(By Jolyon Attwooll).- There are few more quintessentially English experiences than supping a pint of ale in a centuries-old public house, where the walls could tell you stories. London is awash with such places, remarkably so in some respects, given the destruction wreaked by the Great Fire of London, Second World War bombs and post-war planners.
Marked in the map above are some wonderfully historical pubs in the heart of London. Some were around before Shakespeare; others are comparatively recent Victorian additions – but all have a fascinating story behind them.
1. The Star Tavern
The Star Tavern in Belgravia has seen its share of well-heeled visitors – including Peter O’Toole, Diana Dors and Alexander Korda – since it was built in the early 19th century. However, it is most noted for its role in one of the most colourful – and notorious – episodes in 20th century England.
The grand upstairs room was supposedly where the Great Train Robbers hatched their plan to attack the Mail service in 1963. Bruce Reynolds, the ringleader, would reportedly drive up from south-west London in an Aston Martin to flesh out the details of the £2.3m heist. Now, it’s a grand, welcoming place with a good selection of Fuller’s beers.
6 Belgrave Mews W, SW1X 8HT
2. The Nag’s Head
This wonderful, poky little pub is just a short distance from the shopping district of Harrods and Knightsbridge, but is a completely different world. Just reaching it feels like a discovery, with its location down a quiet little mews. Once you stoop inside, you’ll find a cluttered assembly of portraits, bric-a-brac, pewter mugs, and curiosities, and Adnams on tap. This is where you come to get a sense of the public house as it was like centuries ago – and woe betide the person who ignores the mobile phone ban. As befits the old school nature of the place, there doesn’t seem to be an official website.
53 Kinnerton St, SW1X 8ED
3. The Grenadier
Built in 1720, the Grenadier was originally used as an officer’s mess for the Foot Guards regiment. It became a pub in 1818, and it is rumoured that the Duke of Wellington used to pop in for refreshments. Some also say it is haunted by the ghost of a former soldier who was murdered after cheating in a game of cards. In more recent years, Madonna chose to come here for a post-gig celebration, and the pub’s cosy interior remains the haunt of many a socialite looking for a traditional English pint and pub lunch.
18 Wilton Row, SW1X 7NR
4. The French House, Soho
This Soho institution has played a strong historical role, although as the name suggests, its influence has been felt more on the other side of the Channel. Ironically, the first known landlord was a German, Herr Schmidt, but he was deported after the outbreak of the First World War.
During the Second World War, the pub was used as a meeting place for members of the French Resistance, including General de Gaulle. Later, its bohemian clientele included journalist Jeffrey Bernard, and Suggs from the band Madness. The pub retains a distinctly Gallic flavour today, serving alcohol in French measures. Traditionalists should approve of the absence of a television and its mobile phone ban.
49 Dean St, W1D 5BG
5. The Dog and Duck, Soho
Another well-known Soho watering hole with great literary associations, the Dog and Duck was where George Orwell used to drink. It has an ornate Victorian interior – the pub is Grade-II listed and noted for its lavish tiling and grand mirrors. In its previous incarnation on the same site (the current pub was built in 1897), John Constable and Dante Gabriel Rossetti were also apparently regulars – and the owners boast of a visit from Madonna: clearly the singer has good taste in traditional English pubs.
18 Bateman Street, London, W1D 3AJ
6. The Cross Keys
One of the most distinctive places in Covent Garden, often noted for the striking foliage around its façade. Within, it’s a far cry from the all-too-common homogenous pub chain, with a fantastic clutter of ornaments and memorabilia – there’s even a napkin said to have been signed by Elvis. It’s a defiantly traditional pub, which tends to be used by locals.
31 Endell Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2H 9BA
7. The Lamb and Flag
This has a good claim as Covent Garden’s most historic watering hole, and retains much of its traditional charm. Tucked down an alleyway – which was once notorious as the site of bare-knuckle fighting – this is an enormously popular pub, where drinkers have included Dickens, and the 17th-century poet John Dryden.
In fact, the latter was apparently the victim of an attempted murder nearby. By way of consolation, the upstairs room is now named after him. You may find you need to make your way there up the narrow wooden staircase to escape the crowds at the bottom. The pub often puts on entertainment, and is decked out in bunting, on St George’s Day.
33 Rose Street, London WC2E 9EB
8. The Seven Stars
One of the few places in the area to survive the Great Fire of London, the tiny Seven Stars pub now has more than four centuries of history behind it. Located just behind the Royal Courts of Justice, it is a natural stomping ground for the pin stripes of the legal profession. Unassuming from the outside, it’s a traditional pub through and through within, and has a good range of real ales. Given its size, don’t expect to find much space – try to avoid lunch time and the post-work rush.
