The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Aug 10, 2007

Pub Crawl

Gary Pitts arranged a pub crawl for us last night. This was not just an excuse to get drunk on company money, I must hasten to add. Indeed, the social and sports club organises regular historic tours. The nosh and tipple are just an added benefit.

Gary is a Guide with the City of London. He took the twelve month-long course a dozen years ago - complete with classes in the Guildhall, practical and theoretical exams. He is a full-time employee where I work but likes to run the occasional tour on the side. A sort of paying hobby, don't you know. When he announced yesterday's tour, and my colleagues at work professed an interest in it, I decided to join them. He said he would take us to five pubs, four of which have an interesting history, and one which does not; three of which are south of the Thames, and two that are north.

A bus took us from Bishopsgate to the Angel pub in Rotherhithe. On the way, on Tooley street, Gary pointed out where Michael Caine was born and raised. It is not the most salubrious area, but then not much of the East of London has been overly posh. We tried to ignore the usual tourist traps, London Dungeon among them, as we crept past in the evening traffic.
Just outside the Angel pub are the remains of a hunting lodge of Edward III. Not much remains of it, except a low stone wall half-buried in a grassy mound. There have been pubs at the location of the Angel for centuries, but the most recent one is only about a hundred-odd years old. The place used to seethe with smugglers and low-life of every description. These days it is getting gentrified - as is much of the East End. Samuel Pepys frequented this pub, as did Turner, who painted his wonderful Fighting Temeraire after watching the valiant little ship being towed up the Thames past here before being broken up. The superb views of the river, especially towards Tower Bridge, attracted the likes of Whistler. Captain Cook is said to have set sail from here on his trips of discovery, and Captain Jones of the Mayflower recruited his crew from here before setting out with the Pilgrim Fathers to the New World.

It is an old pub, originally run by monks from the nearby Bermondsey monastery. In mediaeval times, the good brothers seem to have had a monopoly on brewing. This part of the city came to be known as Smelly London, after the pong emanating from the breweries, tanneries, glue factories and docks that were established here over the centuries. The City Fathers preferred to keep the stinky professions outside of where they made their money from business. Thankfully, not much of the stench remains today, what with the riverside buildings having been converted to posh residences.

We partook of a brief buffet dinner here before we walked, maybe a couple of hundred yards, to the next pub on our list. The Americans in our group were quite agog, having been given advance notice of it. The Mayflower is right by where the Pilgrim Fathers began their escape from England and its persecution, and founded the colonies in the Eastern US Seaboard, whence stemmed the hard-working ethic and associated guilt of taking holidays that informs US life today. There are nautical items dotting the interiors, and a brick fireplace, and fairly comfortable seating. There are quotations from various people painted in gold on the walls and wooden pillars. One particularly apropos one is about the seats being like a barber's chair that fits all buttocks (Shakespeare).

It was not always called the Mayflower, of course. When the Puritans began their great emigration, it was called The Shippe. It changed its name in the 1950s, after a restoration, in a fit of enthusiasm for attracting American tourists in search of their roots. Those with a mania for trivia would probably know that it is famous too for being licensed to purvey US postage stamps, although what one would do with said stamps once one procured them is anybody's guess. In 2003, the Post Office issued a stamp in honour of the ship (and by association, of the pub).

The lovely church of St. Mary Rotherhithe stands near the pub. It has been built on slightly elevated ground, with walls around it. As the area is part of the Thames' flood-plain, the walls need to be high enough to prevent damage to the building from the frequent floods.

We piled back into the bus and headed towards Greenwich, passing Deptford. This is the westernmost part of Kent, and derives its name from Deep Ford, a dip in the old Roman Watling Street that ran to Dover from London. A more depressing dump is hard to find, I dare say. Filled with council tower blocks and dirty streets, seedy shops and violent gangs, it is rarely on a tourist itinerary. An intrepid soul might like to take a look at St. Nicholas' church, where Kit Marlowe is buried. I felt no immediate hurry to join him in that graveyard, and it was with a sense of renewed appreciation for the beauty of London that we arrived in Maritime Greenwich.

