My last post was on City Tavern in Philadelphia, a tourist trap historical pub with (as it turned out) a surprisingly good set of beer and food. McSorley’s is quite a different beast. It is certainly a tourist spot, but it comes across much more naturally. Certainly it is much simpler. At McSorley’s you have three choices – a dark beer, a light beer or a mixture of the two (half of each, rather than some sort of terrible cocktail). On the floor you have sawdust. For furniture we have plain wooden tables and chairs. It’s all very spartan, but in a good way – the staff are friendly, the beer is good and the atmosphere is pleasant.
I recently went on holiday to New York and Philadelphia, spending a lot of time looking at art, visiting historical/tourist sites and drinking in bars. At one point I combined two of these by visiting the City Tavern in the old part of Philadelphia. This is an recreation of an old 18th century tavern frequented by many of the US’s founding fathers. Living in England where actual pubs from that time and earlier are commonplace, I was dubious.
Situated in a little alleyway just off Broad Street, the Turf Tavern is one of the big tourist sights in Oxford. Over the years Bill Clinton has “not inhaled” there, the Australian PM Bob Hawke has set an ale-drinking world record, and Inspector Morse has visited more than once. With its unique, and occasionally odd, history, handy city-centre location and large beer gardens it has become a draw for anyone visiting Oxford and many of the residents. You may be pleased to hear that it does not disappoint (unlike The Eagle in the other place, from one of my previous posts).
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.
I guess 1667 isn’t young by any means, but this is a fair bit younger than the last pub I covered. What makes this one stand out is some more recent events in the twentieth century – the so-called RAF bar in the back, and the discovery of DNA being announced there by Francis Crick in 1953. According to the latter tale Crick ran in, interrupting lunch, and dramatically announced that he had “discovered the secret of life” – his old Cavendish Laboratory was based around the corner at the time, so I’m guessing it was selected for it’s locality as much as anything else.
Having said in my recent post on David Crowther’s History of England podcast that I should probably check out their Facebook group, I did and reading a few of the posts there was inspired to write a blog entry on this old pub in Nottingham. I’ve got a few other old pubs in mind too, so I may well end up doing a few of these. I was in Nottingham for reasons related to work, but took the advantage of some free time to look around the city. The pub, which claims to be the oldest in England – founded in 1189, is near the castle on the West side of the city centre. It’s probably one of the most impressive locations for a pub that I’ve seen, overshadowed by and more or less built into the huge limestone cliffs, just around the corner from the statue of Robin Hood.