Next year there'll be so many commemorations of 200 years since Dickens' birth we won't be able to move, so we thought we'd get in early and celebrate in one of our favourite ways - with an alternative pub crawl.
The Grapes, Limehouse
It was a narrow, lopsided, wooden jumble of corpulent windows heaped upon another as you might heap as many toppling oranges, with a crazy wooden veranda impending over the water... The back of the establishment, though the chief entrance was there, so contracted that it merely represented, in its connection with the front, the handle of a flat-iron set upright on its broadest end.
That's how Dickens describes The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters in Our Mutual Friend, and it's widely believed The Grapes was the inspiration. Though on a sunny winter afternoon it seemed to cater more for tourists eager to see the view from the crazy wooden veranda than dodgy riverworkers. It's a Cask Marque pub and at the weekend was serving Timothy Taylor Landlord, Red Tail, Adnams Southwold and had a decent choice of lagers. Drinking wine would seem wrong in a place like this, somehow: it's so long and narrow, the only artificial light coming from some quite dim lamps, it seems only right get a pint of bitter and eat a plate of fish and chips in the restaurant upstairs. But we didn't have time for that.
Artful Dodger, near Tower Hill
You might have seen this pub if you've ever taken the DLR into town. From the vantage point of the train it looks properly dodgy. Once inside, nothing's further from the truth. The bar feels like it hasn't changed since about 1880 (though we're not sure when the mushroom-shaped sponge or inflatable pints of Guinness arrived) and while it was startlingly bright compared with the gathering dusk outside, it felt like it'd be a great place to hang out and chat to the old guys or the landlady. Just stand away from the toilets, there's a faint whiff of disinfectant (we checked, the loos are spotless).
George Inn, Borough
and if he goes into the George and writes a letter and if he gives it me and says, "Take that one to the same place, and if the answer's a good 'un I'll give you a shilling," it ain't my fault, mother!'
The George gets the briefest of brief mentions in Little Dorrit, but that hasn't stopped the National Trust sticking up a plaque about it. Yes, the National Trust: it owns what's London's last remaining galleried inn, leased now to Greene King (so you know what to expect on the ale front). It's usually rammed with tourists but, reaching the pub after Borough Market closed (stopping to watch Tower Bridge open on the way), we grabbed a nice spot inside. The courtyard was still full, as usual. (Another fun fact: the George was the location for the first ever Londonist drinks meet-up in 2005.)
The Charles Dickens, Southwark
We could have chosen from a couple of namesake pubs (The Dickens Tavern near Lancaster Gate, or The Dickens Inn by Tower Hill) but we liked the idea of drinking in Dickensian Southwark. And an excellent idea it was: we managed to stumble on one of the few places in London where you can easily get a seat on a Saturday night. It's a cracking pub, too. With at least six real ales on tap and a menu that ranged from soup to salmon, all for under £8, with sport unobtrusively playing on TVs in the background for people who want to keep tabs on that kind of thing, it's another of those pubs where we could have stayed for ages. Maybe we'll return to see even more of their paintings of Dickens's characters and investigate the beer garden out back.
The Boot, Kings Cross
This Boot was a lone house of public entertainment, situated in the fields at the back of the Foundling Hospital; a very solitary spot at that period, and quite deserted after dark. The tavern stood at some distance from any high road, and was approachable only by a dark and narrow lane; so that Hugh was much surprised to find several people drinking there, and great merriment going on.
That's how The Boot appears in Barnaby Rudge and, while it's definitely no longer in the middle of fields, it was still quiet enough to easily bag a table. We'd stick our neck out and say that, even on a crawl that includes the George, this was the most characterful. There's boot memorabilia of all kinds behind the bar, a pair of skis hung above it and, for some reason, a huge photo of Lord's cricket ground in front. And a papier mache seagull above the door. Whatever floats your boat. It's an Irish bar so you'll never run short of Guinness, but other than that your choices are standard lagers and wines. The condiments on the table indicated there's clearly food available, but by this point we weren't really concentrating enough to think to find a menu.
Betsey Trotwood, Farringdon
Betsey is David Copperfield's great-aunt, but she's probably much better known to Londoners as a venue for music and spoken word events in the upper room and basement (judging by the vibrations). We don't think Betsey would approve: organic pork pie is on the menu (most sandwiches, burgers and salads under a tenner) and the fairy lights, Taittinger, seasonal real ales and hip young things crowding the small bar just didn't feel very Dickensian. It's also one of the few pubs in the area with a late licence so it gets packed after about 10pm. A perfectly nice pub, but a bit of a shock to the system after places like the Charles Dickens and The Boot.
Honourable mentions for a few of the pubs that could have made the list: the aforementioned The Dickens Tavern and The Dickens Inn; Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, The Crown and Greyhound in Dulwich, Trafalgar Tavern and the George and Vulture - all places Dickens drank (the George and Vulture is also in Pickwick Papers); and The Pillars of Hercules next to Manette Street (named after A Tale of Two Cities's doctor).
Previous alternative pub crawls: Tudor boozers, Rude and lewd drinking dens, the Blue Posts, Scientific pubs, station pubs, Shakespeare, Houses of Parliament bars, the East London Line extension, 12 Days of Christmas and Royal Wedding.