How about taking an educational pub-crawl through London's booze history?
Along with most of London, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese was destroyed in the 1666 Great Fire of London but was rebuilt in 1667. Approached through a narrow alleyway (Wine Office Court) the Cheshire Cheese beckons you into yesteryear. At the entrance, a board lists the reigns of the fifteen monarchs through which this grand old pub has survived.
Beyond the entrance door are two rooms. The smaller is a very dark paneled bar whose entrance is guarded with a sign indicating that only gentlemen would be served. Michelle Buckley, my knowledgeable Insider-London guide, pointed out a stuffed parrot sitting on a narrow shelf above the bar. “That's Polly. She died in the early 1900s but before then, for forty plus years, she would screech obscenities the sailors had taught her, at everyone who entered.” Polly's death was announced on the BBC and obituaries appeared in newspapers all over the world. The Chop Room across the corridor is reserved for diners. Here high backed settees have been arranged back-to-back to create small booths. With its wooden interior, dark nooks and crannies and sawdust covered floors, you can visualize rowdy medieval punters toasting one another with their pewter mugs of ale. There's a warren of narrow corridors and staircases, leading to numerous bars and dining rooms—like those leading down to the cellar bars and a series of vaults. I sat with Michelle in one such honey-colored stone room, with our respective half pints and listened intently as she spoke of the pub's two cavernous split-level cellars and their link to the Carmelite Monastery in Henry VIII's era. She also spoke of how drinks were spiked back then—especially by the press gang who'd surreptitiously be recruiting for the Royal Navy.
The Old Bell Tavern
In 1672, when architect Sir Christopher Wren, was constructing St. Bride's Church, he came up with the brilliant idea of offering his masons accommodations and entertainment at his adjoining Old Bell Tavern. Thus the wages he'd put in their pockets would find their way back into his. The Old Bell Tavern has a long association with Fleet Street's printers and is known as the spiritual home of British journalism. It's a cozy, informal pub full of character and a colorful plate glass window where patrons would have their jugs or bottles filled. Often they'd send their children to do the task but in 1901 a Parliamentary Act was passed ordering that a child doing so should be over fourteen years of age (there was no age limitation on alcohol consumption in medieval times). The Old Bell Tavern is what taverns used to look like. At that time it was required that wine barrels be put on display thus ensuring its patrons that it had not been diluted with olive oil or arsenic. The tavern's back door leads into the tranquil courtyard of St. Brides Church. The design of the church spire is said to have been the inspiration for the world's first tiered wedding cake.
The gin craze
In an attempt to boost the economy, William III encouraged people to distill gin in their homes and sell it, which resulted in every fourth home in the slum area (between Tottenham Court Road and Covent Garden) becoming a gin distillery. There were no laws regulating the distilling process, there were no taxes and no age restriction as to whom could drink it. With more than seven million gallons consumed in 1750, the gin craze nearly wiped out all of London. In fact, more people died from overindulgence than from the Plague. The government introduced a gin tax and a few decades later, in order to encourage people back into drinking establishments, gin palaces started popping up. The Crown and Sugar Loaf on Fleet Street is a gleaming and pristine example of a shining Victorian gin palace with mirrors, hardwood panels and elegant fireplaces matched to a mosaic stone floor.
London has many hidden secrets and when you get to discover some of them it's quite a thrill.
Blackfriars is quaint, art nouveau, wedge-shaped pub jammed against the railway station at Blackfriars. It was built in 1875 near the site of a thirteenth-century Dominican Priory, which gives the area its name and was the inspiration for the pub's design. The exterior of the pub has jutting wrought iron signs for each bar and the pub's name is proudly displayed in mosaic tiles. A statue of a large, laughing friar stands guard above the main door.
The immediate impression on entering is that of an extravagantly ornate church, or scaled down cathedral, every inch decorated in marble, mosaic or bas-relief sculpture—it's a work of art. The walls, clad in green, red and cream marble, are covered with illustrations of merry monks. Above the fireplace, a large bas-relief bronze depicts frolicking friars singing carols and playing instruments. Another called 'Saturday Afternoon' shows them gathering grapes and harvesting apples. Three low arches lead into a smaller bar which is like a chapel—this was added after the First World War. Below a beautiful arched mosaic ceiling are mottos of wisdom, such as, ‘finery is foolery' and ‘don't advertise, tell a gossip.' Even the light fittings are carved wooden monks carrying yokes on their shoulders, from which the lights hang. Blackfriars has good real ales and what looks to be a good pub grub too. I highly recommend a visit ‘off-peak' so you can get to know it a little better.
The “History of Drinking and Pubs” walking tour is ideal for those who love history—and a good pint. The tour operates weekly on Thursday nights, but also privately on arrangement. See their website for details.
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Text and photos by Cindy-Lou Dale