Sargeant’s Mess (2018) is a tourist catcher’s net in restaurant form by the Tower of London (c. 1078). It has views of the wide, fat Thames — an old man now, like Falstaff — on its slow journey to Southend-on-Sea. The City of London grows like a glass parasite, but it can’t do anything about the Conqueror’s keep. It is partly made of Norman stone — a joke for historians only? — and it won’t be gentrified, amended, or moved.
The Tower squats inside those insanely over-repointed medieval walls like a dowager abutting a conservatory. It will never, and I say this happily, be a block of flats, or an Apple shop, or a Starbucks. Henry VIII added the cupolas, and they are very gay, but that was it.
I love this fortress, even if it has moved from decapitating pretenders to selling pencils. It looks weird next to the A100, and that is not the least of it; I once met a Beefeater who looked like Paddington Bear but had guarded Rudolf Hess in Spandau prison.
I love Traitors’ Gate because Elizabeth I, the early ‘modern Lord Mandelson, used it for the art of spin. When imprisoned by her sister Mary she refused to enter by Traitors’ Gate, because, she said, she was not a traitor. She waited until she knew her denial would be repeated, which is why I know about it, and also you. Except David Starkey says it’s nonsense, and she entered by Tower Wharf. Tudor PR babble is superb.
Just along from Traitors’ Gate is Sargeant’s Mess. It calls itself, in PR babble, ‘your new favourite hangout’ and it is not as interesting as Traitors’ Gate although, in Sargeant’s Mess’s defence, Traitors’ Gate doesn’t serve a full vegetarian breakfast.
It has glass walls, a slate floor and an atrium; it is as insubstantial as a paper bag or balloon. I wonder if the designers knew it could not match its setting and so did not try to create a — who knows? — London Dungeon–themed restaurant with heads of Remainers made of sugar on spikes. The PR babble suggests no such intelligence, but I feel generous towards Sargeant’s Mess because its loo is actually inside Tower Bridge.
Otherwise it is a restaurant passing fleetingly through London. One day it will crumble or float away like so many others. I like a passing restaurant as much as I like a lost cause. It is soothing to sit in a place with no identity and let your dreams move through you. The exception to this rule I have just invented is the British Library, which should be burned down and replaced by a giant replica of Bamburgh Castle, although I accept that no one else thinks that.
The food, which is generic English, is much better than it needs to be, or perhaps it is just early days, and the Sargeant’s Mess will sink to robbing tourists when the real heat of summer comes. Tomato soup, and wedge salad, and baked salmon, and toad in the hole are all good, and carefully done by someone who cares, at least for now; the bakewell tart didn’t shame itself, and we ate a great deal for £70. If I worked locally or could travel here by boat — we don’t use the Thames enough — I would come often and only try not to look at the mayoral testicle across the river.
And so if you want to eat eggs benedict near the remains of the victims of the Tudors that lie in St Peter ad Vincula on Tower Green — Lady Jane Grey and Thomas Cromwell, Catherine Howard, Anne Boleyn and Thomas More — it’s just the place to do it.
Sargeant’s Mess, The Wharf,
St Katharine’s & Wapping, London EC3N 4AB, tel: 020 3166 6949