Hand and Shears

1 Middle St, EC1A 7JA

Nearest tube: Barbican 0.1 mile

Nearest attraction: Museum of London 0.3 miles

The Hand and Shears pub in London

The Hand and Shears pub

The hook

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.


The history

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.


The ambiance

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.


Inside the Hand and Shears pub in London

Inside the Hand and Shears

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.


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

And go to: King Who? for more info about the monarchs mentioned in this blog.



The Punchbowl

41 Farm Street, W1J 5RP

Nearest tube: Green Park 0.4 miles

Nearest attraction: Green Park 0.4 miles

The Punchbowl, Mayfair

The Punchbowl, Mayfair

The hook

The Punchbowl is a mediocre-looking pub in a bland street filled with anonymous-looking garages and characterless buildings – with one exception. Just across the road is the stunning Farm House whose stonework and mullioned windows give it the air of a Tudor relic. However, it was actually built in the 1900s and once belonged to film star Gloria Swanson. The Farm House doubtless harbours many fascinating secrets – during the 1930s Wallis Simpson used to “entertain” the future Edward VIII here, for instance – and it gives Farm Street (and by default, the Punchbowl) some added cachet.


The history

EST: 1729 Monarch: George II

Spoiler alert: Farm Street is situated on the site of a former farm. It was actually called Hay Hill Farm and the surrounding streets are called rather unimaginatively Hays Mews, Hill Street and Hay Hill.

Little is known (at least by me) of this agricultural enclave in rural Mayfair apart from the fact that it once belonged to rich landowner Lord Berkeley. Eventually the area was turned into stabling for the Berkeley estate and the Punchbowl – established around 1729 – was no doubt the drinking den of Lord Berkeley’s footmen, butlers and stablehands. Perhaps they used to meet here to grumble about their employer. Whether or not he was a good boss is unknown, but it’s no secret that the derogatory word “berk” comes from “Berkeley”, as does the even more derogatory Cockney Rhyming Slang term “Berkeley Hunt”.

All that aside, the Punchbowl’s real claim to fame came about much more recently when it was bought by film director Guy Ritchie and pop diva Madonna in 2008.

Being owned by such a famous duo turned out to be a mixed blessing: the Punchbowl began to attract the likes of David Beckham, Robert Downey Jr, Leonardo DiCaprio, Justin Timberlake and Jude Law along with our delightfully boozy princes William and Harry. This made for a fascinating night out for your average star-struck celebrity hunter– provided they’d let us in. Punchbowl regulars were often told to sling their hooks in order to make way for Guy and Maddie’s more famous friends, resulting in much disgruntlement. Even Lord Berkeley’s servants were probably treated less shabbily.

There were also complaints about the noise – 37 of them in one year to be exact. Madonna and Guy Ritchie divorced within a few months of buying the pub and though Guy kept it on for a while, he finally threw in the (bar) towel in 2013. The Punchbowl has carried on happily in relative obscurity ever since.


The ambiance

This is a pleasantly buzzing pub with a friendly vibe and a clutch of cubby-holes for private dining. Some of these are almost too private – I mean, why go to a pub if you don’t want to see or hear the other punters? But one cannot deny the cosiness of the Punchbowl, particularly on a cold winter’s evening.


The other stuff

 Brewery: Free house

Open: Every day from midday

Food: Every day from midday

We managed to secure a nice little booth where we could still feel the vibe. We hadn’t planned to eat but were reluctant to leave our nook on a cold winter’s night and were pleasantly surprised by the British fare which included venison, duck, Cumberland sausage and the inevitable fish and chips.


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

And go to: King Who? for more info about the monarchs mentioned in this blog.


The Wheatsheaf

The Wheatsheaf pub in Soho, London

The imposing front of the Wheatsheaf pub.

25 Rathbone Place, W1T 1JB

Nearest tube: Tottenham Court Road 0.2 miles

Nearest attraction: British Museum, 0.5 miles


The hook

 The Wheatsheaf resembles an old coaching inn with its mock-Tudor frontage and stable yard-like alley. So it’s hard to believe that this attractive pub hails from as recently as the 1930s. I felt the urge to go in immediately but having discovered it on a Sunday, no amount of prowling around the perimeter would allow me access to this surprisingly nice pub.


