London's Historic Pints and Pubs

photo by Andy
photo by Andy

Like every city in the UK, London has no shortage of public houses both historic and haunted. And as I do any time I'm in a city in the UK, I vowed to cram as many of them as I could into one increasingly tipsy tour of the town's pubs – no fancy cocktails here, and the only dress code was a ban on partisan football gear, lest they cause a bit of spirited fisticuffs betwixt boosters of rival clubs.

The Anchor

34 Bankside, Southwark, London, SE1 9EF

anchor
anchor

Bankside was, for a time, the central entertainment district of London, the place you went to indulge in anything you weren’t allowed to do in the City of London proper. This means lords and ragamuffins, queens and con men all descended on Bankside for a night that could consist of seeing the latest Christopher Marlowe play, drinking oneself silly at a pub like The Anchor, or consorting with ladies of easy leisure in one of Bankside’s numerous brothels. The pub is located as sort of a nexus point between an assortment of other sites, including the Shakespeare Globe Theatre, and the Rose Playhouse. The Anchor has undergone considerable expansion, though the core pub remains largely intact and dates back to 1676, when what had been there before was severely damaged by fire. Additions and expansions have been tacked on throughout the centuries, resulting in a pub that is equal parts watering hole and confounding maze. Decor varies from room to room, century to century, and you can get a lovely view of the Thames. Tom Cruise even has himself a pint in The Anchor in one of the Mission: Impossible movies. The Clink, an old prison that now has a sort of half-assed museum in it, sits inside an old stone tunnel that has been lovingly adorned with flickering lights and gruesome corpses dangling from cages, in case you need to set the mood.

What to Drink: London Pride

If you’re touring pubs, you have to grab a pint of London Pride. So I’d been told, and I am nothing if not obedient when someone names something alcoholic and says, “Darling, you simply must try this!” London Pride is made at Fuller’s Brewery in Chiswick, London, which has been cranking out the brew for lo these past hundred and sixty years now. London Pride offers a thirsty drinker a well-balanced complexity and depth of taste, made from three different types of hops but brewed so that the hops don’t dominate the malt.

The George Inn

77 Borough High St. Southwark, London SE1 1NH

Next up on the south bank list was London’s only surviving galleried coach inn. Back in the day, when man traveled by horse and carriage, you obviously needed a place to store your horse and carriage when you stopped for a bite or an evening’s sleep. Coach inns were pretty much killed off with the spread of railway travel, and most of them disappeared from the London landscape. The George Inn, located in what was at one time one of the busiest intersections of travel, has survived and looks much the way it did when a fellow like Charles Dickens would retire to the place for a quick pint. Nearby is the courtyard but not the building that was once the location of the Tabard galleried coach inn, made famous in 1388 as the tavern that serves as starting point for the journey of the characters in Geoffery Chaucer’s damnable piece of

medieval filth and moral corruption known as The Canterbury Tales. These days, the courtyard isn’t much to look at, but it’s still nice to imagine yourself walking the same cobblestones as Chaucer or his bawdy handmaid. Both The George and the Tabard were destroyed in the 1676 fire that swept through Southwark and promptly rebuilt. But the Tabard was demolished for good during the 19th Century, while The George and its handsome balconied galleries overlooking the courtyard survive to this day. Parts of it were destroyed and used as a train depot, but the beautiful south building remains intact and is now protected by the National Trust. Charles Dickens preferred the Coffee Room (now the Middle Bar) when he was jotting out various works about ragamuffins offering to shine yah boots, guv’ner or perhaps requesting that please sir, might they have a bit more gruel?

What to Drink: Abbot Ale

Brewed in the Suffolk town of Bury St Edmunds, Abbot Ale is the Greene King Brewery’s flagship brand. Abbot Ale is brewed with pale crystal and amber malts to give it an appealing color and rich, malty taste with floral tones and a distant hint of fruit.

