The Old Doctor Butler’s Head

2 Masons Avenue, EC2V 5BT

Nearest tube: Moorgate 0.2 miles

Nearest attraction: Monument 0.4 miles

The Dickensian frontage of the Old Doctor Butler's Head

The Dickensian frontage of the Old Doctor Butler’s Head

The hook

After walking past Moorgate’s bland city offices and ugly, built-up streets I was blown away by my first sight of the Old Doctor Butler’s Head. It was tucked down a side street straight out of Dickensian London and everything about it – from the upturned oak barrels and the black beams to the abundant foliage – screamed “Come inside!”.

The history

EST 1610. Monarch: James I

Doctor William Butler was either a pioneering physician or a brilliant con artist. Probably both. And he was also a big fan of pubs.

Born in Suffolk in 1535 he was granted a licence to practise medicine after graduating from Clare College Cambridge. This was somewhat surprising since he held an arts degree. But despite being completely unqualified, practice medicine he did.

Until the age of 68 “Doctor” Butler quietly plied his “trade” from an apothecary’s shop in Cambridge. Here he lived with a servant called Nell whose chief job it was to drag him out of the pub every night after a skinful. But the elderly quack was abruptly forced out of obscurity when he performed a “miracle cure” on a local clergyman. Apologies for the over-use of “inverted commas”, but he merits them.

Anyway, it appears that the afflicted man of the cloth had fallen into an opium-induced coma and been given up for dead. But Dr Butler acted promptly and slaughtered a cow, placing the senseless clergyman inside the “cowe’s warme belly” to cure him. Amazingly, it worked – though how the parson reacted on waking up inside a cow is anyone’s guess.

This remarkable feat attracted the attention of the court and in 1614, James I called on Dr Butler to attend him when he sustained a hunting injury at Newmarket. The monarch must have been mightily impressed with the good doctor who was swiftly appointed to the post of court physician.

So Dr Butler headed for London where he carried on blithely practising his own peculiar brand of medicine using increasingly weird and unconventional techniques. His “cure” for epilepsy, for instance, was to fire off a couple of guns close to the patient’s head to scare the condition out of him. And his acclaimed cold-water remedy for the ague was even more bizarre – he simply pushed the patient into the Thames.

However, his piece de resistance was in combining two of his favourite things – medicine and booze – to create a “purging ale” that contained aniseed, caraway, liquorice and strong beer. Whether this cured anything or not is unknown but it’s quite likely some degree of purging took place after drinking it. In any case, Doctor Butler’s ale became so successful that he acquired a chain of pubs of which the Moorgate hostelry is the last. Sadly, Purging Ale is no longer available on tap.

The ambiance

Though pleasantly dark and atmospheric, the interior of the Old Doctor’s Butler’s did not quite live up to the promise of the outside. In place of the hoped-for snug corners and comfy velveteen benches there were large tables flanked by hard stools and leatherette banquettes. But this is simply nit-picking since the pub is evidently hugely popular with city-workers who were happy to fill every cranny and spill out on to the delightful frontage.

Inside the Old Doctor Butler's Head

Inside the Old Doctor Butler’s Head – an odd place to be

The other stuff

Brewery: Free house

Open: Every day except Saturdays and Sundays

Food: served from lunchtime except at weekends.

The menu was short and uninspiring and my sausage sandwich was more transport caff than gastropub. It also came ready-smothered with brown sauce which seemed a bit of an imposition. I mean, you wouldn’t expect your tea to arrive pre-sugared or your chips to be covered with ketchup, would you? Still, lunch was served swiftly and with a smile – and the food isn’t the main point of this pub in any case.

https://www.olddoctorbutlershead.co.uk/food

For a complete list of pubs, go to the home page. And to see a list of pubs by their nearest tube station, go to Where’s my pub?

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The Queen’s Larder

1 Queen Square, WC1

Nearest tube: Russell Square 0.3 miles

Nearest attraction: Charles Dickens Museum 0.5 miles

 

The Queen's Larder from the front

The Queen’s Larder from the front

The hook

Tucked away down a side street off busy Southampton Row, the Queen’s Larder is a haven of peace and tranquillity overlooking leafy Queen Square.

 

The history

EST: 1710 (approx) Monarch: Queen Anne

True to its name, The Queen’s Larder is built on the site of a food store kept by a Queen. The monarch in question was Queen Charlotte, wife of “mad” King George III. The jury is still out as to what was actually wrong with him. Was he manic-depressive? Was he suffering from an untreated physical condition? Were his medicines poisoning him? All these theories have been considered over the years but the truth is, he does sound pretty mad.

