One of the side-effects of Britain’s otherwise brilliant beer renaissance (see our list of great beer pubs) is that choice of tipple has taken centre stage when choosing a boozer, often trumping less fashionable qualities like atmosphere and heritage. But never fear: for those who like their pint to come with a bit of backstory, there are historic pubs scattered throughout nearby Soho and Covent Garden, and there’s a particularly high concentration of them around Fleet Street, on the western fringe of the City. Prepare for tales of bare-knuckle boxing, Dutch sailors and dancing monarchs…
The Lamb and Flag
Now owned by London brewing giant Fullers, this two-floor Covent Garden pub has a long and colourful history – it claims Charles Dickens as a former patron, and was notorious for bare-knuckle boxing in … when it was unappetisingly known as the ‘Bucket of Blood’. It’s Grade II listed, and although the exterior has been updated the interior still smacks of the 17th Century. There’s a nice collection of vintage photos and press cuttings downstairs, and more seating – of the basic, unpadded variety – in the upstairs Dryden Room.
No-frills Yorkshire-based brewery Samuel Smith divides punters, but one thing everyone agrees on is its commitment to preserving classic pub interiors. The Princess Louise is probably the most impressive of its London pubs – there may be older ones (this is a relative young’un, built in 1872) but there no better examples of a Victorian-era boozer. It’s a warren of partitioned spaces surrounding a central bar of elaborately carved dark wood, and the tiling, the mirrors and even the ‘facilities’ are period. An upstairs room offers much-needed extra seating, but lacks the character of the lower floor.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
Another Samuel Smith haunt, this time on the fringes of the City. But the Cheshire couldn’t be more different from the Princess Louise, featured above. Dating back to the 17th Century – the 16th Century original was rebuilt after the Great Fire of London – it occupies a series of gloomily atmospheric chambers off a Fleet Street alleyway. Don’t expect much by way of decoration or central heating; exposed brick vaults, wooden benches and open fires are the order of the day. A no-nonsense menu offers big sandwiches and pies.
Ye Olde Mitre Tavern
It may not be the easiest to find, but track down the Mitre and you’ll discover the kind of British pub tourists dream of. Cosy and wood-panelled, it’s so perfect it regularly features in TV and film productions – look out for it in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch. And on sheer age, it takes some beating: originally built in 1546, it claims Elizabeth I among its former patrons – there’s even a charming story about her dancing round a cherry tree in the pub’s pretty courtyard. With a good range of ales and some hearty pub grub, this is the whole package.
From 1685 to 1890 this was the site of the Horse and Dolphin, a coaching inn famous for its association with US slave turned bare-knuckle boxer Bill Richmond (aka ‘The Black Terror’). By the turn of the century it had been rebuilt and was being run as an oyster house by a retired Dutch sailor named Papa De Hem – who sowed the seeds of the Low Countries-themed hangout you see today, and gave his name to the establishment in the process. A motley band of poets, gangsters and spies have drunk here over the years, and it was an unofficial headquarters for the Dutch resistance during World War II. A great range of continental brews and lashings of history? Count us in.
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