22 Holly Mount, NW3 6SG
Nearest tube: Hampstead, 0.1 mile
Nearest attraction: Hampstead Heath, 1 mile
Historical interest: 7/10
Cosiness quotient: 7/10
Tucked away down a side street, at the very top of a leafy hill, flanked by rows of holly bushes – need I say more? Obviously we’re going in.
EST: 1643 Monarch: Charles I
Actually, some say the Holly Bush dates from the 1790s. And yes, I know you’ve heard it all before but there was probably a pub on this site for centuries before this anyway. The “Holly Bush” name is actually pretty iconic since it gives a nod to that age-old tradition of hanging a branch or bush above the door of a pub to indicate that a drink could be had here.
The Holly Bush is said to occupy the site of the stables of artist George Romney’s house. George who? I must confess, I’d never heard of him either – but I’d certainly heard of his muse.
Romsey painted more than 60 portraits of Lady Hamilton, famously the mistress of Admiral Lord Nelson and wife of a nobleman. But how Lady H managed to achieve the heights she did with the chequered history she’d had is beyond me.
Emma Hart – also known as Emy Lyon – was a poor kid from Birkenhead who used her beauty to create a comfortable and glamorous life for herself. And there was a man in the picture at every turn.
Emma was a bit of a goer in her early years to say the least. As a young girl she headed down South and after a stint as a nursemaid followed by a short spell in the house of a London brothel-keeper (say no more) she became an attendant at the Temple of Health and Hymen. I know what you’re thinking. And you’d be right.
The “Temple” was run by one James Graham, a self-styled sexologist who used electro-magnetic techniques and musical therapy to teach couples how to procreate. And he charged people £50 a pop for the privilege. You couldn’t make it up.
During the course of a night in Graham’s “Celestial Bed”, couples would conjoin to the scent of stimulating oriental fragrances while actual turtle doves tweeted overhead and an organist played beautiful music in time to their lovemaking, speeding up and slowing down where appropriate. James Graham took on the role of Master of Ceremonies and was aided by a lovely handmaiden – of which Emy Lyon was one.
Before long Emma had caught the eye of an eligible bachelor, Sir Harry Featherstonhaugh, who took her home to his Sussex cottage where she proceeded to entertain his friends by dancing naked on tables. She also gave birth to his daughter. Not on the same night, I’m guessing.
While staying at Sir Harry’s home she met the Hon Charles Greville who was so impressed with her beauty that he decided to cash in on it. He’d recently commissioned a series of paintings by artist George Romney and felt that the lovely Emma would serve as the perfect artist’s model.
Whether Romney ever had an affair with Emma or not is unrecorded. But painting 60 portraits of a single semi-clad woman in an array of romantic poses is a bit of a giveaway in my book. Emma was portrayed as Shakespeare’s Titania and various Greek goddesses as well as a bacchante (a follower of wine god Bacchus). Rather ironic, really, since she died aged 49 of suspected cirrhosis of the liver.
Anyway, back to Romney. After Emma’s marriage to Lord Hamilton on September 6 1791, the artist plunged into a deep depression (perhaps another clue as to his feelings). He moved to Holly Bush Hill in 1797 and stayed there for around two years until his health began to fail. And he then returned home to his semi-forgotten wife in the Lake District who’d spent 40 long years waiting for George’s whimsical artistic phase to burn itself out.
You may have noticed that I’ve completely glossed over the bit about Lady Hamilton’s famous affair with Lord Nelson. That’s because the lovers used to meet in a different pub altogether. I feel another trip to the Docklands coming on.
Famous customers of the Holly Bush pub have included dictionary bore Dr Samuel Johnson and his biographer and fellow drinker James Boswell; actor Jude Law, and musician Liam Gallagher who was thrown out one evening after arguing over whether or not he’d paid for his drinks.
The Holly Bush was a welcoming sight for us at 5pm on a summer’s day. The inside was relatively cosy but most of the clientele had spilled out on to the pavement and were either seated on the kerb or had cheekily sneaked stools outside (sorry). This made for a chilled atmosphere as everyone enjoyed the sun with a knocking-down drink. However, the management soon came out and corralled us into a much smaller space for fear that we’d disturb the neighbours, so presumably our delightful outdoor experience was atypical. Inside the pub was relatively pleasant, but somewhat run-of-the-mill compared with its promising exterior.
The other stuff
Open: From midday to 11pm Monday-Saturday, midday-10.30pm Sundays.
Food: From midday to 11pm Monday-Saturday, midday-10.30pm Sundays.
Chops, pies and steaks all feature on the meat-heavy menu alongside a couple of veggie options at Hampstead prices (macaroni cheese will set you back a cool £15). But this is a pub that takes its food seriously – in fact it runs its own Supper Club where Michelin-starred chefs turn up and serve you exquisite dishes while banging on about their life stories. The Holly Bush also has space for private parties in rooms inevitably named the Romney Room and the Lady Hamilton Room.
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