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Ok, hands up, who is coming on a pub crawl with me? Not just any pub crawl. Ohhhhh nay nay. We are going on a historic pub crawl in London. Salty sailors, dodgy smugglers and criminals a plenty. Grab your coat people, let me take you on a tour of 8 historic pubs in London.
I love a pub. I am at home in a proper, traditional English pub. Don’t get me wrong, I can get my fancy on and enjoy a bougee cocktail bar, no problem. But that salt of the earth, English pub vibe is my thing. Pop in a roaring open fire, stories of haunted corners and a resident pub dog for me to fuss and you are not likely to get rid of me! I have told you my love of haunted or story filled places before. Remember my stay at The Mermaid Inn….???
Worth noting – Some of these pubs may still be closed due to our ole mate, Covid19 restrictions. If the pub has a website, I have linked it for you. But, as is the case with many traditional places, many have not got themselves a website. Word of mouth is still their preferred advertisement.
A few years ago, we went with some friends, on a historical pub crawl through London. It was an organised tour and brilliant. It was a very small group as the weather was being typically British. It was drizzily and damp and let me tell you, did nothing for my wild hair! As the walking tour progressed, we lost some of the other attendees along the way, until it was just the four of us and our guide. Now, we may or may not have got our guide, (who looked exactly like Harry Potter), a little drunk, thereby extending our tour to far more pubs than was listed…. We had the best day and I have kept meaning to introduce you to some of the historic pubs, (plus a few more) in London we visited. So, here we are!
Now, the title for oldest pub in London is hotly contested. Many pubs claim to be. In truth, I don’t really mind what the oldest pub is, if it’s over 100 years, then it gets my vote.
FYI – The Prospect of Whitby, which we will discuss in this post, is the current top contender for the oldest pub in London. Established in 1520, it has certainly seen some life!
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (no website)
address – 145 Fleet Street, EC4A 2BU
Nearest Tube Station – Blackfriars
From the outside, you would be forgiven for walking past this small looking pub. But, inside you will find this grade II listed pub opens up over 4 floors. Crooked doorways, 19th century wood panelling and mismatched steps accompany your navigation around this historical pub. There is evidence that a pub has been in this location from 1500. The current building was rebuilt in 1667, after the Great Fire of London reduced the former one to rubble.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese boasts an array of distinguished past patrons, including Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. It also had a famous resident, Polly the grey Parrot. On her death is the 1920’s after 40 years at the pub, no less than 200 newspapers across the world wrote obituaries for her. It was also believed to have had a brothel run from the upper rooms in the 18th century. In fact, erotically explicit plaster tiles from this era were actually found in the upper rooms. The top shelf mag of the time perhaps…..? Add these credentials to the fact that it was the first public house to serve whiskey, it certainly had it’s charm to ensure its popularity….The basement of the pub is the oldest part, and thought to be part of the original, 1500’s public house. You can sample the many traditional ales, or have a bit of pub grub while soaking up the fab atmosphere here. We love Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese and visit often.
The Cockpit (no website)
Address – 7 St Andrews Hill, EC4V 5BY
Nearest Tube Station – Blackfriars
Ok, this one has a legacy that hurts my animal loving heart. Can you guess why?? Yep, no big reveal here, it used to be a venue for cock fighting. The awful spectacle of pitting two male cockerels against each other to fight. Yuk right?? Thank goodness we have evolved since the 1800’s!
However, it is an interesting, but tiny place. The pub still has the galleried area that spectators would sit in. The tables and chairs of the pub are also set out in a kind of semi-circle, facing the bar. The bar has been in business since the 1820’s, but a drinking establishment has stood on the site since the 16th century. It has an outside facade of black paint with gold accents, making it stand out when you find it!. The interior kept purposely dark with rich reds and wood panelling. The Cockpit is one of the only traditional “real” pubs in this financial focused area of London. Its hand pulled pints and atmosphere make it popular with both city gents and construction workmen.
Address – 174 Queen Victoria Street, EC4V 4EG
Nearest Tube Station – Blackfriars
The Black Friar gets it’s name from the friary that stood where the pub now does. Built in 1875, the grade II listed building is wedge shaped, (like The Cockpit) with stained glass windows nodding to his priory past. There is even a huge black friar statue mounted over the entrance way, looking out over the patrons. The decor, from the arts and craft period, (around 1880-1920) illustrates various scenes or friar life, in the copper reliefs around the walls.
The site became the parliament chamber of the monastery in the 1500’s. It was here that King Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was decided on, and the dissolution granted.
Address – 1 Ely Court, Ely Place, Holborn EC1N 6SJ
Nearest tube station – London Bridge
This tiny pub is hard to find as it is so tucked away. You have to go down an almost invisible alleyway to gain access to it. It was originally built in the 1546, for the servants to the Bishop of Ely. Its biggest claim to fame is that the cherry tree that stood in its garden, was danced around by Queen Elizabeth I. The stump of which is still on the site!
