London's Historic Pubs
Drink Like Dickens, Keats and Twain
On your next trip to London, imagine yourself sipping a pint of ale on a wooden bench in a low-ceilinged, wooden-beamed boozer, with a fire ablaze in the corner and red velvet curtains drawn across lattice windows. You could make this fantasy a reality.
Some London pubs date back to the 17th century, many with their original features intact. You will also find excellent examples from the 18th and 19th centuries, each with their own character and stories of famous patrons of old. So if you want to drink like Dickens, Keats or Mark Twain, then take a look at our shortlist of the best historic pubs in London.
Step into this Victorian pub, with its ornate facade flanked by Corinthian pillars, and you will feel like you’ve walked straight into the 19th century. Most of the decorative details are original, including the etched mirrors in the wood-paneled walls, the ornate stucco ceiling and the tiled bar. As a bonus, the beer is cheap for this part of central London (the pub is just a short stroll from Holborn tube station). Try the dark ales on tap, or opt for a bottle of the brewery’s organic larger.
If you’ve read romantic tales of highwaymen robbing wealthy travelers on dark roads, then you’ll love the folklore attached to this 18th-century pub. It is rumored that the famous highwayman Dick Turpin used to drink here, at the time when the pub was a good two hours’ coach ride from central London on a prime thoroughfare for the rich heading into town. Another famous local was the poet John Keats, who is said to have composed “Ode to a Nightingale” in the landscaped beer garden. The garden is one of the prettiest outdoor drinking areas in London and the pub makes full use of it in summer with barbecues and outdoor bars, so you can enjoy the spectacular views over London as far as Windsor Castle.
Simon James, flickr
A Fleet Street institution, this rambling pub with its low ceilings, sawdust floor and roaring log fires hasn’t changed much since it was built in the 17th century. The lack of natural light creates an atmospheric gloom, which has attracted many literary men. Among the regulars over the centuries were Charles Dickens, who referred to it in A Tale of Two Cities, the poet WB Yeats, the playwright Oscar Wilde and the novelists Mark Twain, William Makepeace Thackeray and Arthur Conan Doyle. You can drink your pints of bitter or ale in6 different rooms, each with their own atmosphere.
You’ll be lucky to find a seat in this tiny pub tucked away down an alley by Covent Garden. It was first licensed in 1623 and is thought to be one of the oldest pubs in London -- it used to be called the Bucket of Blood because of the bare fistfights that would spontaneously erupt here. To get a proper look around, it is best to go in the afternoon, before the after-work crowd fills all the floor space and spills out onto the pavement. Inside you’ll see the tell-tale wood beams that were used to build in the 17th century, a worn wood floor and an open fire. You might be able to pull up one of the wooden bar stools and work your way through their range of real ale or order one of their hearty portions of pie and mash.
Another Dickens haunt, and mentioned in his novel Little Dorrit, the George is London's only surviving galleried coaching inn. It was rebuilt in 1676 after the original was destroyed in a fire, and has remained in place ever since. You will find several connecting rooms to explore downstairs. The old waiting room, where passengers would have waited for their coachmen, is now the Parliament Bar. And the old Coffee Room, where Dickens hung out, is now the Middle Bar. Look for Dickens’ life insurance policy, which is hung on the wall. Upstairs in the galleried section, you can now enjoy a meal in the restaurant.
British pubs serve lager, ale (the most popular of which is bitter) and stout on draught. Ask for a pint or a half-pint measure. Of course, you will also find a range of other drinks, including wines and spirits -- but it is for pints of beer that most Brits head to the pub -- and they have done so for hundreds of years.
Antonia Windsor is a London-based freelance journalist specializing in travel. Her work appears in The Guardian, Observer, Financial Times and various travel-related magazines. She is a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers.