Drinking in The Street
Pub Crawls of London Part Two: Fleet Street
January 19, 2006
Written by SilkTork
If Soho had its poets and artists, then Fleet Street had its journalists and piss-artists - a lying, cheating, dissolute tribe of 24 hour alcoholics with livers of impenetrable Scottish porridge who would occasionally sober up long enough to produce the sort of bold and shining journalism that made Fleet Street the envy of reporters the world over. Hunter S Thompson would have been welcome in El Vino and The Stab In The Back, but would have been snubbed and insulted for his inability to hold his drink and turn in the copy. Drinkers these guys may have been, but they also did the job.
It is a strange area this Fleet Street; being, for most of its life, no more than the road from the City of London to the City of Westminster. Indeed, now that the major newspaper offices have all moved out, it has once more returned to that function, being described by one ex-Fleet Street journalist now as simply "the dull, busy thoroughfare that connects the City and the West End".
The length of Fleet Street marks the expansion of the City in the 14th century. At the east end of the street is where the river Fleet flowed sluggishly, ripe with sewerage, against the medieval walls of London; at the west end is the Temple Bar which marks the current city limits, stretched to that point when the land and property of the Knights Templars was acquired (or stolen, depending on whose point of view you take). The area to the south is the old Templar property, and forms one of the four Law Inns or Inns of Court that surround Fleet Street with lawyers, law courts and various government buildings, such as the Patents Office and the Old Bailey.
Publishing started in Fleet Street around 1500 when Caxton’s apprentice, the implausibly named Wynkyn de Worde, set up a printing shop near Shoe Lane, while at around the same time Richard Pynson set up as publisher and printer next to St Dunstan’s church. More printers and publishers followed, mainly supplying the legal trade in the four Law Inns around the area. In March 1702 the world’s first daily newspaper, The Daily Courant, was published in Fleet Street from premises above the White Hart Inn. And that compelling Fleet Street relationship between journalism and pubs, which was to last around 300 years, had begun.
Both journalists and printers worked in Fleet Street. The journalists worked during the day, lording it high up in the offices overlooking the street, while the printers toiled during the long night in the hot printing presses in the basements under the street. They would sometimes meet up in the pubs during the twilight hours. And drink and argue and fight. And drink some more.
The Printer’s Devil
One of the most famous of the pubs where both hack and inky drank is The Printer’s Devil in Fetter Street. And that’s where we’ll start our crawl. The Printer’s Devil, like its cousin The White Swan was built in the 1930s as part of the same premises. This would have been around the same time as The Mirror moved into their new building almost opposite. The pub is disappointing. There is a small room off to the left which holds a pool table and has some character, but the other two rooms, upstairs and downstairs are curiously lacking in charm - more like the lobby of a cheap hotel than a pub. The cask ale seems appropriate - the characterless Greene King IPA. It is difficult to imagine any Fleet Street printers in here. Though here they came. The pub was originally called The Black Horse as a contrast to its neighbour the White Swan, but soon earned the nickname of The Printers Devil (printers slang for an apprentice) as this is where the young printers could be found.
The White Swan
A number of the pubs had a local nickname. The White Hart, for example, was called "The Stab In The Back", while The White Swan was known as "The Mucky Duck" (so much so that for a while the sign was changed to read The Mucky Duck). Such hilarious 6th form grammar school humour is only seen these days during Prime Minister’s Question Time in the Commons.
The Mucky Duck
When Murdoch dragged Fleet Street kicking and screaming into the 20th century by moving his newspaper empire of The Sun, The News of the World and The Times to Wapping in 1986 he removed the reporters from their favourite pubs. Cut off from their supply of beer the reporters lost their humour, character, sparkle and ability to spell for ever. The printers meanwhile lost their jobs. And the British unions lost their spirit. With an appropriate pause for a reflection on such serious matters we prepare to enter the Daily Mail’s favourite boozer for a second attempt to soak up the romantic atmosphere that sustained the nation’s reporters. O dear. The old Mucky Duck has had its heart and liver ripped out and has been turned into a restaurant. There is a bar, but the waitress approaching with a menu makes it quite clear this is no longer a pub.
The Hoop & Grapes
No point dawdling. Cut across New Fetter Lane, past the site of the demolished Mirror reporters’ pub, the "Stab In The Back" (Stab being a printer’s term for something "established" - stab in the back, being the regular pub round the back). Cross down onto Shoe Lane where the dreary appearance of the Cartoonist pub keeps all civilised people away. Once a year in December the remaining ex-Fleet Street printers gather here and drink to the old days of "fat takes" (easy work earning lots of money) "grass ships" (casual groups of print workers) and the "Father of the Chapel" (the local union boss).
There’s no reason to linger here, the pub is as dreary inside as it is outside.
