Old Bell Tavern

95 Fleet Street, London EC4Y 1DH

Nearest tube: Blackfriars 0.3 miles

Nearest attraction: St Paul’s 0.3 miles

 

The hook

 Situated in a rather scruffy building between two Fleet Street shops, The Old Bell is not the most prepossessing of pubs from the outside. But the multi-hued leaded-light windows are quite lovely and the deep doorway with its wrought iron curlicues makes you eager to find out what’s inside.

 

The history

 EST 1678. Monarch: Charles II

The Old Bell stands on the site of an earlier tavern – the Swan – and in 1500 became the location of Fleet Street’s first ever printer’s. The aptly-named Wynkyn de Worde ran a workshop from the premises and his credentials were impeccable, having previously worked for none other than William Caxton himself. The current Old Bell (previously the Golden Bell and later the Twelve Bells) has been greatly renovated but was originally built in 1678 by London’s most famous architect. Sir Christopher Wren knocked up the pub to accommodate the stone masons working on a nearby project (see Ye Olde Watling). Not St Paul’s this time, but St Bride’s – the decorative church with the elaborately-tiered spire that has been the inspiration for many a wedding cake.

When Fleet Street became the centre for Britain’s national press, the local pubs became the haunt of journalists who were renowned for their (our) heavy drinking. Perhaps it was this predilection for the bottle that cost one hack the biggest scoop of his life.

Back in the early days of the Cold War, one Eric Tullett of the Sunday Express had been given the top-secret details of a national code-breaking facility, later to become the GCHQ. But he left his notebook at the Old Bell. It was later found by a barmaid who spotted the words “secret” and “Moscow” in Tullett’s notes and promptly alerted the police, who shared it with MI5. The Foreign Office eventually allowed part of Tullett’s story to go ahead, but all mention of the code-breaking facility had to be left out. This happened in 1951 and Tullett’s state secrets about the GCHQ only came to light in the 1970s some 20-odd years later.  So it just goes to show, the humble pub can actually STOP history from happening.

The ambiance

Inside the Old Bell

Inside the Old Bell

The central bar creates a circular hub in this pub’s pleasant interior. The large fireplace adds a cosy touch, as do the many armchairs and crannies. We visited on a summer’s afternoon in August when the pub was fairly empty but the bustling bar staff and the sound system belting out eighties’ hits created a buzzing atmosphere.

 

The other stuff

Brewery: Nicholson

Open: Every day but closed Saturday and Sunday evenings

Food: Every day from lunchtime

The rear entrance opens on to St Bride’s Avenue which is a boon in summer when the customers can spill out and drink a toast to the church the locals built.

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

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?

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

 

Advertisements

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese

The Ultimate London Pub History Advent Calendar Door Eight

145 Fleet St, EC4A 2BU

Nearest tube: Blackfriars 0.4 miles

Nearest attraction: St Paul’s Cathedral, 0.4 miles

 

The Hook

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.

 

The history

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 on November 11 1926 the parrot had become so famous that its obituary appeared in 200 newspapers worldwide.

 

The ambiance

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

Brewery: Free house

Open: Every day except Sunday

Food: Served from lunchtime

Standard pub food and a limited signal are among the minuses. On the plus side there’s  potentially lively conversation largely uncontaminated by mobile phone use.

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?

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