I’ve already mentioned decorative tiling on pubs as a feature which helps to improve their appearance and draw people in. This is hardly the only strategy for enhancing the general attractiveness of the property; perhaps the simplest and most effective is the use of flowers and foliage. This can range from a few well-placed and colourful hanging baskets or flower trays above the doorway, to being so bedecked by ivy that the building underneath is barely visible. Hello, welcome back, it’s been a few months as usual!
There’s no real link between the amount and quality of foliage on display and the quality of the pub underneath (or its beer), but it at least betokens a certain regard for appearance that sets apart the publicans who really care about their premises. You may not be able to ascertain whether a good pint of ale will be available, but you can at least be sure that somebody cares about the pub experience enough to make it worth your while going in; there are worse methods by which to make a judgement about any particular pub.
i. It’s Just Sensible Branding
One of the cases where you can clearly see that the foliage is just part of the general branding exercise is with the All Bar One chain (for example, the branch on Holborn WC2, fig. 25). Not strictly pubs, but aiming for the wine-drinking1 office worker demographic, these are marked out by their prominent central locations, wooden doors, soberly stringent capitalised lettering, and most distinctively of all, by their overflowing hanging baskets lining the windows.
ii. A Burst of Colour
The most common use of foliage is to give a burst of colour near the entrance. Hanging baskets of flowers draw the eye (and, the publican would hope, the custom) on busy pedestrian thoroughfares. You can see this in effect on one of the West End’s finest pubs, The Harp (Covent Garden WC2, fig. 75).
Here, as also on, for example, The Harlequin (Finsbury EC1), The Old Doctor Butler’s Head (Bank EC2), or The Blue Posts (Berwick St, Soho W1) and The Castle (Holborn EC4) — which add spiky potted plants to the general variety on display — there’s a conscious effort to differentiate the pub from the blandness of surrounding office blocks.
Particularly effective at this are The Exmouth Arms (Somers Town NW1, fig. 36), which maximises the space along both street-facing sides of the pub to showcase flower displays, and The Hope and Anchor (Camden Town NW1), which takes advantage of a low roof to load up on flowering foliage. Another strategy, where less space is available on the façade, is to have hanging baskets and flower beds at various levels — as on The Fox and Pheasant (Chelsea SW10), where both upstairs and downstairs windowsills, as well as the space between windows, is fully utilised.
Taking this to the extreme is The Churchill Arms (Kensington W8, fig. 76), where hanging baskets quite enshroud the pub building, from the roof down. No surprise either that this is a pub regularly featured in the Good Beer Guide, along with many a tourist brochure.
iii. As Above, So Below
Branching out from hanging displays, many pubs also invest in street-level shrubbery and potted plants to add variety. The Cross Keys (Covent Garden WC2), where space is limited and the pub building is quite thin, adds them for decorative reasons.
However, such features can also be used as a way of either simply demarcating the outdoor drinking area (as at The Tarmon, Barnsbury N1, for example) or else, more extensively, creating a natural acoustic barrier between the outdoor area and particularly noisy roads, as at The Beehive (Hoxton N1) or The Alwyne (Canonbury N1, fig. 77).
Even when noisy roads aren’t an issue, sometimes pubs can only offer outdoor space at the front of the building (rather than the more usual beer gardens out back). Where such constraints exist, it can be difficult to provide adequate areas without obscuring the building behind, but foliage, used effectively, can easily improve such areas, as at The Olde Apple Tree (Peckham SE15). Relatively rare amongst London pubs in this regard is the use of hedges, which can be seen at The Clifton (St John’s Wood NW8), where the property, despite being in pub (and hotel) use, is typically residential in style to fit in with the surrounding area.
iv. Ivy League
Where foliage starts to get out of control is when ivy is introduced. There are of course plenty of restrained examples. The Clifton is one, using ivy sparingly, while The Railway Tavern (Broadgate EC2) is another, central London, example, where ivy makes a fairly bland building (and a fairly bland Greene King ‘traditional’ pub) more appealing to the passing commuter. The Albion (Barnsbury N1), meanwhile, uses its ivy to distinguish it from an otherwise unremarkable row of terraced (residential) properties.
However, there remains a small number of pubs which really maximise their use of ivy. The Faltering Fullback (Stroud Green N4), The George IV (Kentish Town NW5, fig. 74) and The Hemingford Arms (Barnsbury N1) all restrict the ivy growth to the ground floor level, but the effect is of a peculiarly colourful forest through which the prospective drinker must venture. It still may not be any guarantee of good beer on offer, but it certainly makes for a more attractive place to while away some time, which should surely be the aim of any good pub.
 Though as of 2010, some All Bar Ones have started offering draught ale in addition to the many wines.