When it comes to age the competition seems to always be limited to two extremes; the oldest vs. the youngest. You never find anything competing to be in the mid-range because the older or newer the establishment, the more exciting it is. So we look to the ancient and the nubile for our vaunted venues. This is a hunt for London’s oldest pub; a confused and crowded competition with several strong contenders.The Spaniards Inn
The Spaniards Inn in Hampstead is undeniably old and claims to originate somewhere in the 16th Century. It is a rambling sort of pub with sumptuous wooden floors, open fires and low-beam ceilings. Given that it is mentioned in literary works including Dracula and The Pickwick Papers, rather than simply being looked at by an author once (like half of the other pubs in the city), it’s tough to ignore as a contender. The juicy details for The Spaniards are the rumoured links to notorious highwayman Dick Turpin, whose father was supposedly the landlord. A musket ball claimed to have been fired by Turpin hangs behind the bar. This is certainly a pub for the history aficionados but possibly not for those who don’t have a very thick wallet, but it’s hardly surprising that this is the case given its charm.
It might seem like a technicality but the out-of-the-way location may possibly take The Spaniards Inn out of the running for the crown of ‘London’s Oldest Pub’. If you want to claim to be the oldest pub in London, location is everything and this perhaps feels a little too far from the city.
Add: Spaniards Rd, Hampstead, London
Ye Olde Mitre Tavern
The facts in favour of this traditional little pub being the oldest are quite scant and mostly based on rumour. Fuller’s website claims that the original building was built in 1546, which comfortably predates most establishments rebuilt in 1667 after the big fire; however it’s pretty certain that the current structure dates to around the 1770’s. No runner in this contest seems to be complete without some sort of loosely historically linked curio and in this case there is a legend that Elizabeth I danced around the cherry tree (now a less romantic stump) in the front bar.
As a pub in general this is pretty special; with sumptuous arrays of bar snacks, water jugs dangling from hooks overhead and a raised eyebrow directed at anyone who dare whip out a smart phone. It’s an antidote to the onslaught of the cookie cutter ‘gastro’ pub. Tempting as it is to end the search here, there is one gleefully pedantic flaw in Ye Olde Mitre Tavern’s otherwise strong case. Even if we ignore the rebuild, this pub for a long time was technically in Cambridgeshire given that it fell within the grounds of Ely Palace, theoretically taking it out of the running all together.
Add: Ye Olde Mitre Tavern 1 Ely Pl, London EC1N 6SJ
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
Heavyweight contender Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is probably the most upfront and honest of the five we’re considering, as its main signage boldly states 1667. A post-fire rebuild, there are parts of this boozy labyrinth which belong to 13th century monastery; so in terms of actual building age the ‘Cheese’ is streets ahead. It’s also drenched in literary history; with Twain, Tennyson, Wodehouse, Dickens and Conan Doyle said to have been at least occasional drinkers here. Cuttings on the walls attest to the visits of these figures and more throughout the pubs extensive lifespan as one of London’s drinking landmarks. It boasts such fame that when its pet parrot died the fact was reported in hundreds of newspapers around the world! For a visit as a curio it’s certainly worth your time and you’ll quite rightly want to stay for a couple of beers.
Add: 145 Fleet St, London
The George Inn
Given that it’s owned by The National Trust, you’d be forgiven for expecting this to lean more towards afternoon tea; but you’d be wrong. In an area spoilt for genuinely good pubs, The George Inn holds its own and is doing well with its age and pedigree to boot. This is the last ‘galleried coaching inn’ in London with the rest disappearing through demolition, fire or the Luftwaffe. Even if you’re not a historian, you can tell the gallery itself is very old because it was clearly constructed long before anyone in London saw fit to use (or had invented) a spirit level. As brilliant as the building is though it actually isn’t that old, dating back to the end of the 17th century; having been burned down by yet another fire. However, there have been pubs on this site for almost as long as London has been in existence, one being where Chaucer began The Canterbury Tales. With this in mind, we may have a winner.
Add: 77 Borough High Street, Southwark, London
The Lamb and Flag
The outsider in this cluster of candidates is the last one we come to, and whilst unlikely to win it deserves to be mentioned. With parts of the building likely dating back to the 1630s The Lamb and Flag at least as a building, if not a pub, can claim to be a long standing part of London. Sadly for the purposes of being named the oldest pub in the city there is little to suggest a beer was served here for another hundred years or so after that. Like almost every other pub in the city this was a favourite of Charles Dickens, as well as a number of other semi-famous figures from London’s often murky past. The aspect of the Lamb and Flag which enchants is its timelessness; the plaques around the pub honouring the regulars are a wonderful touch – especially as you know that the pub has changed little over the decades; the brass has become polished by a thousand drinkers’ elbows.
Of our five candidates this is certainly the most rounded offering as a pub in its own right. It’s perfectly snug during the winter and out front is a courtyard to spill out onto during the occasional summer evenings that the city offers.
Add: 33 Rose St, London