LONDON’S OLDEST PUB IS FILLED WITH HISTORY
If you’re looking for an old and cozy place to get a drink, it doesn’t get older and cosier than Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. Rebuilt in 1667 after the great fire of London, the location is known to have been home to a pub since 1538. Four hundred and seventy eight years has brought this pub a fair share of famous patrons like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, P.G Wodehouse, and Mark Twain.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, 145 Fleet St, London EC4A 2BU. Phone: 020 7353 6170
Stepping to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese turns back the hands of the clock. It transports you to another era when it was a regular haunt for the likes of Charles Dickens, Samuel Johnson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, P.G. Wodehouse, Alfred Tennyson and W.B. Yeats among others. It has also cropped up in various literary works like Wodehouse’s Piccadilly Jim.
Tucked away in an unassuming and tapering alley just off Fleet Street, this Grade II listed establishment is a favourite among journalists (despite the newspaper trade having long moved beyond Fleet Street), bankers and lawyers. It is popular with tourists, but only those who seek it out. Many do.
Perhaps it’s the memory of my first visit that always colours my views around Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese – a clandestine date, close to work “but no one from work can see us”, a number of delicious corners and conversations to choose from. I remember being distracted on that visit. My attraction to this space had far surpassed my attraction to the person sitting opposite me for those couple of hours. It was unexpected for this low-key pub we’d randomly entered to be akin to something out of Diagon Alley in Harry Potter’s world. It would not surprise me to find a shop selling flying brooms next door – there’s a falafel shop in reality, but I ignore that.
Word has it that, in its golden years, a highlight of this pub was a particular “rude and talkative” character there.
That air of mystery persists for me to date, despite having returned to the pub numerous times. It continues to offer a pinch of marvel in the close to dozen rooms across four floors. In this narrow jumble of a building, full of constricted corridors and chunky staircases, one can find lantern-lit dinner dens and supper rooms, an old-fashioned Chop Room, several bar spaces – big and small – decked out in dark mahogany colours and the occasional fireplaces. In fact, a number of “sexually explicit” fireplace tiles recovered from the pub – testament to a colourful past – were exhibited in The Museum of London. The low, split-level, expansive cellar apparently belonged to a 13th century Carmelite Monastery.
The food menu is robust and an array of scrumptious Sam Smith beers, fine wines and spirits suitably satisfy. Whether it’s a blow-off-steam drink with colleagues (good excuse to dash for the pub early as it gets busy by 5.30 p.m. on Fridays), a romantic dinner or catching up with friends, there will be a distinctive nook within this warmly-lit pub to fit the need. I’ve lived out many such occasions there and more.
Word has it that, in its golden years, a highlight of this pub was a particular “rude and talkative” character there. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese’s pet parrot, Polly, famed for having truckloads of personality, passed away in 1926 and garnered over 200 obituaries internationally. The taxidermy bird now sits in its favourite Taproom as an observer – like the pub itself – of generations drunkenly and invariably rolling by.
The pub was rebuilt in 1667 after the Great Fire of London, and in November 2015, another fire broke out, this time in a flat above Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. Twitter went abuzz with concern. I, like others, remember being worried, and later raising a relieved toast (or five) to its good health. I take comfort in having stumbled upon this legendary place. If you’re not paying attention, you could end up at the Cheshire Cheese (also on Fleet Street) instead. It won’t be the same though. The “Ye Olde” history is crucial. No other pub can have the same charm as the first or (debatably) oldest pub in London. And the firsts have a way of sticking.
Photographs by Juhi Pande