The Queens Head

15 Denman Street, London, W1D 7HN

Nearest tube: Piccadilly Circus 0.1 mile

Nearest attraction: National Gallery 0.3 miles


The hook

If it weren’t for the fancy lettering above the Queen’s Head you would probably walk straight past it, so unassuming is its shop front-style exterior. And when you actually open the door you will find yourself staring up a steep staircase which hardly seems welcoming. But venture inside – the interior is charming.


The history

EST: 1738. Monarch: George II

When I asked the duty manager about the pub’s history he shrugged and pointed to a sign that claimed the Queen’s Head had been around since 1738 and “remained true to its roots”. If that were so it would be a pretty grisly place today. According to the internet, the Queen’s Head was once one of London’s many smoky, gas-lit, blood-stained venues that were regularly used for rat-baiting – a sport where people laid bets on whose dog could slaughter the most rats. Punters would gather together in venues such as the Queen’s Head and watch avidly as their bull terriers seized rat after rat in a vice-like grip and tossed their corpses aside. One dog could apparently kill 100 rats in under six minutes. Despite being a particularly nasty sport, rat-baiting did have the benefit of ridding the city of a lot of disease-carrying rodents. It was extremely popular in the early 19th century and at one time there were 70-odd rat pits in London, which meant someone had to keep them all supplied with vermin. Victorian London’s best-known rat-catcher was a flamboyant character who styled himself in a green coat, scarlet waistcoat and white breeches along with a broad leather belt inset with cast-iron rats. He went by the name of Jack Black (no relation. Although, come to think of it…).

Rat-baiting died out towards the end of the century on account of it being hideously cruel (who knew?). The Queen’s Head then smartened up its act and reinvented itself as a squeaky-clean meeting place for pedigree dog-owners. A picture on the wall featuring top-hatted gentlemen sedately showing off their dogs bears this out, effectively skating over the pub’s more sinister past.


The ambiance

The gilded mirrors, ornate chandeliers and wooden pillars provide a delightfully over-the-top Victorian feel with a nod to the art deco. Background music adds to the atmosphere and there is plenty of seating, mostly on stools. Service is friendly and the place has a pleasant buzz.

The Queen's Head's ornate interior.

The Queen’s Head’s ornate interior.


The other stuff

Brewery: Free house

Open: Every day

Food: Served from midday to 10pm

The beer options vary and on our visit included London Pride and Dark Star Hophead. At first glance the food menu seems fairly standard and disappointingly pie-heavy, but our meal was delicious with plenty of quirkier options such as beetroot salmon mousse, Jerusalem artichoke tart and asparagus and broad bean pie. Great value, too –and with free limoncellos all round to celebrate our daughter’s birthday. Much better than an indoor firework in a pudding for one.

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?


Princess Louise

208-209 High Holborn, WC1V 7BW

Nearest tube: Holborn

The Hook

The Princess Louise is nothing much to look at from the outside. Okay, the windows may be fancy and there are some ornate carvings on the pillars. But the brown paintwork and rather drab signage hardly beckon you in. Persevere, however – inside the Princess Louise will blow your mind.

The history

EST: 1872. Monarch: Victoria

The existing building dates back to 1872 and the interior was remodelled in the 1890s. A relatively new boozer, in fact. High Holborn itself has a long history: The Knights Templar’s first round church was built here in the 12th century. What I do find interesting from a historical point of view is the name of this pub. Princess Louise was the sixth child of Queen Victoria, an intelligent, artistic girl who was often regarded as the Queen’s most beautiful daughter. Born in 1848 she was a talented artist and sculptor as well as something of a celebrity in her day.

Her many talents earned her the unofficial position as secretary to her mother the Queen between 1866 and 1871, after which her marriage to the future Duke of Argyll put an end to this arrangement. It was about this time that the pub was built, though why it was named after a royal princess in her twenties is not clear. Perhaps it was renamed after her death in 1939? By all accounts, Princess Louise was a bit of a character and frequently the subject of gossip. She enjoyed a smoke, dabbled with nude painting and allegedly had a string of affairs. So in other words, she was definitely someone you would want to have a drink with.

The ambiance

The interior of the Princess Louise is simply amazing. Its Corinthian columns, Victorian tiles, mosaic floors and ornate mirrors are elaborate and over-the-top but also fabulous. The pub features a series of booths partitioned off from each other with cut-glass screens. Each has direct access to the marble-effect bar and provides seating for groups of up to eight. Arrive early if you would like a seat in one of these highly-prized snugs. Stepping inside the Princess Louise is like walking into a Victorian melodrama. Spoiler alert: the butler probably did it.

The other stuff

Brewery: Samuel Smith

Open: Every day, closed Sunday evenings

Food: Served from lunchtime

The Princess Louise’s menu is mostly British but the inevitable steak and kidney pudding and bangers and mash are tempered by more cosmopolitan dishes such as lasagne, chilli and cheesey nachos.

