A few days ago, reading a reference to a part of London I once worked in, took me back to my favourite pub there, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in Fleet Street, one of the oldest pubs in the City of London. There has been a pub at this location since 1538 but it was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666 and rebuilt a couple of years after that. Its atmosphere speaks to me of another time and another place, and as one would expect, it has many literary connections. The etching below of Ye Olde Cheshire Cat dates from 1887 and is from a collection in the British Library.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is a labyrinth of rooms connected by jumbled up passageways but no one is quite sure which parts are original. Some of its earlier wainscoting has gone, most of the interior wood panelling dates from the nineteenth century, but it is claimed that the extensive vaulted cellars below, belonged to a 13th-century Carmelite monastery which once occupied the site.
The pub looks deceptively small from outside, but once entered you will find nooks and crannies in the rooms both upstairs and downstairs, with open fireplaces in winter. The “chophouse” (restaurant) is on the ground floor and the pub serves an excellent selection of ales, wines and spirits.
In A Tale of Two Cities, Sidney Carton leads Charles Darnay through Fleet Street “up a covered alleyway into a tavern” where they dined after Darnay’s acquittal and today, patrons still enter via the narrow alley by the side.
The interior walls are decorated with plaques detailing the many literary figures that patronised the pub over the centuries. The famous Dr. Johnson lived just down the street and there is a plaque there to him which is not surprising, aone to Charles Dickens whose characters haunt this area of London, but it was a surprise to find the likes of American Mark Twain, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and P.G. Wodehouse, all regular visitors, honoured in the same way. P.G. Wodehouse famously mentioned the pub in one of his letters when he wrote “I looked in at the Garrick at lunchtime, took one glance …… at the mob, and went off to lunch by myself at the Cheshire Cheese”.
Although Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is very much on the tourist route along Fleet Street down to The Tower of London and the city, it is still ‘the local’ for those who work in the area and anyone wandering in from the street will immediately feel they are in a London pub. There is a buzz, an atmosphere, and an indefinable aura of the past about the place. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Johnson’s cat wandered in looking for the good Doctor.