Jamaica Wine House, London (Cornhill)-013

The Jamaica Wine House, St Michael’s Alley.


If you believe everything you read, the traditional pub is in imminent danger of extinction with around 30 closing every week. It’s enough to drive a man to drink.
But it’s not all gloom and doom. We still have some thriving hostelries in this country, and while London is not immune from the plague of closures the mighty metropolis can still boast a greater concentration of truly exceptional pubs than anywhere else on the planet. Trust me, I’ve done the research.
So, in the age of the bucket list, I thought it might be a good idea to select ten London hostelries (in no particular order) that, in my humble opinion, you should all visit before the Grim Reaper calls last orders at the bar.
Oh, and mine’s a pint.


Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, Wine Office Court, EC4

Although the Fourth Estate left the Street of Shame years ago, Fleet Street remains an area of charm and character in large part because of the number of historic and traditional pubs that remain, of which ‘the Cheese’ is more historic and traditional than most.
The current building was ‘rebuilt’ in 1667 and inside you’ll find a warren of bars and dining rooms, floored in stone and clad in dark wood. This is the kind of place for which the adjective ‘Dickensian’ is most apt. Charlie knew the pub well, as did Dr Samuel Johnson.
Today the pub belongs to Yorkshire brewer Samuel Smith, who have updated it while respecting the historic fabric of the place.
Find yourself a seat in the small ground floor Gentlemen’s Bar, order a bottle of Porter, block out the tourists (there are always tourists at the Cheese) and gaze off into the roaring fire. Suddenly you have stepped back in time.

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The George, circa 1920, and (below) as it is today.

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The George Inn, 77 Borough High Street, SE1

In a courtyard off Borough High Street you’ll find the George, London’s sole surviving galleried coaching inn. These days the George is a third of its original size, although all things considered we should perhaps be thankful for what has survived.
The bare bones of the current George date from 1676, although ale and accommodation might have been available as early as 1542 when it was one of many inns in the area. All roads here once led to old London Bridge, the main route in and out of the old walled City of London. The traffic was a nightmare apparently, and this was years before double yellow lines.
The George is today overseen by the National Trust. It is always busy, always buzzing and always running alive with tourists. You have been warned.

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The Jerusalem Tavern, 55 Britton Street, EC1

You don’t get quite so many tourists at the Jerusalem Tavern in Clerkenwell, but those that do nip in can be forgiven for thinking they have discovered one of London’s oldest surviving pubs. In a way they have. Although, at the same time, they haven’t.
Let me explain.
There’s been a Jerusalem Tavern in Clerkenwell since the 14thCentury, its name taken from the nearby priory of St John of Jerusalem.
The current incarnation, however, dates from 1996, although the building itself was built around 1720 with a frontage circa 1810. The small interior is distinctly Georgian in feel with wood panelling, distressed furniture and floorboards that slope. As a recreation of an old London tavern the ‘JT’ could be considered a little contrived, but the age and location of the building means that this particular example of pub as historical recreation works, and it works bloody well.

This is the sole London pub of the Suffolk-based St Peter’s Brewery, who produce an astounding range of beers. The JT has a changing selection on draught and more in the bottle. The ‘old style’ porter is exceptional.
The pub is small and gets busy. The staff, meanwhile, look like people who have failed the auditions for a remake of Richard Linklater’s Slacker and decided instead to work in a pub until the right media job comes along. They can appear grumpy at times, so be sure to give them your best smile.

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Viaduct Interior

The interior of the Viaduct Tavern.

The Viaduct Tavern, 126 Newgate Street, EC1

Standing on the corner of Giltspur Street and Newgate Street, opposite the Old Bailey, stands this handsome old pub, named in honour of nearby Holborn Viaduct, an engineering marvel of its day which opened for traffic in 1869.
The Viaduct pub, built the same year, revels in the glitter of a gin palace, although an 1898 facelift provided a gentle nod towards the Arts and Craft Movement. There is some lovely etched glass and extravagant mirrors, and of particular interest are three huge panels depicting buxom Pre-Raphaelite ladies who represent agriculture, banking and the arts. The small bullet hole visible on the ‘arts’ panel was the result of an ‘accident’ during the First World War.
Oscar Wilde was a regular during his infamous 1895 trial for gross indecency. To help him forget his troubles he loved nothing more than a pint of porter and a bag of pork scratchings, the really hard core ones that still have the hair on them.
OK, I made that last bit up.

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Cittie of Yorke, 22 High Holborn, WC1

If Harry Potter ever had a local, then the Cittie of Yorke would surely be it. This is a fantastic fantasy of a place. I’ve drank here many, many times but I’m still not entirely sure it hasn’t all been a strange, strange dream.
This extraordinary pub is part old London tavern, part baronial manor house; ‘a self-conscious, romantic evocation of Olde Englande,’ according to CAMRA’s 2004 Regional Inventory of London Pub Interiors. This is almost pub as medieval theme park.
The front bar is nice, if a bit Laura Ashley, but it is the long back ‘room’ that causes the jaw to drop. Booths line one wall – for legal eagles from nearby Lincoln’s Inn to consult their clients in private – while the high pitched roof and arched windows are spectacular. As indeed are the huge vats suspended on iron pillars, emptied at the start of the Blitz and never refilled.
Like the Cheese, the pub is owned by Sam Smith’s, so the beer is occasionally remarkable (Imperial Stout, Taddy Porter) while the building is well maintained too. It was known as Hennekey’s Long Room in a previous life.