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?

The Ship and Shovell*

One of my top ten pubs

1-3 Craven Passage WC2N 5PH

Nearest tubes: Charing Cross, Embankment

IMG_6246The Hook

Why settle for one pub when you can have two? That was obviously the thinking behind the landlords of the Ship(s) and Shovell(s) when they were first established on either side of Craven’s Passage. Stumbling across one of  London’s very few two-part pubs (see the Euston Tap) you will assume you are seeing double and then start to wonder whether these jolly red inns are actually mirror images of each other inside?


The history

EST: 1852. Monarch: Victoria

The two terraced houses that make up the Ship and Shovell were built in in the 1730s when the most southerly one had a clear view of the river via a porthole-like window. This enabled the dockers and carters who frequented the inn to keep an eye on the Thames and watch for ships that might need divesting of their coal and other goods. The buildings were later replaced and the pub was listed as the Ship and Shovel in 1852. It seems the perfect name for a pub whose clientele used to shovel coal from a ship. But in 1997 its name was changed to the Ship and Shovell (with two Ls) to commemorate the life of a 17th century sea admiral.

Sir Cloudesley Shovell was born in Norfolk and rose through the ranks of the Royal Navy from cabin boy to Admiral of the Fleet. He battled pirates and foreign seafarers before ending his life in a shipwreck off the Scilly Isles. In other words: he had no tangible connection with Charing Cross whatsoever. Craven Passage itself was named after the first Earl of Craven (also from the 17th century) who gained London’s respect by, well, not being craven. When the Great Plague ravaged the city in 1665 he stayed put and helped to maintain order rather than fleeing to the countryside like so many other noblemen.


The ambiance

To answer your earlier (hypothetical) question, the Ship(s) and Shovell(s) are entirely different inside. The pub on the right as you approach from Villiers Street is a pleasant but unremarkable London boozer with an ornate Victorian décor. However, the pub on the left is much more quaint and characterful. Its handful of seating places include two cosy booths plus an adorable cubby hole partly shielded by screens with its own personal coat hooks. My only gripe was that comfier chairs would have made this “snug” even snugger. The walls of both hostelries are covered with 17th century sailing paintings, mostly linked to the obscure Captain Shovell who provides a touch of swashbuckling glamour that coal-shovelling somehow fails to deliver.


The other stuff

Brewery: Hall and Woodhouse

Open: Every day except Sunday

Food: Midday till 3.30pm (4pm on Sundays)

All your basic pub food options are available but I opted for the chili cheese chips – guaranteed to blow the mind of any culinary thrill-seeker. Besides the chili my chips were also topped with coriander, jalapenos and English mustard. My tastebuds still haven’t recovered – but in a good way.

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?

The Nell Gwynne**

One of my top five pubs

1-2 Bull inn Court, WC2R 0NP

Nearest tube: Charing Cross


The hook

There’s a touch of the Leaky Cauldrons about the Nell Gwynne. Just like the pub in the Harry Potter books, this Victorian hostelry tucked away in Bull’s Inn Yard seems to have materialised out of nowhere. At least I, for one, had never noticed it before during the many times I had previously walked along the Strand. Discovering this pub was like finding a delightful room in my house that I hadn’t realised was there.


The history

EST: 1890s. Monarch: Victoria

The Nell Gwynne was built in the 1890s to replace the Bull Inn which stood on the same site. It is named after Charles II’s famous mistress – whose name is usually spelt “Gwyn”  – and who sold her wares in nearby Covent Garden. The pub’s actual links with our Nell are fairly tenuous, however, since the celebrated orange-seller died more than 200 years before the inn was built. And there isn’t any evidence that she ever popped into the pub for a giant scotch egg under its previous incarnation as the Bull, either.

But there are colourful historical links besides the Nell Gwyn connection (or lack thereof). The pub is a stone’s throw away from the site of a notorious murder in 1897 when William Terris, an actor known for his swashbuckling heroes and Shakespeare characters, was stabbed to death by a disgruntled colleague at the stage door of the nearby Adelphi Theatre.


The ambiance

Going inside this pub is like stepping into a sepia photograph. The décor of the Nell Gwynne is intrinsically Dickensian with its brown walls, heavy oak shelving, porcelain barrels and dull gold lamps suspended over the bar. The TV screens add an incongruous reminder that the punter has not, in fact, stepped back in time. That and the board advertising the wifi code.


The other stuff

Brewery: Free house

Open: daily

Food: mainly lunchtime toasties and giant scotch eggs

Dogs welcome

Any tendency towards gloom is offset by the cheerful bar staff and the blackboards offering gins-of-the-month and sourdough toasties.  The pub prides itself on its real ales, “gin den” and whisky selection and there’s a dartboard plus a gloriously retro juke box where you can play yesterday’s favourite hits.

For a complete list of pubs, go to the home page.