Whilst London is packed with historic landmarks, a trip to the local pub also serves as a surprisingly informative way of exploring the capital’s unique past. From fires to wars, body snatchers to pirates, these quaint taverns have seen a lot throughout the centuries. Step back in time with a visit to five of the best old boozers in London which have witnessed compelling moments in history and played host to some of London’s most colourful characters.
1. The Mayflower
Established in 1550, and the oldest pub in London to be set by the Thames, The Mayflower is dripping in history. Set in the London homeport of Rotherhithe, the pub is located at the original mooring point of The Pilgrim Fathers’ Mayflower ship which, under the command of Captain Christopher Jones, set sail from the site in July 1620 to begin its epic journey to America.
Anyone visiting the pub who can claim direct descent from one of the Pilgrim fathers is welcome to sign the ‘Descendants Book’. Indeed, so strong is the Mayflower’s connections to the States that it is the only pub in the UK that is licensed to sell US postage stamps. A visit today will offer amazing riverside views from its terrace whilst inside offers wooden pews, a cosy fire and a lively, authentic atmosphere. But beware – if you sit close to the edge of the Thames during high tide, you will get wet!
2. The Spaniards Inn
One of the oldest pubs in London, the Spaniards Inn dates back to 1585 and is legendary for having hosted some of the world’s most famous literary names. Byron, Keats, and Dickens have all lurked around the dark wooden panelled dining room of the Hampstead-set tavern and literature fans will be kept busy exploring its truly heavy hitting history.
Not only was it immortalized in Charles Dickens’ ‘The Pickwick Papers’, it makes an appearance in Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula‘, whilst its humble garden is said to the be where John Keats sat and penned ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. It is also often referred to be birthplace of road robber Dick Turpin whose father was the landlord and who, according to bar staff, still makes an occasional appearance in the form of a ghost.
3. The Prospect of Whitby
Once known as The Devils Tavern, and dating back to 1520, this riverside watering hole was a popular hang out for a clientele of decidedly dubious quality. Smugglers, pirates, cutthroats, and robbers would lurk around this Dockland set tavern, trading everything from contraband to dead bodies.
A bohemian guest list ranging from Charles Dickens to Frank Sinatra to Princess Margaret has walked across its original stone floor. Whilst artists such as Turner and Whistler have sketched the pub’s riverside views, the site today continues to be a source of cultural inspiration. As well as being featured in the cult comic series The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, The Prospect of Whitby has also had a starring role in the BBC television show Whitechapel.
4. The Ten Bells
Since the middle of the 18th century, the Ten Bells has played a pivotal role in London’s illustrious history. Its name is inspired by the distinctive chimes of the neighbouring Christ Church, another historical East London landmark. Its real place in London history came through its unfortunate connection to one the most notorious crime stories in all of English history: that of the serial killer known as Jack the Ripper.
Ripper victims Mary Kelly and Annie Chapman were said to be frequent customers of the pub, with Chapman said to be leaving the Bells around 5am one morning, just moments before she was murdered a few streets away in the autumn of 1888. Equally, Mary Kelly, who worked as a sex worker at the time, was often seen standing directly at the entrance door, waiting to pick up potential customers.
5. The Grapes
Although its current building dates from 1720, a pub has been on this same site in London’s Limehouse district since 1583. The area of Limehouse was first settled as one of the few healthy areas of dry land among the riverside marshes, and by Queen Elizabeth I‘s time it was at the centre of world trade. It first started serving local dockworkers and sailors of the Limehouse Basin shipping industry and claims to have served explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, who set sail from this point on this third voyage to the New World.
The Grapes has survived much, still standing throughout The Blitz bombing during the Second World War, and remains a friendly ‘local’ for Limehouse residents. A tiny statue of Gandalf from ‘The Lord of the Rings’ sits in the corner: an amusing hint to the identity to the Grapes pub landlord, actor Sir Ian McKellen.