53-54 Carey St, London WC2A 2JB
9. Cittie of Yorke
A Sam Smith’s pub (with a very good value, but limited, beer selection), the Cittie of York dates back to 1430, although the present building was built in the Twenties. And what a building it is. There are three different bars, though the one at the back is perhaps the most striking – a grand hall with a long bar, towering ceilings, and vats stashed to one side. It is Grade-II listed, and recommended by CAMRA (The Campaign for Real Ale).
22 High Holborn, London, WC1V 6BN
10. The Lamb
This has a Victorian-style interior – although the pub is actually much older – and many associations with the Bloomsbury set; Dickens is also thought to have drunk here (among many other places). Strikingly, its “snob screens” are still in place, there’s a varnished horse-shoe shaped bar, as well as a polyphon (the predecessor to the gramophone) on display.
English Heritage describes the pub as “an exceptional piece of Victoriana”. It’s a Young’s pub, and its character is beautifully maintained.
94 Lambs Conduit Street
11. The Crown Tavern, Clerkenwell
Lenin used to drink at The Crown Tavern – or the Crown and Anchor as it was then – before revolutionary matters took him to Russia. It is thought that he may even have conferred with Stalin on site. More recently it was the setting for a scene from Notes on a Scandal, starring Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett. There are a good range of draught beers on offer.
43 Clerkenwell Green, EC1R 0EG
12. Ye Olde Mitre Tavern
One of the most difficult to find of all the pubs listed here (according to one story, one man worked just around the corner for six years without finding it), but it is well worth the effort. It’s unashamedly traditional (no TVs), and long may that continue. Previous clientele are rumoured to have included Elizabeth I (one story goes that she danced around a cherry tree that is still there). The current incarnation was built around 1772, although there had been a pub on the site since the mid 1500s. It is actually technically still part of the Diocese of Ely, Cambridgeshire, a bizarre quirk due to its origins as a tavern for the servants of the Palace of the Bishops of Ely, which was once based here.
Ely Court, Hatton Garden, Holborn, London EC1N 6SJ
13. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
On every list of historic pubs in London, and with reason: the warren-like Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is an absolute treat. Countless literary grandees and journalists – from Samuel Johnson and Dickens to the Fleet Street hacks of the 20th century – have occupied a nook or cranny in its labyrinthine interior. Although very much on the tourist trail, it is big enough to cope. Rebuilt in 1667 after the Great Fire – a date flagged boastfully on the sign outside, it’s another Sam Smiths pub – cheap, but not a great beer selection. Oh, and if you find yourself in one of the cellar bars, you won’t get a mobile phone reception, completing your escape from the daily grind.
145 Fleet Street, EC4A 2BU
14. The Viaduct
The last surviving Victorian gin palace in London, the Viaduct opened the same year (1869) as the nearby viaduct. It is opposite the Old Bailey (where Newgate Prison once stood).
The story that its beer cellars are former cells of the prison may be a myth (the case is convincingly argued here), but even so the pub is a great stop for history buffs. Elegantly curving on a corner, it has Fuller’s ales on tap and a noteworthy interior, particularly its etched glass panels (the nearby Princess Louise also has striking examples), and a series of large portraits representing agriculture, banking and the arts.
126 Newgate Street; EC1A 7AA
15. The Black Friar
Now strangely exposed on a very busy thoroughfare, the wedge-shaped Black Friar was once much more tucked away. It was going to be demolished along with the surrounding buildings until John Betjeman, later poet laureate, stepped in and campaigned successfully to save it.
[googlemaps https://maps.google.co.uk/maps?q=&layer=c&sll=51.512199,-0.103708&cid=1549263522398496782&panoid=n0PJeYZ8gJTuoEaXLsWQxg&cbp=13,177.91,,0,0&hl=en&gl=GB&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=&t=h&cbll=51.512156,-0.103657&source=embed&ll=51.510963,-0.103662&spn=0.004193,0.009871&z=16&output=svembed&w=460&h=314]Few would argue with that now; little prepares you for the extravagance of its religious-themed Art Nouveau interior. It makes you wonder what the planners were thinking…
74 Queen Victoria Street, EC4V 4EG
16. The George Inn
Last but emphatically not least on London ultimate’s historical pub tour. The George Inn (being south of the river) is out an a slight limb as far as this tour is concerned, but, along with Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, is possibly the most striking and atmospheric of them all. Once a coffee house visited by Dickens (it was mentioned in Little Dorrit), it is London’s last remaining galleried inn, and the only pub in London to be owned by the National Trust. An older incarnation was destroyed by fire in 1676. There is extensive outdoor seating.
The George Inn Yard, 77 Borough High Street, SE1 1NH