Despite (or because?) I grew up as the “beer man’s daughter”, I’ve never had a great fondness for brewed hops.
Our recent travel to London, England, however, meant that pubs – and often, a half pint or pint – were on the agenda.
Scads of pubs go after “ye olde” titles in London but there is an interesting overlay to all that reaching for historic cred: British pubs these days are largely big business, owned by companies that manage hundreds of such establishments or run by breweries that ensure the taps in their places pour only that breweries’ bevvies.
For instance, Fuller’s, maker of London Pride, owns more than 380 pubs across England. Greene King owns more than 3,000 over the United Kingdom.
Our pub-going was a mix of targeted “must see” stops and places that ended up being at the right place at the right time. We brought home a lovely book I found on the last day of our trip, Great Pubs of London, that whets the whistle to return: so many places in that tome look so incredibly charming, but we never found them on our own during our trip.
The London Walks “Hidden Pubs of London” tour took us to three spots near the Thames River, around Embankment Tube Station: Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, The Edgar Wallace, and The Blackfriar.
The first, claiming it was “rebuilt 1667”, is home to a multi-level rabbit’s warren of rooms that descend from a street-level bar with a hard-to-find entrance. The Edgar Wallace is near the legal Inns of Court and claims to be a favourite hangout for barristers and solicitors. While an old pub, the interior vibe is more mid-20th-century groovy, in a winking Austin Powers kind of way.
We had found The Blackfriar on our own earlier for a pub lunch, and preferred how it felt in daylight: its stained-glass windows and ambience are lovelier in sunlight than at night.
One of more impressive steeped-in-history spots is Cittie of Yorke. As the tourism info, says, “although the current building is a rebuilding of the 1920s, the buildings on this site have been pubs since 1430.” It has charming small cubicles branching off a Germanic-style central vaulted bar / hall – all the better for lawyers to meet privately with clients, is the story that’s told.
My personal favourite was The Mayflower: we ended up at this pub on the south shore of the Thames for a late lunch at the end of yet another walking tour that traced the life, times and work of the engineering Brunels, père (Sir Marc Isambard) et fils (Isambard Kingdom); more on them in a future post.
The Mayflower is so named because it marks the spot on the Thames River (Rotherhithe) where the Mayflower ship so tied to the American Thanksgiving story was constructed. We visited on a cool day, but there were heaters on a patio/deck overlooking the Thames, so we had our lunch and pint outside. You have to love a place with a chalkboard warning that your feet may get wet at high tide. Had the day been nastier, no doubt we would have been fighting other customers for a spot near the wood-burning fireplace. Our meals came from a kitchen devoted to good food; we had a melt-in-mouth vegetable strudel and an intriguingly spiced pork, lentil and vegetable combo.
The one pub repeat we had was The Red Lion. Now, there are many “Red Lion” pubs in London. This is the one on Parliament Street, the southern extension of Whitehall, which runs north into Trafalgar Square. We ended up there for a half-pint / pint after our visit to the Churchhill War Rooms before heading elsewhere for dinner, but then returned there for lunch later after our extended visit to Westminster Abbey.
By then, near the end of our trip, I had reverted to my usual glass of wine with a holiday lunch rather than a pint. Even my beloved, who is an aficionado of taps and IPAs, declared that he was “beered out” by the end of our journey. But that won’t prevent us from pouring over our “Great Pubs” book and dreaming of the future times when we can nestle into a dark wooden London pub booth, after a long day of touring, and nurse a restorative pint to set all right with the world, again.
Main photo of Kelley Teahen at the lower bar of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese: Chris Moorehead.