The second in a series of collaborative posts with my friend, neighbour and Good Beer Hunting writer Matthew Curtis, documenting every public house in the N8 postcode area.
The Toll Gate is an unremarkable Wetherspoons when held in comparison to grand venues such as The Coronet on Holloway Road or The Counting House on Glasgow’s George Square. However, Turnpike Lane’s more salubrious neighbour, Crouch End, lost its Wetherspoons in the ‘fire sale‘ that also claimed The Gatehouse in Highgate and The White Lion of Mortimer on Stroud Green Road. Regardless of how often I frequent them, I believe Wetherspoons to be a community asset, and for that reason, I’m glad this pub exists.
Like most ‘Spoons it is sizeable, and has a crazy number of hand pulls as well as numerous ‘craft ales’ and ‘world beers’, naturally. It was the early afternoon when we arrived and it was busy which meant it lacked the serene ambience we had enjoyed at The Wellington (the first pub featured in this series which you can read about here). Interestingly, The Toll Gate “takes its name from the toll gate erected in 1765, where High Road meets Green Lanes. This gate was dismantled soon after the system of turnpikes (private roads) was abolished in 1872.” Further research reveals that “the highwayman Dick Turpin allegedly leapt the spike-topped gate at Turnpike Lane when pursued by a posse led by the chief constable of Westminster.” If I was being unkind I’d say the area still has its share of rogues, myself included…
Matt takes up the story of The Toll Gate below.
The last time I went drinking in a branch of JD Wetherspoon with Peter and wrote about it afterwards there were consequences. Consequences that still haunt me to this day. Yes, I do know who John Kimmich is, thank you.
The first thing that strikes me when I enter The Toll Gate on Turnpike Lane – N8’s only remaining branch of the often maligned pub chain – is the smell. It smells more like a fast food restaurant than a pub. Notes of fried chicken, chips, grilled cheese and barbecue sauce fill the air and all of a sudden I could murder a plate of Hunter’s Chicken. It was a Sunday lunchtime when we stopped in and there were a fair few people eating, but this number was equally matched by those sat in the bar area who were just drinking.
It had been a fair while since I was last in a ‘Spoons. I’ve tried to avoid them ever since its owner, Tim Martin, attempted to press gang his customers into voting to leave the European Union via propaganda printed on beer mats. Following the result on June 24th, 2016 it is unlikely that I will ever forgive him for it, either.
Every time I enter a Wetherspoon I’m bewildered by the sheer volume of choice available. There are 12 hand pulls in the Toll Gate, 9 for real ale and 3 for cider. Despite the size of the pub – and like most classic ‘Spoons it is massive – I can’t imagine there’s enough throughput to warrant the need for that much cask ale. As a marker, most specialist beer outlets in the area have no more than 6. Glancing around I notice that most people are drinking lager, – Foster’s or Kronenbourg – bottled cider, gin and tonic or cans of Sixpoint Bengali IPA imported from New York City.
Someone must be coming here to drink cask ale though, and that’s what Peter and I decide to do. My pint of Opening Gambit from Twickenham’s Reunion Ales, which costs £2.29, is okay. That’s about as much as I can muster to say about it. It’s not off, but it’s not great either and I find myself pining for the Guinness I’d just enjoyed in The Wellington down the road moments earlier.
I imagine it’ll be a long time before I set foot in a Wetherspoon pub again, but this visit is a timely reminder that these pubs serve an important part of the market and offer a pretty bewildering amount of choice to boot. They’re just not places I take much comfort from. I like the carpets though.