The Mayflower

117 Rotherhithe Street, London SE16 4NF

mayflower
mayflower

Originally known simply as The Shippe, a boat captained by one Christopher Jones set out from a dock by this quaint and cozy pub one spring day in 1620, carrying on board a group of Puritans who I assume did not wander into the bar for a couple pints before their departure. The Puritans were departing England to escape religious persecution and establish a home for themselves in the so-called New World. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Anyway, after depositing his pilgrim passengers near a large rock in what would become Plymouth, Massachusetts, Jones returned to the Rotherhithe dock, dying in 1622 and being buried in St. Mary’s Churchyard, just a few quick steps from the doors of The Shippe. A century later, the Shippe was renamed The Spread Eagle and Crown, which sounds like a particularly complex position from the Kama Sutra. Restoration of the pub occurred in 1957, and apparently that lot of Puritans who sailed on Jones' ship, The Mayflower, had made something of themselves by then, and so the pub was rechristened The Mayflower in their honor. Word has it that planks from the original Mayflower were even used during the 1700s reconstruction of the pub. As to which planks those actually are, I don’t know, but The Mayflower is a cozy, inviting place to sit back for a bite or a pint.

What to Drink: Spitfire

I admit that I’ll drink pretty much anything named after a weapon or military aircraft, so I was happy to run across Shepherd Neame’s Spitfire, originally brewed in 1990 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, which you can learn about from any decent history book or, better perhaps, from the movie Battle of Britain. Spitfire is created from a blend of English malts, which dominate the flavor and mix well with a hint of toffee and citrus spice that comes from the hops. Kentish hops, to be precise, which is fitting since the Battle of Britain took place over those very hops fields.

Ten Bells

84 Commercial Street, London E1 6LY

tenbells
tenbells

On the night of November 9, 1888, a prostitute by the name of Marie Kelly left a pub called The Ten Bells on the corner of Commercial and Fournier Streets, presumably to ply her trade with someone she’d met in the bar. She was young and still had her looks, which may explain why she was able to afford a room in which to practice her craft rather than do it in a dark alley or other such popular place for men to couple with women of ill repute. Whether or not that potential customer was Jack the Ripper we’ll likely never know, but it was with the Ripper she had her next appointment, and it was in her room just a stone’s throw from The Ten Bells that Saucy Jack, who himself had no doubt been sitting in The Ten Bells, murdered and mutilated his final (confirmed) victim. The Ten Bells was eventually purchased by a proprietor who gave it the subtle tourist trap name Jack the Ripper before it was renovated and reverted to its original name in the 1970s. The Ten Bells pub is always a key stop in any Ripper tour, and that’s gone from being an attractive way to bring in new clients to being a pain in the ass, since most of the people on the tours are coming in to gawk and take some photos, but not to buy any drinks or crisps. These days, The Ten Bells is a perfectly average single-room neighborhood pub. The renovation that took place during the seventies means that very little of the original decor remains. But if you want to tour sinister spots in London, you have to stop at The Ten Bells. Be a sport, and if you go in, buy a drink or two.

What to Drink: Bombardier

Well’s Bombardier has been called the definitive English bitter. It drinks rich but light, with complex fruity flavor and a hint of malt and caramel, as well as a slightly spicy scent. Apparently, improperly cared for Bombardier can turn pretty ugly, but properly stored and properly served, it’s quite a treat.

Prospect of Whitby

57 Wapping Wall, London E1W 3SH

prospectwhitby
prospectwhitby

Prospect of Whitby was built in 1520 on the banks of the Thames and, by the 17th century it had become one of the most notorious haunts of smugglers, pirates, rakehells, ne’r-do-wells, rascals, rapscallions — you name it, and they were probably drinking at the place that became known as Devil’s Tavern. Rumor — probably started by the pub itself some time after the fact — locates the infamous Execution Dock right outside the pub’s back door. Execution Dock is where particularly unsavory characters were executed in a manner befitting their lives. They were lashed to a leg of the dock during low tide and left there to drown when the tide came in. Legendary pirate Captain Kidd met his end on that dock, as did many others. Of course, not far down the street is a pub called The Captain Kidd that claims to be the location of Execution Dock. Prospect of Whitby is a spectacular pub on which to close the night. Deep brown wood with a beautiful pewter top bar highlight the large main area, and chairs and couches strewn about give you a lovely view of the river — as well as a noose and gallows, just to establish mood.

What to Drink: Old Speckled Hen

Ending the night with an old standby. Old Speckled Hen is an English pale ale that delivers big toffee, malt, and caramel alongside fruit and hops. A perfect pub pint. Also, you should probably have some water. It's late.