Where do bibulous bibliophiles hang out?
Well, there’s a host of pubs with literary associations across our city. They may have provided settings for scenes in novels, inspired lines of glorious verse, or simply have been where writers got hammered.
Some are closed and gone forever… like the Crown in Charing Cross Road, the decadent pub of the late Victorian era and a magnet for the likes of Oscar Wilde and the quintessential English Decadent Ernest Dowson, who in 1896 famously urged us to seize the day:
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.
Dowson, like many a writer before and since, believed that bars could be sites of inspiration – we’ll drink to that — and he scribbled away at his verses in them.
Here’s a wet-your-whistle-stop tour of a few literary watering holes that still very much exist, so you can grab some liquid inspiration when you’re in the area, or, if you’re up for the challenge, zig-zag London on a crawl between them all in one day!
Let’s start by going way back in time to…
… the George Inn, in Borough High Street, a Grade I listed public house established in the medieval period and now owned and leased by the National Trust. The original George burned down and was rebuilt in 1677. Back then there were many galleried coaching inns like it, but the George is the only one in the city to survive.
One more famous stood adjacent to the George, on the south side: it was called the Tabard and it was from here, in 1388, the pilgrims set out in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales:
Bifil that in that seson on a day,
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay,
Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage,
At nyght were come into that hostelrye
Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye
Of sondry folk, by áventure y-falle
In felaweshipe, and pilgrimes were they alle,
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde.
The Tabard was demolished in the late 19th century.
Charles Dickens frequented the George and referenced it in both Our Mutual Friend and Little Dorrit. But for a place with plenty of Dickens references, cross the river to…
… the George and Vulture in Castle Court, a chophouse rather than a pub these days. Dickens spent many an hour here, and it’s mentioned frequently in The Pickwick Papers:
“The man in the brown coat, with the cabalistic documents in his pocket, was no other than our old acquaintance Mr Jackson, of the house of Dodson & Fogg, Freeman’s Court, Cornhill. Instead of returning to the office whence he came, however, he bent his steps direct to Sun Court, and walking straight into the George and Vulture, demanded to know whether one Mr Pickwick was within.”
Just as it was the usual meeting place of Mr Pickwick and his friends, the George and Vulture has hosted meetings of the City Pickwick Club since it was founded in 1909. Members take the names of characters in the book; they enjoy “wanities” (drinks), eat their “wittles”, hear speakers and toast “the Immortal Memory of Charles Dickens”.
Dickens was a regular too at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in Fleet Street – yes, he gets about, does our Charlie — with a favoured chair by the right of the fireplace on the ground floor. The pub appears in A Tale of Two Cities when Darnay recovers here after his acquittal.
Frequented also by such luminaries as Mark Twain, Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins, Thackeray and Chesterton – as well as Samuel Johnson, who lived just around the corner – “the Cheese” is a veritable warren of a pub, with many small, panelled rooms on several floors. It pops up The Dynamiter by Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife Fanny, as well as in stories by Anthony Trollope and P G Wodehouse.
R Austin Freeman, in his 1912 detective novel The Mystery of 31 New Inn, describes a luncheon at the pub and mentions the beef-steak pudding. Indeed, the pub was renowned for its hefty puddings, a view corroborated by Agatha Christie. In The Million Dollar Bond Robbery (1923), supersleuth Hercule Poirot dined with a new client at the Cheshire Cheese, and there was praise for “the excellent steak and kidney pudding of the establishment”.
In the early 1890s, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese was the HQ for the Rhymers’ Club founded by W B Yeats and Ernest Rhys. A cluster of poets met here, ate a good meal, sunk a few tankards, lit up their pipes and recited their verse to each other. Some members took their drinking very seriously. The aforementioned Ernest Dowson, along with other hedonistic Rhymers, formed a “splinter group”, a drinking club called the “Bingers”.
With alcohol hastening the deaths and ruination of too many Rhymers, Yeats later spoke of them as the “tragic generation”. Published in 1914, his poem “The Grey Rock” begins nostalgically by addressing them:
Poets with whom I learned my trade,
Companions of the Cheshire Cheese…
Down the road at 22, Ye Olde Cock Tavern is the narrowest building in Fleet Street and the narrowest pub in London. It’s Grade II listed, dating back to 1549. It was forced to close in 1665 because of the Great Plague but reopened in 1668. It’s had to do the same during the coronavirus pandemic; if history doesn’t repeat itself, it certainly rhymes.
Pepys wrote about the place in his diary, arriving here by boat and dining on beer and lobster. And Oliver Goldsmith – who often had an ale here with Dr Johnson — loved it so much that he now frequents it in death. Buried behind the Cock, at Temple Church, his ghost returns on occasion to scare punters and bar staff.
A prestigious poet not normally associated with pubs, Alfred, Lord Tennyson drank here, and, in homage, penned the immortal lines:
O Plump head-waiter at the Cock
To which I most resort,
How goes the time? ‘Tis five o’clock
Go fetch a pint of port.