We entered the lovely Georgian Trafalgar Tavern. There is a little statue of Admiral Nelson outside the entrance, and Gary regaled us with a story. After Nelson's death at the Battle of Trafalgar, his men didn't want to bury him at sea, so they pickled him in a vat of brandy to preserve his body during the voyage home. Being sailors who appreciated their grog, the presence of his corpse in their drink didn't bother them overmuch, and they drank up all the brandy in the vat. So they had to transfer him to another vat. By the time that vat was emptied, the fleet arrived in England, and Nelson could still be recognised, well-preserved as he was, by his blond hair. Dickens and Thackeray frequented this tavern. In 1878, James Tissot produced this beautiful image of the Terrace of the tavern. The pub became famous for its Whitebait Dinners, originally organised by the likes of Gladstone and Pitt, which continues to this day in the Nelson Room, where the Saints and Sinners Club of London (an educational organization dedicated to true crime investigation methods and results) congregates to enjoy the small Thames fish in its traditional sauce (or for the adventurous, Cajun style).

[The wife, her sis, her bro-in-law and I have been to this pub before. At time the place was filled with cigarette smoke, but driven by hunger, we had to bear it. After this year's smoking ban in England, it is a fresh pleasure to be able to visit the lovely old watering holes.]

By now, I had consumed a couple of beers, a Bacardi Breezer (Oliver, an intern, assured me that this tipple is mainly consumed by teenage mothers) and a lemonade, while my colleagues had downed several pints and were increasingly raucous. Simone announced that this sort of behaviour would be considered alcoholism in Germany, but the Dutch and the Australians in the group were ready for much, much more. Party-time, they roared, and protested when Gary urged us to hurry up to get to the next two pubs on our itinerary.

We drove back north across the river via the long Blackwall tunnel to Canary Wharf. En route, Gary pointed out the monstrous Millennium Dome and the New Billingsgate Market. A couple of decades ago, when land around here was toxic and cheap, the old fish-market had been moved from its original location in the City. It was used as a beacon to attract investment and construction in the Docklands. Now that the area is upscale and rich and self-sustaining, there's talk of moving Billingsgate farther out. And yet another bit of London's history will fall by the wayside.

We arrived at the wonderfully named Prospect of Whitby at around half past nine in the district of London known as Wapping. An old Saxon settlement (literally the place of Wæppa's people), by the 16th century, this was a warren of filthy streets and inhabited by sailors and smugglers. These days, Liam lives there, and it's not the same anymore (and I mean that in a good way, heheh). The famous Execution Docks are in the vicinity, known for the hanging of maritime convicts in the river till the rising waters rose over their heads thrice. I expect the first immersion would have proven fatal, but the English are thorough in what they do. Hanging Judge Jeffreys plied his trade here, and indeed would repair to our tavern after his latest fit of meting out punishment, where he liked to watch the convicts being hauled up on the gallows behind the pub.
The Prospect of Whitby is named after a boat that was moored nearby (the boat was constructed in Yorkshire, hence the name). In a previous incarnation, the pub was called The Devil's Tavern, being known as a meeting place of smugglers and villains. Its timber beams and pillars appear to be from a ship's mast. A small balcony over the river is pleasant to sit in during summer, and the sight of a hangman's noose adds a touch of romance, were one dating Morticia Addams.

The last pub on our crawl - the only one without much of a history - was Captain Kidd, named after the 17th centuryprivateer, and pirate. Though he had become a pirate in the employ of the Royal Navy, and operated with the permission of the King of England, he was hanged at Wapping (the rope broke during the first attempt, after which he was strung up again, left in the river to be immersed thrice, then fished out, and tarred and preserved in gibbets for public display. The pub itself is quite recent, spacious to host a large (and by now unruly) crowd of crawlers, and has a nice river view to recommend it.

We have a last pint here (I abstain) and trundle back, a bit worse for the wear, to Bishopsgate. Enthusiastic risk types such as Silke are keen to go on to the Abacus, the City meat market (I am told), but I don't join them. Heigh-ho for home, I always say.

And so to bed.


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