Which is London's oldest pub? You could spend an interesting day running round London trying to answer this question by visiting every claimant to the title, but by the end you'd be so drunk you wouldn't be able to remember what your name was let alone what you were trying to find out. That's because there are almost as many ways to define the answer as there are pubs with 'Ye Olde' in their name. Is it the oldest pub by name, by location, by age of building or of interior, by length of licence — or some magical combination of the lot?
This is complex stuff, worth exploring in more detail. To take a couple of examples, High Holborn's Cittie Of York has fine credentials, occupying the site of an inn since 1420. However, the building itself dates only to the 1920s while its name was pinched from an older tavern that used to sit across the road.
Or take Mayfair's The Guinea, which has been a pub since 1423 but took its current name in 1663 and occupies a building that dates from around 1720. For almost every promising, illustrious or celebrated candidate from the Wapping's Prospect of Whitby to Twickenham's White Swan there are caveats that create confusion.
This is an arena in which appearances and folklore can be deceptive. The Lamb and Flag in Covent Garden looks as if it is about to fall over and sometimes claims Tudor origins, but has in fact only been a licensed premises since 1772 when it was called The Cooper's Arms. It only became the Lamb & Flag in 1833. Some of the interior is Victorian while that ancient-looking frontage dates all the way back to… the 1950s.
At the other end of the scale is the nearby White Hart, a fairly unassuming pub on Drury Lane. This newish-looking boozer claims to be London's oldest licensed pub having been mentioned in Old Bailey records as far back as the 13th century. While that seems compelling, there are a few problems with this claim, the main one being that the original White Hart was not only in a different building, it was in a completely different location, this one having been built in the 1800s on land that didn't even belong to the medieval inn. That's not to say the current White Hart doesn’t have genuine history of its own — for one, it was the location of Communist Club meetings from 1846, and in 1847 Karl Marx addressed a meeting of the German Workers' Educational Society held in its "large and splendid" upstairs room. But is it old? Not really. At least not in London terms.
Over in Islington, the Old Red Lion is a promising candidate. This Upper Street mainstay claims to hark back to 1415, a date quoted by several Victorian sources one of which notes it has "a greater claim to antiquity than any other hostelry in the metropolis if we except perhaps the [since demolished] Talbot or Tabard in Borough". The oldest written evidence records a Red Lion on this site in 1522. Several famous names are connected to the pub, including William Hogarth, Thomas Paine and Samuel Johnson. It's a fine claim, although it should be said that the Red Lion briefly changed its name and has also been rebuilt several times, with the current building dating to just 1899.
Complexity upon complexity. What does one do about Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese? It certainly feels old and the building dates back to 1667 — a familiar post-fire date for so many City pubs. Particularly intriguing are the cellars, which are said to have once been part of a 13th century monastery, while the pub also has what CAMRA believes to be among the oldest surviving original woodwork in London. Indeed, CAMRA argues that there is no complete surviving pub interior in London from before mid-19th century, but points out both the Cheshire and the George in Borough have ancient parts — bits of the George may even predate 1700.
One of the oldest exteriors is that of The Spaniards Inn, built in 1585, although not a pub until some 150 years later. Clientele is famously said to include Dick Turpin, as well as Keats, Dickens, Byron, Constable, Hogarth and more — this one is part pub, part time capsule. Less illustrious but almost as old is the Hoop & Grapes in Aldgate, built in 1593 and housed in one of the few timber-framed buildings to survive the three London horseman of the Great Fire, the Blitz and 21st-century property developers. There are older pub buildings, there are older pub names, there are older pub interiors, there are older pub licences, but few that feel quite as authentically venerable as this place, so it seems a fitting end to the quest.