My Favorite London Pubs
London is full of pubs -- little neighborhood gathering places, grand old gin palaces, historic ancient inns, and everything in between. Visiting pubs is a wonderful way to meet the real people of London and enjoy some good conversation. If you're lucky, you'll find a "local" that welcomes you and where you'll feel at home. My local is the Fox & Hounds.
Back Portion of the Pub
You Never Know Who You'll Meet!
THE FOX & HOUNDS
Known to regulars as "the Fox," this is a wonderful but tiny pub near Sloane Square, on the border of Belgravia and Chelsea. Like many London pubs, it began its existence as a home, where the residents sold beer through their front window. As time went on, the pub took over the living room, then the entire ground floor. The current landlady still lives in a small flat above the pub. It's exactly the kind of place that visitors search for when they want to find a "real" pub, and there aren't many of them left.
The first time I came into the pub, I met the landlady, and we were soon the best of friends. Within a week, I knew all the regulars and was considered one of the family. When I lived in London, I went to the Fox every day, and when I go back on holiday now, I normally spend almost all of my time there. I've done all the touristy things, and now for me, being in London is about the people.
Plus, the pub is full of surprises. Because it's close to Sloane Square, home of the Royal Court Theatre and Cadogan Hall, musicians from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and actors from the theatre are frequent visitors. It has become a joke that I'm always about an hour late to meet celebrities. I've missed J.K. Rowling, Harrison Ford, and several others by just minutes. And I missed former regulars such as Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, and Maggie Smith by a few decades (although I did see Maggie Smith -- famous to a new generation from her role in Harry Potter -- on Sloane Square one day). But I did meet Dr. Suresh from "Heroes," which was great. He's even more handsome in person, and a very nice guy.
I hope the Fox is there forever. Unfortunately, many small pubs close every year, because the value of real estate in London makes it difficult for them to survive. The property is so valuable, many pubs are purchased by individuals and converted into homes, completing the cycle of when the pubs started out as homes where people just wanted to make some extra money by selling beer out of their front windows.
The Hand & Shears
THE HAND & SHEARS PUB
The Hand & Shears is one of the most historic pubs in London. A pub has stood on this site since at least the 12th Century, when the nearby Priory Church of St. Bartholomew's the Great was founded. The pub was the site of the court of the annual Cloth Fair where, beginning in 1133, textile merchants from all over Europe came to sell their wares. The fair was opened by the Lord Mayor cutting a length of cloth, which is the precursor to our ribbon-cutting ceremonies of today, at the site of the pub. The last fair was held in 1855, when Victorian sensibilities called for it to be shut down, because of the level of debauchery that apparently took place there.
The court at the Hand & Shears tried cases where cloth merchants were accused of cutting their cloth short, or of folding the cloth so that imperfections were hidden from the buyer. If a merchant was judged guilty of such deception, he could be flogged or put into the stocks.
The pub is divided into four sections, one of which is quite cozy and seats only eight people. During the summer, the windows and doors are thrown open, and it's a lovely place to enjoy a pint or a glass of wine during the long evenings of the gorgeous English summer. In the winter, it's warm and inviting to sit by the fire, and the staff is friendly and welcoming. The area around the pub is full of history and surprises, and the Hand & Shears is a great place to take a break, get a bite to eat, and plan your next move.
Down the road is another nice pub, the Rising Sun, where it is said that graverobbers used to meet with medical students and bargain over the price of a fresh corpse. The Rising Sun is directly across Cloth Fair from the graveyard at St. Bartholomew, so it is likely that the grisly rumors are true. And unlike many pubs in the area, the Rising Sun is open on weekends.
Ye Olde Mitre
YE OLDE MITRE
Ye Olde Mitre is the ultimate hidden pub. Once you find it, you'll be glad you made the effort. In a tiny alleyway off of Hatton Garden, the pub was originally established in 1546 (although rebuilt in 1772), and was visited by Queen Elizabeth I herself. There is even a cherry tree preserved in the corner, around which legend says she danced the Maypole.
The pub is a series of nooks and crannies, where you feel as though you have gone back in time. While there is not a full dinner menu, there are plenty of traditional bar snacks. The pub is closed on the weekends (as are many pubs in the City, because of the lack of business), and it closes at 10:00 p.m. during the week.
Facing the pub, to the right is a passageway leading to Ely Place, and the T-shaped bar at the entrance to the alley was originally installed to prevent horsemen from racing down the alley and mowing down pedestrians. In Ely Place is the Church of St. Etheldreda, which is a marvelous place to visit. The oldest Catholic church in England, it was originally built in 1290, and is only one of two buildings in London that dates from the time of King Edward I.
Church of St. Etheldreda
YE OLDE CHESHIRE CHEESE
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese has been a traditional alehouse since it was rebuilt in 1667 after the Great Fire of London. Even before that, there had been a pub on the site since at least 1538, and the cellars are thought to be remnants from the 13th Century Carmelite monastery that originally inhabited the site.
Although the pub entrance is down a small alleyway with the picturesque name of Wine Office Court, there is an old-fashioned pub lantern on Fleet Street that lights the way. The pub is a rabbit warren of rooms large and small, nooks and crannies, and low ceilings. You should particularly watch your head as you head down the stairs to the loo.
In the wintertime, the small bar to the right as you walk into the pub is made cozy by a warm fire. However, there are other bars farther down the hallway, and more downstairs and upstairs, along with a more formal restaurant across from the first bar (check out the stuffed parrot there). I like to sit in the passageway between the front bar and back bar, and watch the people who happen by.
The pub is very well known, and is a favorite of tourists. But unlike a lot of tourist attraction pubs, no effort has been made to pretty up the place or cater to anyone other than those looking for a traditional pub experience. The food in the pub area is very good, particularly the soups. I have never eaten in the restaurant, but hope to give it a try soon..
Some of the more famous regulars in the pub have been Charles Dickens, Samuel Johnson (whose home around the corner is open for tours), Voltaire, and visitors such as Mark Twain. Although the newspaper trade has largely deserted Fleet Street, it's still a fascinating area. St. Bride's Church is nearby, the spire of which is the model for our modern wedding cakes, and it is well worth a visit both for its lovely Christopher Wren interior and the basement museum, which chronicles the history of the church from its beginnings as a Roman temple to modern times.
Front Door From the Best Seat in the Pub
Dr. Johnson's House
THE OLD BANK OF ENGLAND
The Old Bank of England is situated right next to the Royal Courts of Justice and across the street from the original Twinings Tea Shop. It has a breath-taking interior, with soaring ceilings, an ornate four-sided bar, and gorgeous woodwork and lighting. The food is also good, with a wide variety of savoury pies and other treats.
The place is jammed at lunch hour and in the evenings, when business people congregate there after work. If you would like a more relaxed experience, it's a great place to have afternoon tea. The pub is relatively empty from 2:00 to 5:00, and is a very pleasant place to spend a leisurely couple of hours resting your feet and plotting your next excursion. As with most pubs in the business district, the Old Bank of England is closed on weekends.
If you cross Fleet Street in front of the Royal Courts of Justice next door, you'll find yourself in front of Twinings Tea Shop, which is a lovely place to find gifts to take home, both for others and for yourself. The alleyway to the right of the tea shop leads you to the Devereaux Pub, another of my favorites, and on to Middle Temple Hall, the Temple Church, and the winding alleyways of the legal enclaves of London.