Beer & Dickens London – Day 3

  1. Westminster Abbey
  2. The Red Lion (Parliament Street)
  3. Charles Dickens’ All the Year Round Apartment
  4. The Old Curiosity Shop
  5. George IV
  6. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
  7. Ye Olde Mitre
  8. Furnival’s Inn Plaque & Dickens Bust
  9. Lincoln’s Inn Fields
  10. The Knights Templar
  11. Temple Church
  12. St. Paul’s Cathedral
  13. The Royal Exchange
  14. St. Michael’s Church Cornhill
  15. The Counting House
  16. Day 3 Final Words
  17. Map of Day 3
  18. References

London. It was once said that “the happiness of London is not to be conceived but by those who have been in it.”1 As I walked by Buckingham Palace, blockaded by preparations for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, the city was about to experience an eruption of happiness. It didn’t take great imagination to believe that the “passion for crowds is nowhere feasted so full as in London.”2

Buckingham Palace preparing for the Platinum Jubilee

Just past Buckingham Palace is St. James Park, one of the many beautiful parks in London that make it so easy to escape the masses. One could spend days just exploring them without ever leaving the city or entering a museum. It is one of the many characteristics of London which has always charmed me.

I am seated on one of the benches in St. James Park, opposite the lake; the proud palace of Buckingham is on my right; the goodly towers of the abbey of Westminster on my left… I have, before now, when seated here, under favorable circumstances, thought that few scenes in the world, of a limited extent, could be finer than this…

Old Humphery’s Walks in London (1855)
St. James Park

St. James was in the peak of Spring. Life was buzzing in every direction. If happiness had a tangible essence, maybe it comes from the natural vibes of photosynthetic rapture. As much as I would have loved to sit on a bench à la Old Humphrey and soak in the vibrancy of life, I had a date with something a little less life-like.

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

“Westminster Abbey is the peculiar resting-place of English literary genius; and among those whose sacred dust lies there, or whose names are recorded on the walls, very few are more worthy than Charles Dickens of such a home. Fewer still, we believe, will be regarded with more honour as time passes and his greatness grows upon us.”

Footnote quote from the London Times. The Life of Charles Dickens by John Forster (1875)

Death.

To enter Westminster Abbey is to be surrounded by it. Death doesn’t get any more famous than this. Stephen Hawking, Isaac Newton, Queen Elizabeth I. The list of historical celebrities whose lives and legacies have converged on this one single point in the universe is so impressive that you almost feel disappointed when you don’t recognize a name. Nowhere I have been makes me feel like I am walking thru a History Channel episode more than Westminster Abbey. And yet the person whose name I was there to see inscribed in marble wanted to be buried somewhere else.

Charles Dickens resting place and my 1911 Bleak House

He would himself have preferred to lie in the small graveyard under Rochester Castle wall, or in the little churches of Cobham or Shorne

The Life of Charles Dickens, Vol. I-III, Complete by John Forster (1876)

Inspired by the London Times quote and with the plea of the Dean of Westminster, the family of Dickens conceded, allowing him to be buried in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey.

With my pilgrimage to the end of Dickens’ life story complete, it was now time to return to the land of the living and seek the places where Dickens lives on. There is no better way to achieve this than with a proper Dickensian pub crawl.

“We believe these old inns attract to-day not only because of their quaintness and the old-world atmosphere which adheres to them, but because of the tradition which clings to them; and the most popular tradition of all, and the one of which the proprietors are most proud, is the Dickens tradition.

There are scores of such inns in the city of London and throughout the country whose very names immediately conjure up some merry scene in his books and revive never-to-be-forgotten memories of exhilarating incidents.

Time, the devastating builder, and the avaricious landlord have played havoc with many. Several, however, remain to tell their own tale, whilst the memory of others is sustained by a modern building bearing the old name, all of which are landmarks for the Dickens lover.”

Bertram Waldrom Matz. “The Inns and Taverns of “Pickwick” 1921

Happily, the first one was just up the street.