He would speak randomly at length until he began frothing at the mouth; he talked to trees and he howled like a dog. He also suffered from convulsions so severe that his pages had to sit on him to keep him still. That’s their story, anyway. Queen Charlotte refused to be alone with him after his first bout of madness – mainly because he would hug her very tightly and refuse to let her go.

King George’s doctor lived in Queen Square (named after a different queen – Queen Anne) and Queen Charlotte used the cellars beneath the present-day pub for storing food for her husband’s special diet.

Frustratingly, no one seems to know of what his special diet consisted. And what do you feed a person to stop them from howling like a dog and giving inappropriate bearhugs, anyway? As it happened, King George had simple tastes and would eschew the meat-heavy banquets of the day in favour of a soft-boiled egg, a salad or a Yorkshire pudding. He also had an aversion to sugar. So the chances are that his “special diet” was probably less healthy than his everyday one – and it didn’t work anyway since his madness persisted.

 

The ambiance

The cosy interior of the Queen's Larder.

The cosy interior of the Queen’s Larder.

The Queen’s Larder’s interior is small but delightfully cosy with plenty of nooks and crannies and comfy benches upholstered in crimson. The toilets are typically tiny for an old London pub – I had to displace the ubiquitous newspaper-reading gentleman in order to access the Ladies’. Despite its position slap bang in the middle of WC1 this is very much a locals’ pub. You can even bring your dog.

 

The other stuff

Brewery: Free house

Open: Every day

Food: Every day

The Greene King sign on the canopy would indicate some brewery affiliation but the Queen’s Larder has its own website and menu. Besides the expected pies and sandwiches there are plenty of basic British comfort foods such as spam fritters, ploughman’s lunches and egg and chips. No doubt King George would have approved – particularly since roast beef with Yorkshire pudding is on the menu.

http://www.queenslarder.co.uk

For a complete list of pubs, go to the home page. And to see a list of pubs by their nearest tube station, go to Where’s my pub?

The Plumbers Arms

14 Lower Belgrave Street, SW1W 0LN

Nearest tube: Victoria 0.3 miles

Nearest attraction: Buckingham Palace 0.6 miles

The Plumbers Arms from the front

The attractive frontage of The Plumbers Arms

The Hook

A nice-enough pub from the outside, The Plumbers Arms is bedecked with hanging baskets and situated in a pleasant whitewashed Belgravia terrace.

 

The history

EST: 1820s. Monarch: George IV

History definitely happened at this pub – but it was random, bloody, indiscriminate history that occurred at a particular moment in time. After years of quietly serving ale to the servants and footmen of local master builder Sir Thomas Cubitt, the peace of the Plumbers Arms was shattered one night when a bloodstained woman burst into the bar begging for help. It was a case of Hammer Horror meets Cluedo in a grisly whodunnit with the chief suspect being Lord Lucan in the basement with lead piping.

Lady Lucan and her children occupied a house up the road at number 46. According to the landlord she burst into the Plumbers Arms on the evening of November 7, 1974 covered in blood and crying: “Help me, help me, I’ve just escaped from being murdered”. We’ll have to excuse her bad syntax on account of the shock. She claimed that earlier that evening she had sent her nanny, Sandra Rivett, down to the basement kitchen to bring her up a cup of tea. But unbeknown to Lady Lucan her estranged husband had apparently snuck into the house and bludgeoned the red-headed nanny to death in the mistaken belief that she was  his blonder, slimmer wife. Hmmm. After realising his mistake Lord Lucan then allegedly set about his actual wife with the aforesaid lead piping. But she fought back and managed to escape, and in doing so provided the Plumbers’ Arms with its only claim to fame.

Lord Lucan fled the scene and has been missing ever since. In June 2017 a documentary – Lord Lucan: My Husband, the Truth – was aired on UK TV but it shed little light on the events of November 7. And Lady Lucan herself came across as cold, detached and ambivalent towards the spouse who had apparently tried to brutally kill her after slaying the domestic. So, what really happened that night?

On September 26 this year – just three months after the documentary was aired – Lady Lucan was found dead in her Belgravia cottage. And just like so many of the other major events of her life, her death was officially  “unexplained”.

A view of the Plumbers Arms' interior from the corner snug.

A view of the Plumbers Arms’ interior from the corner snug.

The ambiance

Despite its central London location and its posh address, the Plumber’s Arms has the feeling of a corner local where elderly men go to read their morning newspaper and where tradesmen enjoy their after-work pint. Despite the dramatic events of 1974, life goes on quietly at the Plumber’s Arms. In fact you would never even guess at its lurid claim to fame if there hadn’t been a huge account of it framed and hanging on the wall as you go in.

