A direct descendant of ancient Roman taverns, the public house or simply the pub has very quickly become a part of national British culture. After all, the pub is first and foremost a meeting place where social classes are erased and you can not just have a pint of ale, but also learn all the latest news and gossip of the neighbourhood or village. The pub is an unmistakable part of British culture. Most people have a favourite pub and the older it is the more popular it is with the locals so it is possible to walk into one pub half-empty and still beehive-like around the corner. We take a walk through the oldest pubs in the City of London with our guide Irina Belousova.
There are interesting pubs in every part of London - if you're in Hampstead, make sure you visit the atmospheric 1700's The Spaniards Inn. But the greatest concentration of interesting historic pubs within walking distance is nowadays in the City business district: here almost every pub is like a living history. The British often visit more than one in an evening, so let's take a look at some of the City's oldest pubs.
This pub has been a favourite of justice creators for the last 140 years because of its proximity to the Royal Courts of Justice and, according to many sources, is the oldest in the county. Although Seven Stars is over four hundred years old, very little is known about its history due to the archives being destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666. It is believed that the pub was originally called The Leg and Seven Stars - as a distortion of the expression "League of Seven Stars", which referred to the seven provinces of the Netherlands. It was a marketing ploy of sorts at the time to attract the Dutch sailors who were settling nearby. The interior of the pub is very eccentric. One part of the small space is a former wig shop, so right from the street you can still see the heads of mannequins in wigs. The steep, narrow staircase leading up to the restroom will surprise any new visitor. According to the bartender, the restroom (one stall for everyone) is already a modern addition that was only added fifteen years ago. Previously, customers were expected to use the public facilities around the corner. Out on Fleet Street, where there are several colourful old pubs at once.
Lurking in one of the street's alleyways is the rather famous Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, 145 Fleet St, London. The pub, under a different name, has been there since 1538 - at a time when Henry VIII lost three of his wives. As with most buildings of these years, the Great Fire of 1666 hit the place hard. But the pub was rebuilt in 1667. So history pervades every corner of this original place. The vaulted cellars are thought to be from the 13th-century Carmelite monastery that originally occupied the site. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese was once visited by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Samuel Johnson, Mark Twain and Winston Churchill. And, for example, you can still sit at Charles Dickens' favourite table. The writer preferred a seat to the right of the fireplace in the first-floor room across from the bar. Dickens visited Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese so often that it is even mentioned in his work A Tale of Two Cities. The pub even had its own parrot named Polly, given to the establishment by a sailor in the late 19th century. On the night after the First World War, the excited bird, according to the recollections of visitors, imitated the pop of a champagne cork more than four hundred times before it fell off the perch and lost consciousness. Polly the parrot was so famous that his obituary appeared in two hundred newspapers around the world when he died in 1926. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is not the place to go if you want to sit by the window and look out over the beautiful street. Gloomy, barely lit by natural light, it's more suited to imagining yourself as the protagonist of a Victorian crime thriller. But let's take our pint of atmosphere of intrigue and antiquity and move on.
Although the information on the plaque with a brief history of the pub is obviously distorted, the fact remains that the pub on this site was at least as early as 1605. Only it was originally called The Boar's Head and was built from the stones of Whitefriars Priory, which unfortunately did not allow it to survive the hell of the Great Fire of London in 1666. The fire destroyed all of Fleet Street to a point just off Fetter Lane. So today's pub - for the most part a 19th century version - is mostly late Victorian with some fine elements in a distinctly Irish style. The Tipperary claims to be the first Irish pub outside Ireland and the first to sell Guinness beer in England. The history here is quite convoluted and worthy of a separate story, but it is safe to say that the pub was one of the first Guinness sellers in England, and from the 19th century until the mid-20th century it was really owned by the Irish and the customers were of Irish nationality. Therefore, on St. Patrick's Day at The Tipperary you can feel as if you were in Ireland.
Perhaps only Ye Olde Watling pub, also in the City, can boast such an impressive architect as Sir Christopher Wren. The Old Bell Tavern was recreated in 1678 by London's most famous architect for the stonemasons who were rebuilding St Bride's Church after the Great Fire, with an intricate spire that later served as inspiration for many a wedding cake. The Old Bell Tavern stands on the site of the earlier The Swan Tavern, and in 1500 it was home to Fleet Street's first printing press. When Fleet Street became the centre of the British national press, the local pubs became a haven for journalists who were famous for their drinking. Eventually St. Bride's Church gradually became a journalist's church in the same way as The Old Bell Tavern, the pub next door. Some journalists' excessive addiction to beer almost drove them to the monastery. In the early days of the Cold War, for example, Sunday Express journalist Eric Tallett was handed top-secret information about a national code-breaking enterprise. A drunken Eric had managed to forget a notebook of classified data on the bar just in The Old Bell Tavern. The record was found by a barmaid, who noticed the words "Secret" and "Moscow". Information about this immediately found its way to the police and MI5. The journalist was later able to continue his activities, but without the sensational article. The story only resurfaced twenty years later. Half an hour's stroll through the crowded City towards Aldgate and you'll find yourself in front of a ramshackle and completely untouristy little pub.
The first pub on this site was built back in 1593 and was called The Castle, then it evolved into The Angel & Crown and The Christopher Hills, which eventually became The Hoop & Grapes, meaning selling beer and wine. The latter version of the pub was built in 1721, as a fire didn't spare it either, although the story goes that the flames stopped literally 50 yards from the pub. This is as untrue as the ghosts that supposedly haunt the pub, but it depends more on how much ale you drink. Parts of the pub do date from before the Great Fire of 1666, but which ones it is hard to know. The building where The Hoop & Grapes is located, and the one next door, were fully restored in the early 1980s: dilapidated timbers were replaced and then restored to their original design; staircases, fireplaces and windows were repaired, retaining the style. It was a very expensive undertaking at the time - the building work alone cost £1.2 million. Despite all the changes, the character of the place has been preserved and the atmosphere under the low ceilings transports you back to the 16th century.
If you have any energy left, you can head to nearby Spitalfields to tickle your nerves at The Ten Bells (84 Commercial St), a 19th-century haunt of the area's prostitutes, two of whom - Annie Chapman and Mary Kelly - were victims of Jack the Ripper. The pub's faded decor and candlelight create an appropriate atmosphere.