The Red Lion (Parliament Street)

There is a Red Lion public-house there to-day—not the same one Dickens visited—that was demolished in 1899—but on the same spot. It is more pretentious than the old one…

B. W. Matz. “Dickensian Inns & Taverns.” (1922)

The pretentious Red Lion sits on one of the most famous half-miles of street in the world, between Trafalgar Square and the Houses of Parliament. I can’t vouche for it’s reputation amongst the locals as probably it never receives any, but it is the pub in London that is dearest to my heart. Back in 2006, it became the first London pub I ever had the pleasure to enter, and it was there that I stood shoulder to shoulder with mobs of football fans while Cristiano Rinaldo and Portugal ripped the hearts and guts out of everyone in the room by beating Wayne Rooney’s England squad in the 2006 World Cup. As I tiptoed over the ethereal entrails strewn about the floor of the The Red Lion, what could have been an inauspicious beginning to my London pub experience was actually a pretty happy moment in my life. Not because England lost, but for being caught up in the intensity of a sport culture to which I was completely unfamiliar.

The Red Lion

It was, however, not as charming an experience as Charles Dickens had as a boy about 180 years earlier in one of the pub’s prior incarnations. On the way home from running an errand for his father, he stopped into The Red Lion in his “poor white hat, little jacket, and corduroy trowsers”3.

“What is your very best—the VERY best—ale, a glass?’ For the occasion was a festive one, for some reason: I forget why. It may have been my birthday, or somebody else’s. ‘Two-pence,’ says he. ‘Then,’ says I, ‘just draw me a glass of that, if you please, with a good head to it.”

John Forster. “The Life of Charles Dickens, Vol. I-III, Complete.” (1876)

This experience was used in David Copperfield and in the novel, the ale was called Genuine Stunning. The conclusion to the scene also ended the same.

They served me with the ale, though I suspect it was not the Genuine Stunning; and the landlord’s wife, opening the little half-door of the bar, and bending down, gave me my money back, and gave me a kiss that was half admiring and half compassionate, but all womanly and good, I am sure.

Charles Dickens. “David Copperfield.” Chapter XI

How charming underage drinking was dealt with in the Victorian Era! Alas, for me there was no Landlord wife waiting behind a little half-door to charm me out of my alcoholic pursuits, so I took my seat at a small table, ordered a Seafarer’s English Ale and let Bleak House absorb me back in to the case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce.

…what better subject for your dreams will you find than the glowing pages of a Dickens book?

Dickensian Inns & Taverns by B.W. Matz (1922)

After leaving the din of 2006 World Cup memories behind, I headed north past Trafalgar Square and along the Strand. Already in 1903, one author noted that “Within the last decade certain changes have taken place in this thoroughfare which might be expected to make it unrecognizable to those of a former generation who may have known it well.”4 By 1923, WWI had happened, and whatever had changed since Dickens’ time was well in the rear-view mirror. Rather than lamenting the reality of change, you get a more romanticised view of the current state of London.

Nowhere in the streets of London is the ebb and flow of the tide of Dickens’ life better mirrored than in the illustrious highway called The Strand…

The London of Dickens by Walter Dexter (1923)

After a short walk and a block off of the Strand, I arrived at a building with this plaque.

Charles Dickens’ All the Year Round Apartment

Blue Plaque for Charles Dickens
The former apartment and headquarters for the Dickens publication All the Year Round

All the Year Round was a weekly literary journal which Dickens used to serialize the release of A Tale of Two Cities5 as well as publish articles on various social topics, such as this one called A Poor Man and His Beer which satirizes how a Friar organizes a garden community for the poor where the beer is free but temperance is self-governed by a strict code of rules and regulations.

Walking further on, I came to perhaps the most controversial Dickens site in London.

The Old Curiosity Shop

There is no question but what it is the relique of the first rank usually associated with Dickens’ London, as witness the fact that there appears always to be some numbers of persons gazing fondly at its crazy old walls.

