Keith Austin samples 4000 years of London tradition in a crawl between 10 of the city's fine old pubs.
Six hundred years ago, in The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer had his pilgrims meet in the Tabard coaching inn in south London before starting their journey to Canterbury Cathedral.
He was no fool, that Chaucer. London is full to the brim with history but nowhere does it come to life as vividly as in its pubs. Here, in the company of like-minded fellow travellers, you can knock back a cup of good cheer in the knowledge that the mere act of ordering has written you into a timeline stretching back, almost unchanged, for hundreds of years.
Sup your beer and think about all the people who in that same pub have ordered their pint, half pint or pewter tankard of lager, ale, porter or mead. Surely they weren't that much different? Chatting, laughing, drinking too much, arguing - and now you, too, are part of that tradition.
So here, in an easy five-odd kilometres covering a mere 4008 years, is a pub crawl through 10 of central London's oldest.
The Lamb and Flag
Tucked down a narrow alleyway or narrow street, depending on the direction of your approach, this lovely little pub building has been a licensed premises since 1772 (when it was the Cooper's Arms). It was renamed the Lamb and Flag in 1883 and today it's a small and popular pub with tourists and locals.
The floors are dark wood and what looks like tattered brown hessian sacking masquerades as wallpaper - though the walls are so festooned with letters, newspapers (the front page of the London Evening Post from 1744, for instance), old cartoons, paintings and photographs that it doesn't matter much what's under them.
It's cosy and relaxing with lots of brass and glass and a murmur that marks it out as a working boozer and not a time-trap or a theme pub for tourists. There's lots of history but it's not shoved down your throat, though if you do want something to shove down your throat, lunch from noon until 3pm includes traditional English fare of roast beef and sausage and mash and the like.
Samuel Butler, John Dryden and Charles Dickens are said to have been customers.
33 Rose Street, WC2. Age: a mere 238 years.
The Seven Stars
The walk between the Lamb and the Seven Stars is the longest in our crawl and should take about 10 to 15 minutes - unless you cross Covent Garden and are unable to stop yourself popping your head into the theatrical Opera Tavern (circa 1870) in Catherine Street, next to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.
The Seven Stars is a smart-looking pub around the corner from Lincoln's Inn Fields, the longstanding haunt of London's lawyers. But don't let that put you off - the Stars is run with ruthless good cheer by the ''queen of Carey Street'', Roxy Beaujolais, the eccentrically theatrical landlady with a dislike of mobile phones. The pub doesn't look particularly old but it is one of the few that survived the Great Fire of London in 1666. It celebrated its 400th anniversary in 2002.
It serves interesting food (merguez sausages and couscous, for instance) and good beer from the Dark Star Brewing Company (the lightish Hop Head is worth a try, as is the darker, stoutish Over The Moon). There's a narrow central bar and two small rooms off to each side (one of which is the sit-down restaurant). A sign outside quotes Shakespeare from All's Well That Ends Well - "To make the coming hour o'erflow with joy, And pleasure drown the brim" - and customers are sometimes greeted with ''welcome to the madhouse!" Expect something different.
53-54 Carey Street, WC2. Age: 408 years.
The Cittie of York
Five minutes' walk from the Seven Stars but a world away in spirit is this cathedral among pubs. The Cittie of York, even if you are not a pub-goer, is one of London's great unsung attractions. As the sign above the front entrance says, it was established as the site of a public house in 1430 (though the current building dates from the 1890s) and is bigger inside than it looks from the outside. Trust me.
Once inside, take the alley off to the right-hand side and follow it past the panelled front bar and the stairs on your left (which lead to a small bar that was once the cellar for a 17th-century coffee house). Keep going until you enter a cavernous vaulted space dominated by a series of enormous wine vats high above a long narrow bar.
Opposite the bar and the barrels is a series of intimate wooden ''snugs'', each seating about six people in semi-confessional privacy. The Cittie of York is popular among local office workers and rightly so. It is truly spectacular. And it serves Samuel Smith's at £1.90 ($3.14) a pint. Perfect.
22 High Holborn, WC1. Age: 580 years.
Ye Olde Mitre
The Mitre is the Brigadoon of pubs, appearing only every 100 years or so. Honestly, it's so out of the way that even when I worked at a newspaper around the corner I had trouble finding it. Mind you, I often had trouble finding my way back to that newspaper, so welcoming is this tiny pub.
Just a few minutes' walk from the Cittie, turn left into Hatton Garden, the jewellery centre of London, and keep an eye out on the right for a nondescript alley. Outside, attached to a lamp-post, is a small, blue bishop's mitre that points the way. "Ye Olde Mitre public house," it reveals, "established 1546." What it doesn't reveal is that it was demolished in 1772 and rebuilt.
Another, smaller sign further in lists the opening times (Monday to Friday, 11am-11pm) and boasts it is "possibly the oldest pub in London".
It has two bars, the smallest of which would fill up if more than 15 people walked in at once. Which is a large part of its charm - as is its ever-changing list of real ales.
