Derek Robertson, December 2017
The humble pub has a long and storied history in London, playing a pivotal role in the development of trades, social life, and the very city itself. As far back as the 14th Century there were already around 350 taverns in existence, dens of inequity that weren’t simply a place for menfolk to drink away their meager wages; gambling, fighting, thieving, and even job hunting all took place within public houses over the centuries, cementing their notorious reputation in the eyes of lawmakers and polite society.
Nor were they just for the working class; at various times the intelligentsia, gangsters, and cultural and artistic titans have all added chapters to London’s rich drinking scene and gave rise to many a myth. So grab a seat at the bar, order a pint, and drink in the majesty of the capitals oldest and most historic pubs.
The Spaniards Inn, Hampstead Heath
No foray into the drinking history of London would be complete without a visit to The Spaniards Inn. Perched on a hill above Hampstead Heath – complete with stunning views across the capital – it’s one of the most charming, storied spots anywhere in Britain. Dating from 1585, all manner of the great and good has passed through it’s doors; Lord Byron, John Keats, and Charles Dickens were all regulars, and there’s a pistol ball fired by notorious highwayman Dick Turpin framed above the bar. It was even namechecked in Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’. Stories of ghostly goings on abound, but the myth-making is understandable; a pint or three here is not to be missed.
The Lamb & Flag, Covent Garden
Buried down a backstreet away from the tourist hordes, this historic watering hole retains much of its old world charm. The courtyard site used to host bare-knuckle boxing matches which partially explains its somewhat rough and ready reputation in the history books; numerous duels and attempted murders took place here in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Charles Dickens was a regular here too, as were a number of famous poets – the upstairs room is named after John Dryden – and the beer has been flowing since 1623.
The French House, Soho
Soho has long been the epicenter of bohemian London, and The French (as regulars like to call it) has been a buzzing part of the scene for a good few hundred years. Continental stubbornness rules here – beer is only served in halves, mobile phones are banned, and the small, memento-filled interior necessitates extensive use of the pavement outside – but that’s all part of the charm. And it’s not just the art set who called this place home; while Dylan Thomas, Francis Bacon, and Sylvia Plath all drank here, it was also used as a centre of operations by Charles de Gaulle and the French Resistance during World War II.
Ye Olde Mitre Tavern, Holborn
It’s name might sound ridiculously twee and obvious, but this place is the real deal; a tavern dating back to the mid 1500s that remains defiantly traditional (no TVs, no music, no fuss). Built by a Bishop to serve a nearby religious palace, it also has a Royal connection – Queen Elizabeth I allegedly danced around the cherry tree in the enclosed courtyard before retiring to the bar for some liquid refreshment. The fare on offer is very old school – cask ales, scotch eggs, pork pies – but delicious, and it’s hard-to-find location means it remains something of an undiscovered gem.
The George Inn, Southwark
The last galleried coaching inn in the capital is a spectacularly atmospheric marvel, and it’s no surprise it’s the only pub in London to be owned by the National Trust. Once a coffee house frequented by Charles Dickens (again), its literary past goes much deeper; the bar was frequented by none other than William Shakespeare himself, whose plays were put on in the courtyard (the galleries for the audience remain intact), and it’s also where Chaucer set the beginning of ‘The Canterbury Tales’. Have a pint here, and you’re literally drinking history.
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