, so I took it on.
My family had pubs in Ireland and I came to the UK in 1966 seeking work and some adventure.
I was doing a bit of shorthand and typing, and to subsidise my income, I worked part-time in a pub. I enjoyed it but doing two jobs was a bit of a strain, so I decided to see if I could make a living in the pub trade and approached Courage Brewery to find me a pub.
Courage set me up with relief management work, and after about six months I got my first managed house, the Albert Tavern in South Norwood, south London. The pub was in a residential area and I was there for 22 years, living on-site with my family.
In 1974 I got involved with real ale and the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). Our stocktaker, Jack, was into real ale and he sparked my interest.
The look of the pub
I haven't changed the appearance of the Harp at all — it's very traditional. As with a lot of licensed premises in Covent Garden, it is an extremely small pub. I've put my own stamp on the place and covered the walls in paintings from the 1960s. I have loyal regulars from local businesses and people who live in the area. We get the odd tourist in but, perhaps surprisingly, we are not a tourist pub. I think it's because we are on the periphery of Covent Garden, nearer Trafalgar Square, rather than right in the middle of things.
We do very little food — it makes up just 5% of the business. We've got a substantial kitchen but we just keep it simple, sticking to offering things like sausage baguettes, which are very successful.
We don't have TV, music or games machines. This is a proper pub for conversation. We have a mixed clientele, aged 30 and upwards, and our relationship with the locals is strong.
Getting our ale offer right
I put our success down to real ale and we have increased our ale offer here. I brought a lady with me from my previous pub, Sarah, who used to do the cellar work. She encouraged me to get more ale in. There were two real-ale pumps when I took over and now the pub has eight.
I have four permanent ales — two from Dark Star in Sussex and two from Sambrook's in Battersea — the rest change on a daily basis. I have got good suppliers and work closely with them.
The staff have a good knowledge of the ales and they get feedback from the customers. My two managers are trained in the cellar to ensure the beer is top quality. I also serve cider, which I source from various companies in the UK. This is served in flagons from behind the bar.
National Pub of the Year
I was stunned to hear that we had won CAMRA's National Pub of the Year title. The award came as a complete shock but we are delighted, of course. We pride ourselves on the range and quality of our real ale and to be London's first National Pub of the Year is a real honour.
In terms of the future, I plan to carry on doing what I have been doing. There's no secret formula. If I were to give any advice to other licensees, I'd say it just comes down to the quality of your beer, customer service and cleanliness. Those are always the most important things for any pub.
National Pub of the Year — the judging
CAMRA's National Pub of the Year competition is judged by the organisation's 120,000 members. Each branch votes for its favourite pub. They are assessed on criteria such as beer quality, customer service, décor, clientele mix and value- for-money. The branch winners are entered into 16 regional competitions, with the 16 winners then battling it out to reach the final stages of the national competition.
What CAMRA thinks
Bridget Walsh was also the first woman to be awarded the annual John Young Memorial Award last year, handed out in tribute to the late Young, chairman of Young's Brewery, in Wandsworth, south-west London, for 44 years.
CAMRA London's regional director Kim Martin said Walsh is well-known for adding "magic to her pubs".
Martin said: "We think it is appropriate to the memory of John Young that the award went to a licensee who has built her career in London and has his love of real ale.
"Bridget was an early supporter of the real-ale revival and takes pride in serving good beer, so it is not surprising that her pub, the Harp, has been in CAMRA's Good Beer Guide more than once and has won CAMRA London's Pub of the Year, beating more than 5,000 pubs."
Young was well-regarded as an advocate of good beer and pubs.
CAMRA Good Beer Guide 2011 — the verdict
The Harp — a small, friendly, independent freehouse — has become a haven for beer choice, generally including a mild or porter and Dark Star. Real ciders, perries and malt whiskies also feature strongly. The narrow bar is adorned with mirrors, theatre memorabilia and portraits. There is no intrusive music or TV, and a cosy upstairs room provides refuge from the busy throng. There are also award-winning real sausages in baps.