We made our way to St. James’ Park tube station to catch a train to the London Bridge stop to meet up with the tour group for our pub tour, scheduled for 2 pm. A little background: I caught some type of flu/cold at the end of our first trip to London and the biggest casualty of my malaise was a pub crawl. This was not exactly the impetus behind our return visit to London, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a big contributing force, crazy though that may be. This time around, we just intended on going to a few pubs, eating lots of battered/fried British comfort food, and drinking beer but not in any type of structured way. However, we were eligible for the 2FOR1 deals and happened across a historical walking pub tour and were hooked. Run by Mind the Gap tours, the tour usually costs £25 per person. It runs on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays and starts at 2 pm (kind of early for a Wednesday, but when in Rome…or London, I suppose). With the voucher, we only had to pay £25 total. The cost only includes the tour; beer is not included (you have to pay for your own pint).
An email from Mind the Gap, sent after the tour was booked, detailed where and when to meet. With that information, we got off the tube at the London Bridge station and made our way to the designated meeting spot (in the tube station, which happens to be under the Shard, the tallest building in London). We got there about a half hour early, so we walked down to Borough Market, a lovely farmer’s market/indoor food stall market in downtown London, on the south bank of the Thames. Some may say that it’s becoming a bit of a tourist trap, but I love it and would probably shop here/make a pilgrimage often if I lived in London. Unfortunately, time did not permit us to get anything to eat but everything looked amazing. We had explored the market on our last trip and were a little bummed that we didn’t have enough time to grab a sandwich or something this time around.
Anyway, we met up with our group with a few minutes to spare. It turns out that our tour guide, George, was subbing in for the usual guide and that he only gives this tour sporadically. Regardless, he was knowledgable about the good pubs in the area and peppered our tour with facts about buildings that we passed or went into, which was unique and made the tour that much more interesting, as he is an architect by trade. There were about 9 other people on the tour with us, most of whom were native Londoners. Only one other American, a recent college grad, was on the tour with us (and he thought my husband and I were about 10 years younger than we actually are, so he is our new favorite person).
George led us out of the Shard and down towards Borough Market. We passed through the courtyard of Guy’s Hospital and took a back entrance into the courtyard of the George Inn, the city’s oldest coaching inn. Remember how we hadn’t really gone to any pubs the last time in London? Well, this was actually the only pub we made it to and it was the one that started off our tour, which was a nice coincidence. Because we knew we had a few pubs ahead of us, we only had a half-pint each to try to pace ourselves. Some of the older men on the tour knocked back a full pint in half the time it took me to drink my half-pint and out-drank me by at least double. It was awesome.
After leaving the George Inn, we walked across the street and our architect (I mean pub tour guide) pointed out the Hop Exchange, which was a cool divergence of both the beer-related theme and a historical building. It was originally used as a site for hop trading for the brewing industry and now has been refurbished and is an office space. George brought us into the building (not part of the normal tour) just to look around the atrium for minute. The ornate motif of hops (which look sort of like artichokes or flowers when they are carved) decorates the entire outside of the building but is also repeated in cast iron scrollwork railings that surrounds the atrium. It is a structure I would not have given a second glance to; this is the reason I like to be on tours and to have places like this pointed out, particularly when it is relevant to the theme of the tour.
Next up on our list was a bar called The Rake. It is the smallest pub in London (or it claims to be). It doesn’t have the feel of a traditional pub; in fact, it feels like a small surfer/beachfront bar/store. They specialize in craft beers, which we really didn’t see in other pubs and bars in London and I suppose is an emerging phenomenon that we have embraced full-on in the States. We were delighted to see beer on tap from a brewery not far from Philly (Dogfish Head, based in Delaware) but naturally steered as far away as possible in favor of trying beers we haven’t had before. The decor is fairly simple, with beer paraphernalia decorating the walls and wooden high tables and barstools. The Rake’s standout wall decor is the signatures of brewers from around the world. Victory Brewing Company, a microbrewery based in Downingtown, PA (very close to our house) had visited the pub and signed the wall, which was pretty special for us to see.
We left The Rake after downing a couple of pints. By this time, we were beginning to ease into conversation with each other, lubricated by the beer and the fact that we all had similar interests (London and beer…but also travel, history, culture, and sports). We met a lovely father/daughter pair (local Londoners) and struck up conversation with them as we walked along the south bank of the Thames. George pointed out some interesting historical facts as we walked through the a tunnel, past Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, and towards the Tate Modern. We crossed the Millennium Bridge, where our guide directed our attention to street art that we would have otherwise never noticed. Ben Wilson, an artist, has been painting miniature scenes on chewing gum stuck to the ground all over London (and all over the world, it turns out).
By this point, it was around 4 pm and the streets were becoming a little more crowded but the after-work set still hadn’t let out so the pubs remained fairly empty and getting service was still easy. George noted several architectural features as we made our way to the next pub, called the Cockpit Tavern, on St. Andrew’s Hill. He took us through some alleys and shortcuts that I would never be able to retrace but nonetheless was pretty interesting. The pub is very typical from the outside and is cozy and welcoming inside. We stayed for a pint and then headed back out into the streets of London to find our next watering hole.