The framed account of the Plumbers Arms' history

The framed account of the Plumbers Arms’ history

The other stuff

Brewery: Greene King

Open: Every day except Sunday

Food: Every day except Sunday from midday. No food Saturday evenings.

The standard Greene King food menu was supplemented by a few intriguing blackboard specials. We chose the smashed-up avocado on toast with smoked salmon and poached egg which was delicately spiced and surprisingly delicious for a little more than a fiver.

https://www.greeneking-pubs.co.uk/pub/plumbers-arms-belgravia/c0685/

For a complete list of pubs, go to the home page. And to see a list of pubs by their nearest tube station, go to Where’s my pub?

The Grenadier**

One of my top five pubs

 

18 Wilton Row, SW1X 7NR

Nearest tube: Hyde Park Corner 0.2 miles

Nearest attractions: Buckingham Palace, 0.8 miles, Harrods 0.5 miles

A haunted pub in Belgravia from Georgian times

A lovely haunted pub in a leafy backwater

The hook

It’s unlikely you would ever stumble across this pub if you didn’t know it was there. Even my most prolific pub-visiting friend who knows practically every inn in London hadn’t heard of it. In order to find The Grenadier I had to battle through narrow roads, squeeze past delivery vans and head down a couple of “Private – residents only”. side streets. But when I arrived, boy was it worth it. The sun was glinting down on a magnificent tree that towered over this lovely Georgian building with its red, white and blue paintwork. Shame it was closed.

 

The history

EST: 1818. Monarch: George IV

It was 1815 and the French Imperial Guard were preparing to take on the British forces at Waterloo. This troop of men – Napoleon’s hand-picked elite – were instantly recognisable by their snazzy bearskin headdresses. But elite or not, they were swiftly defeated by Britain’s 1st Regiment of Foot Guards who decided to add insult to injury by adopting bearskins as their own trademark. They also changed their name to the Grenadier Guards which was another intended slight because the Prince Regent believed this to be the name of the French squad. Not surprisingly, the joke fell flat.

The Grenadiers – the pub’s earliest visitors – would drink and play cards in the cellars while their officers used the upstairs room as their mess. But one September night in 1818 a young Grenadier Guard was caught cheating at cards. He was given his comeuppance rather brutally by his fellow players who promptly beat him to death.

The ghost of this unnamed soldier is said to have haunted the pub ever since, particularly in September. Ghostly events take the form of distant moans, blurry figures around the bar and objects that disappear and appear again for no reason. Sounds like a typical night at the pub to me.

However the spookiest story concerns a barman who nipped down to the cellars for a crafty smoke one night in the 1980s. He balanced his ash tray on a barrel and lit up his cigarette…..then three things happened at once. The cellars took on a deathly chill; the landlord’s cat sank its teeth into his leg and the ash tray flew across the room and smashed into a wall. Of course, we only have his word for any of this. But eerie, nonetheless.

The ambiance

Money on the ceiling of the Grenadier

The Grenadier’s ceilings are papered with banknotes

The Grenadier is quaint, old-fashioned and delightfully unpretentious. The Boot room to the front is your typical public bar with rickety wooden furniture and random objects on the walls. Less typically, the ceiling is papered with banknotes put there by punters keen to pay off the ghost’s gambling bills. The back room – the Wellington – is rather more plush with fancy mirrors and dark red chesterfield-style seating. It had a rather spooky atmosphere – or was I imagining things? Mind you my visit was in September, come to think of it……

The other stuff:

 Brewery: Greene King

Open: Every day

Food: Every day from midday

Despite the above, the Grenadier was closed due to a private function when we arrived at midday and only reopened at 1pm, forcing us to lunch at the Plumbers Arms up the road (due to appear in a future blog post). The Grenadier also apparently shuts when a major event is held at Hyde Park in order to avoid being inundated by revellers looking for a quiet bolthole. So a back-up plan may be a good idea when you go.

https://www.greeneking-pubs.co.uk/pub/grenadier-belgrave-square/c0800/

For a complete list of pubs, go to the home page. And to see a list of pubs by their nearest tube station, go to Where’s my pub?

Ye Olde Mitre**

One of my top five pubs

1 Ely Court, Ely Place,  EC1N 6SJ

Nearest tube: Farringdon 0.2 miles

Nearest attraction: St Paul’s 0.5 miles

 

A hidden London pub near Holborn.

Hidden down a narrow alley, Ye Olde Mitre is a delightful find.

The hook

The first time I tracked down Ye Olde Mitre – at the end of a ridiculous alley that could have been someone’s side passage if only it weren’t too narrow – I was charmed by its hidden-away magic. But sadly, it was closed. So I was forced to peer into the dark windows and prowl around its miniscule perimeter resolving to come back later. And when I did, I found it to be everything I’d expected and more. And what a history.

