For all the millions who have come to know London’s familiar face, like any truly great city it retains its secrets. For every Hampton Court or Westminster Abbey there are many hundreds of lesser treasures, so many indeed that the sheer weight of cultural and architectural wealth can overwhelm and each day these same visitors stroll through the streets without even noticing so many fascinating buildings.
That literally thousands of these are open to the public – more than this: they positively welcome visitors, all day and half the night, and without charging even a penny to enter – makes missing the best of them sadder still.
The treasures in question are of course London’s historic pubs, an estimated 7,000 of them all told, not that all are special, but with the oldest dating back to as long ago as the 13th century they range widely in appearance and character from simple locals or tiny spit-and-sawdusty sort of places – some still no more than bare boards and beer barrels – through larger, positively labyrinthine coaching inns to plush, cut-glass Victorian gin palaces and (more recently) a welter of theme pubs, too many of which perhaps seem these days to be cod-Irish.
Leave these later fakes and frauds to those who know no better, and you are still left with as rich an assortment as you could wish for. Architecturally London’s pubs are as cheerfully diverse as the city beyond their walls and many like the few described here are real gems, some in their own way as interesting historically as many of the capital’s more traditional attractions and the best of them still able to provide a rare and unspoiled glimpse of old London – as well, of course, as some first class food and refreshment.
Hot or cold, at its best pub food is still simple but that can mean good and affordable, more affordable certainly than the mass of plasticky portion-control fast-food and franchised outlets to which visitors frequently have to resort if they are looking for good value. Quality varies, obviously, but the dread days of margarine and stale mousetrap cheese are now all but gone and in central London at least real cooking rarely comes cheaper than this. Just as importantly, few restaurants (and positively no chains) can match the fascinating histories and evocative atmosphere of these ancient hostelries and ale-houses.
Any sense of romance makes it hard not to reflect, as you take your seat in the excellent Chop House at the back of Fleet Street’s remarkable and quite unspoilt Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, that Dickens himself once did as you do now before writing it up in his Tale of Two Cities. And waterside pubs such as the old Anchor at Bankside and the famous Prospect of Whitby command fantastic panoramic views across the Thames. The Anchor was used by both Pepys and Samuel Johnson, himself a friend of the Thrales, who at that time owned the brewery next door. The Prospect of Whitby, once a popular hangout of pirates and smugglers, was a favourite watering hole of the notorious hanging judge, George Jeffries, a notable imbiber.
These historical associations run deep. Further east the Mayflower has for years held a unique licence to sell British and American postage stamps thanks to its long ties with the former colony whose Pilgrim Fathers set off from the pub’s back steps. Similarly, despite (or perhaps because of?) its proximity to the House of Commons, Whitehall’s Silver Cross is still licenced as a brothel because no-one has seen fit to revoke the licence granted by Charles I. And Mayfair’s strangely-named I am the only Running Footman was formerly the Running Horse, but was changed in the 1770s by the 4th Duke of Queensbury in honour of his own manservant who was said to be able to keep up a respectable 8mph.
Predating even these however London’s oldest, the venerable Hoop and Grapes in Aldgate, is said to have origins dating back to the 1200s -and-something as well as a tunnel (now blocked) leading to the Tower; as early as 1390 there was a Boar’s Head on Eastcheap in the City (demolished 1831); and The Guinea Grill just off New Bond Street first served a brew in 1423.
But generally the best of the really old London pubs are those of the 17th Century, like the aforementioned Cheshire Cheese, the George on Borough High Street and the Lamb & Flag in Covent Garden, each characterised by old varnish and creaking joists, pleasantly blackened panelled walls, often open fires in winter and bare floorboards. Invariably dark and somewhat stark but cosy with it, they have an ambience which postively reeks of old pewter mugs, serving wenches and navy press gangs.
They have stories to tell too. The Lamb & Flag was for years better known as The Bucket of Blood, so ferocious were the many prize-fights staged on the premises. The George, London’s last surviving galleried inn and now in the care of the National Trust, was known to Shakespeare and in the summer strolling players still perform his works in the charming courtyard outside. And the Grenadier with its distinctive kerbside sentry box just off Belgrave Square is still reckoned to be haunted by the ghost of a young guards officer, caught cheating at cards and summarily flogged to death in the cellar by his fellow subalterns.
Perhaps the most touching of these tales, however, is that of the Widow’s Son in Bow where once a year a sailor hangs a hot-cross bun over the bar in a ritual stretching back more than two centuries. In so doing he commemorates a real widow who, expecting her son home for Easter, kept a warm bun for him; sadly he never returned but each year until her death she added another bun to the moulding, blackened bundle, the same bundle which is preserved and honoured today by the locals in this perfect example of a traditional early-Victorian East End pub.
