1 Middle St, EC1A 7JA
Nearest tube: Barbican 0.1 mile
Nearest attraction: Museum of London 0.3 miles
Aldersgate Street’s vast walls of drab concrete may dampen your spirits as you exit Barbican station. But turn right, left, then right again and suddenly you’ll find yourself in a quiet Georgian enclave dominated by the magnificent chequered frontage of 12th century St Bartholomew the Great. Occupying a corner position among the pretty houses is the attractive Hand and Shears whose leaded light windows, hanging baskets and locomotive green paint will lure you in.
EST 1532. Monarch: Henry VIII
St Bartholomew’s Fair was a big deal in the olden days. In fact it was an important calendar highlight that ran for an incredible 700 years, beginning in 1133 as a trade fair where cloth merchants would meet to buy and sell their wares. Every August the Lord Mayor would officially open the fair in the doorway of the Hand and Shears. In fact some claim that the tradition of cutting a ribbon to open an event actually began at this pub.
During jolly old Charles II’s reign the fair evolved from a textile trading opportunity into a fortnight-long bunfest. People would flock to St Bartholomew’s Fair to watch the fire-eaters, dancing bears, puppet shows, glass-blowers, wrestlers, performing monkeys, albinos, Red Indians and ventriloquists. What a line-up. Even more bizarre was an elephant that could extract a cork from a bottle of wine and a pig that could tell the time or pick a card out of a pack…. blindfolded. Allegedly.
Besides being the venue for the great fair’s opening, the Hand and Shears had another important role: a temporary court would operate upstairs to settle disputes among visitors and hand out swift justice to wrongdoers. This was known as a “piepowder court” – from the French “pieds poudrés, referring to the powdery, dusty feet of incoming visitors.
St Bartholomew’s Fair was a haven for thieves, muggers, drunks and prostitutes so the court was in high demand. But even the justice meted out at the Hand and Shears wasn’t enough to save the fair from being axed in 1855 due to its increasingly notorious reputation.
Bizarrely, inquests were also held upstairs at the Hand and Shears. Another of the pub’s claims to fame is that Charles II is said to have dined in its basement (probably entertaining Nell Gwyn. How that girl ever managed to sell an orange is beyond me). And before setting off for a day out to watch a hanging at Newgate, revellers would pop into the Hand and Shears for a last drink. Those mediaevals certainly knew how to party.
Tourists visiting modern-day middle England may be familiar with the Blists Hill Victorian Town, part of the Ironbridge Museum and an authentic replica of a community from the late Victorian era. The recreated pub in this open-air museum is uncannily similar to the Hand and Shears which was obviously refurbished in the 19th century. Unlike the more ostentatious Argyll Arms and Dog and Duck there are none of your etched glass, shiny mirrors or glazed tiles here. No: the Hand and Shears feels like the real deal with its dark panels, bare wooden floors, old pictures and worn benches. One practically sees it in sepia. But it’s a cosy space for all that with fires, nooks, crannies, a warm atmosphere and jazz tunes playing in the background.
The other stuff
Brewery: Free house
Open: Monday to Friday from midday (closed weekends)
Food: Served midday to 3pm, Monday to Friday
A handful of Mediterranean dishes such as gazpacho and baked camembert sit awkwardly alongside the traditional British burgers and bangers. Other menu choices include devilled whitebait and scampi in a retro-style Seventies basket. Now THAT’s history.
And go to: King Who? for more info about the monarchs mentioned in this blog.