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The Jerusalem Tavern, Britton Street, Clerkenwell.

There are, in total, some forty eight hostelries featured in my forthcoming Clerkenwell and Islington Pubs book, but if you were to put me on the spot and ask me which one, above all the others, I would choose to drink in then I would answer, without a second of hesitation, the Jerusalem Tavern in my beloved Clerkenwell.

Things have changed in Clerkenwell since I grew up in the area and, as I discover each time I return, they continue to change, and rarely for the better. Fortunately, if you dig beneath the artifice and know where to look you’ll find reassuring signs of old Clerkenwell, of the real Clerkenwell.

It always comes as a relief then, amid all this change and ‘progress’, to head for the Jerusalem Tavern after a perambulation around the area. Upon entering this small but perfectly formed pub you are instantly and irresistibly transported back in time. Bare floorboards and mismatched wooden furniture dominate, the general air is distinctly antiquated and the feel is one of a Georgian tavern or coffee house. This must be one of London’s oldest surviving pubs, right?

Well, yes. And no.

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There has been a Jerusalem Tavern of one form or another in Clerkenwell, with slight variations in name, since at least the seventeenth-century. The current incarnation, in surprisingly sleepy and peaceful Britton Street, certainly looks not far off that vintage.  Although the ‘shop’ frontage dates from around 1810, the building itself is distinctly Georgian and a sign proclaims ‘Anno 1720’ to leave us in no doubt. But not all is as it appears, for the premises have been occupied by a pub since only 1996.

Number 55 Britton Street was originally a merchant’s townhouse and over the years has been home to a clockmaker’s workshop and an architectural practice. In the early 1990s, as the Jerusalem Coffee House, it operated as a recreation of a Georgian coffee house and the wood panelling, pew seating and Delft tiles you see today are from this period. They really do help give the Jerusalem Tavern a magical, old world feel.

Upon entering this small but perfectly formed pub you are instantly and irresistibly transported back in time

The earliest version of the pub is recorded in the mid-seventeenth-century as the St John of Jerusalem, where today’s Aylesbury Street and Jerusalem Passage meet. When it was demolished subsequent taverns, with the occasional and subtle change of name, cropped up in several nearby locations.

In the 1750s, for instance, the Jerusalem Tavern was located in Red Lion Street. There is a nice historical irony in the fact that in 1937 Red Lion Street was renamed Britton Street.

To further muddy the historical waters, from the 1740s onwards there was a tavern operating from inside St John’s Gate calling itself, at various times, the Jerusalem Tavern, the Old Jerusalem Tavern and the Old Gate. It stayed here until 1876, when it moved just a few yards to occupy a newly built building in St John’s Square, number 27, which is still with us today. By then it was calling itself the St John’s Gate Tavern but closed as a pub in 1915. The name then, as now, was inspired by the Priory of St John of Jerusalem, a powerful religious order that once dominated the area, and still do in some ways.

The current Jerusalem Tavern is the sole London pub of the small St.Peter’s Brewery, who are based in Suffolk. Despite their modest size they produce a breathtaking range of superb beers and the line-up here in Clerkenwell is constantly changing.

Choose your moment and this is the ideal pub for contemplation and gentle toping. On balmy summer days, the silence and stillness sometimes reminds me of the sleepy Clerkenwell I grew up with, the Clerkenwell that still had a distinctly village air about it.

On sombre afternoons in winter, meanwhile, with the fire lit in the small front bar and the sound of a ticking clock hanging heavy in the air, I come here to take refuge from the elements and, who knows, perhaps connect with a ghost or two. Clerkenwell, one way or another, is full of ghosts.

Clerkenwell book cover

Clerkenwell and Islington Pubs is published by Amberley on May 15.

 

 

 

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