London Pubs part 2

In which I continue my quest to enjoy a drink in every pub in London with a literary connection.

For the second part of my reminiscences about some of the London pubs in which I have whiled away lost afternoons over the years, I will concentrate on the area South of Holborn towards the river.  Holborn station is a very good place to start any trip to London: Bloomsbury and Soho lie to the West; the city to the East.  A short walk to the South East from the station will bring you to Lincoln’s Inn Fields. this large green space is a surprise oasis among the office blocks of Kingsway and Holborn.  It was once the location of one of London’s premier theatres, well-known for opera, it was favoured by Purcell, Handel and John Gay.  The square has also  been used for public executions.

These days, the fields are a very pleasant place for office workers, and students from the nearby LSE, to spend a lunch hour.  There are netball and tennis courts and a very nice café.  A central bandstand is surrounded by avenues of London Planes.  These trees are common throughout the capital as they are tolerant of high levels of pollution, a fact that appealed to Victorian town planners.  In the South West corner of the square is The Old Curiosity Shop, selling art, antiques and curios.  The sign outside states that it was “immortalised by Charles Dickens” in the novel of the same name but there seems to be some dispute as to whether the shop actually existed in 1840 when the book was published.

Elsewhere in the square, there is an array of pleasant buildings, including the neo-gothic land registry office, The classical Royal College of Surgeons, incorporating the (slightly macabre) Hunterian museum of surgical history and, on the north side, the superb John Soane’s museum.  Soane was the architect of the Bank of England and was an inveterate collector of architectural features, artworks, furniture and … well, just interesting stuff.  The house (actually two adjoining houses) is packed from cellar to attic with objects that Soane collected from around the world.  There is a room full of artworks, including Hogarth, Turner and Canaletto, Egyptian sarcophagi, roman sculpture and objects of scientific interest.  The whole place is decorated and furnished as it would have been when Soane died here in 1837. Best of all, on the first Tuesday of every month, it is open in the evening lit only by candlelight.  it’s very atmospheric and quite romantic and completely free. You should definitely experience it.

Lincoln’s Inn itself lies to the East of the square behind a high brick wall and separated by a gatehouse.  The Great Hall of Lincoln’s Inn was where Dickens set the opening of Bleak House, one of his greatest, and most poetic, novels.  Far better than ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ anyway. You can walk through Lincoln’s Inn, although you can’t go into any of the buildings (unless you have business there, of course). The buildings appear to be mid-Victorian: red brick with soaring pinnacles and castellated towers, though parts of the complex date from the 15th Century.

The Seven Stars

If you leave the Fields by the South East corner, past Lincoln’s Inn, you will find yourself in Carey Street, which runs behind the Royal Courts of Justice.  The Seven Stars is a relaxed and friendly little pub that serves real ale and excellent food.  It is frequented by people from the courts at lunchtime, and you can encounter a wide variety of folk.  Get there in mid-afternoon and you should find the place quiet enough to get a seat inside. The walls are adorned with newspaper cartoons and old film posters, all with a legal theme, and the building is a delight: cramped yet comfortable.  If you do need to use the lavatory, you will have to ascend a near vertical staircase with no room to pass someone coming in the other direction.  When I worked in Lincoln’s Inn Fields (or L.I.F. as we used to call it), I would sit in the pub and write sometimes, supervised by the pub cat, Tom Paine (this was a few years ago; I very much doubt that Mr. Paine is still in residence). The Landlady, Observer food writer, the friendly and mildly eccentric Roxy Beaujolais, once told me that John Banville used to visit the pub in order to write.  I have no evidence for this, only Roxy’s story, and she did tell a lot of stories.  True or not, the pub is a lovely place to spend the afternoon reading or writing, and to stay and watch as it fills up towards evening and people begin to spill onto the street, where an impromptu party atmosphere can develop.

