The Queens Head

IN MY TOP TEN

15 Denman Street, London, W1D 7HN

Nearest tube: Piccadilly Circus

 

The hook

If it weren’t for the fancy lettering above the Queen’s Head you would probably walk straight past it, so unassuming is its shop front-style exterior. And when you actually open the door you will find yourself staring up a steep staircase which hardly seems welcoming. But venture inside – the interior is charming.

 

The history

EST: 1738. Monarch: George II

When I asked the duty manager about the pub’s history he shrugged and pointed to a sign that claimed the Queen’s Head had been around since 1738 and “remained true to its roots”. If that were so it would be a pretty grisly place today. According to the internet, the Queen’s Head was once one of London’s many smoky, gas-lit, blood-stained venues that were regularly used for rat-baiting – a sport where people laid bets on whose dog could slaughter the most rats. Punters would gather together in venues such as the Queen’s Head and watch avidly as their bull terriers seized rat after rat in a vice-like grip and tossed their corpses aside. One dog could apparently kill 100 rats in under six minutes. Despite being a particularly nasty sport, rat-baiting did have the benefit of ridding the city of a lot of disease-carrying rodents. It was extremely popular in the early 19th century and at one time there were 70-odd rat pits in London, which meant someone had to keep them all supplied with vermin. Victorian London’s best-known rat-catcher was a flamboyant character who styled himself in a green coat, scarlet waistcoat and white breeches along with a broad leather belt inset with cast-iron rats. He went by the name of Jack Black (no relation. Although, come to think of it…).

Rat-baiting died out towards the end of the century on account of it being hideously cruel (who knew?). The Queen’s Head then smartened up its act and reinvented itself as a squeaky-clean meeting place for pedigree dog-owners. A picture on the wall featuring top-hatted gentlemen sedately showing off their dogs bears this out, effectively skating over the pub’s more sinister past.

 

The ambiance

The gilded mirrors, ornate chandeliers and wooden pillars provide a delightfully over-the-top Victorian feel with a nod to the art deco. Background music adds to the atmosphere and there is plenty of seating, mostly on stools. Service is friendly and the place has a pleasant buzz.

IMG_6441

 

The other stuff

An independent pub in the heart of London – what a refreshing change. The beer options vary and on our visit included London Pride and Dark Star Hophead. At first glance the food menu seems fairly standard and disappointingly pie-heavy, but our meal was delicious with plenty of quirkier options such as beetroot salmon mousse, Jerusalem artichoke tart and asparagus and broad bean pie. Great value, too –and with free limoncellos all round to celebrate our daughter’s birthday. Much better than an indoor firework in a pudding for one.

www.queensheadpiccadilly.com

For a complete list of pubs, go to the home page.

Princess Louise

208-209 High Holborn, WC1V 7BW

Nearest tube: Holborn

 

The Hook

The Princess Louise is nothing much to look at from the outside. Okay, the windows may be fancy and there are some ornate carvings on the pillars. But the brown paintwork and rather drab signage hardly beckon you in. Persevere, however – inside the Princess Louise will blow your mind.

 

The history

EST: 1872. Monarch: Victoria

The existing building dates back to 1872 and the interior was remodelled in the 1890s. A relatively new boozer, in fact. High Holborn itself has a long history: The Knights Templar’s first round church was built here in the 12th century. What I do find interesting from a historical point of view is the name of this pub. Princess Louise was the sixth child of Queen Victoria, an intelligent, artistic girl who was often regarded as the Queen’s most beautiful daughter. Born in 1848 she was a talented artist and sculptor as well as something of a celebrity in her day.

Her many talents earned her the unofficial position as secretary to her mother the Queen between 1866 and 1871, after which her marriage to the future Duke of Argyll put an end to this arrangement. It was about this time that the pub was built, though why it was named after a royal princess in her twenties is not clear. Perhaps it was renamed after her death in 1939? By all accounts, Princess Louise was a bit of a character and frequently the subject of gossip. She enjoyed a smoke, dabbled with nude painting and allegedly had a string of affairs. So in other words, she was definitely someone you would want to have a drink with.

 

The ambiance

The interior of the Princess Louise is simply amazing. Its Corinthian columns, Victorian tiles, mosaic floors and ornate mirrors are elaborate and over-the-top but also fabulous. The pub features a series of booths partitioned off from each other with cut-glass screens. Each has direct access to the marble-effect bar and provides seating for groups of up to eight. Arrive early if you would like a seat in one of these highly-prized snugs. Stepping inside the Princess Louise is like walking into a Victorian melodrama. Spoiler alert: the butler probably did it.