The history

EST: 1931 Monarch: George V

One of the Wheatsheaf’s claims to fame is that author of 1984 George Orwell once threw up over the bar (though we only have the internet’s word for it, there’s no blue plaque or anything). This is also the pub where a heavily-pickled Dylan Thomas met a pretty London Palladium chorus girl and proposed to her that very evening. They were married a year later.

But there’s a lesser-known writer who plays a crucial part in the Wheatsheaf’s history. Julian Maclaren-Ross was a reprobate, bar-fly, sponger and brilliant writer. Everyone who writes about him does so either with helpless admiration or searing contempt, and most agree that he was the architect of his own doom. Today he would probably be given counselling and a spell in rehab. But in the Forties, he was left to his own devices and consequently frittered away his life in the pub.

Born in South Norwood on July 7 1912 of Indian, Cuban, Scottish and English descent, Julian never quite fitted in anywhere. During World War II he fought in the army but went AWOL and was discharged after a psychological evaluation. He then began his marathon pub crawl that lasted till the 1960s.

A distinctive figure with his sharp suit, camel-hair coat, dark glasses and cane, he would prop up the bar at the Wheatsheaf and hold forth to his fellow drinkers, either as a fascinating raconteur or a pub bore (a matter for debate). Then at closing time he would stagger home, dose himself up on Benzedrine and become a prolific writer of radio plays, film scripts, novels and autobiographies.

His abode was by no means fixed: it went from hotel to boarding house, friends’ sofa to park bench. The BBC was his “poste restante” and when people (usually creditors) showed up asking for him at the broadcasting house offices, staff would simply direct them to one of the local pubs.

By the 1950s – “a decade I could have done without” in Maclaren-Ross’ own words – his life was already spiralling out of control. In November 1964 he made the fatal decision to celebrate the arrival of a royalty cheque with a whole bottle of brandy consumed at the Wheatsheaf. He subsequently died of a heart attack aged just 52.

Despite being such a prolific writer, Maclaren-Ross gained little recognition during his lifetime. His best-known work –  Memoirs of the Forties – were published posthumously in 1965.


The ambiance

Ketchup and mustard bottles on every Wheatsheaf table gave it the air of a tacky suburban Sunday lunch venue rather than an inner London pub. But this irksome detail was offset by other, more traditional pub features such as stained glass, wood panelling, wall shelving, high stools etc. And even on a Tuesday evening the Wheatsheaf was pleasantly buzzing with arty types. Julian McClaren-Ross would have approved.


Inside the Wheatsheaf pub in Soho, London

The welcome sight of my husband buying me a drink at the Wheatsheaf.

The other stuff

 Brewery: Free house

Open Mondays to Saturdays from midday (closed Sundays)

Food: Served from midday every day except Sunday

The Wheatsheaf is the regular meeting place of a group that calls itself The Sohemian Society of which Julian Maclaren-Ross has been named the “President in Death”. For a small fee everyone is welcome to go along and listen to guest speakers exploring various aspects of Soho life. And as a sign of respect for the departed bar fly, drinking during the talks is actively encouraged.



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

And go to: King Who? for more info about the monarchs mentioned in this blog.

The French House

49, Dean Street, W1D 5BG

Nearest tube: Leicester Square, 0.2 miles

Nearest attraction: Piccadilly Circus, 0.3 miles

The un pub-like exterior of the French House in Soho, London

The un pub-like exterior of the French House

The hook

When you first spot the French House you will wonder: Is it even a pub? I mean: blue awnings, what’s that about? The bland frontage, blue paint, limited signage and queue barrier give it the air of a private club and most people stepping inside will either have done so before or will have been told what to expect.


The history

EST 1891. Monarch: Victoria

The French House is so eccentric that it could be English. But despite its name it isn’t even French.  The pub was opened in 1891 by a German and was taken over by a Belgian when World War One was declared.

In fact there’s much to perplex the visitor about this well-known pub and the stories that circulate around it. For one thing, it traded for years under the highly British name of The York Minster. But during World War II it became the unofficial headquarters of the Free French Forces – France’s government-in-exile after the German Occupation – which led to its French House designation. Charles de Gaulle was a regular and some even say he wrote his famous speech rallying the French to action in the pub. But others say he didn’t.

