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Secret Drinker reviews the City Arms pub in Canterbury


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You should never look back and you certainly shouldn’t try to recapture your youth.

So it was with some trepidation I stepped through the doorway of the City Arms in Canterbury.

From the front the City Arms Inn is exactly as I remember it and hasn’t changed a bit. Inside it also looks the same, but the welcome is a world apart.
From the front the City Arms Inn is exactly as I remember it and hasn’t changed a bit. Inside it also looks the same, but the welcome is a world apart.

Several decades ago I worked as a chef and a waiter in a little restaurant called Sweeney Todd’s in Butchery Lane, just a stone’s throw from the cathedral in Canterbury. Hard work but happy days.

And, after every tough shift, we’d spill out into the lane and fall straight through the entrance of the pub next door – sometimes getting in just as the bell rang, more often than not lucky enough to enjoy a lock-in.

Sweeney Todd’s is sadly long gone (though I’m assured the restaurant which took its place is brilliant) but the City Arms lives on.

Just about every inch of wall space is covered with a huge variety of signs and memorabilia
Just about every inch of wall space is covered with a huge variety of signs and memorabilia

The décor has changed, as you’d expect, and TV screens now adorn the walls but the shape of the place is the same and memories flooded back.

There was something of a ‘funky’ aroma when I first walked in but within a few minutes your nose tunes out and it’s okay.

It was a Tuesday lunchtime so I knew it wouldn’t be the bustling, bawdy place I remembered, but to find there wasn’t a single person in was disappointing.

The whole place was completely deserted most of the time I was in
The whole place was completely deserted most of the time I was in

A sign outside read ‘Today the kitchen is closed thank you’, which obviously isn’t great, but I couldn’t believe it was failing to tempt a single tourist to this prime spot. When I met the barmaid everything became clear.

I’ve never met a more disinterested individual working behind any bar.

Okay, she did put down her phone and manage to drag herself behind the bar to serve, but everything about her screamed ‘I’d rather not be here, and wish you weren’t either’.

The menu looked extensive, with a good number of specialist Thai dishes – unfortunately it was covered by a kitchen closed notice
The menu looked extensive, with a good number of specialist Thai dishes – unfortunately it was covered by a kitchen closed notice

I accept she had a limited command of conversational titbits, but a smile, or even any facial expression, transcends language.

I selected a pint of London Meantime and the second the last drop was poured, still without uttering a sound, she bolted and leant through the doorway to have a fag – strong wafts of smoke billowing back inside the pub around her.

Despite the ignorance of my hostess, I was determined not to allow her rudeness to spoil my visit and turned my attention back to the pub and my pint.

At the back of the pub there is a separate seating area with large sofas and stools created from old barrels
At the back of the pub there is a separate seating area with large sofas and stools created from old barrels

First things first, the 4.3% London Pale Ale from Meantime is a very decent pint and, as well as having a surprisingly creamy head for an IPA, it burst with citrus zestiness and hoppy flavour.

There’s a couple of chunky bench seats out front but although the barmaid had now disappeared completely I stayed inside the Mary Celeste and took in the surroundings.

Just about every inch of every wall is covered with signs and memorabilia – there’s even a traffic light and a string of tobacco tins.

Keen to cover all wall space, there are signs right around the whole pub
Keen to cover all wall space, there are signs right around the whole pub

However, between all the wall dressing there’s just enough gaps to make out the colour of the green paint that tells you the drinks won’t be cheap.

The barmaid returned very briefly to check her phone and I dared to ask why the kitchen was closed? ‘No-one chef’, and she was gone again.

I was left with Worcestershire versus Essex cricket on the TV screen, so looked out the window for inspiration instead.

The shape of the pub hasn’t changed at all in 30 years
The shape of the pub hasn’t changed at all in 30 years
Many of the dishes on the menu looked extremely tasty but it looks as if Tuesday is the chef’s day off
Many of the dishes on the menu looked extremely tasty but it looks as if Tuesday is the chef’s day off

At this moment a tour guide was passing and stopped his group briefly to, I presume, talk about the history of the pub.

I briefly caught his eye and immediately felt he’d displayed more interest in the place in a split second than the barmaid displayed the entire time I was in. The music was playing at a reasonable level and first Ed Sheeran and then Taylor Swift competed with the cricket commentary.

I took a wander around the pub and much of it is exactly as I recall, especially the incredibly low ceiling in the gents, though whether it smelt as bad last time or had run out of soap I don’t remember.

Although it was only for a few seconds, the tour guide outside showed more interest in the pub than its barmaid
Although it was only for a few seconds, the tour guide outside showed more interest in the pub than its barmaid
The gents, with the same low ceiling I remember, is in need of a little TLC - it had run out of soap and could do with a general freshening up
The gents, with the same low ceiling I remember, is in need of a little TLC - it had run out of soap and could do with a general freshening up

There was an open window on the right hand side but there’s definitely no outside space, apart from the two tables out front, and I presume the overgrown yard belongs to next door.

If I was kind I’d suggest the rain in the air had kept both the locals and tourists away.

In reality the punts on the river were full and tours in full swing. The fact is the atmosphere created by the barmaid made this the most uninviting pub I’ve ever had the misfortune to visit in the city – and I’ve seen the inside of an awful lot of Canterbury pubs.

I’m not sure if it’s wired up, but there’s even a traffic light on the front wall
I’m not sure if it’s wired up, but there’s even a traffic light on the front wall

The City Arms Inn, 7 Butchery Lane, Canterbury CT1 2JR

Decor: It’s packed full of brightly coloured signs and the various furnishings are comfortable enough. The wonderfully uneven wooden floor is exactly as I remember it. ***

Drink: By far the best thing available on tap, the London Pale Ale from Meantime was a zingy delight and the shelves behind the bar were packed with a huge variety of spirits.****

For an IPA the Meantime Brewery manages to produce a particularly creamy head
For an IPA the Meantime Brewery manages to produce a particularly creamy head

Food: ‘No-one chef’ – Kitchen closed thank you (no stars).

Price: Given the proximity of the cathedral and the colour of the walls it’s not surprising a pint of IPA cost more than a fiver. Meantime’s LPA is good but it cost £5.25. **

Staff: Totally disinterested and dismissive, the barmaid was either not present, sitting at a table in the pub playing with her phone or having a fag in the doorway (no stars).

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