The next spot on our list was a pub that we had wanted to visit from our last trip, The Blackfriar. It belongs to a group called Nicholson’s (as did the Feathers, the first pub we visited after landing in London), which is a corporate group that owns historical pubs. The Blackfriars has bronze Art Nouveau sculptures and reliefs carved by a sculptor called Henry Poole. The bar itself is marble and the interior of the pub really is a beautiful sight to see. We finished our pints and took in the beautiful surroundings before leaving for our next destination.
Over the past year or so, I have really taken a liking to porters and stouts. Basically, anything that tastes like chocolate and/or coffee is okay by me. My favorite one I have had so far is by an oatmeal imperial stout called Voodoo’s Cowbell. However, I have only had it once, on tap at a restaurant near home. An extremely close second is Samuel Smith’s Chocolate Stout and right behind that is Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout. That said, I was really excited when we happened upon our next pub, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (plus I was getting hungry, and the fact that the word “cheese” in the name of the pub made me happy). This pub is one of several that is owned by Samuel Smith, so I was elated to head into the tavern to sample their beer. This pub is located on Fleet Street (the Broadway aficionado inside me was intrigued yet a little scared..Sweeney Todd, anyone?) and there has been a pub standing in this location since the 1500s. The pub was rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1666 and you can feel the history as you enter the pub and descend the stairs to a dark basement bar. The small, cavernous rooms have plaster walls and low ceilings and archways, making one feel as though they have stepped far back in time. I ended up ordering a bowl of chips for all of the tour-goers to share (what can I say–I’m Italian! I have to feed people–it’s in my blood) and to help us to start to soak up some of the alcohol. My pint (and yes, I had a full pint this time) of Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout was lovely and I thoroughly enjoyed that (plus fries. I mean chips. Chips make everything better).
We crossed Fleet Street and found ourselves at another old bar called The Tipperary. This is the oldest Irish pub in London and survived the Great Fire due to its stone structure. The Tipperary was still relatively empty but as we emptied out of the bar, we started to notice the sun going down and more people gathering on the streets and in pubs as the workday was nearing an end. We peeked into the Old Bank of England (as the name implies, an old bank converted into a pub–really beautiful interior) but did not get a drink and continued on to the next pub.
The Seven Stars was next on the docket and was beginning to fill up with after-work revelers when we arrived. Apparently, there is a resident cat (as was evidenced by bowls of cat food and photographs of the cat behind the bar) but we did not ever see it, which was a bummer. It was starting to get so crowded that George and a few of the other tour members headed outside until those drinking downed their pints and we could move on.
We walked to the Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which is the largest public square in London, then ultimately made our way over to High Holborn Street, where we found ourselves in the last pub of the evening, The Princess Louise. This pub is another Samuel Smith brewery-owned institution. It was around 7:30 pm by this point and the after work crowd was out in full force, making getting a drink a little more difficult. It felt like a normal night at a bar, which was fine because but at this point we all felt like a group that was just hanging out together rather than a bunch of strangers who had only met 5 hours prior. We had dinner reservations and some of the other tour-goers had plans, so we bade our newfound drinking buddies goodnight and caught the tube at the Holborn station to go back to the hotel.
Recap: We went to these bars, in this order: The George Inn, The Rake, The Cockpit, The Blackfriar, Ye Old Cheshire Cheese, The Old Tipperary, The Seven Stars, and the Princess Louise.
After changing for dinner, we hopped on the tube again to go to a new neighborhood that we had never seen: Chelsea. We had done some research on London restaurants and wanted to try something different and came across Medlar. This is a small restaurant in Chelsea that focuses on local, fresh ingredients–right up our alley. We also had come across a review by food critic Giles Coren, who has become familiar to us through a new BBC show, Million Dollar Critic. His snarky comments combined with his wit and Brit humor have drawn us into the show, and having given Medlar a great review made us even happier with our choice.
We had mapped out the walk from the tube station (Sloane Square) and knew that it was a little bit of a hike (a straight shot down the noble-sounding King’s Road). Ordinarily, we would have been up for the challenge, but after our marathon five and a half hour pub tour (we only ended up walking 2.5 miles and drank…a pretty good amount, maybe 4-5 pints each?), we were exhausted. However, we made the journey and walked to the restaurant, getting there with 5 minutes to spare. We had booked reservations on OpenTable (which I use all the time in Philly and NY, nice to see its presence in London) before leaving for our trip and could only get a 9 pm reservation, which ended up to be perfect given our schedule. The meal, a 3-course prix-fixe menu, was a little bit of a blur unfortunately because we were so tired. As far as we can remember, the service was excellent and my dessert, a banoffe tartlet, was sublime. I was so full and barely coherent but I made it a point to finish the entire thing. After dinner, the prospect of walking back to Sloane Square was so daunting (it was really only about 1.1 miles to get there) so we caught a cab to the tube station and got the train home to St. Ermin’s.