Sights worth seeing,
September 15 2023
A trip to a London pub is standard far for any visit to the capital. But why visit any old London pub? You could enjoy a pint in some of the city’s most historic venues where curious items from the past are still on display. Sometimes these oddities are so strange, you’ll wonder why they exist and how they got there. We peek inside London’s pub curiosities and reveal the secret stories they tell.
Shaped like a large wedge of cheese, this is a pub with a gorgeous green and gold mosaic exterior and a most unusual interior. Greeting you as you enter is a guardian friar above the front door – and there are jolly friars in metal reliefs, sculptures and mosaics everywhere! The pub was once a Dominican friary, and when architect Herbert Fuller-Clark redesigned it in 1905, he used decorations created by artist Henry Poole and sculptor Frederick Callcott. It’s very much in the style of the arts and crafts movement, with stained glass windows and marble archways, giving the pub an unusually peaceful feel. It all makes for a very unusual and thoroughly grand pub experience.
Few old London pubs have kept their snob screens, but The Lamb in Bloomsbury is an exception. Snob screens are frosted glass screens placed at eye level to offer privacy to modest middle-class Victorians, who didn’t want to be seen enjoying a pint in their local boozer. These snob screens open and close so you can order and take your pint through the window, but they’re not the only Victorian oddity here. The Lamb also has a working polyphon, a Victorian mechanical version of a jukebox. For a charity donation, the staff will get it to play.
Rumour has it that Southwark Tavern is on the site of a former debtor’s prison, which probably explains the jail cells inside. The pub’s location also puts it close to the notorious Marshalsea debtor’s prison, which once housed Charles Dickens’ father and inspired the novel Little Dorrit. The jail cells in Southwark Tavern are now snugs where you can languish with a beer and contemplate the fate of the people once locked in here. The Clink Prison Museum is just around the corner if you want to know more about the lives of prisoners dating back to 1144.
What did you just call me? Meet Polly, a stuffed African Grey parrot who once had a very vicious tongue. Polly lived at the pub from 1875 till his death in 1926 and was known for his dreadful temper and foul-mouthed antics. Polly amused Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese’s Fleet Street patrons so much he became famous across London, and over 200 newspapers announced his death. Today, Polly sits, stuffed, behind the bar in the taproom.
It’s worth noting this pub is also one of London’s last 17th century chophouses, rebuilt after the Great Fire of London in 1666. It’s served many literary greats, from Charles Dickens to Agatha Christie, and there’s still sawdust on the floor. So pop in for a truly legendary pub visit and say hi to Polly.
This may be one of the finest examples of a historic Victorian pub in London. This beautifully preserved and restored saloon was built in 1872 and as well as its booths divided by etched windows, it has huge engraved gilt mirrors under the ornate red and gold ceiling. But perhaps the best feature – the original marble tiles and urinals – are for those who venture to the gents loo. The urinals are an important reason the pub is Grade II listed.
If you look above the bar at this East End pub, you will see a hanging net of hot cross buns. It’s part of an annual Easter tradition that continues to this day. The story behind this tradition explains how The Widow’s Son got its name. The pub was built in 1848 on the site of an old widow’s cottage. When her only son became a sailor, she promised to bake him a hot cross bun and keep it for his return. When her son drowned at sea, the widow refused to give up hope, preserving the bun and making a fresh one each year to add to the collection. Now, sailors of the Royal Navy come every Good Friday to place a bun in the net as an act of remembrance for those lost at sea.
The Prospect of Whitby is probably London’s oldest riverside inn. There’s been a drinking establishment here since the 1520s, and the sense of history and skulduggery clings to every wall. Notorious pirates and robbers frequented it, robbing and causing mayhem. Perhaps the biggest nod to its notoriously criminal past is the noose that hangs outside the back of the pub. Some think it’s there to commemorate Judge Jeffreys, nicknamed the Hanging Judge. He was notorious in the 17th century judge for sentencing many criminals to death – and apparently he liked to watch the hangings from the pub’s balcony. Pop in, if you dare!
After a drink in these weird and wonderful London watering holes, rest your head in one of our comfortable and affordable Thistle hotels in Central London. You won’t have to travel far for a pint when you stay at Thistle Bloomsbury Park, Thistle Hyde Park Lancaster Gate or Thistle Trafalgar Square.