Obviously London is not short of drinking establishments, but many of these have been refurbished or rebuilt over the years so that it can be difficult to trace their true history. With that in mind, I thought I’d just give a short review of a few pubs with interesting histories.
The White Hart, Drury Lane (1216?)
This has a fair claim to being London’s oldest pub – if you don’t mind it being refounded every few centuries. There’s very little of its age apparent in the modern pub, which is a mixture of traditional counters and low comfortable sofas, but it has been linked to some fairly high profile characters. In the 17th century Drury Lane was pretty fashionable and the likes of Nell Gwynne, The Marquis of Argyll or Oliver Cromwell may have stopped in for a drink at their local. Well … maybe not Oliver. By the 18th century things had went downhill for the area and it was now a slum of ill-repute, but this still had its own fame. The White Hart was commonly used for one last drink by condemned men before their hanging, and indeed Dick Turpin, the famous highwayman, drank here in 1739 before he went off to be hanged (it was the usual spot for condemned men). The area can also linked with The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay, and Jack Shepard (the inspiration for MacHeath) and Lavinia Fenton (Polly Peachum) may have also been regulars.
As a pub, it’s reasonably good. There’s a few different ales on – this changes, but in my experience there’s even a few more adventurous ones (I had Chocolate Orange Delight by Downton – surprisingly a dark, chocolate, orange flavour beer). There’s a Space Invaders cabinet. And of course, it serves pub food. It’s not the best pub in London by a long way, but it’s a welcome stop off in a busy area. As for the history, you may have to imagine that bit.
The Cittie of York, High Holborn (1420ish)
There’s been a pub on this site since 1420, although the building itself is from 1645 and 1890 and the name was stolen from an older place across the road. From the outside it looks (in the nicest possible way) dark, dingy and convincingly old. The interior too is quite authentic (I’m not sure if they stole that from somewhere else as well). Situated next to the Gray’s Inn Court, it’s no doubt filled with lawyers at certain times of the day, but I wouldn’t hold that against it. The area is one that possibly bypasses a lot of tourists but the old lawyers courts and churches are fascinating and the nearby Museum of London is worth a visit, even for those familiar with the city. Unfortunately, I don’t think there are a huge amount of great pubs in the area so this may be the pick of them.
It’s a Sam Smiths pub, so you can expect the normal repertoire of Samuel Smiths beers (and hopefully prices). Nothing too surprising or spectacular, but it’s reliable with a decent range of beers.
The Prospect of Whittby, Wapping (1543)
Initially known for a dubious clientele of smugglers and thieves, this pub has gone up in the world slightly since then. Views from the pub where apparently sketched by Turner and Whistler, and Pepys and Dickens were known to drink here (obviously not together). The infamous Judge Jeffreys lived nearby and would have drank here as well. With all that to choose from, it’s been a common occurrence in various cultural items ever since, popping up on TV and in comics. Unlike some other pubs on this list, the interior is nice and traditional, and there was a good selection of ales on when I was there.
Even besides the history, there’s a wonderful waterside view to make this pub special. It’s stop number 2 on one of the DLR’s ale trails, and frankly the whole thing is worth doing – The Gun does wonderful beer, Gordon Ramsey’s The Narrows does wonderful food (though you may have to time things nicely to get a table).
The Grapes, Narrow Street (1583)
Another of the stops on the DLR ale trail. This was apparently frequented by Charles Dickens when he was young and features in one of his novels (Our Mutual Friend), and it actually probably holds a bit more of that atmosphere than many such pubs. Although they undoubtably make a good trade from tourists (and for that reason have a big fish & chip restaurant upstairs) it feels a lot more like a local pub. The sort of lively, friendly one you see on tv. The beer is solid too – some popular ales on sale, I think I had Doombar. It’s really just a small, unpretentious establishment in a fairly quiet residential area.
As an appendix here, I only noticed as I was writing this post – it is now owned by Sir Ian McKellan. It’s still very much a local pub, it just happens to be the local to some well known people – apparently the likes of Sting, Patrick Stewart, Kristin Scott Thomas and others have popped in. I’m not one for celebrity spotting, so I’ll stand by my initial judgement of unpretentious. I guess pubs nowadays in somewhere as expensive as London probably need some heavyweight backing (whether that’s a wealthy owner or the likes of Wetherspoons) if they’re going to remain traditional.
The Gun (early 18th C)
The final stop on the ale trail, this pub in the docklands would have been situated near the naval iron foundries in the area, hence the name. Later on, Lord Nelson bought a house in the area and used to frequent the pub; in particular, meeting Lady Hamilton in a upstairs room … You can hire that room for weddings now, I don’t know whether that bodes well or not.
Recently restored, the pub is absolutely wonderful – I can’t stress than enough. The beer is top notch, with excited ‘craft’ beers from around the work, and the food too by all accounts. I haven’t actually eaten here, having been swayed by The Gordon Ramsey option earlier on the ale trail, but I certainly intend to come back and do so. When I was there, they were running a beer festival with a regularly updated line up of beers from the likes of Beavertown, Kernel and Siren. History or not, it’s definitely up there with my favourite pubs in London (or anywhere).
The Southwark Tavern, Southwark Street
This one is just 150 years old, making it a real baby compared to the others on the list. It does however make it on because of the “cells” in the lower basement, these remain from and pay homage to the old debtors prison situated nearby ‘The Clink’. While that is fully commemorated by The Clink Prison Museum, this has a fairly atmospheric attempt with exposed brickwork, iron bars and dim wall lights. It can be rather busy, but has a decent range of beer and provides a welcome stop for anyone traipsing around Borough Market next door – I’d also highly recommend Brew Wharf around the corner (the pub connected to Vinopolis).
The Anchor Bankside, Southwark Bridge Road (13th C?)
Samuel Pepys watched the Great Fire from this “little alehouse on bankside”. It’s grown up a bit since then. Now a huge, sprawling tourist pub by the river – the beer is the standard stuff and it’s not exactly cosy, but it’s still a pleasant enough pit stop on the right day for anyone heading along the South Bank. It does also have a dedicated fish and chip shop inside, and a fairly decent one too, if memory serves me correctly.
There are a large number of balconies and rooms in that organic style you get when a pub grows over a few centuries, and it always seems quite lively so there’s probably worse places to visit.
Out of these, my pick would definitely be The Gun. Purely for the quality of the beer. I did it on the DLR ale trail and as it was the final stop, didn’t feel like I spent nearly enough time there. If we have went the other way on the trail, I dare say we might never have left. These maps for these trails (there’s a second that goes North to South via the Cutty Sark and the Meantime Brewery pub) are available on the DLR website and come highly rated by myself.
Finally – this list isn’t meant to be exclusive, there’s obviously a lot of other pubs in London that also deserve their place on any list of historical drinking establishments. I may have to attempt a sequel at some point, after some more “research”. Any suggestions are welcome.