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese

A short walk towards the strand will take you past the magnificent Maughan library, part of King’s College and not open to the public as far as I’m aware.  Eventually, you will arrive at Fleet Street, onetime hub of the newspaper industry.  Turn left towards St. Paul’s and you will find one of the world’s most famous literary pubs.  Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese has been playing host to journalists and writers since 1538.  The current building was built after the fire in 1666 and is another Samuel Smith’s house.  Tardis like, it is entered through a narrow doorway in an alleyway and opens up into a huge space, including a labyrinth of wood panelled rooms and a vaulted cellar. There are plaques commemorating former visitors and these read like a who’s who of literary history: Oliver Goldsmith, Tennyson, Anthony Trollope, WB Yeats, Conan Doyle, GK Chesterton, PG Wodehouse, RL Stevenson and, of course, Charles Dickens. The pub is mentioned in A Tale of Two Cities, as the place Sydney Carton takes Charles Darnay for a celebratory dinner following the latter’s acquittal.  Samuel Johnson is also supposed to have visited here regularly: his London home, now a museum, is just around the corner in Gough Square.

The Lyceum Tavern

Walk Westward from here back towards the Royal Courts and you will eventually get to the Strand, so called because it used to run along the bank of the Thames.  Behind the Lyceum Theatre is the Lyceum Tavern.  This occupies the space that used to be the theatre foyer, before it was moved into the classical portico that now fronts the building.  This is an actors’ pub: photographs of famous, and not-so-famous, former patrons adorn the walls.  This is yet another Samuel Smith’s pub, so you are guaranteed a quality ale and a warm fire in the winter.  There was a period in the 70’s and 80’s when the theatre became a live music venue (it was under threat of demolition in those days, as were most historic buildings in London) The Clash, The Who and Bob Marley, among many others played here. Who knows which modern icons have visited here for a post gig refresher. I can just imagine Marley sitting in a quiet corner and enjoying a suspicious cigarette.  The Lyceum was once managed by Sir Henry Irving and Ellen Terry.  Edward Gordon Craig (see previous post on Stevenage) acted there, so is very likely to have walked through this space.  I have visited the Lyceum occasionally, although, if I am in the area, I usually head for the opposite side of the road and the Coal Hole.

The Coal Hole

So called because it once served as the coal cellar for the Savoy Hotel.  It was known as a ‘song and supper club’, where Victorian gentleman could enjoy a light supper and sing-a-long before making their drunken way home to the far flung, outlying suburbs of Islington and Clerkenwell.  Edmund Kean (a famous Shakespearean actor in the early 19th Century) was a member of one of these clubs. Gilbert & Sullivan sometimes sang comic songs to entertain the crowds here: the Savoy theatre, where their operettas were performed, was next door.  William Blake spent the end of his life in a two room apartment in No. 3 Fountain Court, which is just behind where the tavern currently stands. He spent his last days sitting in bed colouring in copies of his manuscripts.  The building he lived in was demolished when the Savoy hotel was built.  The Coal Hole is a pleasant place to spend a couple of hours. The name doesn’t really do the place justice, as it is high ceilinged and large windowed and not at all dark or dingy.  It is, however, intimate and very friendly, although it can get a bit … rowdy … at times (although, I confess, one time I visited was when the England Rugby team paraded the World Cup along the Strand in 2003, so this may not have been entirely representative).

Gordon’s Wine Bar

If it’s subterranean drinking dens you’re after then walk further westward along The Strand towards Trafalgar Square.  Before you reach Charing Cross you will find Villiers Street and Gordon’s Wine Bar.  The bar has a candlelit, vaulted cellar and an wood-panelled parlour adorned with paintings and newspaper clippings .  I’m not much of a wine buff, but I like something red and full-bodied and they were able to oblige at quite a reasonable price (about a fiver a glass, if memory serves).  In my experience, wine bars appreciate those asking for advice on what they have on offer, rather than people putting on a French accent and ordering the second cheapest bottle on the list.  The food is just how I like to eat: platters of cold meats or cheeses with lots of crusty bread.  If the cellar gets a bit too close for you (and it can get very warm in summer) there is a terrace by Victoria Embankment Gardens.  Personally, I like the subterranean feel of the place.  The building that hosts the bar was once rented by Rudyard Kipling, who used to come down to the parlour to write and GK Chesterton also favoured the parlour for a spot of writing.  The building the wine bar occupies has been renamed Kipling House in honour of its previous inhabitant.