The present proprietor appears to have met the demand which undoubtedly exists, and purveys souvenirs, prints, drawings, etc., to the Dickens admirers who throng his shop “in season” and out, and from all parts of the globe, with the balance, as usual, in favour of the Americans.

Francis Miltoun. “Dickens’ London.” 1903

The Old Curiosity Shop was a novel about an orphan girl, Little Nell, who lives with her grandfather in his little shop. In 1876’s Dickens’s London by T. Edgar Pemberton, he remarks that “It has always been to us a source of regret that the site of the Old Curiosity Shop itself has not been given us.” At the end of the novel, Dickens writes “the old house had long ago been pulled down, and a fine broad road was in its place”. When the real shop is described, skeptical words and phrases like “supposed”7, “reputed”4, “claimed (without authority)”6, and “cannot be regarded as absolutely certain”8 abound. As of my visit in May 2022, the shop was undergoing renovations and was unvisitable, probably to the posthumous delight of Dickens devotees of old.

George IV

This pub near the Old Curiosity Shop is believed by several sources to be on the site of one of the pubs mentioned in The Pickwick Papers, a novel which became “the most popular book in our language”9 largely for its depictions of inn scenes. The Pickwick Papers perhaps spawned the idea of a Dickensian pub crawl in the first place.

George IV

George IV falls into an odd category of Dickensian Inn. It is a modern pub in the location of an older pub which inspired a pub of a different name in the book.

The house was noteworthy, with its overhanging front resting on rough wooden pillars, and was named Old George IVth.

It is now replaced by a newly-built house of the same name, in modern style of plate glass, mahogany, and glitter.

It is highly probable that the old tavern represented the location and character of “The Magpie and Stump,” the rendezvous of Mr. Lowten (Perker’s clerk) and other choice spirits in the days of Pickwick.

Robert Allbut. “Rambles in Dickens’ Land.” 1899

The original George IV was demolished in 18969. Although I was starting to get dreadfully hungry and thirsty, I chose to pass this one up in favor of the next pub on my list.

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese

…it is not surprising that the Cheshire Cheese enjoys an enviable popularity with all who find a special appeal in the survivals of old London.

Henry C. Shelley. “Inns and Taverns of Old London.” 1909
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese with St. Paul’s in the background on Fleet Street

There are three pubs in London which bear the moniker Cheshire Cheese but only one has the Ye Olde preface. It is Ye Olde which has the most significant historical value and is listed on Britain’s Real Heritage Pubs List. To qualify for this list, the pub’s interior has to more or less remain unchanged since World War II. As you enter Cheshire Cheese from the alley entrance, the dim, dark wood interior along with that distinctive old musty wood smell immediately conjure up a London of another era. It didn’t take long for the spirit of Dickens to welcome me as I was directed to take the empty table in the corner by the only other patrons in the pub who assured me that it was “Dickens’ favorite seat”. Who was I to dispute that? So I giddily staged my beer & book photo.

The Dickens corner….. or is it?
Beer & Book

Even 113 years ago, Cheshire Cheese had the same charm on visitors.

Exactly how old this tavern is cannot be decided. It is inevitable that there must have been a hostelry on this spot before the Great Fire of 1666, inasmuch as there is a record to show that it was rebuilt the following year. Which goes to show that the present building has attained the ripe age of nearly two and a half centuries. No one who explores its various apartments will be likely to question that fact. Everything about the place wears an air of antiquity, from the quaint bar-room to the more private chambers upstairs. The chief glory of the Cheshire Cheese, however, is to be seen downstairs on the left hand of the principal entrance. This is the genuinely old-fashioned eating-room, with its rude tables, its austere seats round the walls, its sawdust-sprinkled floor, and, above all, its sacred nook in the further right hand corner which is pointed out as the favourite seat of Dr. Johnson.

Henry C. Shelley. “Inns and Taverns of Old London.” 1909

Wait. Who?

Dr. Samuel Johnson was another famous English author who died in 1784 and was famous for many works, not the least of which was the Dictionary of the English Language which preceded the Oxford Dictionary by 150 years10. Several authors glance casually over the Cheshire Cheese and Dr. Johnson link as accepted truth, but others are more skeptical.

