If writers didn’t appear to spend so much time down the old rub-a-dub, just imagine the extra sonnets and short stories they might have conjured through the eons.
Scores of writers and their subjects have flocked to pubs over the centuries, with every walk of life represented, every emotion roused and every nefarious behaviour indulged. Pubs make the perfect setting to write drama, meet fellow thirsty creatives and, of course, simply let the mind wander. If the whole world really is a stage, the pub is perfectly placed right at the very heart of it.
Here John Warland, author of Liquid History: An Illustrated Guide to London’s Greatest Pubs, rounds up five of the top literary locales to head for in search of your next libation, in order to raise a pint in the same places Dickens, Orwell, Twain, Keats, and more all did.
The George Inn
75-77 Borough High Street, Southwark
Charles Dickens knew The George Inn well – his father was held in the nearby Marchelsea debtors jail for failing to pay the family baker – and he gave the pub a small cameo role in Little Dorrit, as a place where the rakish n’er-do-well Tip Dorrit frequents to write begging letters in the hope of funding further misplaced extravagance.
But the pub is perhaps more famously known as ‘Shakespeare’s Local’. The three-sided amphitheatre pub courtyard was available for hire to perform to the penny-stinkers prior to the construction of both the Rose and Globe Theatres further along the River Thames. The unique galleried section of The George is believed to directly influence the design of early theatres, with the more well-moneyed clientele escaping the thronging riff-raff amongst the cobbles to enjoy unfettered views of the boozing bard performing on the stage below.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
145 Fleet Street, Wine Office Court
Although not specifically name-checked in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, it’s believed that this is the pub where Charles Darnay celebrates once acquitted for treason after being accused of being a French spy. Walking out of the Old Bailey, and down Ludgate Hill, he was soon rebuilding his strength with a simple supper and a few fine wines to celebrate his newly won freedom.
Dickens would have known The Cheese well, having as an unpublished author posted a manuscript uninvited through a publisher’s letterbox in Johnson’s Court. They would go on to commission his periodicals, and the career of the ‘Inimitable Boz’ was born in these quiet courtyards and alleys. Note the metal plaque inside the pub within the pub designating Boz’s preferred seat next to the fire; and the handsome portrait above the fireplace, of the head waiter who would have served Dickens his meals back in the day.
Perfectly located in the beating heart of Fleet Street, this pub was the social network for legions of hacks and legal eagles over the centuries. Tomorrow’s headlines were written over these humble wooden tables, whilst ‘Polly The Parrot’, the house mascot, would fly around swearing at all and sundry. On exiting, also note the well-worn front step and note that not only Dickens, but also Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, and Voltaire popped in at one point or another for a pint.
Blackadder and lexicography fans might seek out our Dr Johnson’s chair within the pub, or head round the corner to his former house, home and now museum. A small statue of Johnson’s favourite cat Hodge stands guard over the courtyard, perched on the famous Dictionary of the English Language, having polished off an oyster that sits alongside him. After nine years of toil, and around 45,000 words, the dictionary was complete, with the plinth also listing one of Dr. Johnson’s most famous quotes:
"Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."
25 Rathbone Place, Fitzrovia
Did George Orwell throw up over the bar here? Possibly. But it’s thought that he led the migration down here from the glitzy Fitzroy Tavern, to source a suitably down and out pub in which to enjoy high-brow conversation. Accordingly, he often escaped here from the tedium of his propaganda writing duties at the BBC during World War II – and the nearby Newman Arms is believed to be the template for the dilapidated proles pub in his dystopian masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas also popped in from time to time, allegedly bedding chorus girl and his future wife Caitlin Macnamara within the hour of first meeting, before going on to marry her within the year.
The Coach & Horses
29 Greek Street, Soho
Jeffrey Bernard is unwell.
Or, at least, he was typically hungover, having spent countless sessions elbow-bending at The Coach & Horses, his Spectator column often going unwritten. His relationship to the pub is probably best summed up, as always, in his own words:
“Without alcohol, I would have been a shop assistant, a business executive, or a lone bachelor clerk. The side effects of my chosen anaesthetic have at least produced some wonderful dreams that turned out to be reality.”
Today, the satirical magazine Private Eye’s cartoons adorn the walls, remembering the former owner Peter Cook hosting editorial lunches here for nearly 40 years after decanting from their offices nearby.
And while the main protagonists have long left the building, the piano is still in situ for a good old Saturday night sing-along.
The Spaniards Inn
Spaniards Road, Hampstead
Dating back to 1585 and featured in both Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, this inn has layers of literary legend and ghost stories to unpeel at your leisure. It was here in Dracula that Van Helsing and his men hail a cab and head toward after attempting to stake Lucy Westenra in a nearby graveyard; the only steaks to be found here these days are served medium rare with a bearnaise sauce on the side.
Even infamous highwayman Dick Turpin is said to have been born within the pub, with his mighty steed Black Bess still often heard riding off late into the night.
On a lighter note, romantic poet John Keats is said to have pottered up the hill from his Hampstead house at Wentworth Place to pen lines for ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ over a pint or two whilst enjoying views as far away as Windsor Castle back in the day.
Image credit, clockwise from top left: The George Inn, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, The Wheatsheaf, The Coach & Horses, The Spaniards Inn.