The tourist trail is deeply trodden on the streets of London, but take a road less travelled and you’ll be rewarded with legend, myth and history aplenty.
Visit these old London favourites; there’s no entry fee and, although you’ll have to stump up for a tankard or two, no gift shop to brave on the way out either.
Plus, with secret bars becoming the latest trend to hit the capital, we suggest a few of the best ones to indulge in a little plotting of your own.
The French House, Soho
During the Second World War, members of the French Resistance, including General de Gaulle, used to meet at the French House.
Latterly – unsurprisingly given its Soho location – it was known for being popular with a bohemian crowd of actors, writers, artists, wits, film-makers and TV types.
Image source: TheFrenchHouse/Website
The Crown Tavern, Clerkenwell
Sitting on the corner of Clerkenwell Green, the Crown Tavern (then the Crown and Anchor) was the watering hole of choice for Lenin, before he was needed back home in Russia. It’s believed he even had a meeting here with Stalin in 1905.
Move upstairs to the Apollo Lounge and you might recognise it from the film Notes on a Scandal, starring Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett.
Image source: TheCrownTavern/Website
The Lamb and Flag, Covent Garden
Legendary Covent Garden drinking den the Lamb and Flag was once notorious as a bare-knuckle fighting venue and can trace its history back to 1772.
Regular John Dryden (the 17th century poet) was attacked and almost murdered outside, thanks to his enemy the Earl of Rochester, but none of this gruesome history put off Charles Dickens, who was a regular.
Image source: Lamb&Flag/Website
The Star Tavern, Belgravia
Across town in Belgravia, the Star Tavern has an equally chequered past. Glamorous film types such as Peter O’Toole, Diana Dors and Alexander Korda sipped champagne here – but they rubbed shoulders with some of the country’s most notorious criminals.
Indeed, it was in the upstairs room that Bruce Reynolds plotted with his gang to carry out the Great Train Robbery in 1963.
Image source: TheStar/Website
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, Fleet Street
Admittedly, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is rather more of a tourist magnet than most of the others on our list, but we couldn’t leave it out.
It was burned down in the 1666 Great Fire of London but, having been rebuilt the following year, it boasts an unrivalled literary and journalistic history, thanks to its Fleet Street location.
Oliver Goldsmith, Mark Twain, Alfred Tennyson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, G K Chesterton, P G Wodehouse, Dr Johnson, Charles Dickens (again), W B Yeats and Ernest Rhys are all associated with the pub.
Image source: FreyJay/Pinterest
Ye Olde Mitre Tavern, Holborn
Very tricky to find, we must assume some customers have stumbled upon it over the years, as there’s been a pub on the site since the mid 1500s. Amid a rash of watering holes all boasting a Dickens connection, Ye Olde Mitre stands ahead by claiming a royal regular – Elizabeth I is said to have danced round a cherry tree that’s still there.
Image source: YeOldeMitreTavern/Website
The Black Friar, Blackfriars
Although it was built in 1875, it’s The Black Friar’s 1905 Arts and Crafts refit that makes it such an important pub.
The wedge-shaped building, close to Blackfriar’s Bridge was earmarked for redevelopment but poet John Betjeman stepped in and saved it from being demolished.
Image source: TheBlackFriar/Website
The Prospect of Whitby, Wapping
Wapping may not boast such a glamorous history as the ‘up West’ locales, but its long association with shipping, pirates and smuggling are all celebrated in the Prospect of Whitby.
Nevertheless, its main association is with Judge Jeffreys – the ‘hanging judge’ – who sentenced hundreds of men to death after the 1695 Monmouth Rebellion. When he wasn’t putting the black cap on, he relaxed by drinking at this Thameside inn – and the the pub still sports a noose, to commemorate its famous customer.
Image source: TheProspectOfWhitby/Website
Four of the best new secret bars in London
1. The Vault
As you browse the aged single malts of Milroy’s, London’s oldest whisky shop, you might stumble across a bookcase at the back of the shop. In fact, you’ve encountered the entrance to The Vault, a speakeasy cellar bar. Sign us up for When a Scot Punched a Swede, a cocktail we can justify on the name alone.
Experimental Cocktail Club lurks behind a battered door on Chinatown’s Gerrard Street. Yes, it’s very experimental – narrowing down the menu will be a tricky business.
If you’ve never walked through a Smeg fridge to get to a bar, you’ve never been to The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town. Chilli, avocado and lavender bitters all feature in the cocktail menu.
Getting a taste for secret doors? Why not try the Evans and Peel Detective Agency. A doorman will question you about your ‘case’ and, if you pass muster, you’ll be led through a bookcase to a candlelit 1920s style bar.
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