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.

Henry’s son, Edward VI also lived here and so did James I who 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. And in 1662, Charles II brought his wife Catherine of Braganza to the palace and proceeded to make her miserable with his many infidelities.

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.

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.


Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese

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. And the pub spans the rule of monarchs 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.

The Ship

12, Gate Street, WC2A 3HP

Nearest tube: Holborn 285ft

Nearest attraction: Covent Garden 0.5 miles

The Holborn pub where people pretending to be drinkers gathered together to couldn't make it up

The attractive frontage of the Ship Tavern

The Hook

Another black-beamed, plant-festooned, leaded-light-windowed classic down a little side alley just around the corner from Holborn station.


The history

EST: 1549. Monarch: Edward VI

Many of us would consider the boozy camaraderie of a pub to be preferable to sitting through a solemn church service. Yet 16th century visitors to the Ship actually went to the pub for a quick top-up of religion rather than for a beer and a laugh. Henry VIII’s falling-out with the church drove England’s Catholics underground – or to the pub in the Ship’s case. Outlawed priests made their base at the inn and Mass was conducted from behind the bar. Whenever the state’s officials happened to be spotted outside, the officiator would head for a handy priest’s hole and the rest of the “congregation” would return to their pints.

The Ship dates back to 1549 when Henry VIII’s scholarly young son Edward VI was enjoying a brief spell on the throne before his death four years later at the tender age of 15. Most of the pub’s earliest customers were labourers from the nearby Lincoln’s Inn Fields but it later became a favourite with deckhands from the nearby dockyards. It was also frequented by one Richard Penderel, a Royalist who on September 4, 1651, helped the 21-year-old future Charles II escape from Cromwell’s army by giving him a rough haircut and disguising him as a woodman. A great story to tell down the pub if ever there was one. Colourful 18th century patrons included Chevalier d’Eon, a renowned cross-dresser and spy; and John Smeaton, designer of the third Eddystone Lighthouse.

ShipTavern 64The ambiance

The relatively small space is cunningly divided up by means of dark panelled screens to provide quiet booths for groups of friends, city workers and lone newspaper-readers who make up the clientele.


The other stuff

Brewery: Free house

Open: Daily

Food: Daily from midday

Being an independent pub, dining at the Ship is a bit less generic than elsewhere. Besides the inevitable pies, bangers and fish ‘n chips you can also opt for venison, duck, plaice and ribs. The starters are varied and the trio of soups were particularly noteworthy: a shot of gazpacho flanked by two espresso cups of broth served with a bread roll and a trio of butters. Highly delicious and Instagram-worthy.

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.

The Red Lion**

One of my top five pubs 

23 Crown Passage,  SW1Y 6PP

Nearest tube: Green Park 0.3 miles

Nearest attraction: Buckingham Palace, 0.4 miles


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 dates back around 400 years. So which pub holds the oldest? No-one seems to know. In any case, this is definitely an old pub and has apparently been a firm favourite with royalty through the years. Regal visitors have allegedly included everyone from Edward VIII to the Queen Mother and Charles II to Henry VIII, who presumably visited the Red Lion in its previous incarnation since he died in 1547.

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 Charles lived at St James’ Palace across the road, 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?

St James Palace was commissioned by Henry VIII and  became the monarchy’s main residence  after a hapless laundrywoman burned down Whitehall Palace in 1698 (see The Old Shades). A great deal of history happened here: for example, St James was where Charles II was born; where Mary I died and where Charles I spent the night before being beheaded in Whitehall on January 30 1649.


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. Dogs are welcome – so maybe a corgi or two has been snuck in over the years?

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

Brewery: Free house

Open: every day except Sundays

Food: Serves  bar snacks every day except Sundays

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

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.