3 Hart Street, EC3R 7NB
Nearest tube: Tower Hill, 0.2 miles
Nearest attraction: Tower of London 0.4 miles
Historical interest: 7/10
Cosiness quotient: 8/10
COVID-19 news flash
The Ship will be reopening on July 6 2020 for outside drinking and takeaways including sandwiches, snacks and wraps. New pub hours for now will be midday to 7pm, Monday to Friday.
The frontage of the Ship is ridiculously lovely with its bright white paint, maritime styling and grapevine motif picked out in in red and green. And despite its City location it looks for all the world like a proper local with its old-fashioned swinging sign. Meanwhile, the pretty windows provide a tantalising glimpse of the warm welcome that awaits you within.
EST: 1887. Monarch: Victoria.
The Ship is quintessentially Victorian, though a pub has been on this site since at least 1791. And being in the ancient City of London it’s a shoo-in that history was going on all around it – and maybe even where it stood – long before it was built.
Hart Street is dominated by the magnificent St Olav’s Church which is a couple of doors away from the Ship. History definitely happened in its hallowed interior: Samuel Pepys and his wife used to worship here for starters and it’s where the couple are now buried. I say “worship”, but Pepys actually spent many a Sunday snoozing in his pew, ogling the ladies or glaring at fellow-supplicant Mr Pembleton. This was his wife’s dancing master whom Pepys suspected of teaching her other things besides – which was a bit rich coming from a man who regularly indulged in extra-marital activities with servants, barmaids, friends’ wives, friends’ daughters and even friends’ mothers. He dallied with them in pubs, carriages, theatres – and even occasionally in church pews. Probably in St Olav’s, come to think of it.
The Great Plague of 1666 is said to have broken out close to St Olave’s and 300 of its victims were buried in the adjacent churchyard. Perhaps this is why its entrance is ornamented with skulls and crossbones? Actually, all graveyards are filled with bones and skulls – crossed or otherwise – so this is a moot point.
The Great Fire of London apparently stopped within 100 yards of St Olave’s when the wind suddenly changed direction. A miracle? Maybe – but the fire also halted within 50 metres of the Hoop and Grapes in Aldgate, so perhaps it was all just a question of luck.
St Olav’s is named after a Viking warrior and descendant of a Norwegian ruler who invaded Britain and fought against the English from 1009-11. But when the Danes came a-plundering in 1013 Olav promptly switched sides and joined forces with Aethlered the Unready to fight off these new marauders. And when it started to look very much as though the English were going to lose (they did), Olav fled the battle and upped sticks for Rouen to be baptised. As you do.
Hart Street itself was once the site of a magnificent palace that was decorated with carved wooden figures depicting crouched goblins and wild beasts. According to British History Online, this residence stood on the south side of Hart Street – which is actually a very short street – so it might even have occupied the site where the Ship now stands. And it may have been the home of none other than that much-loved pantomime character, Dick Whittington.
Too many “mights” and “mays” I hear you say. Where are your facts?
Well, the building was actually called Whittington Palace, which is a bit of a clue. Richard Whittington was also a 15thcentury City MP, Sheriff of London and Lord Mayor four times over, so he needed a prestigious address within the City’s walls.
And according to Milton’s England, Dick Whittington entertained Henry V and his Queen at Whittington Palace in Hart Street in the early 15thcentury. Then there’s the little matter of the cats.
Despite popular legend there is no proof that Dick Whittington ever owned a cat. It’s true that when the site of his burial – St Michael’s Paternoster Church – was damaged during World War II a mummified cat was found near his grave. But that could have been a coincidence, right? However, the legend must have come from somewhere – and fascinatingly Whittington Palace featured door knockers in the shape of cats’ heads as well as feline forms carved into the ceilings that apparently followed you with their eyes.
Mayor Whittington was a prominent medieval statesman who pursued a successful business career. He also spearheaded many important reforms such as improving the lives of apprentices and overhauling London’s drainage system. Yet we picture him as a callow youth dressed in tights, striding to London with a bag on a stick and his beloved cat in tow. It makes you think, doesn’t it – will future pantomime audiences watch tight-clad parodies of today’s politicians prancing about the stage and being laughed at by children? Sadly, we’ll never know.
The charm of the Ship’s exterior followed us inside. It is tiny and inviting with plenty of dark, glossy wood and an olde worlde atmosphere. The clientele was mainly made up of suited men drinking pints which meant my septogenarian friend and I stuck out like sore thumbs – particularly as we were the only women, the only wine-drinkers and the only people who requested food.
The other stuff
Brewery/chain: Free house
Open: Monday 11.30am to 10pm; Tuesday-Friday 11.30am-11pm, closed weekends
Food: midday-3pm Monday-Friday
The sign said: “Rolls, £2.50” but no rolls appeared to be on offer. “We do toasties” they offered helpfully. And indeed they did, but when these toasties arrived they were pretty basic and somewhat charred. However, for a mere £2.50, how could we complain? The food repertoire has now apparently expanded to include fish and chips, sausages and mash plus “small plates” – one of which is chips and another is chopped sausages. I think I’ll stick to the toasties.
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