It’s easy to believe you’ve had one too many as you emerge from the ancient labyrinth of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street. The skyscrapers of the Square Mile seem to lean back in a hazy limbo, as if lurching to get out of the way, as you look east towards the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.
It’s not the actual ale’s impact, but rather the consequence of a strange planning regulation. Wren’s dome must be clearly visible against the sky from the sidewalk outside this tavern, according to City of London regulations. Even the odd chamfered shapes of the east-facing towers, such as the Cheesegrater and the Scalpel, stem from the need to maintain a holy gap behind the cathedral’s silhouette as seen from outside the bar.
You’ll notice that many of London’s historic protected vistas wind up outside bars if you follow the lines. It not only represents the fact that the surveyors had a few pints, but also the public house’s important role in creating the city’s history, which is documented in a new book.
David Knight, co-author of Public House with Cristina Monteiro, adds, “There are already so many books about pubs.” “We wanted to do something unique with this one. It’s not a guide to the finest locations to have a pint, but rather a compilation of social and cultural histories that aims to bring together a more varied variety of perspectives to investigate the importance of pubs to the city and society.” While much pub writing focuses on stale white males, this collection contains South Asian Desi pubs, African-Caribbean pubs, and a variety of pubs with LGBTQ+ histories.
The architects Knight and Monteiro, who head the firm DK-CM, have long been interested in pubs as more than simply drinking establishments. They were busy fighting to preserve their favorite boozer, the Wenlock Arms in Hoxton, from being demolished by a housing development when I met them a decade ago. Its unique value, they claimed, resided not just in the island bar’s friendly atmosphere, jazz pianists, and diverse customer, but also in the upstairs function area, which hosted everything from birthday parties to British Stammering Association meetings. The bar was rescued from destruction and is again flourishing under new ownership, but the upper room was lost to apartments, which now encircle it on all sides.
The writers have utilized pubs as a subject for their architectural education, holding design workshops at Kingston University to investigate what lessons these places may offer for the design of convivial public buildings in an uncommon approach. Their pupils created detailed drawings of pub interiors (some of which appear in the book), and they even tried to get the London Public House classified as an intangible cultural heritage item by Unesco as a “type.” “When you talk about a special pub and what makes it special, it suddenly seems a bit futile to only protect the physical elements of the building without considering who uses it and for what,” Knight remarked at the time.
What distinguishes a bar from other establishments? “You can feel cosy, but you’re part of something bigger,” Monteiro says in a book discussion. To put it another way, you may sit alone or with friends at a booth or at a table and yet feel like you’re part of a bigger community discussion. The pub’s strength, according to fellow instructor Eleanor Suess, is “the ability to be secluded and quite private while still being in a public space.” While I’m out of the home, I get glimpses of domesticity.”
The book is perfectly suited to tap into our common desire for conviviality after being trapped at home for 16 months, and was published by charity Open City in time for this September’s Open House event. Even if you’re not quite ready for the sticky carpets and pig scratchings, the book makes for an excellent armchair pub tour.
The compendium includes around 120 pubs from all 32 London boroughs (as well as the City of London), which are organized chronologically – not from when the pub first opened, but from “when it had the most interesting story to tell” – and 15 articles from a diverse variety of authors. It’s an eye-opening range of personal stories and musings reflecting the diversity of what pubs mean, and have meant, to different communities, from musician Bob Stanley on the role of pubs as vital platforms for young bands, to the Queer Brewing Project founder Lily Waite on queer pub culture, to MP Rupa Huq on the suburban pub in pop culture (including the inimitable Queen Vic), and more.
Laura C Forster, a historian, wrote an article on the significance of pubs in radical politics in the 1870s. The Blue Posts pub in Fitzrovia, for example, served as a “informal political forum, a cosmopolitan debating society, a mutual aid association; it was a jobcentre, a library, and a reading room” for political exiles fleeing the Paris Commune. Pubs offered the casual discussions, passionate arguments, and private meetings that were critical to the growth of socialist ideals in Britain, she claims, in a world of short-lived political organizations.
One portion of the book delves further into the architectural characteristics that make the Jerusalem Tavern (a popular hangout for Clerkenwell’s design community) so attractive. The tavern strikes a perfect balance between artifice and anthropometric proportions, according to Timothy Smith. It’s pleasingly tiny, he’s implying. “When the bar is busy, it can get crowded, but there are nooks in the corners where you can sit comfortably and glazed screens that divide the space.”
It’s the quintessential ye olde London bar, which makes it even more unexpected that architects like it. The structure dates from the 18th century, but John Murphy, a branding expert best known for naming the Hobnob cookie, only opened it as a bar in 1996. “I mean that as a compliment,” Knight adds, “because it’s a truly beguiling 1990s fake.”
The dizzying variety of places that are still there, despite all the headlines about pubs being threatened, is what truly stands out in the book’s neon-tinged 200 pages. Knight and Monteiro have an infectious passion for their topic, possibly second only to Ian Nairn, whether they’re discussing grand Victorian gin palaces, 1920s taverns in the much-mocked “Brewer’s Tudor” style, modernist postwar estate pubs, or contemporary community-led micropubs.
The caustic architect notoriously drank himself to death, and his 1966 guide to London lists no less than 27 bars where his inebriated writing was frequently at its most impassioned. He chooses the Barley Mow in Marylebone, a particular favorite, for its unusual blend of enclosure, friendliness, and solitude. The bar still has a pair of “drinking cubicles” with high wooden walls that create tiny hidden three-sided chambers that open directly onto the bar, which is an extremely unusual surviving feature.
Sitting on a seat here seems like you’re in a hidden theatrical box, with the stage replaced with a theater of beverages being served in your own little universe. The partitions were allegedly built in 1791 to allow farmers to sell their products without being seen, but Nairn sees them as “places for romantic indiscretion or flogging atomic secrets.” The mark of an excellent pub, without a doubt.