We all love a real London boozer. But what about the ones that aren’t real — those that appear in the pages of books and on-screen, feel real enough, but aren’t? Londonist does plenty of actual pub crawls, but on this occasion we’re touring those that are born from the imaginations of writers. Well, we say that. As you’ll see, many of the city’s fictional pubs are based on actual pubs, while others were filmed at actual pubs. Anyway, let the crawl commence.
Storytelling and merrymaking
We begin our pub crawl in Southwark and one of literature’s formative inns, the Tabard (later interchangeable with the Talbot). This is the first stop-off point for the pilgrims in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Here, in this ‘gentile hostelrye’ our 29 chums quaff wine and chomp on pub grub while getting their storytelling competition under way (the prize is a slap-up meal at the same pub on the return leg). The Tabard was a real medieval inn, and though it was demolished in 1873, it’s celebrated with a plaque in Talbot Yard. Due to its position as the gateway to the City, Borough was THE stopover destination for travellers, and by the 18th century, had become a veritable chain of coaching inns. Of the many pubs that Charles Dickens’ magnanimous Mr Pickwick and chums quaff at, Borough and its inns are particularly romanticized:
“Great, rambling, queer, old places they are, with galleries, and passages, and staircases, wide enough and antiquated enough, to furnish materials for a hundred ghost stories…”
As Pete Brown tells us in Shakespeare’s Local, Dickens often used real pubs in his fiction — and in The Pickwick Papers, The White Hart in Southwark has a starring role. It is now, alas, no more, but its peer the George Inn is. The George is also the place in Little Dorrit where Tip writes begging letters to Clennam.
We can’t talk about great writers without name-dropping the Bard, so let’s pitch up at the Boar’s Head Tavern from Henry IV, and join the riotous Falstaff for copious amounts of sack, and witticisms aplenty. The Boar’s Head actually existed on Eastcheap until ravaged by the Great Fire of London. Although rebuilt afterwards, it is now no longer with us. By the way, we reckon its name must be one of the earliest examples of a spoonerism.
Next, we head to Pimlico. Here, in the 1949 Ealing Comedy Passport to Pimlico, we find the Duke of Burgundy (never a real pub). This is the setting for of a joyous bout of merrymaking, as the austerity-weary residents claim their English rights to be Burgundian (see below, and note how those were the days you could call a policeman “cock” and mean nothing by it).
There’s just enough time to swap magic tricks over a swift half of butterbeer at the Leaky Cauldron (in the fictional Diagon Alley, off the real Charing Cross Road). Of course, you can now drink butterbeer at various incarnations of the Harry Potter pub, but we doubt they live up to the original.
Wheeling, dealing and shifty characters
Peckham — community of wheeling, dealing and conspiring? The world of fictional pubs would suggest so.
“And so they followed Dougal and Beauty up Rye Lane to the Harbinger. Beauty was half-way through the door of the saloon bar, but Dougal had stopped to look into the darkness of the Rye beyond the swimming baths…”
The Harbinger is one of many pubs in Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye, in which ‘angel-devil’ Dougal Douglas plots the downfall of the book’s various other characters. The Harbinger was made up by Spark (possibly a composite of pubs she knew), but many of the the other boozers she lists were or are real. The Rye Hotel is now simply the Rye (and a very decent pub too), while a short walk away, the White Horse is still the White Horse. And according to Pubology, the Morning Star from the book is now the Nag’s Head.
Speaking of Nag’s Heads in Peckham — Del Boy’s fictional local is perhaps the most famous UK sitcom boozer of them all. Plenty of wheeling and dealing goes on here, all innocent enough. This can’t be said for the clientèle of the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters from Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. Some of the drinkers here make a living by fishing corpses out of the Thames and stripping them of their valuables. Let’s hope they wash their hands before tucking into their Scampi Fries. The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters was based on The Grapes in Limehouse, where you can still get a pint today.
Now then, we’ve all gone gaga for a bartender or barmaid at some point. But in the Midnight Bell — from Patrick Hamilton’s Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky — the shoe is on the other foot. In this fictional Euston boozer, bar waiter Bob falls victim to the scheming ways of prostitute Jenny. Hamilton, of course, poured the inspiration of a fair few Earls Court pubs into his masterpiece Hangover Square.
More lust is in the air at the Silver Fox Club (okay, strictly not a pub) — which sets the scene for more scheming in the quintessential London film noir Night and the City. It’s in the shady recesses of this West End den that Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) connives with the club owner’s wife Helen Nosseross. The Silver Fox never existed, but it’s filming location in Goodwin Court does.
Brawls and bust-ups
Now we’re a few pints in, and perhaps feeling somewhat pugnacious, how about a round of fisticuffs? EastEnders’ Queen Vic is a shoe-in for a bust-up — staging marital breakups, generic brawls and the occasional murder since 1985. If Phil Mitchell ain’t tough enough for you, let’s go for two large gins and iced ciders at the Mother Black Cap in Notting Hill. It’s here that Withnail and his pal I are rattled by a sauced-up punter. Though the Mother Black Cap moniker was made up for the film, the pub later named itself just that. What’s more, Londonist can confirm there was an actual scribble above the urinals that read: “I f*ck arses.”) The pub is now posh flats, and we don’t reckon the graffiti survived the refit.
While we’re in the Notting Hill area, the Black Cross from London Fields is another hairy hangout, where we risk running into boozy mountebank and darts obsessive Keith Talent. And best keep our eyes to the floor as we enter our next fictional pub — the Duke of New York from A Clockwork Orange. In chapter one, Alex and his faithful droogs bribe a gaggle of old women with drinks and pub snacks, so that they have an alibi for an armed robbery.
A pint with the Grim Reaper (and zombies)
Assuming you’ve made it out of the last lot of boozers unscathed, you’ll be feeling invincible. Well that’s good because next we’re off to a couple of places stalked by death. Let’s not hang around for long in the Lion and Unicorn — the pub that’s owned by Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) and is promptly blown up (see below) as he takes an important guest there for lunch… awkward. Or we could go to The Winchester, have a nice cold pint, and wait for all of this to blow over. Sound familiar? That’s what Shaun (Simon Pegg) suggests when London becomes overrun with zombies. The Winchester Tavern never existed, but the Duke of Albany in New Cross Gate — which was the filming location — does. Or rather, it did. Now it’s been converted into flats. Who are all these teetotal property developers anyway?
On the subject of disappearing pubs, the Victoria Cross is the name of the pub that vanishes in Christopher Fowler’s novel The Victoria Vanishes (makes sense) — and is the scene of a baffling murder, which aged detectives Bryant and May (so called because they’re a perfect match?) set out to solve.
The perfect fictional pub?
Pubs often appear in the fiction of George Orwell, including the nameless watering hole in Nineteen Eighty-Four, which we reckon is supposed to be somewhere in the Euston/St Pancras locale. Orwell’s most detailed imagining of a London boozer, though, isn’t in a novel, but an Evening Standard article. In his essay on the fictional the Moon Under Water, you can sense Orwell foaming at the lips as he reels off the key components of the ideal drinking hole. We especially like that the Moon Under Water sells aspirins and stamps, serves beer in “pleasant strawberry-pink china” and possesses a “fairly large garden” which “allows whole families to go there instead of Mum having to stay at home and mind the baby while Dad goes out alone.” It also has a snack counter where you can get liver-sausage sandwiches, mussels and cheese, as well as an upstairs dining room serving a cut off the joint, two vegetables and boiled jam roll. Sounds like the ideal place to mop up the booze and round up our pub crawl. Still, reckon we’re going to have one hell of a fictional hangover tomorrow.