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Time travelling in London via its pubs

To visit London’s historic pubs is to take a tour through the city’s living heritage

A view of the skyline near St Paul's Cathedral in London. The streets around the Thames Embankment are full of historic old pubs, many of which trace their roots to the 15th century.
A view of the skyline near St Paul's Cathedral in London. The streets around the Thames Embankment are full of historic old pubs, many of which trace their roots to the 15th century. (Bloomberg)

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Just think about it, I tell the little voice in my head, this might be the table Charles Dickens chose to relax at after a hard day’s work. The George, set back from the main road between London Bridge and Borough Market, is one of London’s oldest pubs. But Dickens, who mentioned The George when it was a coffee house in Little Dorrit, isn’t the public house’s only claim to fame.

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Harking back to the 17th century, The George is said to have hosted Shakespeare when it doubled as a theatrical venue. Audiences would stand in the galleries, watching the performances in the cobbled courtyard below. 

There are no audiences now but I can hear the pleasant thrum of a happy crowd. The George sits in the middle of Southwark, between the contemporary Shard and Millennium Bridge and the ancient St Paul’s Cathedral and London Bridge, drawing both tourists and locals. The battered halloumi bites, topped with a red chilli and pickled red onion garnish, and baked British camembert with sourdough strips, grapes and red peppers consume my attention. I take a swig of cold beer and look around the historic public house I am in.

The British pub isn’t just a place where people come together to sip ale. Like the Parisian cafés and Chinese tea houses, pubs are community spaces that have long functioned as centres for social and intellectual exchange in villages, towns and cities. British pubs aren’t entirely homegrown. According to Historic UK, centuries ago, an invading Roman army brought along road networks and pubs, then known as tabernae. These tabernae, now taverns, served wine to the troops and passers-by, but quickly adapted to local tastes by serving ale. All alehouses, inns and taverns became known as public houses, and then pubs during the reign of King Henry VII. In 1552, an act necessitating a licence to run a pub was passed. The drinking establishment continued to grow and evolve with social and political movements. 

Initially, the working class thronged pubs, which had bare bench seats and wooden stools standing on unfurnished floorboards, often covered with sawdust to absorb “spit and sawdust”, and women were barred. By the end of the 18th century, most pubs created a new space: the saloon, which charged an admission fee and offered drinks alongside entertainment like singing, dancing, drama, or comedy. My friend, a London local and a seasoned pub crawler, says that male and accompanied women visited these bars, which had carpeted floors, upholstered seating, and better drinks.

The “snug” also sprung up around this time. A small private area with access to the bar and a frosted glass window for privacy, the snug charged more but was popular with people who did not want to be seen drinking in public. This is where the local priest got his evening drink, the constable grabbed a pint, or the brave solitary woman ordered a fixer-upper.

That puts me in the mood for a fixer-upper and I settle on an English brown ale with a predominantly malty palate. Gordon, the bartender, is well versed in the history of what he’s dispensing. He tells me that ale, the native British brew, was originally made without hops. Ale brewed with hops made an appearance in the 14th and 15th centuries, and was known as beer. By 1550, all brewing used hops, and the terms alehouse and beerhouse were used interchangeably. Today, ales, stouts and lagers are just different kinds of beers. 

By the 16th century, the heart of London city was home to about 3,000 pubs and bars. But the Great Fire of London, which blazed for nearly five days in September 1666, razed nearly one-third of the city and countless drinking establishments. The British love for pubs prevailed, however, and today, London is home to more than 3,500 pubs, old and new, themed and country, rustic and posh. The borough of Westminster is richest, with more than 430 pubs. 

I step out and walk along the Thames to reach Anchor Bankside, resplendent in red and gold. Said to be Bankside's oldest surviving tavern, it has been rebuilt many times like other historic pubs in London, though records show there has been a pub at this location for more than 800 years. The Anchor was a haunt of actors from neighbouring playhouses such as the Globe, the Swan and the Rose. During the Great Fire, diarist Samuel Pepys took refuge in “a little alehouse on bankside ... and there watched the fire grow”. It later served as a stomping ground for smugglers and river pirates, which has only added to its mystique.

I continue walking. Around me abound pubs with celebrated pasts. The Cockpit, where cock-fighting drew crowds till 1835 when the practice was banned, was once owned by Shakespeare. The Blackfriar Pub, built in 1875 on the site of a 13th century Dominican priory, is one of the comeliest pubs in London, with stained glass windows depicting jolly monks. 

Walking by the river has worked up an appetite and I step into the Old Bell, thinking of a pale ale, beer-battered onion rings, and the fat chippies that seem to cock a snook at the regular skinny French fries. 

The Old Bell stands on the site of an earlier tavern, The Swan, which gave way to Fleet Street’s first printer in 1500. It was later re-built by Sir Christopher Wren to house the masons who were renovating St Bride's Church—said to be the inspiration for the tiered wedding cake—after the Great Fire. The Old Bell is considered the second oldest pub in London, and was the pub of choice for printers and journalists working on Fleet Street. A framed copy of the Daily Mail, published the morning after the Blitz, takes pride of place by the bar, announcing “St Paul's stands unharmed in the midst of the burning city”. The pub’s grub put it in London’s first good food guide, The Epicure’s Almanack of 1815.

Nearby is Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, housed in a building that dates back to 1667, where the seat “to the right of the fire, under the portrait of the head waiter” is said to have been Dickens’ favourite. Other famous and literary visitors include Mark Twain, Alfred Tennyson, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 

It seems impossible to explore all of London’s historic drinking establishments. To walk through London’s taverns is to take a trip through its living heritage. I’ve only managed to cover a handful along the Embankment. There is The Mayflower, also on the River Thames, traces its roots back to the 1600s and was named after the ship that took the Pilgrims to the New World. Then there’s the Viaduct Tavern, said to be one of London’s most haunted pubs and built on the site of Newgate Prison, which once jailed numerous prisoners, including Oscar Wilde, Daniel Defoe, and two female serial killers. The Seven Stars, located in one of the very few buildings that survived the Great Fire; Ye Olde Mitre Tavern, where Queen Elizabeth I once danced around the cherry tree at the entrance… they all have to wait for next time!

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