Dylan Thomas allegedly left his manuscript of Under Milk Wood in the French House after a particularly heavy night’s drinking. But the booze-hound-cum-playwright was in the habit of leaving his work around – usually in pubs – and whether he lost it at the French House or in the Swiss Tavern up in road is another matter for dispute.

What does seem to be rooted in fact, however, is the story behind the pub’s name change. It retained its York Minster designation until 1984 when the ecclesiastical establishment of the same name – the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Saint Peter in York – was damaged by fire. The pub’s landlord Gaston was somewhat perplexed when he started receiving cash donations towards the repair of his premises. But being an honest cove he contacted the cathedral to explain the situation and to return the money – only to be told that cases of claret intended for the pub had been turning up at the York Minster for some time. Presumably the cathedral staff were ignorant of their London namesake and had accepted the wine as some sort of a divine gift. Anyway, Gaston decided to take no further chances and officially changed the pub’s name to the French House.


The ambiance

The pleasantly woody interior of the French House in Soho, London.

The pleasantly woody interior of the French House

As soon as one steps inside this small, wooden space one breathes a sigh of relief. This is definitely a pub, but one with continental leanings and a nod to the 17th century French salon where witty conversation was more or less compulsory. The space is so small that people congregate around the bar and strangers actually talk to one another. Mind you, there’s little else to do since TVs are absent and mobile phones are banned. But this is not one of those sniffy pubs that make newcomers feel uncomfortable with their churlish rules: the landlady very reasonably explained that texting and googling were acceptable but that the tiny pub becomes too noisy when people talk loudly on their phones. And that’s another reason why the French House is a proper pub – it has an actual landlady. Casual bar staff can pull a pint, but some fail to deliver the warmth and bonhomie of the charismatic pub host.


The other stuff

Brewery/chain: Free house

Open: 12pm – 11:00pm Monday-Saturday, 12pm – 10:30pm Sundays

Food served Monday to Friday only

The wine choice is plentiful and you can buy champagne by the glass, but beer is served in half pints only. This stems from an occurrence in the 1920s when a bunch of rowdy sailors used their pint glasses as weapons and smashed each other over the heads with them. An unforgiving place, the French House.  If you really want to enjoy a pint you’ll have to wait until April 1 when for one day a year, pints are pulled by celebrities for a charitable cause.


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

And go to: King Who? for more info about the monarchs mentioned in this blog.


The Argyll Arms

18 Argyll Street,  W1F 7TP

Nearest tube: Oxford Circus 200ft

Nearest attraction: Carnaby Street, 0.2 miles


The Argyll Arms in Oxford Circus

The umbrella-obscured Argyll Arms


The hook

The Argyll Arms is not the most prepossessing of pubs from the outside. In fact the massive umbrellas (for the rain when I went, and for the sun at other times, hopefully) – practically shielded the pub from view. But its position adjacent to hectic Oxford Circus makes the Argyll Arms a welcoming pitstop for any weary shopper.


The history

EST: 1742 Monarch: George II

The land beneath the Argyll Arms was once owned by the second Duke of Argyll, a great military figure and long-time backer of the right horse. His Grace earned plaudits for promoting the Act of Union which resulted in Scotland and England being joined as one  – a move that would probably earn him a Glasgow Kiss in many Scottish pubs today. He helped to ensure the Hanoverian succession when the childless Queen Anne became the last of the Stuarts. And he later defended the Georgians against descendants of said Stuarts when they resurfaced and tried to hold on to the monarchy, like hangers-on at a party unable to recognise when the fun had ended and the time had come to go home. Sorry, I lapsed into autobiographical mode for a moment there.

The Argyll Arms was built in 1742 but acquired its present décor of late Victorian glittering opulence in 1897. In keeping with many pubs of the era it was equipped with “snob screens” – beautifully ornate partitions made from dark wood and frosted glass. The aim of these screens was to divide the pub so that your better class of drinker – the “snobs” if you like – could share their space with the hoi palloi (aka: the rest of us) without actually having to see them. But hearing them was a different problem and in 1900, magistrates ordered the removal of several of the pub’s snob screens when it transpired that prostitutes were using the partitioned-off areas as cosy nooks for entertaining their clients.