In recent years the Cheshire Cheese has attracted a considerable clientele on a claim that it was the favourite Fleet Street resort of Dr. Johnson. 

Boswell (Johnson’s biographer) followed old man Johnson about to all his “pubs,” and the fact that there is no mention in Boswell’s “Life” of his hero having visited the “Cheese” is evidence presumptive that he never did visit it.

William Mackay. “Bohemian Days in Fleet Street.” 1913

Another source follows the same logic.

it is surprising to learn that the authority for connecting Dr. Johnson with the Cheshire Cheese rests upon a somewhat late tradition. Boswell does not mention the tavern…

Henry C. Shelley. “Inns and Taverns of Old London.” 1909

{Image credits: Dickensian Inns & Taverns by B.W. Matz 1922 (photo) and Famous Houses and Literary Shrines in London by A. St John Adcock 1912 (sketch)}

Dr. Samuel Johnson is not without his own Dickens link even though he died 28 years before Dickens was born. In 1897’s Pickwickian Manners & Customs, author Percy Fitzgerald argues that the character Samuel Pickwick was based on Johnson.

As far as Dickens and Cheshire Cheese, according to one source “it is known that he visited it”11 and to another it “must have been well known to Dickens”12. Some sources are more sure than others, but what is in general agreement is that Cheshire Cheese “no doubt was the tavern Dickens was thinking of when he wrote” a particular scene in A Tale of Two Cities.

Let me show you the nearest tavern to dine in… Drawing his arm through his own, he took him down Ludgate Hill to Fleet Street, and so, up a covered way, into a tavern. Here they were shown a little room…

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

No matter whose corner it is in that “little room”, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese has had numerous literary elite wander it’s “famous low-ceilinged, sanded floored dining place”13 such as Tennyson, Conan Doyle, and even Mark Twain14.

But there was one thing I didn’t like about the place.

The kitchen was closed on Monday.

So after one beer, I checked the next pub on my list and headed north to Holborn.

Ye Olde Mitre

In narrow Mitre Court, connecting Ely Place with Hatton Gardens, set in the wall of a public house is the “Sign of the Mitre,” bearing date of 1546.

Charles Hemstreet. “Nooks and Corners of Old London.” 1910

The moment you arrive at the alley which leads back to what turned out to be the most hidden pub on my list, you know that you have found a really interesting pub.

Sign of the Mitre

Ye Olde Mitre is also on the Britain’s Real Heritage Pubs List, so it bears strong historical value. And like many pubs, it’s heritage is a lineage rather than a continuity.

Not even a seat or a fireplace has survived of the Mitre tavern of Shakespeare’s days, or the Mitre tavern which Boswell mentions so often. They were not the same house, as has sometimes been stated, and the Mitre of to-day is little more than a name-successor to either.

Henry C. Shelley. “Inns and Taverns of Old London.” 1909

The Mitre Tavern, as it was known in the past, was frequented often by literary figures; Johnson and his biographer Boswell where known to meet here. But I could not find any reference to Dickens. Every pub which has a documented visit by Dickens will have it advertised somewhere, so if the history described on the Ye Old Mitre website doesn’t mention Dickens then it is a safe bet none are recorded. However, it is a highly recommended pub and from what I could see was mostly populated by locals. I ordered a beer, took a table in the corner with my book and later tried a pork pie for the first time. Cold chopped and jellied pork did not exactly meet my expectations (which was warm chopped and jellied pork) but at least it solved my hunger.

A Bruha English Bitter
Pork Pie

By this point in my reading of Bleak House, one location in London kept popping up. Lincoln’s Inn. Since this was also in Holborn, I decided to abandon any concept that my journey would continue in a Thames River-like serpentine but forward direction. Lincoln’s Inn was close by but the other way, leading to another chance encounter.

