London Pubs, part 1

In which I quench my thirst in a number of historic inns.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I sometimes get terribly thirsty. Usually in mid-afternoon, just after teatime.  It is vitally important, therefore, for me to know where the nearest place of refreshment is.  In this exciting episode, I would like to share some of the hostelries in which I have spent many a happy hour.  They don’t necessarily have literary connections but many of them do: there is something about the warmth, the people and the atmosphere of a pub that appeals to artists and writers.  Perhaps there is something in the transient friendships that form without pressure or commitment, that appeals to the artistic outsider.  Pubs can provide a wealth of material, of course, and writers tend to be obsessive people-watchers.  Many pubs have their stories – mostly apocryphal – of famous people who once stopped by.  Coaching Inns played an important part in any pre-railway era journey.  Anyone who travelled around the country would have had overnighted at an Inn and there are many accounts of visits by writers, using inns and taverns as the basis for locations in novels.  I enjoy reading in pubs: if I can find one without music.  I like to find a quiet corner and while away an hour with a book and a pint. I am naturally drawn to places that have inspired great writers; where there is a literary connection, I have pointed it out.

The Fitzroy Tavern, Charlotte Street, W1.

I was at university just around the corner from here and at the end of a long, studious day, my friend Christian (a larger-than-life character in every sense of the phrase, with a public school drawl that would make Boris Johnson sound eloquent) suggested we take refreshment.  He led me to the Fitzroy and, once we had bought drinks, instructed me to sit in a very specific place. “Why here?” I asked, perplexed. “Because” he replied, indicating a photograph of a curly-headed young man in tweeds “that is Dylan’s chair.” Dylan Thomas lodged in nearby Rathbone Place the 1930s. He had published a couple of volumes of poetry and was widely being hailed as a genius and courted by the London literary community.  It was while he was living in the area that he met Caitlin Macnamara, who was to become his wife.  He spent an enormous amount of time in the pubs of Bloomsbury.  Eventually his fondness for pubs and drinking would get the better of him: alcoholism destroyed his marriage and eventually killed him.  His photo’ hangs on the wall here, along with many other past patrons.

In the 1920s The Fitzroy began to acquire a reputation amongst bohemian artists of the day, including Augustus John and Jacob Epstein. There is a BBC recording studio on Charlotte Street and the Fitzroy also became popular with broadcasters.  Several writers, perhaps drawn by the bohemian reputation, visited here, including George Orwell (though he preferred the Newman Arms around the corner, using it as the model for the proles pub in 1984), T.S. Eliot (who also frequented The Marquis of Granby, a few yards down the road) and the playwright Brendan Behan (who also visited every pub in the area. Frequently).  Today, it is a light and pleasant corner pub, embracing its literary and artistic heritage and serving good food.  Very handy for a break when visiting the West End or the British Museum.

The Princess Louise, Holborn, WC1

The Princess Louise is also handy for the British Museum and its location near to Holborn Underground Station will give you an opportunity to reflect upon your day’s museuming while waiting for fools to finish rushing, so that you may make your way home at a more leisurely pace.  The Louise has no particular literary connection that I’m aware of, although it is a Samuel Smith’s pub.  This Yorkshire-based brewery owns several historic inns in the capital (including the Fitzroy).  They are an interesting company because, firstly, they only stock their own products, and, secondly, they try to refurbish their premises according to the criteria set out by George Orwell in his 1936 essay, The Moon Under Water.  In this essay, Orwell describes the features that make his ideal pub, including:

  • The architecture and fittings must be uncompromisingly Victorian
  • Games, such as darts, are only played in the public bar so that in other bars you can walk about without the worry of flying darts
  • The pub is quiet enough to talk, with the house possessing neither a radio nor a piano
  • In winter there is generally a good fire burning in at least two of the bars

The Princess Louise conforms to most of these criteria, having no music or games and being quiet enough to hold a conversation (or read) with ease.  I cannot recall a single occasion, summer or winter, when they haven’t had an enormous fire roaring away.  Most of all, the architecture and fittings are spectacularly Victorian.  There is an ornate island bar in rich mahogany with gleaming brass fittings; several private booths; a bow-fronted bay window and an ornate plaster ceiling.  It’s worth having a look on Trip Advisor to get a picture of just how magnificent it is.

