London has some wonderful pubs. Arguably the Square Mile has some of the finest this city can offer. But if you’re bamboozled by the sheer number of drinking establishments per square foot and want to know where the really good ones are, then this could be just the blog you’re looking for! Just one thing – most pubs in this area close at the weekends, so this is ideally a weekday trail.
I’ve selected four of the most historic and atmospheric pubs in the City, and ensured there’s a decent stroll between them in order to stretch your legs and admire the extraordinary locale. Begining your walk from Barbican tube station, walk along Middle Street via Long Lane and Middle Street and you’ll shortly arrive at the first pub on your trail.
The Hand and Shears, 1 Middle Street. EC1A 7JA
This wonderful Victorian pub is tucked away on one of the atmospheric back streets which lead off from Barbican underground station and sits adjacent to the majestic 12th century St Bartholomew the Great Church. The whole area can be beautifully tranquil and quiet at the weekend, although after kick out time during the week the pub can be rather busy.
The unusual name of this fine establishment derives from the Cloth Fair which occurred in the precincts of St Bartholomew every August from 1133. Each year the Lord Mayor would declare the Fair open by cutting through a length of cloth, a tradition which of course continues today with ribbon cutting.
There has been a pub here from medieval times, and if you venture upstairs you are standing where the Court of Pied Poudres (translated as ‘dusty feet’) sat to mete out justice during the Cloth Fair. By swiftly punishing those who contravened the City’s regulations the court ensured the quality of cloth and continued monopoly of the trade guilds.
Moving on… from this backwater you can venture through the churchyard of St Bartholomew the Great then out into Smithfield. Along the way you’ll pass memorials to Protestant martyrs cruelly burnt here by ‘Bloody’ Mary and another to William Wallace. Your next pub can be found if you turn left onto Giltspur Street and walk straight until you reach the crossroads. Take a moment to check out the Golden Boy of Pye Corner halfway along on your right and then make your way into the beautiful Viaduct Tavern on the corner.
The Viaduct Tavern, 126 Newgate Street, EC1A 7AA
Named after the adjacent Holborn Viaduct which was built in 1869 and described as the world’s first flyover, you could definitely say the Viaduct Tavern is a full blown corner pub.
t stands defiantly between two rather overwhelming buildings, St Sepulchre without Newgate, and the Central Criminal Court, aka the Old Bailey. If you believe in the supernatural the whole area must resonate with the tortured souls of thousands of Londoners.
Have a pint here, and you would be imbibing where the condemned would start their long journey west to the Tyburn Gallows; to the North is Smithfield where hundreds of witches, heretics and one famous Scot met their grisly end, and across the street to the South was the site of the notorious Newgate Prison and its public hangings just outside.
In such a setting, it is not surprising that the owners of the Viaduct have decided to open up their cellars for customers. It’s cold and atmospheric downstairs and you’ll be shown what they claim to be penitentiary cells for the Giltspur Street Comptor (small prison). But alas, looking at the documentary evidence it would appear that it is all a hoax, and the cells you see are merely wine cellars…
Nevertheless the pub itself is wonderful and is thoroughly worth a visit. It was built in 1875, and decorated shortly afterwards at the end of the Victorian pub boom. Step inside and you’ll be rewarded with the sight of beautifully etched glass panels and a sweeping semi-circular bar while on the right your attention will be diverted by three large paintings of women representing agriculture, commerce and art on the walls. Move closer, and you’ll notice that two are damaged. One is the result of an event during the war where a serviceman had one too many and drunkenly fired a shot into the wall while the other was ripped by a rifle bayonet.
The Cockpit, St. Andrews Hill, London. EC4V 5BY
The Cockpit is a hidden gem nestled in a backstreet near St Paul’s Cathedral. It has a decent range of beers and ales on tap, and the bar staff are friendly which helps create a warm, homely atmosphere. You’ll see a diverse mix of clientele, with city workers and regulars during the week mixing in with construction workers and people spilling out of St Paul’s at the weekend.
The pub was built in the 1840s and became famed for its cockfights. Look up and you’ll see the 18ft high ceiling and a balcony where Londoners would have bayed for blood and gambled while the cocks fought for their life. Breathe in, and you could imagine the flurry of feathers and screams of excitement.
Sitting in the small area where this rather unsavoury blood sport used to take place, you’ll no doubt be comforted that by 1849 cockfighting was prohibited, and the pub’s name was changed to the far more stately Three Castles.
But let’s go further back in time, for where you are sitting would – in an earlier incarnation – have been known by William Shakespeare. The pub suggests that this would have actually been the exact location of his house, and corroborate it with research from the Times newspaper in 1928.
According to the information inside the pub, the first mention of an inn on this site was in 1352, then called the ‘Oakbourn Inn’, situated on what would then have been the eastern edge of the Dominican friars – or ‘Blackfriars’ – monastery.
After the dissolution of the monasteries in the late 1530s by King Henry VIII, these buildings were mostly left intact. Ireland Yard nearby was the main entrance into Blackfriars, and Shakespeare purchased the gatehouse – probably with other actors – in 1613 at a cost of £140 for use as a theatre.
All of this adds to the intrigue and sense of history in the Cockpit.
The Blackfriar, 174 Queen Victoria Street, EC4V 4EG
The Blackfriar was erected in 1875, making it the youngest pub on the list but it truly stands out as it is the only art nouveau pub in London, and a real masterpiece of design. Outside above the doorway is a large black figure of a monk, while inside there is a wonderful mosaic ceiling and some rather wise mottos which you can read under the watchful eyes of the bronze figures of monks: ‘Silence is Golden’, ‘Industry is All’, ‘Haste is Slow’, ‘Finery is Foolery’ and my favourite, ‘Don’t advertise it, tell a gossip’.
But London being London, the site on which the pub stands has a rich historical heritage. It was built in the vicinity of the vast medieval Dominican Friary, where the friars were known as Black Friars due to the colour of their habit.
Brewing beer was important to the medieval orders, as was drinking according to this old couplet:
‘To drink like a Caputchin is to drink poorly. To drink like a Bendedictine is to drink deeply. To drink like a Dominican is pot after pot. But to drink like a Franciscan is to drink the cellars dry.’
The pub claims that there may be a Henry VIII connection too, as it is believed that Emperor Charles V the Papal Magistrate and Henry’s court sat on this very location during the dissolution of the King’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon in 1532.
You can see two of these pubs on our Forgotten London walking tour, currently operating on Saturdays.