Furnival’s Inn Plaque & Dickens Bust

“The large red brick insurance building opposite Staple Inn on the north side of Holborn is on the site of Furnival’s, one of the original ten Inns of Chancery, where Dickens lived when he was first married and where he began the writing of “Pickwick Papers.”

Charles Hemstreet. “Nooks and Corners of Old London.” 1910

A short walk along Holborn Road, there is another blue plaque without an obvious link to Dickens, but further in the courtyard of the still-existing large red brick insurance building is a well-protected Dickens bust.

Furnival’s Inn, is one of profound interest to all pious pilgrims in “Dickens-Land,” for there the genius of the young author was first recognized, not only by the novel-reading world, but also by his contemporaries in literature.

William Richard Hughes. “A Week’s Tramp in Dickens-Land.” 1891
Furnival’s Inn sketch14

Lincoln’s Inn Fields

Lincoln’s Inn is one of four London Inns that are organizations of barristers. It consists of beautiful buildings and offices and well-landscaped courtyards which resemble an old university.

Lincoln’s Inn, a little higher up on the opposite side of the way, claims our attention, in the Hall of which was formerly the Lord High Chancellor’s Court, wherein the wire-drawn Chancery suit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce in Bleak House dragged its course wearily along. The offices of Messrs. Kenge and Carboy, of Old Square, Solicitors in the famous suit, were visited by Esther Summerson, who says:—”We passed into sudden quietude, under an old gallery, and drove on through a silent square, until we came to an old nook in a corner, where there was an entrance up a steep broad flight of stairs like an entrance to a church.”

William Richard Hughes. “A Week’s Tramp in Dickens-Land.” 1891

I am pretty sure that “old nook” and “steep, broad flight of stairs” (which I attempted to take) are through the right-most archways in this photo. By that time, I was somewhere around Chapter III where the scene takes place but hadn’t yet made the association.

The “old nook” mentioned by Esther Summerson in Bleak House?

Thoroughly immersed now in the legal culture of Old London, I was again suffering with thirst. Two of the other Inns of Court are called Inner Temple and Middle Temple which come from the time when this part of town “was, in 1184, the metropolitan residence of the Knights Templars, who held it until their downfall in 1313.”4 Naturally, the next pub would not so subtly associate itself with the Templars.

The Knights Templar

The Knights Templar pub has no affiliation with Dickens but how can one resist a pub with that name? I did not regret my choice to add it to my list. It doesn’t resemble a typical English pub inside, but rather, it looks like the lobby of a very fancy hotel, elegant and spacious. As it turns out, it is a former bank15. The little historical blurb on the pub website15 rather feebly latches itself to the Da Vinci Code movie. It is a unique pub with a cool name in the right neighborhood.

The Knights Templar
A Wandle Bitter

While in the area, one might as well visit the Temple Church.

Temple Church

The Temple Church is never mentioned specifically in any Dickens novel but it is splitly-owned by the Inner and Middle Temples. Dickens once “entered his name among the students at the inn of the Middle Temple”3. The church was built in the 12th century and is the resting place of William Marshall, who negotiated the treaty between King John and the barons which became the Magna Carta.

Heading now further east along Fleet Street, then Ludgate Hill, I came to one of London’s more famous churches.

St. Paul’s Cathedral

St. Paul’s is mentioned numerous times in Dickens’ novels, including Bleak House. But that was in Chapter XIX and I was still on Chapter III.

And there he (a street sweeper named Jo) sits, munching and gnawing, and looking up at the great cross on the summit of St. Paul’s Cathedral, glittering above a red-and-violet-tinted cloud of smoke. From the boy’s face one might suppose that sacred emblem to be, in his eyes, the crowning confusion of the great, confused city—so golden, so high up, so far out of his reach.

Charles Dickens. “Bleak House.”

Continuing along Cannon Street and then left up Queen Victoria St., I came to another site.

The Royal Exchange

The Royal Exchange with Cornhill Road on the right side

This type of “site”, albeit of beautiful architecture, would normally never peak my interest, yet in this case, the Royal Exchange is along Cornhill, making it likely that Ebenezer Scrooge was a “regular”12. Cornhill is also the location of the Bob Cratchit sliding-on-the-ice scene in A Christmas Carol.

