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.

 

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Ye Olde Watling

29 Watling Street, EC4M 9BR

Nearest tube: St Paul’s 0.2 miles

Nearest attraction: St Paul’s 0.2 miles

 

The hook

Here we have yet another black-timbered, leaded-lighted, plant-festooned pub that is hard to walk by without thinking….hmm, yes actually I DO fancy a pint.

 

The history

EST: 1668. Monarch: Charles II

Ye Olde Watling is located in Watling Street, one of Britain’s most famous Roman roads. It is also a stone’s throw away from St Paul’s Cathedral and is said to have been built by Sir Christopher Wren himself. Apparently, brine-sodden timbers gleaned from old ships were sold cheaply to builders in the 17th century and these were used in the construction of the building. The reason why Wren broke off from the far more important task of building St Paul’s to throw up a quick pub was apparently to provide accommodation for the men working on the cathedral project, with the inn’s upstairs rooms being used as the drawing offices. This is not Sir Christopher’s only hostelry, it appears – he is also said to have built the Old Bell Tavern in nearby Fleet Street to house the masons rebuilding St Bride’s Church after the 1666 fire.

In fact, the Great Fire of London turned out to be exceedingly good for business for Sir Christopher. However, he had actually been involved in repairing St Paul’s since 1661 – five years before the fire occurred. He came up with his first design for a dome in the spring of 1666 and it was accepted just a week before fire had turned two-thirds of the City into ash, St Paul’s included. So it was back to the drawing board for Sir Christopher who worked on the project for years – 36 of them to be precise. A job of that scale would be enough to drive any self-respecting architect to build their own pub.

The ambiance

This is a typically cosy, wooded, black-beamed interior – just as you would expect from such a historical boozer.

The other stuff

Brewery: Nicholson

Open: Every day, closes at 5pm on Sundays

Food: Served from lunchtime

Besides the usual pies, fish and chips and Sunday roasts you can  pop into Ye Olde Watling for a full English (Scottish?) breakfast, or join in the Gin Festival in the summer.

https://www.nicholsonspubs.co.uk/restaurants/london/yeoldewatlingwatlingstreetlondon

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.