London’s Oldest Pub: The Top 5 Contenders
In one of the world’s oldest cities at the very epicentre of pub culture and at the forefront of the craft beer revolution we try to settle a long standing argument. Which truly is London’s oldest pub?
When it comes to age the competition seems always to be limited to two extremes; the oldest vs. the youngest. You never find anything competing to be in the mid-range but that’s probably because it sounds rubbish ‘Nottingham’s Most Precisely Averagely Aged Pub Based on the Collective Age of All the Pubs in the Postcode Area’ doesn’t have a great ring to it and is going to cost a fortune in signage. So we look to the ancient and the nubile for our vaunted venues. This is a hunt for London’s oldest pub; a confused and crowded competition with several strong contenders.
Let’s be honest at the outset; it’s nigh on impossible to define the winner of this beer based bout given that the definition of ‘oldest’ itself it up for debate. Are we taking the date from when a beer was first drunk on the spot the pub now stands? When the oldest bit of the building dates back to? The first evidence of a licence being granted? The fact that it’s up for argument feels oddly fitting as what better accompanies a trip to the pub better than a heated discussion.
Now let’s run through the claimants before you attempt to draw your own conclusions.
The Spaniards Inn
The Spaniards Inn / Courtesy of The Pub Raider
The Spaniards Inn Hampstead is undeniably old and claims to originate somewhere in the 16th Century. A rambling sort of pub with the sumptuous wooden floors, open fires and potential 999 call low beam ceilings. Given it can claim mentions in literary works including Dracula and The Pickwick Papers, rather than simply saying that someone who once wrote a book looked it once (like half the other pubs in the city) it’s tough to ignore as a contender.
The juicy details for The Spaniards are the rumoured links to notorious highwayman Dick Turpin whose father was supposedly the landlord. A musket ball claimed to have been fired by Turpin hangs behind the bar.
This is certainly a pub for the history aficionados but possibly not for those who don’t have a massive wallet. Two pints saw two miserable silver coins change from a tenner and a glance at the food menu makes you realise why Mr Turpin needed to hold up the odd stage coach. It’s hardly surprising that this pricing is the case given that it’s a bit of a fiddle to get to if you don’t have four wheels.
It might seem like a technicality but the out of the way locale possibly takes The Spaniards out of the running for the crown of ‘London’s Oldest Pub’. If you want to claim to be the oldest pub in London location is everything and this perhaps feels a little too far from the city.
Ye Olde Mitre Tavern which is tucked neatly away down an alley near Holborn. If you’re familiar with the area and this is coming as a surprise then you can forgive yourself, it’s very much a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ entrance between eye wateringly expensive jewellers.
In favour of this traditional little pub being the oldest is quite scant and mostly based on rumour. Fuller’s website claims that the original building was built in 1546 which comfortably predates most establishments rebuilt in 1667 after the big fire; however it’s pretty certain that the current structure dates to around the 1770’s.
No runner in this contest seems to be complete without some sort of loosely historically linked curio and in this case there is a legend that Elizabeth I danced around the cherry tree (now a less romantic stump) in front bar.
As a pub in general this is pretty special; sumptuous arrays of bar snacks, water jugs dangling from hooks overhead and a raised eyebrow directed at anyone who dare whip out a smart phone. It’s an antidote to the onslaught of the cookie cutter ‘gastro’ pub onslaught.
Tempting as it is to end the search here there is one gleefully pedantic flaw in Ye Olde Mitre Tavern’s otherwise strong case. Even if we ignore the rebuild, this pub, for a long time was technically in Cambridgeshire given that it fell within the grounds of Ely Palace. This theoretically takes it out of the running altogether as though the anomaly may no longer be law it’s certainly a big spanner in the works.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
Heavyweight contender Ye Olde Chesire Cheese is probably the most upfront and honest of the five we’re considering as its main signage boldly states 1667. However this is notably a post fire rebuild and there are parts of this boozy labyrinth which belong to 13th century monastery; so in terms of actual building age the ‘Cheese’ is streets ahead.
