In London Night and Day, Sam Lambert suggests a few City taverns that were already hundreds of years old when the book was published in 1954. Because they enjoy listed status and can’t be arsed about with, the pubs haven’t changed much since then. At least not to look at. But a visitor from the last century might find some of the details have changed.
Dr Butler’s Head, Coleman Street EC2
London Night and day, 1954: ‘A.L.C. only and your bill may be 10s. Bar and buffet ground floor. Side entrance to restaurant on the first floor, with a balcony overlooking at second floor level. Half-timbered interior, carpeted floor. Rolls and butter waiting for you, beer obtained from downstairs. Coffee at 9d comes by the pot. Served by Frank, get him to tell you about Dick Turpin.’
Today: The balcony has gone, as has Frank, but the present manager was happy to tell me about the eponymous Dr Butler and ask if I wanted to see the cellar. Anticipating something dark and ancient and mysterious, I followed him downstairs. But it turned out to be just the kind of pub cellar you’d expect. “It’s just a boring cellar, mate,” I should have said.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, Wine Office Court, 145 Fleet Street
London Night and Day, 1954: ‘Built 1667 (and they don’t let you forget it, it’s on all the mustard and pepper pots). Ye fare will probably add up to around 10s. Tailed waiters tread the sawdust floor. Pre-war eminent visitors were given a pipe and tobacco free, but times are changed. Seating mostly in horse boxes, three aside, others on Windsor chairs. Alleged spiritual home of Dr Johnson.’
2017: Interestingly, London Night And Day calls this pub simply ‘Cheshire Cheese’. Perhaps it became ‘Ye Olde’ Cheshire Cheese when another Cheshire Cheese turned up not far away, also claiming, like its Fleet Street namesake, to have had Charles Dickens as a customer. But that one doesn’t have a parrot. This one does. And lots of coat hooks.
Here’s the other Cheshire Cheese. Not so much ‘Ye Olde’ as ‘Ye More Recente’:
Simpson’s Tavern, Ball Court, 38½ Cornhill EC3
London Night and Day, 1954: ‘We suggest the grill room on the ground floor, where Ernie (been there 45 years) will show you to your seat and hover anxiously over you. Panelled room, high-backed horse boxes, three aside. Speedy service and 6s. will cover you on a three-course lunch. The people you will see, in city suits, with Oxford accents, 90 percent male. In a corner of the room, a grill, the coke still glows (to keep the gravy warm). No chops, no steak. Would you mind putting your hat on the brass hat rail, Sir? Albert in chef’s hat presides over the grill.’
Today: No chops? Their website proudly claims that Simpson’s Tavern is the oldest chophouse in London, so perhaps the writer of London Night and Day was a bit confused on his visit. If you watched SS:GB on TV you’ll recognise the interior of this place as the location of the first meeting between DS Archer and the American journalist Barbara Barga. It’s also supposed to be the inspiration behind Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley, although I suspect the number of tucked-away pubs claiming this fact is similar to the number who claim Dickens as a regular. Upstairs, the staff enjoyed reading about the 1954 version of their place of work.
Watling Restaurant, corner of Watling Street and Bow Lane
London Night and Day, 1954: Claims to be the oldest house, first to be built after the Great Fire in Cordwainers ward. Reputedly a refreshment house for Wren’s workmen. Home from home for Australians during the war. One bar and seats for 20 in the front room. Don’t ring the bell unless you want to buy drinks all round.
2017: This pub has also become ‘Ye Olde’, presumably in a bid to attract the tourist dollar. The bell is still there but, luckily for any hapless visitor, nobody seems to be aware of the tradition once associated with it.