The Stories Behind London’s Greatest Pubs
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London and its pubs have been interwoven for centuries and the historical — not to mention architectural — significance of Britain’s watering holes is the subject of the forthcoming book Great Pubs of London, where 22 significant pubs are highlighted and celebrated. These haunts of wayward travelers and famous poets, some centuries-old, continue to feed the hearts, minds (and stomachs) of travelers across the pond. There’s a reason why visitors seem to manage to squeeze in a visit to a pub in between seeing Big Ben, the Tower of London and the like; the feel of London is quite tangible in a tavern. Below, a look at a handful of the remarkable pubs in this exclusive excerpt from the soon-to-be-published title:
Cittie of York
It has been claimed that a pub or alehouse has traded on this site since around 1430 — if that were true, and the original building still stood, it would make the Cittie of Yorke the oldest pub in London by a considerable margin. But like so many landmark pubs, it’s been home to different occupants over the centuries. The main bar was, and remains, the pièce de résistance, while its architects created a stunning interior in the style of the great hall of a Tudor mansion.
Historians will tell you it is the finest pub design anywhere in London — while the outside of the building is certainly striking, it does not prepare you for this astonishing interior. When The Blackfriar was remodeled, the interior was designed by sculptor Henry Poole, who, like the pub’s architect, was influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement. What he managed to create sent a shockwave through London’s art world.
The French House
The French House looks nothing like a London pub. That’s because for more than a century, everyone has tried to keep it looking like a very popular bar you’d find in the backstreets of Montparnasse in Paris. For most of the twentieth century, this pub’s official name was The York Minster. Its metamorphosis into “The French,” the name by which it is usually known colloquially and fondly, began in 1914 when its then owner, Berta Schmitt, sold the business to Victor Berlemont, an impressive individual who sported an enormous waxed mustache.
Virtually backing on to Highgate Cemetery, the burial place of Karl Marx, this delightful and very old London pub has all the hallmarks of a village inn. Long ago, of course, it was just that. What made The Flask particularly attractive was its elevated position, the clean air and the natural spring water. It was the water that gave it its name, because in the seventeenth century, the pub sold flasks made of clay or leather to store mineral water drawn from the many springs on this escarpment overlooking the city.
The Lamb is a treasure trove of mahogany panelling and a palace of etched glass and mirrors. And, although this conversion was undertaken in the late-nineteenth century, The Lamb was a London pub of note well before that, having opened its doors in 1720.
The Viaduct Tavern
In 1863, work began on the construction of the famous Holborn Viaduct, spanning the steep valley of the River Fleet and Holborn Hill. It was completed in 1869, and The Viaduct Tavern in Newgate opened the same year, its name celebrating this remarkable feat of engineering.
The Lamb and Flag
Tucked away in a cobbled alley in Covent Garden called Rose Street lies the very old, warm, cozy and ridiculously busy Lamb and Flag. Like most of London’s surviving early pubs, it has a small interior with little natural light. For most of its first 200 years of existence, lit simply by candlelight and later by gas lamps, The Lamb and Flag would have offered an almost sanctuary-like retreat from the harshness of life in the streets outside.
Great Pubs of London, by George Dailey with photos by Charlie Dailey, will be available on Amazon.com later this month.
What are some of your favorite pubs to visit in London? Tell us about them, below.
All images by Charlie Dailey.
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