“Would I were in an alehouse in London! I would give all my fame for a pot of ale and safety.” – Henry V: Shakespeare
No one knows London until he knows its pubs. Londoners could struggle along without Big Ben or Tower Bridge or the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, and they would complain if someone stole Nelson’s column, but life would go on. But London without pubs? Unthinkable.
The pub is a place to meet old friends and sometimes make new ones, a place to talk, to argue, to set the world to rights. It is a place to be alone in if you choose, a place to relax in and a place to take the edge of the day. An hour in a pub can cheer you up or calm you down. There is something very reassuring about a good pub – it is always on your side. And London is full of them.
There have been alehouses of a kind in England for well over a thousand years. When the Romans arrived, they found their new subjects slipping off in the evening for a quick one at the local ale-hut, a noisome breed of hovel run by women of ferocious aspect known as alewives. The Romans did not approve of the wild ways of the natives and built their own taverns for the convenience of travelers on their newly constructed roads, which became popular and lively venues for evening entertainment during Elizabethan times. Strolling players, jugglers, tumblers and troupes performed in their courtyards and only pubs with an approved Royal seal of approval could legally operate under the Queen’s orders.
Such pubs were a centre for London social life from the start and by the 14th century, there were more than 350 taverns and alehouses in the city, low dens for gaming and cockfighting, fighting, thieving, and drinking.
Many of London’s great pubs were destroyed in the Great Fire of London 1666, save for a few such as The Hoop and Grapes in Aldgate High Street, which has survived the test of time to become the oldest licensed house in London. Other pubs to survive the fire included Olde Dr. Butler’s Head in Coleman Street, which also remains and is used by stockbrokers and businessmen from London’s financial district.
The Prospect of Whitby missed the Great Fire and is one of London’s most famous and traditional pubs, as well as one of the most difficult to find. Built in the reign of Henry VIII, it was then known as the Devil’s Tavern, which was building burnt down in the eighteenth century and replaced by the current Prospect that stands today. The Prospect stands in a maze of warehouses in the heart of London’s dockland region and is a typical riverside pub of the period with balconies that overlooks the River Thames.
Other notable pubs that have made the history books are the George Inn in Borough High Street, which is London’s last galleried coaching inn, the Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street, whose cellar dates back to a 13th century monastery, and the Lamb and Flag in Covent Garden, which is housed in a building dating back to the time of the Tudors.
Photos: Bikeworldtravel, Natalya Okorokova, Botond Horvath, mikecphoto, Bikeworldtravel / Shutterstock.com