The modern British pub is in a state of flux. Not only do we have to contend with the malignant spread of chain pubs, peddling artificial themes to blunt-headed quaffers who don’t know any better; but we’re also witnessing a great many pubs either warping into pretentious gastronomic wannabes or closing down altogether. And yet all is not lost. The south of England and the west of Wales continue to offer a particularly rich mix of independent freehouses (see our review of The King and Queen in Hamble) – and when you head for the coast that continues to ring true. As a result, my list of seven special mariners’ pubs contains no entries from Scotland or Northern Ireland and only two establishments on a latitude north of Oxford. I fully expect some abuse for that, but on an issue as important as this, I refuse to fudge the results merely to satisfy regional quotas. Take the time to visit any of these places and you’ll be glad you made the effort...
(1) Old Point House, Angle, Pembrokeshire
This remote whitewashed freehouse sits on the sheltered edge of a C-shaped inlet, right on top of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. It has been used as a mariner’s watering hole for more than 500 years and it continues to do a great job today.
Simply tie up your boat at the pub jetty, lengthen your lines to accommodate the huge tidal range, book a room upstairs (which are great value) and settle in for the weekend. The Welsh beers (Felinfoel Double Dragon, Best Bitter and Celtic Pride) are excellent, the fish is tasty and the local cruising grounds are phenomenally good. If ever there was an antidote to the sticky plastic nonsense of ‘gastropubbery’, this ageless maritime waterfront boozer is it.
The Old Point House is on Facebook.
(2) Ferry Boat Inn, Dittisham, Devon
With good beer, a long pontoon, a mini beach and great access by boat, the ‘FBI’ on the River Dart is a wonderful pub. It can be accessed by river taxi from the estuary’s towns and once on site, you can ring the bell to beckon the ferry across the water from Agatha Christie’s old estate.
With big tides washing their way in and out every few hours, the scenery around here is extraordinarily lovely and despite its rural isolation, there are also some great attractions nearby. Foremost among these is a very decent vineyard, the pretty town of Dartmouth and Keith Floyd’s old pub, the Maltster’s Arms at Tuckenhay (which, like everything else on the Dart, is best accessed by boat). A sunny afternoon at the FBI is a memorable event.
(3) The Grapes, Limehouse Marina, London
As a coastal city (the Thames is tidal don’t you know), London is rammed with waterfront pubs of huge historical and maritime significance and the venerable Grapes is one of the best.
Once frequented by Charles Dickens and now owned by Sir Ian McKellen, it virtually hangs its backside into the waters of the Thames, providing a captivated audience of modern boaters with a very gratifying retreat. With a dark, lustrous, thespian atmosphere muddling happily with timeworn wood and saucy urban alcoves, it offers every bit as much vim and bravado as it ever did.
(4) The Pig’s Nose, East Prawle, Devon
Perched on Devon’s southernmost outcrop, this remote 16th century pub offers plenty of camping space in the surrounding fields so you can explore the region’s coastal footpaths, hidden beaches and secluded coves. Once a smuggler’s inn gainfully engaged in the concealment of illicit booty, it remains splendidly unchanged, with great beer straight from the cask, a roaring fire and even a knitting corner.
Remarkably, the Pig’s Nose (or more accurately, the adjacent hall) has also achieved near legendary status as a live music venue for some of the world’s biggest names. You have to work your way through winding lanes buried beneath steep hedgerows to get here, but it’s well worth the trip.
(5) The Standard, Rye, East Sussex
Rye’s infamous 15th century Mermaid Inn (not to mention the Ypres Castle and the Old Bell) positively reek of dark smuggling deeds - but the Standard Inn, a short stroll up the hill from the timber-clad quay, is particularly good. It’s been a pub since 1420 and its recent renovation has given it fresh impetus without destroying its character.
In fact, it’s quite an apt ambassador for Rye itself: an ancient, fortified gem of a town on an isolated sandstone hill in a surreal lowland expanse of reclaimed seabed. With moorings, fish markets, cobbled streets and narrow alleyways, all wrapped up in medieval walls and raised above the surrounding salt marsh like a snapshot from our ancient maritime past, it is without doubt the loveliest of the Cinque Port towns. With plenty of atmosphere and delectable rooms, the Standard is pretty much the perfect hub for a long weekend of sensory indulgence.
(6) Ty Coch Inn, Porthdinllaen, Gwynedd
People love this place and you can see why. Nestling among a row of colourful houses at the water’s edge, this remote pub on the National Trust’s Lleyn Peninsula sits right in the shadow of Snowdonia’s dramatic peaks.
Originally converted from a vicarage to a pub in the 1820s as a means of feeding and watering shipbuilders from the local harbour, Ty Coch is accessible only by boat or on foot. It’s about half a mile out across the headland toward the lifeboat station but even David Cameron has previously dropped in for a pint of bitter, so it’s plainly worth the effort – and as a previous entrant in an international list of the world’s ten top beach bars, chances are you’ll agree.
(7) Harbour Arms, Margate, Kent
Kent is at the very forefront of a thrilling new wave of small, independent, one-room micropubs – and as the World’s only ‘offshore’ example, the Harbour Arms is a must.
Sitting out on the harbour arm itself, jammed between the open sea and the sulphurous stench of dozing trawlers, this invigorating spot is basically a fisherman’s shed full of English beer and cider barrels. The drinks are all from small-scale local producers, tapped straight from the casks and the welcome is as friendly as it could be. You can perch on barrels either inside, among hoary ropes, or outside on the wall, as the water laps its way in and out. Either way, the chat is great, the views are thoroughly enriching and the gruff simplicity is a mariner’s delight.
For more interesting and unusual sailing or powerboating destinations, see: 8 of the best UK estuaries for cruising.