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Dog and Duck, 16 Bateman Street, W1

Get along to Soho pronto my friends, because the character of London’s most bohemian quarter is changing rapidly. Developers have got this little patch of W1 in their sites, and if they get their way the shabby glamour and neon allure will be replaced by gleaming office blocks, designer shops for bearded hipsters and chain restaurants.
When you do get along to Soho be sure to pay this pub a visit. This small but perfectly formed boozer dates from 1897 and its name tips a hat to Soho’s past as an area for hunting. The interior is a wonder to behold, a riot of ornate tiles, etched glass and late Victoriana.
The cask beer is pretty good too, but arrive early if you want a seat.

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Hand and Shears, Middle Street, EC1

This lovely, ever so slightly battered old boozer is so unremarkable that it is totally remarkable. There is not a whiff of pretence here, just a pub steeped in history that has intrinsically changed little in the past 160 years.
Tucked away in Middle Street, close to Smithfield meat market and St Batholomew’s hospital, the current pub dates from 1849 and is Grade II listed. However there has been an inn of the same name on this site since the 12th century. Its name comes from the annual cloth fair. Held in the area until the 1850s, the event was opened from the tavern steps by the Lord Mayor of London’s ceremonial snipping of a ribbon.
The pub, still boasting much of its original Victorian interior, offers reassuring bar snacks and an excellent and changing selection of cask ales. On winter afternoons gas fires hiss in two of the four separate bars and looking up from your newspaper you half expect to see John Betjeman sitting across from you. For many years the late Poet Laureate lived just yards away in Cloth Fair and the Hand and Shears is very much a Betjeman kind of pub. It is an unspoilt delight, and long may it remain that way.

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Craft Ale Co, Leather Lane, EC1

If you are even remotely serious about beer you should get yourself along to this place.
Founded by Martin Hayes in 2011, to ‘celebrate old school British pub values alongside the very best in modern standards of service’, this Clerkenwell pub – very definitely not in the City of London, despite what you might read on the company website – marked the company’s arrival on the London drinking scene. Further London outlets have followed, in Brixton, Clapham, Covent Garden and Islington.
Leather Lane is an old style London street market and the Clockhouse, to give the pub its former name, was an old style, no thrills boozer catering for stall holders and residents from the nearby Bourne Estate. It has been reinvented although not completely remodelled by Hayes and co and today offers a nice balance of being retro traditional and, whisper it at the back, hip.
The pub’s original mirrored ceiling remains, as does a stunning Charrington mirror that adorns one wall. If memory serves me correctly Charrington ale, by contrast, wasn’t quite so stunning.
But it is the beer that takes top billing here. On my last visit I counted 21 keg offerings (craft beer and cider) in addition to 13 cask ales and two cask ciders. Apparently the Covent Garden branch has an incredible 45 taps.
There has been some talk of a schism between the craft beer and real ale camps, but here you’ll find the two living side by side in almost perfect harmony.

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The Jamaica Wine House, St Michael’s Alley, EC3

Assorted developers, architects and bureaucrats are doing their best to strip the City of London of its remaining vestiges of character and charm. Just look at the monstrosities taking shape near Cannon Street station!
But if you head off the main drag, turn down the likes of St Michael’s Alley for instance, you’ll still get a flavour of the old City, a sense of what the Square Mile must have been like during the 18th and 19th centuries. You’ll also come across the Jamaica Wine House, which is pure Dickens if ever I saw it.
The Jamaica, first opened in the 1670s, takes its name from the fact that merchants who traded in the West Indies favoured it as meeting place. It is also reckoned to be the first place in London to sell coffee, although I doubt they did latte back then. Today’s Jamaica Wine House dates from 1869.

It is now in the hands of Kent brewer Shepherd Neame, the oldest in the country, and remains largely unspoilt. Sheps of Faversham seem to tread a similar path on these delicate matters as Sam Smith’s, that is to take on old pubs and make them contemporary while respecting their antiquity.
Dark wood dominates the interior at the Jamaica, which is divided into a number of different bars, while men in suits quaff Spitfire and talk animatedly. You are left in no doubt that you are in a real City pub.

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The Wenlock Arms, Wenlock Street, N1

These days we take for granted the quality and variety of beer available in London, but it wasn’t always the case. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, when keg ruled and cask ale was the exception, one sometimes had to go in search of a decent pint.
The Wenlock, tucked away in the twilight zone where Islington and Hackney rub shoulders, dates from 1836 and was probably the tap for the nearby Wenlock Brewery, which closed in the 1960s. However it was in the early 1990s when, as a purveyor of an ever-changing array of cask ales, that the pub became a favourite destination for the discerning beer drinker.
It subsequently won numerous awards and, from personal recollection at the time, also functioned as a local community boozer. But Hackney has been changing for many years now and in 2010 an application was made to knock the pub down and replace it with a bland development bereft of originality and style. London has enough of that sort of thing already, take my word for it.
I’m pleased to report, however, that a lengthy campaign to save the pub proved successful and it re-opened in 2013, although only after a bit of a wash and brush up. Subsequently it’s a little smarter these days than of old, but at heart remains a friendly and inviting pub with no airs and graces and excellent beer.