Cosy, informal and often at the heart of the local community, the historic British pub is a bona fide institution. And in the nation’s capital there’s more of them than you can shake a stick at. From old ale houses frequented by notorious highwaymen and literary greats, to pubs positioned on the jumping off point for America’s pilgrims; forget swanky cocktail bars and overpriced clubs, a London pub crawl can see you follow in the footsteps of drinking history. And these 5 old-style boozers are guaranteed to serve up a pint full of atmosphere and old world charm, along with your beer…
Spaniards Inn, Hampstead
A feature of Hampstead Heath since 1585 – although it didn’t become a pub for another 150 years – the Spaniards Inn has earned a place in the history books thanks to an array of legends and high-profile historic connections.
A go-to for some of the most famous names in the literary world, the inn has seen the likes of John Keats, Bram Stoker, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, William Blake, Joshua Reynolds, John Constable, Mary Shelley, Lord Byron and Evelyn Waugh, quaff a drink or two. Not only that, but its former patrons have immortalised the drinking hole – Dickens in his “The Pickwick Papers” and Bram Stoker in “Dracula.” John Keats reportedly wrote “An Ode to a Nightingale” here. But perhaps its most known association is with infamous highwayman, Dick Turpin. According to local legend, the famed highwayman was born at the inn and later used it as a base for his criminal operations. There’s a bar in the pub named in his honour, which features a framed ball from one of his pistols hanging above it and his spectre is said to haunt the inn after dark.
Nowadays the characterful 16th century inn is something of a country out within the city. During the summer months its hardens can accommodate roughly 300 people and its low beams, roaring fires and dark panelling make it undeniably cosy come evening.
The Punch Bowl, Mayfair
One of Mayfair’s oldest pubs, the Punch Bowl has a longstanding association with the rich and famous. Originally built in 1729, the Grade II listed pub has retained its charming, period interior, from the dog-leg staircase and paneling, to the original fireplaces.
While a hotspot for the capital’s well-to-do for 300 years, the watering hole really made a name for itself in 2008 when film director Guy Ritchie and his then-wife, Madonna, bought it for a reported 2.5 million pounds. Since that time the likes of David Beckham, James Corden, Robert Downey Jr, Sophie Dahl, Geri Halliwell, Kevin Spacey, Leonardo DiCaprio, Justin Timberlake and princes William and Harry have all passed through its doors.
Though the “Sherlock Holmes” director sold the pub three years ago, its celebrity clientele continue to stop by on a regular basis and today guests can choose from a range of great British ales, alongside express gastropub meals and fine dining in the in-house restaurant, alongside private bookings in the intimate, 16th-century saloon-styled, ‘Club’ room.
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Prince Alfred, Maida Vale
Tucked away a few minutes from London’s Little Venice – a picturesque series of canals and waterside cafes and pubs – the Prince Alfred is a pretty, time capsule of Victorian London.
Built in the 1850s, the Grade II listed public house is the only pub in the city from that era to have retained its original ‘snob screens.’ A feature of upmarket Victorian pubs, these glass panels could be revolved giving access to the bar staff to order drinks offering privacy to their ‘better’ customers. And by no means are these unique screens the only period detail remaining, there’s also masses of beautiful carved woodwork to admire.
History aside, the Prince Albert ticks plenty other British boxes: great local beers, a warm, old fashioned, atmosphere and simple – yet very tasty – pub grub.
The Mayflower, Rotherhithe
Boasting a deck overlooking the Thames and a spectacular view of London Bridge, a pint drank in the Mayflower is akin to stepping back in time to 16th century London.
Established in 1550 as The Shippe – making it the oldest pub on the River Thames – the pub was rebuilt as the Spread Eagle in 1780 before being rechristened as The Mayflower in 1957. Its present moniker references the fact that its nearby landing steps were where America’s Pilgrim Fathers set sail aboard The Mayflower Ship in 1620.
Today, its nautical history is reflected in the abundance of seafaring memorabilia cluttering the ceilings and sideboards, amidst ecclesiastical wooden pews and roaring open fires.
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The Grapes, Limehouse
Established in 1583, The Grapes is one of the oldest pubs in London. Charles Dickens was a regular and was so enamoured with the place that he even made reference to it in his novel, “Our Mutual Friend” (“A tavern of dropsical appearance… long settled down into a state of hale infirmity.”) Indeed, the ancient drinking den has also been immortalised in Oscar Wilde’s “A Picture of Dorian Gray” and by Arthur Conan Doyle, who sent his most famous character, Sherlock Holmes, to the pub in search of opium.
Its famous connections continue to this today, primarily in the form of celebrity landlord, Sir Ian McKellen, who bought the pub five years ago. A statue of his “Lord of the Rings” character, Gandalf, stands in the corner and if you’re lucky, you’ll encounter the man himself propping up the bar.
American Bar, Strand
While not as old as many of the other contenders in this list (it dates from the 1900s) the American Bar at London’s prestigious Savoy Hotel definitely ranks as one of the most famous. The drinking den for British royalty – Princess Margaret was a regular – alongside an A to Z of greats from Hollywood’s golden age, including Charlie Chaplin, Grace Kelly, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford and Frank Sinatra, the watering hole even found a firm fan in the late Winston Churchill who kept a bottle of whisky behind the bar.
But its A-list roster isn’t the main reason behind the bar’s prestige. Nope, it was the resident bartender during the 1930s, Harry Craddock, whose cocktail creations were compiled into the now legendary “Savoy Cocktail Book”, which is still regarded today as the mixologists bible. And now – following a $440 million hotel-wide refurb – the famed bar is even more popular than ever, luring in a crowd of locals and international visitors alike.
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