Cardinal sin: restoration of a Westminster gem
"Windsor Castle SW1"
Early in 2011 the Cardinal pub in Francis Street, Westminster, closed its doors. A discreet notice of works appeared and for many weeks the pub underwent refurbishment. This would normally ring alarm bells, but the Cardinal is owned by the Yorkshire Brewer, Samuel Smith, which has a reputation for restoration rather than ruination; the Crown and Sugar Loaf
off Fleet Street and the Princess Louise
, Holborn, are two glittering examples.
While the builders and decorators did their work, it became apparent that the restoration would include the pub's name - from the Cardinal to the Windsor Castle. When the pub was rebuilt in 1896 by the New Westminster Brewery it was called the Windsor Castle and may have had that name in its previous incarnation. The alleyway at the side of the pub is called Windsor Place so the name has grounding.
"Cardinal Manning sign"
Following a refurbishment by Charringtons in 1963 the pub was renamed 'The Cardinal' in deference to its neighbour, Catholic Westminster Cathedral (not to be confused with Anglican Westminster Abbey) and its customers who included the cathedral's clergymen, choristers and congregation. In its new guise a display of portraits of past catholic archbishops hung in the bar and the pub's sign showed a portrait of Cardinal Manning. It was unveiled by Monsignor Warlock, later the Archbishop of Liverpool.
Nearly 50 years on, news that Samuel Smith intended to change the pub's name prompted a petition which was supported by the Archbishop of Westminster and former Tory MP Ann Widdecombe who said "There's absolutely no connection to Windsor Castle - it's miles away." Despite the protests the pub reverted back to its original name and emerged from its restoration - reborn.
The most noticeable change is the new etched and cut glass partitions which divide the large bar area into five, creating more interesting spaces. Gone is the carpet, replaced with black and red 'lino' tiles or woodblock flooring. Gone too are the 'pot racks' above the bar, no doubt from the 60s refurbishment and much of the puborabilia. Perhaps the most extraordinary transformation is the back parlour and the removal of the kitchen - now replaced with an open fire, restored panelling and furnished with leather Chesterfields and comfortable armchairs, giving the impression of a gentlemen's club.
"Windsor Castle etched screens"
Sam Smith has again bucked the trend for modernising at the Windsor Castle but instead has gone with tradition, restoring the integrity of the pub. How accurate their changes are is up to the historians, but they cannot be faulted on their quality. Modern reproductions there may be, but they do the job admirably. Much of the infrastructure of the pub has been updated and maintained too, including the toilets. The brewery is investing for the future rather than quick short term profit.
As far as the pub experience is concerned, the Windsor Castle is a now a more handsome pub for sure and possibly less cosy, except in the 'gentlemen's club.' There's no music, television or gaming machines. Old Brewery Bitter is still the only cask ale available but it does stock a wide choice of Smith's produce including their citrus Wheat Beer and silky Extra Stout. Food-wise it's adequate, serving a range of pub grub, but don't expect haute-cuisine. Whatever your view of Sam Smith they can't be faulted on value - a pint of bitter in Central London at £2.50 in a quality pub like this is astonishing. The Windsor Castle, like its owner, is fiercely individual which you either like or dislike - but whatever it's called - it's well worth a visit to decide.