Less believable perhaps is the suggestion that Dr Johnson sat compiling his famous dictionary whilst consuming ale and biscuits in the city’s most famous ale-house, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. Certainly Boswell refuses to confirm it but it is an enduring myth and, sitting in its characterful gloom with sawdust still on the floor, it is easy to imagine the good doctor (whose house can be visited in nearby Gough Square) mulling over the perfect definition. Its entrance hidden away in Wine Office Court, a narrow alleyway off Fleet Street where once the city’s winesellers came to obtain their warrants to trade, the present pub which is still a favourite of writers and journalists arose from the ashes of the Great Fire only as recently as 1667. But the cellars are much older and incorporate part of the undercroft of a 600-year old Carmelite monastry; so is the front step, now worn thin by hundreds of years and thousands of feet and so protected by an iron grille.
Regulars call it The House, the actual name being something of a red-herring as the Cheshire in question was one Thomas Cheshire whom records show keeping the tavern here in 1543. One of his successors had a parrot who achieved a measure of celebrity in 1918 by fainting after mimicking 400 bottles of champagne popping open to mark the Armistice and for a vocabulary so blue and so extensive that when it died aged 40 in 1926 the BBC accorded it a unique honour, announcing its demise on the wireless.
Elsewhere in this living museum you will find a fascinating board detailing the 15 monarchs who have occupied the throne during the tavern’s long history, and another grille through which can be glimpsed the dark waters of the Fleet river from which the street takes its name. But alas, on the menu there is no longer any sign of the pudding for which the place was once famous. It weighed between 50 and 80lbs and ‘entombed therein: beefsteaks, kidneys, oysters, larks, mushrooms and wondrous spices and gravies, the secret of which is known only to the compounder.’
Sitting astride a busy junction of road, river and rail, there is little on the approach to our last stop within the Square Mile to prepare one for the strange, wedge-shaped Black Friar. Outside stands a statue of a jolly Friar, set above a mosaic and beaming down on passers-by; inside it is a veritable riot of Art Nouveau with creamy, rich-veined marble walls and archways, hand-beaten Arts and Crafts copper murals depicting more jolly friars enjoying themselves, gleaming gold-leaf on the ceiling, inglenooks and open fireplaces with burnished brass firedogs and everywhere strange admonishing slogans and bon-mots let into the stonework: Finery is Foolery – Haste is Slow – A Good Thing is Soon Snatched Up. Quite delightful.
In the Sixties a group of speculators wished to pull the old place down and develop the site but the public outcry (led by the future Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman) was enormous and thankfully today a preservation order has secured the Black Friar. That such a special place could have been lost seems incredible now for with decor as golden and as grand in its way as the Ritz, this is one of London’s most spectacular if informal dining rooms – and with Bangers & Mash on the menu (or a roast for a fiver) one that is singularly hard to beat.
Stepping west of the City to Covent Garden the Lamb & Flag is another pub which lies hidden away up a narrow alleyway between two busy thoroughfares. Here a most attractive Georgian facade conceals something far more precious, namely the only surviving example of a 17th century timber-framed building in the West End, built in 1623. In 1679 another Poet Laureate, Dryden, was attacked and beaten here after writing scurrilous lines about the Duchess of Portsmouth, Charles II’s mistress, but today it is visited as much for its collection of theatrical memorabilia as for its equally memorable ‘doorstep’ sandwiches.
At the Red Lion in Duke of York Street, this 17th century simplicity gives way to the 19th century’s taste for over-decoration in a diminutive but charming and utterly authentic example of a classic Victorian gin-palace. Its lush, plush interior – with elaborate carved and deeply-polished mahogany, etched glass panels and gleaming cut-glass mirrors, and a genuine ‘Lincrusta’ or embossed decorated paper ceiling – imparts to this rare period survivor precisely the sort of atmosphere a thousand ‘repro-Victoriana’ pubs have signally failed to capture.
Many London pubs have disappeared in recent decades – the current loss is reckoned to be as many as six a week – a sad fact were it not for 7,000 or so which still survive. Don’t think of them all as mere boozers either – actually a vulgar derivation of the Middle-English ‘bousen’, thieves’ slang for drinking to excess – for the best are perfect capsules of London life, as individual and as characterful as their customers, and as historic as any of this great city’s attractions. They are there to be enjoyed, so don’t just nip in for a quick one – make a meal of it while you’re there.
The Anchor, Bankside, Southwark, SE1
The Black Friar, Queen Victoria Street, EC4
The George Inn, Borough High Street, SE1
The Grenadier, Wilton Row, Belgravia, SW1
I am the only Running Footman, Charles Street, Mayfair, W1
Lamb & Flag, Rose Street, Covent Garden, WC2
The Mayflower, Rotherhithe Street, SE16
The Prospect of Whitby, Wapping Wall, E1
The Red Lion, Duke of York Street, St James’s, W1
The Widow’s Son, Devons Road, E3
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, Fleet Street, EC4
An award-winning ghostwriter, under his own name David Long has written and illustrated a number of books on London including Spectacular Vernacular: London’s 100 Most Extraordinary Buildings, and sequel Tunnels, Towers And Temples: London’s 100 Strangest Places. For more details of these and his other books, please visit www.davidlong.info.