 

The other stuff

This is a Sam Smith pub with all the beer choices that brings. The Princess Louise’s menu is mostly British but the inevitable steak and kidney pudding and bangers and mash are tempered by more cosmopolitan dishes such as lasagne, chilli and cheesey nachos.

http://princesslouisepub.co.uk

For a complete list of pubs, go to the home page.

The Black Friar

74 Queen Victoria Street, EC4V 4EG

Nearest tube: Blackfriars

 

BF AThe hook

When I first spotted the Black Friar from my seat on a hugely enjoyable London Duck Tour I was mesmerised by this lovely, Trivial Pursuit-pie shaped building beneath Blackfriars Bridge. Since I was a captive audience on the tour I was forced to sit tight, squirrel away the info and resolve to visit the pub at a later date. And when I eventually did so I discovered that the Black Friar was even better inside than out.

 

The history

EST: 1875. Monarch: Victoria

Built in 1875, the pub is fairly modern despite its medieval styling. But the name of the Black Friar refers to its position on the site of a former priory. When friars first appeared in medieval England they were something of a novelty since unlike monks (who were cloistered in monasteries) they travelled around, spreading the word in exchange for money to sustain themselves. Nice work if you can get it. There were two main groups of friars in early 13th century London – the Franciscans who were invariably dressed in grey, and the Dominicans whose long black mantles earned them the name the Black Friars. These were later joined by the Carmelites, or the White Friars (I see a theme emerging) and the Augustinians, otherwise known as the Austin Friars. Maybe there were no more drab colours to adopt?

Anyway, the pub is a Grade II listed Arts and Crafts building which means it has plenty of historical merit despite not actually being old. In the “enlightened” 1960s when iconic buildings were being flattened left right and centre, the Black Friar was among those scheduled to be demolished. However, the poet Sir John Betjeman stepped in and led a campaign to keep it. It just goes to show, you can always count on a creative to vouch for a pub as Dickens, Pepys, Marlowe etc will bear out.

The ambiance

The Black Friar has been skillfully designed inside to reflect its Dominican roots. However the arches, carvings and stained glass windows have been teamed with cosy nooks and low lighting to create an interior that is both impressive and snug. Everywhere you look there are sculptures, mosaics and wooden reliefs featuring black friars beaming down on you with happy, smiling faces. In fact it was the Grey Friars who had a reputation for being particularly jolly, but who knows. Maybe the two rival groups engaged in much friendly joshing as they roamed the streets of London, spreading their respective words.

BF 2The other stuff

As a Nicholson’s pub, the Black Friar serves the usual cask beers along with a fairly standard menu featuring pies, burgers and steaks. But the dining room is a revelation with its vaulted-style ceiling that continues the medieval theme.

http://www.nicholsonspubs.co.uk/restaurants/london/theblackfriarblackfriarslondon

For a complete list of pubs, go to the home page.

THE MAYFLOWER

IN MY TOP FIVE

 

Historic Rotherhithe pub linked with the original Mayflower vessel of Pilgrim Fathers' fame

The Mayflower

117 Rotherhithe Street, SE16 4NF

Nearest Tube: Bermondsey

 

The hook

The Mayflower is yet another of those black-beamed, flower-festooned, olde worlde pubs by the Thames that are almost impossible for the passer-by to resist.

 

The history

EST: 1550. Monarch: Edward VI

What visitor from the US would not be fascinated by a London pub that boasts links to the first Pilgrim Fathers vessel?

The Mayflower actually stands on the site of a different pub – The Shippe – which was built around 1550 and stood close to where the Mayflower was later fitted out for its epic journey. Around 65 passengers were picked up from Rotherhithe in July 1620 before the Mayflower set sail for the New World via Plymouth.

The pub that replaced The Shippe – the Spread Eagle and Crown – was apparently a great favourite with seafarers. In the 1800s it gained a licence to sell postage stamps, presumably so that sailors could write home while downing a pint in comfortable surroundings. In fact the Mayflower remains the only pub in Britain to this day where you can buy US and UK postage stamps.

It was only named The Mayflower in 1957, presumably by some enterprising landlord who thought he could make a bob or two from the American tourist trade. And perhaps there was good reason for this renaming: the pub is said to comprise some of the original ship’s timbers in its structure.  Pub visitors today with proof of a family connection to the original Pilgrim Fathers are invited to sign their names in the Mayflower Descendants Book, which is held behind the bar.

The ambiance

The wonderfully cosy 17th century Mayflower is dark and atmospheric with wooden pews, an open fire and a deck overlooking the Thames. There are private booths as well as large tables made for sharing and making friends with other drinkers.

