One of the best ways to learn about London’s rich history is by sinking a pint in the pub. No joke. These historic London pubs have been around for yonks and offer up the tell-tale signs of the celebrity, scandal and maybe even murder that took place in the capital many moons ago. Some of these ancient inns have been licensed since the 1600s and many date back even further (and you can bet a lot of them claim to be London’s oldest pub). So grab a spot at the bar and ask for the skinny from the staff on these pubs with a long old backstory.
Historic pubs in London
A handbill at the door announces the history of this charming riverside inn (surely the best on this stretch in Hammersmith), featuring the comings and goings of Charles II and Nell Gwyn at the pub. All the authors have paid it a visit – Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, Dylan Thomas – and William Morris lived next door. Take it all in beneath the exposed ceiling beams or by the roaring fire.
‘The French’, as its regulars call it, has been a buzzing part of the bohemian centre of London for decades. Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, Lucian Freud and, er, Suggs have all drunk here. During World War II, Charles De Gaulle and the Free French used the pub as their base. And The French House only serves its beer in halves. Très continental.
This Covent Garden legend occupies the backstreets away from the tourists. Its courtyard setting is probably how it attracted such a rough-around-the-edges crowd in the nineteenth century, when it hosted bare-knuckle prize fights. Earlier, back in 1679, poet John Dryden took a beating by thugs hired by poet John Wilmot down this back alley. It’s all very convivial these days, mind.
Rotherhithe’s riverside beauty of a boozer claims to be the place from which the Mayflower set out to Southampton before sailing off to the Americas. If the old oak beams and nooks and crannies don’t do it for you, the pub has had a licence to sell American stamps since the 1800s thanks to its historic connections, making it a pretty unique proposition.
If it’s the pirate’s life for you, get along to Wapping’s Prospect of Whitby. Smugglers, sailors and dubious sorts were said to frequent the pub (although, all that remains from those swashbuckling days is the flagstone floor). Now it makes for quite a peaceful retreat, if you can handle the replica gallows on the foreshore outside, a reference to the fearsome revolution-suppressing ‘Hanging’ Judge Jeffreys, who was a patron of the place.
One of the oldest pubs in London is also one of the most charming, perched on a hilltop by Hampstead Heath. It’s been around since 1585 and has had a rollcall of literary Londoners through the doors – think Byron, Keats and Dickens. It even gets a shout-out in Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’. For more spookiness, ask bar staff for ghost stories that include an otherworldly appearance from highwayman Dick Turpin.
Belgravia’s Star attracted some starry names through the doors in the swinging ’60s, from Peter O’Toole to Diana Dors. Perhaps they were drawn by the dazzle of the less salubrious clientele that cemented its name as a pub with a story. The tale goes that the gang that pulled off the Great Train Robbery in 1963 planned their attack here. Do some plotting of your own over a pint or two.
Been on any Ripper tours lately? They’re sure to have led you down to The Ten Bells, a regular haunt for the Victorian prostitutes of the Spitalfields area who became the victims of Jack the Ripper (whoever the hell he/she was). The faded décor and candlelight play into the hands of tourists who’ve heard tales of hauntings.
Ah, the Cheese. This pub is so renowned for its history that we’ve been stopped right outside it by tourists looking for the entrance. It’s down a side alley, you guys. And it’s totally worth getting lost in the pub’s many atmospheric crannies, restored after the Great Fire of London and frequented by PG Wodehouse and Dickens (obvs).
Try shaking the folklore from your pint in Ye Olde Mitre. This low-ceilinged inn dates back to 1546 and backs on to the courtyard in which Queen Elizabeth I is once said to have danced. Oddly enough, the pub was originally licensed to the Bishop of Ely in Cambridgeshire and used to be guarded by his frock-coated officials.
Find more historic inns by the river
If you're looking for inner-city supping with a countryside feel, sometimes London's best rooftop bars or best beer gardens simply won't cut it. Get yourself a spot by the river with our guide to London's finest riverside pubs. As well as the very best Thames-side drinking spots, we also guide you through some first rate canalside pubs and bars fit for any sunny day of drinking in the capital.
By Euan Ferguson Azealia Banks' song may be called '212', not ‘214’, and she may be talking about the borough of Manhattan, not the borough of Southwark. But the strident rap-talker would definitely be down with this new basement cocktail bar – especially if she likes gin. 214 Bermondsey is dedicated to the spirit that sent London staggering into the gutter during the eighteenth century. Gin’s image as a ruiner of mothers, a rotter of guts and a corrupter of the poor is no more; it has also survived its time as the drink of choice for the reposing colonialist. It’s now the city’s coolest spirit, with young gin-loving hipsters (‘ginsters’?) setting up their own boutique distilleries by the barrel-load. So, what can you try here? If it’s gin, it’s in. The back bar holds more than 100 bottles of the stuff: some of it comes from ‘just up the road’ in SE1 (Jensen), some from California (Junípero). Lesser-seen varieties include Dutch genevers, the Scottish Caorunn, and The Spectator, distilled for readers of the same magazine. All come with clever tasting notes and details of the botanicals involved. The list of gin cocktails is impressive too. If you're not sure where to start, there’s an easy entry point for the hesitant – four ‘gin flights’ each offer three distinctive spirits mixed with tonic. In a neat touch, drinkers are encouraged to identify each themselves from the notes before tearing open an envelope. The biggest talking point, however, is perhaps the own-made tonic,
Venue says: “Gin o'clock Tue to Sat, 5-6pm. Selected double G&T's £5, cocktails £6.50 and Sunday Social – a weekly changing menu at special prices.”