Turn down Stonecutter Street to Farringdon Street and turn right. The old Fleet River still runs under Farringdon Street. This section of the river was roofed over in 1733 and a market placed here. But that was destroyed when Farringdon Street was built in 1830. Just along the street a bit we come to the Hoop and Grapes a Shepherd Neame pub. This is where the liberal and socialist journalists from The Guardian and The Morning Star would meet up to plan the revolution. It’s the first pub on the crawl that has a memory of a pub which once had character, but - a recurring feature of the present day Fleet Street pubs - you can only sit down at a table if you’re buying a meal. Which means that drinkers are forced to perch foolishly on high stools by the entrance. Clearly the revolution failed.
The Punch Tavern & The Crown And Sugarloaf
It is time to venture onto Fleet Street proper. And proper is the word. Any sensible person would ignore the back street pubs I’ve just described. Despite what they might read in any of the numerous articles that have sprung up on the Fleet Street pubs since Murdoch conducted a memorial service for the old Fleet Street newspapers in St Bride’s in June 2005, none of them contain any sense of the past. Start the crawl in Fleet Street at the Punch Tavern
An earlier pub on this site was called The Crown And Sugarloaf - a name commemorated in the Samuel Smith pub round the corner. Originally the two pubs were one single and splendid gin palace built by the fabulous Baker Brothers in 1893 (the boys who were also responsible for The Tottenham on Oxford Street). Because the journalists from Punch magazine drank in the old Crown and Sugarloaf, and those lads had money and liked to spend it on gin, the brothers thought it wise to keep their custom by naming the new pub after their journal. The Punch has a grand entrance, glittering marble and mirrors and sparkling lighting. But it is all rather faded and gone to seed. Like the Titanic on the seabed or an Istanbul souk. In fact the souk image is more fitting because there are tables laden with fruits along the entrance, and then, as you enter the pub itself, you are greeted with more foods, including pans of goats head soup bubbling away on tables to your right. The pub is filled with savoury and spicy aromas. It is difficult to see what beer is on the pump (Timothy Taylor Landlord) because the bar counter is covered with plates of cakes. Surprisingly, given the obsession with food, you are allowed to sit wherever you like. It’s best to stay in the faded glory of the main room - the back room feels more like a Brighton tea room than a pub. Anyway, it’s worth coming in for a drink, which is more than can be said for the new Crown And Sugarloaf, with its mainly fake Victoriana mirrors. The bar counter, however, is claimed to be the original counter from The Punch’s main room.
The Old Bell
The next pub, The Old Bell, is clearly within sight, and this is a real pub! The Old Bell was built around 1670 for the men building Wren’s St. Brides Church. The back door which leads into St Bride’s courtyard was originally the front door. Today’s front entrance goes through a room that was originally a wine store. The original bar area is gloomy and cosy - excellent features in an English pub. The famous triangular stools are still in use and are very comfortable. There is ancient creaking wood everywhere. The most recent wood is the bar counter - a Victorian innovation a mere 100 years old. It seems appropriate that the journalists who used this most ancient and organic of pubs should be those from The Express who worked in the most modern and mechanical of Fleet Street’s building - the art deco Black Lubianka. This place restores the soul; and, with a small selection of guest cask ales on offer, restores the body as well. It’s worth having a peek at St Bride’s spire while you’re here - it’s the inspiration for the tiered wedding cake.
The King & Keys
Across the room and right next door to the imposing old Telegraph building is the narrow and mostly charmless King & Keys. It’s part of the Nicholson’s pub chain so there is often three different cask ales on offer. But other than that this place has nothing to offer. Sitting in here is like being in an Italian ice cream parlour. On a wet Wednesday. In November. And you’ve just broken your pencil. It’s echoing. Empty. And pointless. It’s a naked contrast to the warm woody gloom of The Old Bell. The Telegraph was always a boring paper anyway. Slightly more interesting is the infamous pub two doors away.
The Olde Cheshire Cheese
There is an alley way on both sides of The Olde Cheshire Cheese. And no entrance from Fleet Street itself. The alley named Cheshire Court on the right hand side is the wrong alley. The one named Wine Office Court is the one you want. Even though The Olde Cheshire Cheese is one of a number of pubs in London to have been rebuilt shortly after the Great Fire of 1666, and while there are several older pubs which have survived because they were beyond the reach of the fire, this pub continues to attract interest due to the curious lack of natural lighting inside, which generates its own gloomy charm.
Even the outside looks dark and foreboding and redolent with history. However, it is worth bearing in mind when you step inside that this pub is a contemporary of The Old Bell and is over 60 years younger than The Tipperary. And that the wood paneling is Victorian. And the beer is supplied by Sam Smith so it’s cheap and cheerful and mainly pasteurised. It’s also worth noting that there is a lack of comfortable seating, and much of the already cramped space has been taken over by dining areas which drinkers are forbidden to use. I was barred from The Olde Cheshire Cheese for sitting in the wrong room. It is the first and only pub which has barred me. I was quite delighted that I managed to get barred from a pub in my 50th year. I wonder what Samuel Johnson or Charles Dickens or Theodore Roosevelt would have thought of that; they have all visited and drunk at this pub. I assume they were all better behaved than me. Though I am sure the loutish Sun reporters would have sat in the wrong place, farted, burped, stuck up pictures of naked blondes, thrown darts at the landlady’s poodle and got away with it. Sigh. Anyway - if you manage to visit when the downstairs is open, the vaulted cellars are thought to belong to a 13th century Carmelite Monastery which once occupied the site, and are worth a look.
