Shakespeare’s Local by Pete Brown

I’ve been to The George Inn on Borough High Street several times.  It’s a lovely looking building, all lop sided balconies and dark old-fashioned windows, with a layout of rooms that don’t seem to go where you expect.  Typically it’s packed with tourists and the beer (from Greene King) is average (though it is slightly less obnoxious than nearby the Anchor Bankside).  There is an atmosphere however.  Even on a busy summer’s day, it’s possible to find a space somewhere and soak in the history.  And there is quite a lot of history.

shakespeares-local-the-george-inn-borough-high-street

The title of this book suggests that Shakespeare frequented the pub – Brown admits that this isn’t backed up by evidence.  Like many stories around the pub though, it’s a reasonable guess.  The inn next door, The Tabard, was used as the starting point for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  The George was one of many inns known for theatre and entertainment during the Tudor period.  It later became one of the big coaching inns for travellers to and from London, before popping up in Dickens in the early Victorian era.  It wasn’t the biggest or most famous of pubs in the are, but it is the one that survived.  By telling the story of Southwark and its pubs in general, Brown manages to focus in on the George as it somehow survived through changing and often turbulent times.

In tone, I didn’t enjoy it as much as Hops And Glory (where the author brews a traditional IPA and transports it to India).  Occasionally the humour doesn’t land and the stream of anecdotes can feel a little relentless.  In terms of the topic though, I really enjoyed it.  That humour does take the edge off topics that could otherwise be dry (a short history of road transport?).  It was interesting to note the changes that have happened in Southwark even in the short period between this book in 2011 and now in 2017.  Reading this just after the attack at London Bridge, when the area was very much in mind, it was a reminder of how things change in London and how they remain the same.

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Post 17: Historical Pubs: London

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?)

The White Hart - there's little of the old pub left, but it is very comfortable.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.

Continue reading Post 17: Historical Pubs: London