London Pubs No.1: The Cheshire Cheese

Current list of people barred from saloon

Current list of people barred from saloon

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese at 145 Fleet St was well known in the 17th century, and many pubs have previously occupied this site. One of them, the Horn Tavern is recorded in 1538. The earliest incarnation was a guest house belonging to a 13th century Carmelite Monastery, and the pub’s vaulted cellars are thought to belong to that building. The pub was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 and rebuilt the following year. So it’s quite new then.
Approached through a narrow alleyway (Wine Office Court) the Cheese has a board that lists the reigns of the 15 monarchs through which this pub has survived. There are so many narrow corridors and staircases, even regulars get confused. Even though the press has moved away, the pub is still often used by drunken old hacks.
On the ground floor are two rooms. The smaller is a very dark panelled bar with a large open fireplace and high mantle. Above this is a portrait of William Simpson, who started as a waiter in 1829, which was to be passed down to future landlords.
The Chop Room across the corridor is usually reserved for diners. Here high backed settles have been arranged back to back to create small booths. A portrait of one of the Cheese’s most famous patrons, Dr. Samuel Johnson hangs on a far wall, and his chair is set on a shelf. A copy of Johnson’s dictionary knocking around nearby. Another painting of Johnson and his biographer, Boswell, was found in a cellar relatively recently and restored.
In the main stairwell increasingly narrow steps lead up to a couple of dining rooms and to private quarters. The vaults are tiny, honey coloured stone rooms and were part of the original guest house’s chapel.
Volumes of visitors books were kept and signatories include Ambassadors, Prime Ministers and Royalty. Unfortunately these records began after the likes of Dr. Johnson, James Boswell, Voltaire, Thackeray and of course Charles Dickens drank here. One famous resident was a parrot whose mimicry entertained customers for 40 years. Its death was announced on the BBC and obituaries appeared in newspapers all over the world.
Pity they’ve put a metal grille on the lovely worn front step, though.

One comment on “London Pubs No.1: The Cheshire Cheese”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    Cheshire Cheese is a well known pub name even here. We have a small chain of pseudo pub restaurants in Vancouver called The Cheshire Cheese – very dark wood, prints on the wall, solid (and good) food. But not old.
    I thought it was just N. Americans who were given to the use of ‘Ye Olde’in names. That Y looking letter (was it called a thorn?) is an Anglo Saxon remnant that represents the th sound and wouldn’t have still been in use when The Cheshire Cheese was named, surely, especially not in London. Just asking.

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