95 Fleet Street, London EC4Y 1DH
Nearest tube: Blackfriars 0.3 miles
Nearest attraction: St Paul’s 0.3 miles
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.
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 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
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.