The Cittie of Yorke, Holborn, WC1

George Orwell also stipulated that the ale in his ideal pub should be drunk out of a pewter tankard.  If you wander eastward along High Holborn, you will find, tucked away down a very narrow street, a basement wine bar called Bunghole cellars.  I haven’t visited for a number of years but, when I was last there, you could request your ale be served in a pewter mug or copper jug.  A little further along High Holborn towards Chancery Lane is the Cittie of Yorke.  Another Samuel Smith’s house, this one is less ornate gin palace and more honest boozer.  A large, vaulted, stone-floored back room is heated by a stove. It has private cubicles, rather than open tables, which makes socialising more intimate and private, which, I think, is a much more pleasant experience (unless it’s crowded and you’re forced to share with someone else, when it’s just awkward).  In 1951, Dylan Thomas, similarly impressed by the surroundings wrote an ode to ‘Henneky’s Long Bar’, as it was then called.  This was only discovered as recently as 2014, down the back of someone’s sofa. Probably.

The Lamb, Lamb’s Conduit Street, WC1

Although a large number of London’s pubs claim to have been visited by Charles Dickens, one pub that has a better right to this assertion than most is The Lamb. Dickens lived around the corner from here, in Doughty Street, between 1837 and 1839. This was an extremely significant part of his life: recently married with a young family and starting to make a name for himself.  A Journalist with an enormously successful book recently published, he was making friends among the London artistic and literary community. Things took a decided downturn when his beloved sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, died in his arms, aged just 17.  An event that seems to have caused him such upset that he never really recovered: he wore her ring for the rest of his life and the was inspired to write some decidedly tragic heroines (Nancy in Oliver Twist and Little Nell in the Old Curiosity Shop, for example).  The house in which he lived is now an excellent and very friendly museum.  The Lamb is perfectly situated for perusing the museum guidebook, which has become something of a ritual for me after visiting a writer’s house.

A pint of Young’s and a guidebook in the Lamb.  Life is good.

For many years, I walked from work in Holborn to King’s Cross station every evening and the Lamb was about the half-way point.  Like Charles, I sometimes stopped here for a refresher.  The beer is always very good and they do some very nice pub fare too. Inside, there is an original Victorian interior (anyone starting to notice a theme here?) with several small rooms and a central island bar.  The pub is famous for having original ‘snob screens’. These are small glass screens that separate you from the bar.  These can be opened for placing an order, and then closed to give you some privacy from the lower orders behind the bar whilst you conduct your conversation.  There is also a charming little courtyard garden that gets very busy on summer evenings.  It is in this pub that a young Sylvia Plath would meet Ted Hughes when they were courting.

Lamb’s Conduit Street (so called because someone called Lamb built a conduit in it) is a lovely little oasis.  There are some nice little cafés, family-run restaurants and interesting little shops, among them Persephone Books, a gorgeous little bookshop specialising in 20th Century women’s fiction.  There are also several pubs (including the Perseverance, which I have visited often: brews it’s own beer and is popular among medical staff from the nearby Great Ormond Street Hospital.

Ye Olde Mitre

Walk along High Holborn to Hatton Garden and you will find a barrier, complete with security guard, at the entrance to Ely Place.  This is because the area you are about to enter doesn’t actually exist within London.  Slipping through this portal in space time, you will find yourself in a small enclave (exclave?) of Cambridgeshire.  It exists to accommodate St Ethelreda’s catholic church and, originally, the London residence of the Bishop of Ely.  There are stories of jewel thieves from Hatton Garden making a dash for Ely Place as the Met have no authority here (I think, however, this might be a particularly risky course of action).

Ye Olde Mitre can be difficult to find, tucked in an  alleyway between Ely Place and Hatton Garden but it is definitely worth seeking out. The pub slots in to some tiny brick alleyways, between buildings which close in around you to lend the area a gloomy, Dickensian feel.  The canyon widens slightly to accommodate the Mitre and creates a little oasis of light. The Mitre looks like an old sailing ship at dock: the front is oak and glass; there are brass lanterns hanging outside and barrels stacked in the alleyway provide leaning places for the exiled smokers.  Inside is a labyrinth of tiny rooms, narrow staircases, wood panels and cosy fires.  It is cramped but feels friendly and home-like.  One can get very comfortable here.

I don’t know of any literary connections, but there is a legend about Elizabeth I meeting Sir Christopher Hatton beneath a cherry tree.  Apparently, the tree is preserved as part of the structure of the building (I can’t recall ever seeing it). The pub is registered with CAMRA (an organisation that does a great deal of work to preserve this important aspect of our heritage) and is on their register of historic pub interiors.  It has an armful of awards and apparently the food is good.  The atmosphere is excellent.

To be continued …

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