 

 The history

 EST: 1546. Monarch: Elizabeth I

For nearly five centuries the successive Bishops of Ely occupied a palace on the site of the present-day Ely Place. Before that, the Temple was where Ely bishops would lodge when up from their native Cambridgeshire in search of some London life. But in 1290 the incumbent bishop fell out with the Knights Templar (as you do) and found new quarters in Holborn.

The original Mitre pub was built to cater for the servants who worked at the Bishop of Ely’s Palace. This residence had glorious grounds with a vineyard, an orchard, fountains and several ponds. In fact it was considered too beautiful for the likes of us Londoners and was declared a part of Cambridgeshire by the bishops. And technically it still is according to some, though the pub’s licensing laws stopped being administered by Cambridgeshire in the 1960s.

Every online mention of Ye Olde Mitre claims that Elizabeth the First once danced around a cherry tree in its garden. But why? How old was she? What was she doing in the garden, and why would a reigning monarch do something so indiscreet as to be remembered through the centuries?

Some people claim that Elizabeth danced around a maypole, not a tree (or perhaps the tree itself was used as a makeshift maypole?) Actually, this makes sense since maypole-dancing was popular in Elizabethan times. What makes even more sense is the fact that the Queen had someone attractive to dance with.

Sir Christopher Hatton was tall, handsome and an accomplished dancer. He was also extremely handy since he lived next door. Mind you, this was no coincidence since the Queen had forced the bishops to lease him some land on pain of defrocking them. Apparently, Sir C was something of a favourite with our queen: besides giving him the bishops’ lands she also made him captain of the yeomen of the guard and had him knighted. And it was Sir Christopher with whom she is said to have danced around the maypole and/or tree.

This cherry tree has another significance: apparently it was planted to mark the boundary between Sir Christopher’s lands and Ely Place. In fact you can still see part of its trunk preserved in the front bar.

Sir Christopher’s legacy lives on and Hatton Garden is now renowned for its high-class jewellery stores. Strange that it was named after some random bloke the queen once fancied.

 

Quaint plaque at an Elizabethan pub in London

The remains of the famous cherry tree is on display in Ye Olde Mitre’s front bar.

The ambiance

 It was 6.30pm on a Wednesday and Ye Olde Mitre was heaving, but delightful nonetheless. The bar staff were friendly and engaging – they actually caught OUR eye as we came in rather than the other way round – and it didn’t take long for us to get served. The interior is tiny but there are plenty of places where you can stand outside, some of them under cover. There’s also an upstairs room –  the Bishops’ Room, naturally – that can be hired out. Ye Olde Mitre is highly atmospheric with its dark panelling, heavy oak furniture and Elizabethan memorabilia. In fact it is the quintessential English boozer. Your actual Pubby McPubface.

A cosy upstairs room at Ye Olde Mitre

The Bishops Room at Ye Olde Mitre

The other stuff

Brewery: Fullers

Open – Monday-Friday

Food: From 11.30 Monday-Friday

Don’t get too excited about the food as it’s mainly of the toasted sandwich and pork pie ilk. Seats are like gold dust and you aren’t allowed to move them, but if you’re bent on sitting down there’s a snug for up to ten you can hire as well as the aforesaid Bishops Room which accommodates 30.

http://www.yeoldemitreholborn.co.uk

For a complete list of pubs, go to the home page. And to see a list of pubs by their nearest tube station, go to Where’s my pub?

The Old Shades

37 Whitehall, SW1A 2BX

Nearest tube: Charing Cross 0.2 miles

Nearest attraction: National Gallery 0.2 miles

 

The Hook

The Old Shades is one of those narrow, elegant pubs you will find all over London wedged between newsagents’ and souvenir shops. Pass by with your eyes at street level and it will barely register. But look up and you will be stunned by the fabulous exterior with its mullioned windows, gothic styling and ornate curlicues. Whatever any of that means.

 

The history

EST: 1898. Monarch: Victoria

I’ve been trying and failing to discover any historical context for this relatively new pub. Besides the fact that it was built between the two Boer Wars it seems to have enjoyed a fairly dull existence. But then it occurred to me that the ground on which the pub was built was once bang in the middle of the largest palace in Europe – one that eclipsed even the Vatican in terms of size and opulence.  And shedloads of history happened here.

The Palace of Whitehall was built in the 1530s in vast grounds backing on to the Thames. It boasted more than 1,500 rooms and extended from Trafalgar Square to the north to beyond Downing Street to the south.