The other stuff

Reasonably-priced pub staples such as pies, bangers and fish and chips are all on offer and can be washed down with a range of well-kept ales.

http://www.mayflowerpub.co.uk

For a complete list of pubs, go to the home page.

THE RED LION

 

IN MY TOP FIVE 

23 Crown Passage, Off Pall Mall, SW1Y 6PP

Nearest tube, Green Park

 

The hook

Situated in a tiny alleyway off Pall Mall, the centuries-old Red Lion beckons you in with its black timbers and leaded light windows. But it’s the cosy interior and warm welcome that encourage you to stay.

 

The history

EST: 17th century (probably) Monarch: James I (possibly)

This pub is said to hold the second oldest licence in London and date back around 400 years. That puts it at early 17th century which makes other pubs such as The Anchor and the Seven Stars even older. And why would anyone refer to the “second oldest licence” anyway without mentioning who holds the first? If you have the answer, please reply in the Comments. But to all intents and purposes, this is an Old Pub and one that has been a firm favourite with royalty. Regal visitors over the years have apparently included everyone from Edward VIII to the Queen Mother and Charles II to Henry VIII (How? He died in 1547. This is so frustrating). The Red Lion is more or less the monarchs’ local, anyway, situated as it is just across the road from St James’ Palace and Clarence House.

It is also rumoured to have been the location for lovers’ trysts between – you guessed it – Charles II and Nell Gwyn (see The Dove and the Nell Gwynne). The famous orange-seller lived just around the corner at 79 Pall Mall and of course Charles lived directly opposite in St James’ Palace. Legend has it that naughty Nell would sneak along Crown Passage and into the Red Lion’s cellars where she would meet Charles in a tunnel beneath the pub. A lovely romantic story but a) sceptics have had a poke around the cellars and have found no trace of a tunnel and b) Charles and Nell were at it so blatantly everywhere else that why would they need to go sneaking around in cellars?

On the last Saturday in January “cavaliers” in full costume descend on the Red Lion to lament the death of their hero Charles I who was executed on January 30 1649. Only in England.

 

The ambiance

The Red Lion is yet another of those tiny, dimly-lit historical icons that barely register with tourists despite being a mere stone’s throw away from the city’s major historical sites.

Being a small, square space the Red Lion is a little short on nooks and crannies. But the inviting atmosphere more than makes up for this.

 

The other stuff

The pub serves snacks and sandwiches plus various Adnams ales including Suffolk and Cornish Tribute on tap.

For a complete list of pubs, go to the home page.

THE NELL GWYNNE

IN MY TOP FIVE

1-2 Bull inn Court, WC2R 0NP

Nearest tube: Charing Cross

 

 

The hook

There’s a touch of the Leaky Cauldrons about the Nell Gwynne. Just like the pub in the Harry Potter books, this Victorian hostelry tucked away in Bull’s Inn Yard seems to have materialised out of nowhere. At least I’d never noticed it before during the many previous times I had walked along the Strand.

Discovering this pub the other evening was like finding a delightful room in my house that I hadn’t realised was there. I’m fairly convinced that other people have overlooked it too given the relatively few punters within.

 

The history

EST: 1890s. Monarch: Victoria

The Nell Gwynne was built in the 1890s to replace the Bull Inn on the same site. Named after Charles II’s famous mistress who sold her wares at nearby Covent Garden, the pub’s link with Nell is, however, fairly tenuous since the celebrated orange-seller died more than 200 years before the pub was built. Nor is there any evidence that she popped in to the Bull Inn itself for a giant scotch egg either.

But the pub has colourful historical links besides its Nell Gwyn connection (or lack thereof). It’s a stone’s throw from the site of a notorious murder in 1897 when William Terris, an actor known for his swashbuckling heroes and Shakespeare characters, was stabbed to death by a disgruntled colleague at the stage door of the nearby Adelphi Theatre.

The ambiance

The décor of the Nell Gwynne is intrinsically Dickensian with its brown walls, heavy oak shelving, porcelain barrels and sepia-hued lamps suspended over the bar. There’s a subdued, secretive atmosphere – but in a good way.

The other stuff

Any tendency towards gloom is offset by the cheerful bar staff and the blackboards offering gins-of-the-month and sourdough toasties.  The pub prides itself on its real ales, “gin den” and whisky selection and there’s a gloriously retro juke box where you can play yesterday’s favourite hits.

http://www.thenellgwynne.com

For a complete list of pubs, go to the home page.