Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is another pub that I had visited before. Its place in London pub history is firmly cemented, which means that anyone with an interest in pubs should take the time to explore it.
By its normal standards, Taverns in Town is not that effusive about the pub, perhaps reflecting that is was already part of a well-worn tourist trail, even in 1973:
“The Cheshire Cheese presents one with a perfectly preserved example of the eighteeth century City tavern. Like most other buildings in the neighbourhood, this tavern perished during the Great Fire of 1666; but the rebuilding dates from 1667 and it seems hardly to have altered since that date, apart from the introduction over the years of the latest aids to dispensing drink and serving food.
In addition to being a unique tourist attraction, it is an efficiently functioning City pub, and it is much favoured by people who work nearby.”
On this occasion I visited towards the end of a cold, early winter Friday night. The fires were roaring and this added to the already very atmospheric surroundings. On approaching the pub, up the narrow Wine Office Court those unaware of this history within could just walk straight past the rather unassuming entrance. On entering, though, the visitor is presented with a dark warren of rooms and passageways. The lack of any noticeable windows takes you back to a bygone era of gas lamps and open fireplaces. The decoration and signage helps take you back too. As I was admiring some of the ancient artworks on the wall I noticed a sign above one door which read ‘Gentlemen only served in this bar’. There were no ladies in my party, but I think you’d be fine these days!
As with several of the other Taverns in Town I have visited in the Fleet Street area, this pub has strong literary connections. It is well known that Charles Dickens was a regular and probably penned at least parts of some of his great works here. The Cheshire Cheese steps it up a notch: Voltaire, Twain, Conan Doyle, Goldsmith, Tennyson and Yeats are all said to have been regulars here. Not to mention our wartime leader Winston Churchill and the Queen’s late sister Princess Margaret.
A little more research tells me that there used to be a very famous talking parrot at the pub. Polly was apparently the biggest personality in Fleet Street. At the time of her death in 1926 she was deemed to have achieved more fame than any bird before. Over 200 newspapers in multiple countries around the world wrote an obituary. The Bolton Evening News said “No really illustrious visitor to this country failed to gain an audience, at which the parrot always took the honours”.
And in the 1960s the pub gave the Museum of London several sexually explicit, erotic plaster tiles from an upstairs room, which was likely used as a brothel during the eighteenth century. This is something that has certainly altered about the pub since it was rebuilt.
The Old Cheshire Cheese is one to visit for ambience and history, rather than for a great pint. Run by Sam Smiths, you will not be ripped off as in some other tourist traps, but your ale choice will be limited to their rather average Old Brewery Bitter.
If you’ve never been this is a ‘must visit’.