The Anchor

I don’t know the South bank of the Thames as well as the North but I have visited Southwark many times. There is an enormous amount to see and do on Bankside and it has always been the playground for those living and working in London.  These days, there is the South Bank Complex of theatres and art galleries, the Tate Modern art gallery and Shakespeare’s Globe theatre and exhibition centre.  In Shakespeare’s day, the entertainment was rather more nefarious. It was safely out of the jurisdiction of the city fathers, who tended to look down on Londoners’ favourite activities of cock fighting, bear baiting, drinking and ‘Winchester geese’ (or prostitutes).  Spoilsports.  Worst of these vices, of course, was the theatre: unholy, bawdy and seditious.

One of the most pleasant things to do in London now is to enjoy a refresher by the river.  I have spent many a happy hour in, or outside, The Anchor, gazing at the dome of St. Paul’s, watching the traffic on the Thames, mulling over the changes of the tide and, if you’re very lucky, watching Tower Bridge opening (still an exciting event for anyone that lives and works in the city).  The Anchor claims to have been built on the site of a pub once visited by Shakespeare himself.  Not an unusual claim, it seems: just as every pub north of the river claims to have once been a regular haunt of Charles Dickens, so those in Southwark claim Shakespeare as a patron.

The current Anchor dates from 1825, although it has been rebuilt several times and an Anchor Inn is recorded on the site since 1665.  Samuel Pepys witnessed the devastation wrought by the Great Fire from the safety of the Anchor. It was also visited by Samuel Johnson, David Garrick and Oliver Goldsmith.  Joshua Reynolds and Edmund Burke are also known to have dined here in its heyday.  They serve a decent pint and always have fish and chips on the menu.  It’s a great place to watch the river or enjoy a post-theatre drink.

The George 

The George Tavern in Southwark also features in my post on Southwark.  The George is remarkable because it has the galleries around which inns were designed. Inn courtyards used to host theatrical performances before the days of purpose-built theatres.  If you also visit the Globe theatre, you can’t help but notice the similarity in construction.  There used to be several such Inns in Southwark, including the Tabard next door, from where Chaucer’s pilgrims embarked on their journey to Canterbury (incidentally, pilgrims on horseback used to travel at a pace known as ‘Canterbury gait’. We have since shortened this to ‘canter’.  Ain’t language wonderful?).

The George is divided into a number of interconnected bars.  These used to serve as waiting rooms for passengers on the horse-drawn coaches that would whisk them away to Kent and Sussex in a matter of days.  One of the bars was used by Charles Dickens, who mentions the George in Little Dorritt.  He may have known it from visiting his father at the Marshalsea Prison, which was just to the South of here.

It get’s very, very busy on summer evenings, full of office workers on their way to London Bridge station. This seems to make the staff a little twitchy: I was once refused service as, according to the young woman behind the bar: “I think you’ve had enough already”. I had only just arrived and was anticipating my first drink of the evening! It made little difference, as I simply moved to another bar and ordered my drink there without incident.  The pub is maintained by the National Trust and is an essential visit if you’re in the London Bridge area, or visiting Borough Market or the Globe Theatre.

Wherever you are in London, you are not far from a hostelry.  Most of these are friendly and welcoming and worth stopping by if you have some time on your hands. I am never without a book and will always welcome a few minutes to sit and enjoy a chapter.  I can’t guarantee that the one you choose will have any particular literary connection but, who knows, it may once have been visited by Charles Dickens.

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