Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese

IN MY TOP TEN

145 Fleet St, EC4A 2BU

Nearest tube: Blackfriars

 

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 in 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

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.

The Ship

IN MY TOP TEN

12, Gate Street, WC2A 3HP

Nearest tube: Holborn

IMG_6141The 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 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 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 well-known cross-dresser and spy Chevalier d’Eon and John Smeaton, designer of the third Eddystone Lighthouse.

ShipTavern 64The ambiance

The relatively small space is cunningly divided with 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

Cask Marque ales, an oak-panelled restaurant and the usual bar snacks are on offer. The trio of soups were noteworthy: a shot of gazpacho was flanked by two espresso cups of broth and served with a bread roll and a trio of butters. Highly delicious and Instagram-worthy.

http://www.theshiptavern.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.