Almost opposite Wine Office Court, on the other side of Fleet Street, is The Tipperary which in 1769 became the first place in the world to serve Guinness outside of Ireland. The pub is older than the Olde Cheese having been built in 1605 of stone from the demolished Whitefriars Monastery which enabled it to survive the Great Fire.
It was originally called The Boar’s Head but acquired the name Tipperary during the First World War when Irish soldiers flocked here as it was the only Irish pub in London. In fact it had been an Irish pub since Dublin brewer S G Mooney took charge in 1700. It’s so Irish that you walk on shamrocks when you enter, as the floor has been tiled with a shamrock design. Ignore the fact that the pub is now managed by Greene King, Guinness can still be bought. This was a favourite pub of News of the World reporters. It hasn’t been too spoiled and, apart from the lack of interesting beer, is a pleasant pub.
Into The Temple
There are a couple more Fleet Street pubs lurking down Whitefriars Street; however, the Coach & Horses is just another dreary Greene King pub, while The Harrow even though it’s a slightly more attractive Fuller’s pub, is not as interesting as Fuller’s Old Bank of England on Fleet Street. As the name implies the Old Bank is another of those bank conversions that make for interesting venues. The two main companies doing bank conversions are Fuller’s and Wetherspoons. Wetherspoons conversions will have the bar counter to one side, while Fuller’s conversions tend to have a central island bar counter which makes for a more pub-like atmosphere. The Old Bank is worth a peek. But, for now, we’re diving off Fleet Street into the area known as The Temple. The most interesting way to get to the pubs we’re heading for is to go down Pleydell Court or Hare Place and wander through the maze of courts, alleys and gardens. You will have to open doors and pass through the buildings containing the barristers’ chambers. You will see fascinating corners of London, including a Crusader’s church built in the style of a Jerusalem temple. But you will get lost. A more sensible approach would be to walk along Fleet Street, past the Royal Courts of Justice until you come to The George.
During big important trials this is supposed to be where the journalists, criminals and lawyers get together to cut deals over a pint of Landlord or London Pride. Well. No. Actually they all go to the Old Bank. The George is a dreary pub. Go down the Devereux Court alley on the left and follow it all the way until you come to The Devereux. This is a modestly attractive pub with cosy nooks and crannies giving an intimate and genuine pub feel. The main interest here, however, is that it’s a scooping pub serving from four to seven different and constantly changing cask ales. And then, when you’ve drunk your fill you can pop next door to the Edgar Wallace, which - though it’s a bland, echoing hole - serves six different and constantly changing cask ales. It also sells British Tapas of mini pork pies and fish finger sandwiches. A sort of pub version of a Happy Meal.
Across The Street For Two More
If you have the time for more beer then make your way back along Fleet Street towards Chancery Lane. We’re going to go up Bell Yard, but first cast your eye at the Dundee Courier building next to St Dunstan’s church. This is interesting not only as being the only newspaper office remaining on Fleet Street, but also as the site for Sweeney Todd’s barber shop. While Bell Yard, which we will now walk up, was the site of Lovett’s Pie Shop where the boiled remains of Sweeney’s victims were sold in meat pies.
Nice! At the end of Bell Yard take a peek at the small green construction in Star Yard opposite. Until recently that was the toilet for the Seven Stars pub, as this narrow timber building on your left was constructed in 1602 without the modern convenience of a convenience! It’s a bit of a squeeze inside, even when not busy. And it lacks charm, having more of the feel of a scruffy East End cafe rather than the French bistro it’s attempting to be. But you might be able to pick up a scoop or two as Dark Star and Crouch Vale beers have been spotted in here. Also in Carey Street, on the corner with Chancery Lane, is our final pub. The Knights Templar is a Wetherspoon bank conversion. It’s roomy, impressive and has the typical range of ever changing cask ales of a JDW pub. But it is cold, roughly decorated, and not very pub like. You pays your money and takes your choice.
It’s possible to visit all the pubs mentioned in one day. Chris_o and I did it in a leisurely 11 hours, joined by friends and family at various stages. That’s when the true meaning of "session" beer can be judged. But it would be more sensible to select a few glamour pubs on Fleet Street itself, and then choose your back street drinking pub. My selection would be Punch, Old Bell, Olde Cheshire Cheese, Tipperary for a Guinness, a wander around the Temple area and then settle down in The Deveroux for a few scoops. But it’s each to their own.
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There is ancient creaking wood everywhere. The most recent wood is the bar counter - a Victorian innovation a mere 100 years old.
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