The pub gets a mention in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, when Orlando relates drunkenly meeting a gaggle of 16th century literary figures: “He could remember he said, a night at the Cock Tavern in Fleet Street when Kit Marlowe was there and some others.”
Virginia Woolf knew the pub well. For a time, when she and Leonard were newly-weds living a short step away, they came to eat here every night. Neither Woolf was renowned for their cooking! The Woolfs, of course, are normally associated with…
The pub to make a beeline for in Bloomsbury is the Lamb in Lamb’s Conduit Street.
It was Dickens’ local when he lived in nearby Doughty Street where the Charles Dickens Museum is. In their happier days, it was a favourite of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, married at the church in nearby Queen Square, and lodged at 18 Rugby Street.
We pass it on our new Bloomsbury Blast tour and we have been known to go for a drink there afterwards!
Let’s head to Soho now, the land of serious boozers.
The Coach and Horses, Greek Street, is a bit of a shrine to its most infamous patron, Jeffrey Bernard. A part-time Spectator columnist, and full-time gambler and drinker, Bernard was one of Soho’s most “colourful” characters until his death in 1997 – a death hastened, it has to be said, by a lifetime of alcohol abuse. Notoriously unreliable, Bernard often didn’t deliver the copy for his “Low Life” column, and the Spectator simply inserted “Jeffrey Bernard is unwell” in the space. This phrase provided the title for Keith Waterhouse’s 1989 play Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell; the Coach and Horses provides the setting, as Jeff finds himself locked in overnight and takes stock of his chequered life.
The French House in Dean Street is perhaps Soho’s best-known pub and a haunt of riotously hard-drinking writers like Brendan Behan and Dylan Thomas. It’s said that Dylan, inebriated to the point of carelessness, left behind his finished manuscript of Under Milk Wood on a seat in the pub — fortunately saved and returned by the landlord. Phew! But Dylan didn’t learn his lesson, he left the manuscript in two other pubs, once in New York and once again here. The third time it was discovered by his friend Doug Cleverdon.
“[Thomas] told me the names of half a dozen pubs, and said if he had not left it there he might have left it in a taxi.”
So Cleverdon went on a pub crawl — and when he got to the Swiss Tavern (now Compton’s) in Old Compton Street…
“I asked the barmaid whether anyone had found a script by Dylan Thomas (who was a fairly regular habitué). She looked under the counter, said ‘Here it is,’ and gave me the manuscript in its rather tattered folder.”
Dylan Thomas — who said “Cold beer is bottled God” — drank in many a London pub…
… including the Wheatsheaf, the other side of Soho Square in Rathbone Place, Fitzrovia, and it’s here he first met Caitlin Macnamara, an episode she recounts in her memoirs. She was in a relationship with the painter Augustus John at the time; undeterred, Dylan laid his head in her lap and proposed to her there and then. He was drunk, of course, but a year later they married.
The Wheatsheaf is one of a triumvirate of bohemian pubs in Fitzrovia that were a draw for artists and writers in the 1930s and 40s. Others include the Fitzroy Tavern in Charlotte Street and the Marquis of Granby over the road. It was a raucous world of artistic and political earnestness, and other habitués included George Orwell and Anthony Burgess. In fact, Burgess does a short survey of pubs in the area in his memoirs.
On our own St James’s Jaunt tour, we point out Dukes Hotel, where you might drink a “Vesper” cocktail, created by a former barman there with input from Ian Fleming. It’s the martini, “shaken, not stirred”, that Bond is trying to find a name for at the beginning of Casino Royale. St James’s is an area notorious for real spies too, and it was at the Red Lion, just off Jermyn Street, where the novelist Graham Greene drank regularly with his secret service boss, the infamous double-agent Kim Philby.
There’s also the Cavendish Hotel, made famous by Rosa Lewis, the self-made cockney cook who was the formidable proprietor of the hotel for fifty years, from 1902-1952, and dubbed the Duchess of Jermyn Street. It had a reputation for seediness, a place where it was known you could get a drink after hours – and perhaps the services of a prostitute. Rosa and her Cavendish were satirised in Evelyn Waugh’s 1930 novel Vile Bodies (e.g., hotel guests could expect to find in their room “an empty bottle of champagne and a crumpled camisole”), and Rosa never forgave Waugh for it. Today’s incarnation of the Cavendish bears no resemblance to the original in shape or reputation, though there’s a tribute or two to Rosa.
We also take in the Golden Lion, next to the site of the great St James’s Theatre. Oscar Wilde was among the illustrious rollcall of drinkers here, as both Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest were premiered at the theatre in the 1890s. Wilde famously declared, “There can be nothing more frequent than an occasional drink.”
Wilde and his decadent friends satisfied their cravings for that naughtiest of tipples, absinthe, aka the “Green Fairy”, at the Café Royal in Regent Street. “A glass of absinthe is as poetical as anything in the world,” he said. “What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?”
There. That’s enough for one day. And if you’re still standing at this point, very well done!
Posted by Mike