One of the screened-off nooks at the Argyll Arms

One of the screened-off nooks at the Argyll Arms

The ambiance

The Argyll Arms has a wonderfully Victorian feel. A long entrance corridor leads into a sizeable space at the back which is delightfully shiny and crammed full of etched glass mirrors and chandeliers. Smaller groups may prefer to ensconce themselves in one of the cosy screened-off spaces where they can drink in relative privacy. And these sections have direct access to the bar which helps to prevent any repeat of the Victorians’ scandalous behaviour.


The other stuff

Brewery: Nicholson’s

Open: Every day from 10am

Food: Served every day from midday

The standard Nicholsons menu is supplemented by a few fishy specials such as seafood stew, soft shell crab burger and mussels in Nicholsons pale ale – all somewhat unlikely options in this landlocked pub. Upstairs is a fancy restaurant where shoppers can enjoy afternoon tea away from the madding Oxford Street crowds. And if the crowds are particularly madding you can choose to wash down your scones and cream with ale or even gin.

The Argyll Arms in its full glittering glory

The Argyll Arms in its full glittering glory


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

And go to: King Who? for more info about the monarchs mentioned in this blog.

Prospect of Whitby

One of my top ten pubs

57 Wapping Wall, EC1

Nearest tube: Wapping 0.3 miles

Nearest attraction: Tower of London 1.5 miles

The Prospect of Whitby in London Docklands

The Prospect of Whitby

The hook

On paper the Prospect of Whitby looks uncannily like its neighbour, the Town of Ramsgate. Both these attractive 16th century taverns with their unlikely regional names are wedged awkwardly between bland Docklands buildings. And each has a lurid, swashbuckling past peppered with tales of misdeeds and hangings.

The history

EST: 1520.Monarch: Henry VIII

The Prospect of Whitby was once a hotbed of cut-throats, pirates and felons. In fact, so dastardly was its clientele that it became known to the locals as The Devil’s Tavern. The publican shrewdly left this name off the signage, however, forcing anyone arranging to meet there to describe it as “the pub near the Prospect of Whitby” – the name of a ship moored nearby. And the name stuck.

Just like the Town of Ramsgate, the Prospect of Whitby claims to be close to the site of Execution Dock where many a pirate was hanged. There is even a replica scaffold outside to illustrate this point to more bloodthirsty customers.

And surprise surprise – the Prospect also claims to have been a favourite with the notorious Hanging Judge Jeffreys, just like the Town of Ramsgate. The 17th century judge executed hundreds of people who plotted against the unpopular King James II. Unashamedly Catholic in a predominantly Protestant era, James was eventually deposed and replaced with a new king and queen – his own daughter Mary and his nephew William. Christmas must have been awkward that year.

Suddenly being out of a job and already the object of universal hatred, Hanging J-J decided to escape to Hamburg dressed as a sailor. But his fatal mistake was to stop for one last drink at a Dockland pub….which led to his capture (again, see the Town of Ramsgate).

Bygone regulars of the Prospect of Whitby have included the diarist Samuel Pepys, artists Turner and Whistler and the explorer Sir Hugh Willoughby who sailed from here in 1553 to seek the North-East Passage. He should have stayed in the pub: the mission was a spectacular failure and Willoughby’s frozen corpse was discovered by Russian sailors the following spring.

Over the next few centuries the Prospect served ale to an eclectic mix of celebrities including Judy Garland, Paul Newman, Princess Margaret, Richard Burton, Prince Rainier of Monaco, Frank Sinatra and Charles Dickens. It also held cock-fights and bear-knuckle fights. So basically, it had something for everyone.

The ambiance

Inside the Prospect of Whitby at London's Docklands

My friend Sue buying me a drink inside the piratey Prospect

I was a little biased against the Prospect of Whitby before my visit as I couldn’t work out why it received so much more acclaim than its charming underdog neighbour, the Town of Ramsgate. But when I entered I understood. The Prospect of Whitby is simply a cracking pub where history is engrained into the very fabric of its building, There’s no need to squint your eyes or exert your imagination to visualise this ancient tavern as a notorious pirates’ hangout. No: the rickety stairs, stone-flagged floors, off-kilter doors, rum flagons, sailing ropes and skulls-and-crossbones do that for you.