It was also technically stated as being in Cambridge, not London. This enabled felons and those avoiding the law, to hide out here as the Met Police had no jurisdiction there. The Bishop of Ely, unimpressed with the dirt and grime of London, decided that his pub and the surrounding lanes would be a Cambridge outpost. It remained that way until the mid 20th century! As Ye Olde Mitre is in the heart of London’s diamond district, Hatton Garden, many a jewell thief from yesteryear had been seen legging it through the streets to get to the pub to evade justice.
Address – 57 Wapping Wall, Wapping E1W 3SH
Nearest Tube Station – Wapping
I love this place. As I have already mentioned, it is largely accepted as being the oldest pub in London. Set on the banks of The Thames at Wapping, it has a history rich in scandal. Built in 1520, it is said to be the oldest riverside tavern still standing. In fact, it used to be named The Devil’s Tavern, due to its dodgy patrons. It was the meeting place of smugglers, pirates and cut throats. They would plan their dodgy dealings, and sort out their disagreements with bloody bar brawls. It was very near here that the infamous “Execution Dock” was said to be located. There is in fact, still a noose outside of The Whitby, as a reminder.
It is another pub that Sir Charles Dickens was said to sup at, perhaps looking for inspiration for his characters? It certainly earns it’s place in my historic pubs in London roundup!
The Prospect of Whitby is a much calmer affair now. It’s 400 year old stone floor, and 18th century panelling allow you to feel it’s history and age. It has a great atmosphere and more current, claim to fame. It has had many a TV or film appearance, even a feature in Only Fools and Horses. It is voted as one of the best Historic pubs in London, so a must visit.
Address – 75 Borough High Street, SE1 1EH
Nearest tube station – London Bridge
I have featured The George before on my blog in my London Bridge post It is a pub Nik and I frequent often…ahem…. It is now owned by The National Trust, which means it will always be preserved. As it is the only surviving galleried coaching Inn in London, I am so glad that it will be looked after.
Like many of the historical London pubs, The George has a plethora of famous past patrons. Charles Dickens was a fan and it even gets a mention in his book, Little Dorrit. The courtyard at The George is always thriving, and it is a must on your historic London pub crawl.
Address – 76 Narrow Street, E14 8BP
Nearest tube station – Limehouse, or Westferry on the DLR
The Grapes, in Limehouse, the East End of London. It was established in 1583, and is a very traditional pub. My Nan and Grandad were from this part of the East End, so I am sure they would have popped into The Grapes for a sherry. In fact, my Nan was known for singing a tune or two in a pub, so maybe this was one of them she sang in! I couldn’t not include it in my historic pubs in london tour. Now part owned by actor Sir Ian Mckellen, it is a popular pub.
This area of London is full of history. It was the first part of the marshes to be turned into “dry land” and established as a liveable area. It is from directly below The Grapes, that Sir Walter Raleigh set sail on his third voyage to the new world. Again, our mate Charles Dickens was a regular, (loved a drink it seems…), and The Grapes features in his book Our Mutual Friend. He describes the pub as not having a straight line, nor a straight floor. It is an accurate description of this old pub.
Address – 33 Rose Street, Covent Garden WC2E 9EB
Nearest Tube station – Covent Garden
The lamb and Flag is in Covent Garden, so makes a great little pit stop for a shopping day in Town. Established in 1772, (but thought to have been a pub called Coopers Arms in the 1630’s) Lamb and Flag has a checkered past. The pub was notorious for staging bare knuckle fights, where observers placed hefty bets on the outcome. This led to the pub being known locally as The Bucket of Blood. Yuk! The alley at the side of the pub was also where the poet, John Dryden was attacked in 1679. His poetry had gotten him in trouble with Charles II, so an attack was ordered on him. Oops!
The pub is very traditional in its decor. Dark panelling and brass adorn the inside, with its much newer, 1950’s brick facade on the outside. This pub does get very busy, it is in Covent Garden after all! It has a great selection of drinks on offer, and the photos and framed news reports etc on the walls are interesting. It is a fab little pub.
So, there we have it. My historic pubs in London tour is complete. I could have told you of at least 20 more! Nik and I do love a pub that has a bit of history behind it. Maybe I will do a part two at some point! What do you think?
Worth noting – I would bear in mind that these pubs all serve food, but it will be your traditional pub grub type food. No lobster tails or caviar on these menus! They do all have a vegetarian choice, but you may be pushing your luck hoping for a vegan meal….
Although you can absolutely do a historical London pub crawl by yourself, I would totally recommend the tours. They are relatively inexpensive, and you get so much insight and juicy stories. I loved our tour! The pubs that you visit can vary, but all will serve you a delicious drink and a tale or six! I have listed a couple of option’s below. Both are similar to the ones we did.
So tell me, are you a fan of a pub with a bit of a story? Do you like to be regaled by the bar staff with torrid tales and historical snippets? Have you been to any of these London pubs? I would love to hear!