It’s also drenched in literary history; with Twain, Tennyson, Wodehouse, Dickens and Conan Doyle said to have been at least occasional drinkers here. Cuttings on the walls attest to the visits of these figures and more throughout the pubs extensive lifespan as one of London’s drinking landmarks. It boasts such fame that when its pet parrot died the fact was reported in hundreds of newspapers around the world; were it to happen today such an event might ’break the internet’ like Kim Kardashians posterior seems to keep doing.
Unfortunately despite all this sumptuous history it’s not really a fantastic pub these days. For a visit as a curio it’s certainly worth your time and you’ll quite rightly want to stay for a couple of beers. However given that the levels of comfort languish around the standards a self-flagellating puritanical monk might be happy with it’s not likely to become your cosy local.
Given that it’s owned by The National Trust you’d be forgiven for expecting for this not to be a particularly great pub and to be more reminiscent of a doily littered tea room; but you’d be wrong. In an area spoilt for genuinely good pubs (The Barrowboy & Banker, The Market Porter) The George Inn holds its own and well is doing pretty well with its age and pedigree to boot.
This is the last ‘galleried coaching inn’ in London with the rest disappearing through demolition, fire or the Luftwaffe. Even if you’re not a historian you can tell the gallery itself is probably really old because it was clearly constructed long before anyone in London bothered with (or had invented) a spirit level. Either it’s genuine or it was put together in a serious rush on a really bad DIY SOS.
As brilliant as the building is though it’s not really that old and is dated back to the end of the 17th century; having been burned down by yet another fire (this pub makes you almost relieved you live in a century with health and safety regulations). However there have been pubs on this site for almost as long as there has been a London in existence with a forerunner ‘The Tabard’ being where Chaucer started out on the Canterbury Tales. With this sort of pedigree could it be the winner?
The George Inn, London SE1 1NH
The rank outsider of this cluster of candidates is the last one we come to and whilst unlikely to win it deserves to be elevated above the honourable mentions. With parts of the building likely dating back to the 1630s The Lamb and Flag at least as a building, if not a pub, can claim to be a long standing part of London. Sadly for the purposes of being named the oldest pub in the city there is little to suggest a beer was served here for another hundred years or so after that.
Like almost every other pub in the city this was a favourite of Charles Dickens (58 years and a stroke in case you’re now wondering) as well as a number of other semi famous figures from London’s often murky past. The aspect of the Lamb and Flag which enchants though is its timelessness; the plaques around the pub honouring the regulars are a wonderful touch especially as you know that the pub has changed little over the decades as the brass has become polished by a thousand drinkers’ elbows.
Of our five candidates this is certainly the most rounded offering as a pub in its own right. It’s perfectly snug during the winter and out front is a courtyard to spill out into during the occasionally (exceptionally rare) summer evenings to enjoy the sounds and, unfortunately, the smells of the city.
Cittie of Yorke – There might have once been a pub here in the 15th Century but the current building isn’t even a hundred years old and given there are things in my freezer that’ve been there that long it doesn’t compete.
The White Hart – Oldest licenced premises in London it might be but oldest pub it ain’t. On Drury Lane and boasting a well-stocked rogues gallery of historic patrons it warrants a mention but if you’re looking for real antiquity it’s a disappointment.
Ye Olde Cock Tavern – Why did the chicken cross the road? Because the bank of England was being built where it was originally stood. A recycled pub name doesn’t really feel like proper competition besides which a recent refurb has pretty much removed anything even slightly original.
And the Winner Is…
As confessed at the outset it’s impossible, and pretty unfair, to pick any of these out as being definitively worthy of the ‘London’s Oldest Pub’ title. Depending on your sense, or sensibilities, it’s easy to lean one way or another based on the debated facts and legends surrounding each of these boozers. So rather than relying on the judgement of a perpetually slightly disgruntled pub reviewer, who is certainly not a historian, explore them for yourselves and find out where your allegiance falls. What better excuse can you find for having a few beers in the greatest city on earth than conducting genuine historical research?