If you want to know New York, go to the delis. If you’d like to know Paris, then sit in the cafes. But if you really want to know London, you visit the pubs.
Pubs and London are as close to a perfect match as, say, Fish and Chips or Bacon and Egg, but how is the ordinary visitor to London to find some of the finest examples in a city teeming with thousands of drinking establishments? Fortunately, some help is at hand. For a decade, I have been researching (and drinking in) London’s best pubs and revealing them to visitors and locals on my walking tours. Here are some of my favourites…
Ye Olde Mitre
Whilst you may indeed be wise to avoid dark alleyways wherever you are from, the advice to always trust an alleyway in Central London should be heeded, for they can lead to some remarkable discoveries, not least of which is London’s most hidden Pub. Invisible from the streets around, Ye Olde Mitre is accessed from a narrow alleyway leading off Hatton Gardens. Whilst London has not stopped still and has grown up around it, the Pub has remained resolute, in 1 form or another, since the mid 16th Century.
Barrels to rest your drinks on and to gather around are welcoming wooden companions to this cosy, old wood tavern. A haven from bustling roads, with its old chairs, its series of scotch whisky water jugs hanging from the ceiling and the preserved remains of a cherry tree that Queen Elizabeth I danced around standing nonchalantly in the corner. Ye Olde Mitre is exactly the kind of warm, hospitable, small pub you dreamed of visiting on your trip to London. Now-if you can only find it.
Closest Tubes: Chancery Lane or St. Pauls
The George Inn
Set back from the street, a short walk from the southern end of London Bridge and opposite London’s finest food market is The George Inn. The last surviving galleried coaching inn left in London.
Picture a time when travel of any decent distance would have been several days riding in a coach. As day gave way to dusk, the horses pulled into a coaching inn, were stabled for the night, whilst you ate and drank heartily and made your way upstairs to bed. In the morning, you and the horses, fresh and rested, would set out on the road once more. There are no more horseshoes on cobblestones here, the sounds replaced by the clinking of glasses and the combined hubbub of conversation and laughter.
Dickens drank here and even Shakespeare drank here, so you are in fine company as you raise a drink and raise your eyes at the three-storey building with covered, wooden galleries running along some of its length. Check out the Parliament Bar here, its floor uneven and all the better for it, its fireplace broad and inviting and the original Parliament clock still on the wall.
Closest Tube: London Bridge
The Old Bank of England
This fine pub was indeed the old Bank of England (well its legal branch at least) and sits where Fleet Street meets Strand next to the Royal Courts of Justice. Although you cannot miss it (no dark alleyways or hidden cobbled courtyards), many visitors walk past it, believing it to be a lavish and private club or an exclusive high-end venue of some kind.
It is neither of these. What it is, is probably the most beautiful pub in the whole of London. Chandeliers hang from an ornate, exceptionally high ceiling, while gold and marble, huge paintings and lush curtains all embellish this lofty space.
Standing in this Pub, you are eternally grateful that a building such as this has been opened up to the public in this manner. It is so breathtakingly spectacular.
The vaults 3 floors down that kept safe the Crown Jewels in both World Wars, now house a slightly less precious commodity-soft drinks. An imposing staircase leads to a mezzanine floor, from which the entirety of the Pub can be seen in its magnificent splendour.
Closest Tube: Temple/Chancery Lane/St. Pauls
The Jerusalem Tavern
Named so because the area you now find yourself drinking in was a muster point for the crusades. You are on the edge of two London areas: Smithfield and Clerkenwell and, whilst markets and creative agencies, restaurants and offices busy themselves selling, designing and typing, The Jerusalem Tavern dances to a wholly different beat. Not for it the lofty, gilded ceilings of the Old Bank or the dark, wooden galleries and sloping floors of The George. However, within seconds of entering, it is immediately apparent that pretty much nothing has changed in many, many years.
There are plenty of Pubs that have taken the building they are in and bent it around its will. Here, in The Jerusalem Tavern, the opposite is true, as due respect has been given to the fact that every aspect of this building is imbued with both history and atmosphere and the Pub has endearingly and artfully taken up residence and shelter between the walls.
There is nothing quite like it. A small staircase leads to one table and two chairs alone, there being no further room “upstairs”. The back of the Pub has long benches facing each other across a table, ideal for group conversation and toasting, whilst the front has an altogether different, more earthier feel with stone and tilework.
No pretence, no forced jollity, its grandiosity lies in its perfect humility.
Closest Tube: Farringdon
The Cittie of Yorke
I have saved the best ‘til last. Or rather, I have saved my all-time favourite ‘til last. In your minds I’d like you to conjure up an image of a perfect English Pub. Embellish your image with all the detail you like and then kindly put it to 1 side, because I guarantee that whatever you just imagined in no way matches up to the magic and glory that awaits you when you open the doors of The Cittie of Yorke.
A huge, vaulted ceiling, a series of private booths down the right-hand side, stretching away with a long bar on the left (the longest in the country at one point).
Above the bar, large barrels, some of which once contained a thousand gallons of wine. As a guide, one of my favourite things to do is to lead a group in, then turn around and watch the awe come alive on their faces, because that’s what it is to be a Pub Tour guide, to drink in the sights once again through the eyes of my guests and this is the finest Pub in which to do so. Try the Chocolate Stout (the chocolatiest of all chocolate beers ever).
Closest Tube-: Chancery Lane
Please do visit these wonderful pubs and take in the real London. You can thank me later.
Image: Stefan Wiegand from Pixabay