The office was closed in a twinkling, and the clerk, with the long ends of his white comforter dangling below his waist (for he boasted no greatcoat), went down a slide on Cornhill, at the end of a lane of boys, twenty times, in honour of its being Christmas Eve, and then ran home to Camden Town as hard as he could pelt, to play at blind man’s-buff.

Charles Dickens. “A Christmas Carol.”

If Bob Cratchit closed up shop and immediately went sliding on Cornhill, then it is reasonable to assume that Scrooge’s counting house would have been in the neighborhood.

St. Michael’s Church Cornhill

The ancient tower of a church, whose gruff old bell was always peeping slyly down at Scrooge out of a Gothic window in the wall, became invisible, and struck the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations afterwards, as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there.

Charles Dickens. “A Christmas Carol.”

Although the name of the church is never mentioned, this church would seem like the most likely candidate16. The courtyard of the church is tucked away down an alley near the George & Vulture pub which is a well-known Dickensian pub (more on that in Day 4). I haven’t found a classic text which makes the connection, however.

Speaking of the location of Scooge’s counting house. It was time for dinner.

The Counting House

The Counting House is just a few buildings down from St. Michael’s on Cornhill. It is a modern pub opened in 1998. While Dickens pilgrims would like to think that the name was chosen to associate with Scrooge, the fact that the building is a former bank is more likely. Additionally, the pub doesn’t seem to make any effort to exploit a Dickens’ link; though I am sure the pub is happy when it draws literary tourists who assume there is.

Oliver’s Island Golden Ale

Day 3 Final Words

The final tally for Day 3 was 9 sites and 6 pubs (and… phew, 5 beers). I don’t know whether or not I was more tired at the end of that day or after researching, recounting, and writing about it. It was an exhilarating day made even more so in retrospect as I come to appreciate the experiences in a more enlightened way. If “the happiness of London” belongs to those who have been to it, it is clear to me that it could very well be measured by the size of the Table of Contents needed to explain it. In fact, I realize that I even missed stuff and the next trip to London is already starting to take shape. But I need to slow down a minute and take a breath. There are still Days 4 and 5 to come.

Map of Day 3

Map Key:

  • Yellow = Any site (included pub) associated with Dickens or has a strong anecdotal link
  • Purple = A pub not associated with Dickens but strongly recommended
  • Black = A pub, brewery, or site not associated with Dickens
  • Red = A pub or site that I would have like to have included

References

  1. Quote from Samuel Johnson. “Walks In London Vol.I” by Augustus J. C. Hare (1894)
  2. Quote from Charles Lamb. “Walks In London Vol.I” by Augustus J. C. Hare (1894)
  3. John Forster. “The Life of Charles Dickens, Vol. I-III, Complete.” (1876)
  4. Francis Miltoun. “Dickens’ London” (1903)
  5. All the Year Round Wikipedia page
  6. “Walks In London Vol.I” by Augustus J. C. Hare (1894)
  7. “Holborn and Bloomsbury” by Walter Besant & G.E. Mitton (1903)
  8. “Rambles in Dickens’ Land” by Robert Allbut (1899)
  9. “The Inns and Taverns of Pickwick” by B.W. Matz (1921)
  10. Samuel Johnson’s Wikipedia page
  11. “Dickensian Inns and Taverns” by B.W. Matz (1922)
  12. “The London of Dickens” by Walter Dexter (1903)
  13. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese Wikipedia page
  14. “Week’s Tramp in Dickens-Land” by William Richard Hughes (1891)
  15. Knights Templar pub website
  16. Rob’s London
M.G.G.P.

5 thoughts on “Beer & Dickens London – Day 3

  1. What to do on a rainy day in Belgium? Read this and how I enjoyed it. The work you have put in here is simply amazing, well written! Top work, Matthew!🔝🔝🔝

    Really, only 5 beers on day 3? 😁

    Liked by 1 person

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