So, the final furlong. If you have timed things right, you should just be entering that delightful witching hour between 2:30 and 4:00pm; the detritus of the luncheon feed has been cleared away, along with their repeat clientele, and for a time all is quiet and civilised until the frantic rush for ale between clocking off and the 6:42 train. As I have said before, this golden period is perhaps the best time for visiting the rarer and more exquisite of venues, which become too populous with tourists and armature drinkers around peak hours. It is a time when the professional loafer will find himself in an agreeably empty bar, paper in hand and in the sole company of a few threadbare and like minded fellows of a suitably vague employment status. Our final stop is just such a place, a true delight which warrants a visit at this special time, to fully appreciate its historic majesty without having to set about a camera wielding ex-colonial in order to get a drink.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
– 145 Fleet Street London EC4A 2BU
The Cheese is an old and justly famous favourite, known down the ages to generations of pub connoisseurs. The wonderful building which houses the pub is the genuine article, a true piece of old London hiding up a small back alley, complete with authentic grime stained windows, crooked doors and creaky floor boards. All too often though, all this wonderful heritage in a pub either leads to a ghastly contrived theme park attempt at olde England, or else the historic hostelry morphs slowly into a staid and sanitised living museum, selling National Trust tea towels and ceramic mugs. The Cheese is different. Don’t let the usually troubling ‘Ye Olde’ in the name deceive you, this is no hackneyed Mickey Mouse affair. The place belligerently operates as a no-nonsense drinking and dining hall and though the building is lovingly cared for and considerately adapted and improved, it is a pub first and foremost.
It is no surprise therefore to find our old friends Samuel Smiths of Tadcaster at the helm of this famous old pile, who took it on in 1992 after many years in stubbornly conservative private ownership, creating the time capsule you see today. Smiths though have done what comes naturally to this deeply traditional brewery and enhanced all the best features of the place without sacrificing one inch of good honest hospitality or heritage value. The pub increased dramatically in size, leading to the warren of subterranean vaults and cellars being opened up as drinking space, and the creation of the large court-yard like bar to the rear. But it is the original sections of this pub which make it so fascinating to sit and be in.
Passing the totally unassuming street frontage, blank save an ornate iron lamp illuminating the pubs name, one creeps up the evocatively named Wine Office Court to find the small entrance door. Once inside, bear immediately right into what must be one of the loveliest Tap Rooms in all London, and certainly the best preserved. Once the soul preserve of ‘Gentleman only’, little has changed in here for centuries, save for the addition of a modern till and a bit of Bakelite electrical fittings. Through the wonderful gloom which hangs about the place, a fire glows comfortingly in the large hearth below a fine painting of a late and long standing head waiter. The bare bench seating, glazed in bar area, faded black and chocolate panelling, nicotine yellowed ceiling, scrub top tables and saw dust strewn about the floor are all authentic and all perfect. On a cold and uninviting day, to be cloistered up in the corner of this magnificent room, away from the molestation of the modern world (mobiles cease to function here), with a pint of cheap Smith’s Porter in hand and a faded copy of the Pickwick Papers on the table, is something very close to paradise.
A pleasingly eccentric and liberal bunch of characters are also found hanging about the little bar, and many are only too pleased to talk to someone who will listen to their rambling tales of trial, tribulation and folksy racism. The only jarring intrusion on this little Elysian can be the abrupt and unwelcome arrival of a gaggle of tourists, dressed as though for light gardening duties, who insist on bawling their condescending approval for the ‘quaint li’le place’ at the top of their ample lungs. However, if visited during the aforementioned timeframe, when the hoards of man-made fibres and lens caps are being herded around the gift shop at Westminster Abbey, the honest pub-man can enjoy one of the very great tavern experiences London has to offer.
To the right of the main passage way is the Chop Room which also seeks to authentically recreate a late 18th and early 19th century style dining room, of the sort which would have been attached to almost all respectable inns and taverns. Further original bench seating is found in here, with slightly grander fittings and furnishing to befit the higher price tag which comes with the advertised ‘Waiter Service Only’. Food in here is simple English fare, steamed puddings, offal, roast meats and over-cooked veg; blissful in the wonderfully unpretentious surroundings. The place is often packed around mealtimes though, so ring ahead if you wish to sample it.
The maze of other drinking areas which were added by Smiths after 1992, form an interesting selection of nooks and quiet corners if one has clandestine business to discuss, and overspill areas when the pub is packed, but for me the real gem is the little altered world at the front, which is best sampled off peak, quietly and often.
So, another wander comes to an end, hopefully leaving you culturally enriched and suitably fortified to endure another week in the Insurance trade/visit from the mother in law/school play/marriage/ – delete as appropriate. Regrettably though, as my financial situation grows ever more perilous, I feel the pressures of London are beginning to drain my resolve. Consequently my next despatch will come from the green fields of some far flung corner of rural England, as I depart for the countryside to rejuvenate in fresh air and good inexpensive rural taverns.