The other stuff

Brewery: Greene King

Open Every day

Food served daily from midday

The disappointingly standard Greene King menu is supplemented by a few extras such as Mexican salads and pulled pork nachos. There’s a charming main bar, a riverside restaurant, an upstairs Smugglers’ Bar and a pleasant “secret garden” – not that secret, since it is clearly marked as you can see from the picture above – where you can sit back with a drink  and enjoy an uninterrupted view of the sinister scaffold below.


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

And go to: King Who? for more info about the monarchs mentioned in this blog.


Dog and Duck*

One of my top ten pubs

18 Bateman Street, W1D 3AJ

Nearest tube: Tottenham Court Road 0.3 miles

Nearest attraction: Piccadilly Circus, 0.4 miles

The Dog and Duck in Soho

The Dog and Duck

The hook

It’s always nice to find love when you’re not actually looking for it. The same goes for a great pub. My friend and I had just had a drink at the French House and were on our way to the Wheatsheaf when we spotted the Dog and Duck and were captivated by its imposing black pillars, beautiful signage and abundant foliage. Sorry, Wheatsheaf: I’m coming for you, but not just yet.

The history

EST 1734. Monarch: George II

The famous landscape artist John Constable lived around the corner in the early 1800s and would apparently nip into the Dog and Duck for a quick pint between masterpieces. But this pub’s heyday was in the 1940s when it became George Orwell’s favourite drinking den. Mind you, several other pubs make the same claim and the erudite author of 1984 is actually said to have thrown up over the bar in the Wheatsheaf nearby. But whether this indicates any sort of preference is a moot point.

It’s hard to get a handle on the man who wrote such a deeply depressing dystopian novel as 1984. He appears to have been a bit of a reactionary, having travelled to Spain to fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War even though his poor constitution made him supremely unfit to do so. But he learnt his lesson by being shot in the throat and arm and having to return to England. He joined the Home Guard in World War II and landed a job with the BBC which involved working as a propagandist advancing the country’s national interests. But he loathed this part of the work and resigned in 1943 to take a post on a Socialist newspaper. Obviously a man of integrity but I can’t help imagining him as a bit of a pub bore, banging on about his ideals and ranting at his fellow drinkers while being ineffectually heckled by a sozzled Dylan Thomas in the corner (the two writers frequented the same Soho pubs but whether they ever synchronised their drinking is unclear).

However, the fact that Orwell was a huge fan of pubs elevates him in my estimation. He even wrote an essay for the Evening Standard on his perfect pub, describing a fictional backstreet establishment with good conversation, no music, a Victorian décor and creamy stout on tap. He even gave his fantasy pub a name – The Moon Under Water. I have news for you, George: your idea has been nicked.

But Orwell’s ideal pub sounds less like a Wetherspoon’s and more like the Dog and Duck itself. And there’s further evidence that this pub was his favourite: he chose to celebrate here in August 1945 when Animal Farm was featured by the American Book of the Month Club. Though his pub choice was partly due to the fact that the Dog and Duck’s landlord had managed to get hold of a bottle of absinthe that was 135 per cent proof. Maybe THAT was the night he went on to the Wheatsheaf and threw up over the bar.

The ambiance

The Dog and Duck's shiny interior

The Dog and Duck’s shiny interior

The “EST” date is the only Georgian thing about the Dog and Duck. It was rebuilt in 1897 and its interior is all Victorian opulence with its etched mirrors, glazed tiles and more chandeliers than a pub this size deserves. It’s a shiny, magical space with a warm welcome and cosy seating. We went on a Tuesday lunchtime and had to squeeze ourselves in next to a big group of what looked to be retired media men (they were happily supping pints and appeared much too carefree to be gainfully employed).

The other stuff

Brewery: Nicholson’s

Open: Every day from 11.30am (midday on Sunday)

Food: Served every day

Upstairs there’s a restaurant-cum-bar named the George Orwell Room (obviously). The usual Nicholson’s menu is on offer but the carrot and honey soup was delicious and the service particularly friendly. I asked for butter with my bread – a practice often sniffed at in posher eateries – and instead of announcing haughtily that they didn’t have any (which they didn’t) they sent the chef out to buy some. Now THAT’S service.


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

And go to: King Who? for more info about the monarchs mentioned in this blog.