Henry VIII added a cockpit and a bear-baiting arena and made the palace his home. It was here where he married the ill-fated Anne Boleyn on January 25 1533. And it was also where he married Jane Seymour 11 days after poor Anne’s execution. Nice to leave a seemly gap between spouses.

More than 70 years later James I improved the palace by adding a Banqueting House. Ironically it was outside this very building that his son was beheaded on January 30 1649. The Banqueting House still stands and much praying and wreath-laying takes place each year on the anniversary of Charles I’s death.

Sadly, this is all that remains of the Palace of Whitehall on account of an almighty gaffe by an anonymous Dutch laundrywoman. Apparently she left some clothes out to dry in front of an open fire. It must seemed have like a good idea at the time, but they caught alight and the entire palace was burnt to the ground on January 5 1698.

 

The ambiance

Although it appears tiny from the outside, the Old Shades has a deep exterior with an attractive Victorian bar running along its length. Behind there is a cosy back room with wood-panelled walls and plenty of booths. All very pubby and welcoming.

 

The other stuff:

Brewery: Free house

Open: Every day

Food: Every day from midday

Unusual beer offerings include Mad Goose, Damson Porter and Old Rosie. The menu is classic British with your usual sausages, pies etc plus other home-grown specialities such as Whitby Bay prawns and Eton Mess.

oldshades.co.uk

For a complete list of pubs, go to the home page. And to see a list of pubs by their nearest tube station, go to Where’s my pub?

Lamb and Flag**

One of my top five pubs

33 Rose Street, WC2E 9EB

Nearest tube: Leicester Square 0.1 mile

Nearest attraction: Covent Garden 0.1 mile
The hook

With its 1950s brickwork and modern signage, the Lamb and Flag is nothing much to write home about from the front. But the constant buzz of people drinking in the alley outside will clue you in to the fact that this pub is definitely worth a second look.

The Lamb and Flag from the outside - note the notorious alley to the right.

The Lamb and Flag from the outside – note the notorious alley to the right.

The history

EST 1623. Monarch: James I

If you drink at the Lamb and Flag you’ll be joining a long line of bucks and dandies, wits and gallants according to the plaque outside. This pub is linked to no end of dark deeds, daring dos and of course, that other pub-related “D” – Dickens. Yes, the Lamb and Flag is one of the many, many pubs said to have been patronised by Charles Dickens (however did he find the time to write all those novels?) Actually he was probably a customer before his writing years began:  in his teens he earned six shillings a week pasting labels on to boot blacking jars in a factory around the corner.  It was about this time – in the early 19th century – that the Lamb and Flag developed its name for bare-knuckle fights (see the Tom Cribb) and was nicknamed the Bucket of Blood as a result.

Talking of blood in large quantities, the Lamb and Flag is also linked to a rather nasty event that occurred nearly two centuries earlier. John Dryden was a 17th century satirist famous for his lampoons. However, it turns out not everyone likes being lampooned and on December 18, 1679 Dryden was set upon by hired thugs in Rose Alley next to the Lamb and Flag. He was left for dead but survived, and despite the offer of a £50 reward his attackers were never identified. However, it is believed that Dryden had cheesed someone off – perhaps right royally, since Charles II’s current mistress was among his targets. Dryden is believed to be the first person who decreed that a sentence in English should never end with a preposition. A rule we should all live by.

This corner of Covent Garden seems to have been a magnet for writers and poets. In 1772, the playwright Richard Sheridan fought a duel at the corner of Bedford Street over an insult that appeared in the Bath Chronicle. And the poet Samuel Butler was a Lamb and Flag local. After the restoration in 1660 he gleefully wrote a long satirical poem poking fun at the Roundheads and Puritans. Though sufficiently popular to spawn pirate copies, his work failed to earn him either much money or a place at court. Perhaps this is why he is described as “poor Samuel Butler” on the plaque outside the pub.

The ambiance

The Lamb and Flag is a jolly, atmospheric boozer filled with life and laughter. Like many of my favourite pubs it has a low-lit interior with dark beams, horse brasses and old prints. We went late on a Saturday afternoon and though it was heaving, there were seats for nearly everyone. It’s hard to say why but it was the highlight of our day’s pub tour. Sometimes a pub just works.

The other stuff

Brewery: Fullers

Open: every day

Food: Every day from midday

The Lamb and Flag is big into Christmas parties and has a festive atmosphere all round. Why not celebrate the holiday season where Dickens himself (possibly) did?

http://www.lambandflagcoventgarden.co.uk

For a complete list of pubs, go to the home page. And to see a list of pubs by their nearest tube station, go to Where’s my pub?