IN MY TOP TEN
145 Fleet St, EC4A 2BU
Nearest tube: Blackfriars
Tucked away down a Dickensian side street with a name featuring a “Ye” and an extraneous “e” – why wouldn’t any pub buff want to enter one of London’s most famous, historic watering holes? Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is such an obvious candidate for this blog that I’ve resisted including it up to now in an attempt to avoid being too cliché.
EST: 1538. Monarch: Henry VIII
A pub called the Horn occupied the site from around 1538 when Shakespeare was in his twenties and Henry VIII was three wives down. But surprise, surprise – like so many other great pubs it burnt down during the Great Fire of 1666. However, it was rebuilt the following year to become the Fleet Street landmark it is today.
History permeates every nook and cranny of this delightful boozer. The vaulted cellars are thought to originate from the 13th-century Carmelite monastery that originally occupied the site and the pub’s many, many famous patrons are said to have included Alfred Lord Tennyson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, PG Wodehouse, Voltaire, Princess Margaret and Winston Churchill. I’d have loved to have overheard THAT pub conversation. Samuel Johnson apparently used to dine at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese while Charles Dickens allegedly favoured the table to the right of the fireplace in the ground floor room opposite the bar. The inn was once renowned for its “puddings” made from steak, mushrooms, kidneys, oysters and larks weighing in at between 23 and 36 kilos apiece. The ancient walls of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese have doubtless witnessed countless tragedies, dramas, arguments and the forming of many a drunken bond but my favourite story relates to Polly, a parrot given to the landlord by a sailor in the late 19th century. On Armistice Night 1918 after World War One had ended the over-excited bird apparently mimicked the popping of a champagne cork 400 times (why 400? Who was counting?) before falling off its perch and passing out cold. Polly survived to tell the tale and when it eventually died in 1926 the parrot had become so famous that its obituary appeared in 200 newspapers worldwide.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is a sprawling labyrinth of wood-panelled rooms and passageways, each with their own atmosphere. There is a marked lack of natural light which makes you quickly forget there’s a world outside the pub – as many a former Fleet Street journalist will ruefully tell you. On my first visit I ended up in a rather unengaging, windowless room seated in an uncomfortable wooden booth while my second stint at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese was spent in a buzzing, cave-like bar filled with refectory tables and friendly tourists. There are 10-12 rooms arranged over four or five levels (though again, who’s counting?) so whatever your mood there’ll be a nook to accommodate you. And the open fireplaces that light up the pub in winter make it an even more engaging space.
The other stuff
Standard pub food and a limited signal are among the minuses. On the plus side there’s Sam Smith’s beer and a potentially lively conversation largely uncontaminated by mobile phone use.
For a complete list of pubs, go to the home page.