Ely Court, EC1. Age: 464 years.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
Usually the words "Ye Olde" should make any self-respecting drinker run screaming from the room but Ye Olde Mitre and Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese - a five-minute stagger down New Fetter Lane and left into Fleet Street - are exceptions. The current pub (keep an eye out for a very small alley on your left) dates from 1667. In this it is not unusual among central London boozers, as many went up in flames in the conflagration of 1666 and were immediately rebuilt. However, there was a pub here called the Horn in 1538 and the cellar is from a 13th-century monastery. It is an atmospheric higgledy-piggledy warren of small bars and basements and corridors and bigger bars and cellar bars. This is like climbing through history - so mind your head as you clamber down those winding stairs. Before the last of the newspapers moved out of the area 20 or so years ago this was a popular haunt for journalists.
On your left as you enter is the restaurant that serves English fare such as roast dinners and spotted dick for dessert. Both of which I had here earlier this year. With a few pints of Guinness. Goodbye waistline.
145 Fleet Street, EC4. Age: 472 years.
Old Bell Tavern
From the Cheese, turn left on Fleet Street. Far ahead of you is the imposing dome of St Paul's Cathedral, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, whose hand was to become so evident in London after the Great Fire. It is no more evident than in the number of pubs supposedly built by him to keep happy the many workers who were employed on the rebuilding of the city - an interesting early example of worker relations.
One such pub is the Old Bell, up the street on the right and noticeable for the facade's wonderfully ornate stained-glass windows.
The black oak bar, in a horseshoe shape in the middle of the pub, is festooned with beer mats and has an eclectic range of ales. A glance at the menu suggests it's big on speciality sausages, too - a supposition confirmed by weekly sausage-tasting evenings.
Still a very popular lunchtime pub, it's been here since 1678, though it was previously known variously as the Bells, the Twelve Bells and the Golden Bell.
95 Fleet Street, EC4. Age: a mere 332 years.
Ye Olde Watling
Watling Street was originally built by the Romans as part of the road network from Dover to London via Canterbury. Chaucer's pilgrims probably used the original to make their way to Canterbury. This isn't that road but it's nice to know, isn't it?
The pub is owned by Nicholson's, the same company that owns the Old Bell, and has much the same range of food and ales. Indeed, both are reputed to have been rebuilt by Wren - this one from the timbers of old ships in 1668, after which the architect used an upstairs room (now a restaurant) as a drawing office during the rebuilding of St Paul's.
Naturally there are plenty of pictures and drawings of the cathedral in various states of undress on the walls and, past the square and sparse front bar, is a more comfortable room with high windows that look onto the gothic revivalist St Mary Aldermary Church (yes, Wren again) that snuggles up to the pub in a very un-Christian fashion, if you ask me.
29 Watling Street, EC4. Age: 342 years.
Jamaica Wine House
The alley opposite the Watling takes you through to Cheapside and a right turn that leads to the wonderfully named Poultry and on into Cornhill, where your destination is on the right, by the parish church of St Michael in Cornhill. (Wren yet again - did the man never rest, or stop for a beer in all those new pubs?)
Many of today's older public houses started as coffee houses and the Jamaica (aka the Jam Pot to locals) is said to be one of the oldest, dating from 1652. It went up in flames in the Great Fire and had to be rebuilt. The current building is from the 19th century and opened again last year after a major Victorian-style refurbishment by Kent brewer Shepherd Neame.
The pub has been split into four sections by wooden partitions, creating little drinking nooks, though the oak-panelled bar extends through all areas. This area of Cornhill is an absolute warren of alleys and pubs and the Jam Pot is one of the most popular.
St Michael's Alley, EC3. Age: 358 years.
The Olde Wine Shades
No beer! NO BEER? This is a little confusing at first but if you've been drinking pints throughout this crawl then everything is going to be confusing about now. The Wine Shades was built in 1663 and actually survived the Great Fire of London. It has been a licensed premises ever since. As you would expect, it does a fine line in the old vino collapso (I had a perfectly fat and chewable Australian red to give my bladder a rest).
The interior is a little haphazard and not at all straight. Or is that me?
6 Martin Lane, EC4. Age: 347 years.
The George Inn
What better way to finish than a short stroll over London Bridge to, metaphorically, where we started. The George Inn is London's last galleried coaching inn (owned now by the National Trust) and is alongside the place where Chaucer's Tabard inn would have been - had the building (then being used as a railway storeroom) not been torn down by philistines in 1873.
The George was rebuilt in 1676 after a fire but maps of the area show that there was an inn here in 1543.
It serves good pub food, a decent selection of ales and is well frequented by local office workers as they wait for their trains back to the suburbs. On a sunny day there is no better place to be than the beer garden outside.
77 Borough High Street, SE1. Age: 467 years.
Warning: do not attempt to drink at all these pubs in one day. You will do yourself a mischief and probably end up in the Clink. Which, originally, was a notorious Southwark prison not so far away in Clink Street - but that's another story.
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