Let’s say you’ve found yourself in the vicinity of Ludgate Circus and Fleet Street with a few hours to spare. It’s winter – it’s cold – what to do? Well, how about spending some time in St Bride’s church, a fascinating museum, one of the oldest pubs in the city and a place to ‘make your own’?
The warm and welcoming St Bride’s, is one of London’s most historic churches. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London and completed in 1708, St Bride’s (named after Ireland’s Saint Brigid of Kildare) is most famous for its wedding cake spire, it’s association with the Newspaper industry (it’s known as the Journalist’s church) and its fascinating crypt containing all manner of Roman and medieval architecture and artefacts.
As an added bonus, pop in at lunchtime most Tuesdays and Fridays and you’ll be treated to a free recital – a 40 minute respite from the noise and bustle of Fleet Street.
St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street, EC4Y 8AU
Just around the corner from the church you’ll find another way to warm up on a chilly day – (in more ways than one) for Bride Lane is home to:
The City of London Gin Distillery
The story of gin in London goes all the way back to 1689 when Dutchman William of Orange took the English throne. He introduced the Dutch juniper spirit genever to the country and dropped all taxes tied to the drink. Distilleries sprang up everywhere: a pint of gin was cheaper than a pint of beer, and so the gin craze began. By the mid eighteenth century there were more than 7,000 ‘dram shops’ in the capital with 10 million gallons of gin distilled annually. Gin wasn’t called Mother’s Ruin for nothing – it would affect the lives of the poor and disadvantaged most of all. To try and reverse the trend The Gin Act was introduced in 1751, raising taxes and fees for retailers, and by 1830, beer became cheaper than gin for the first time in a century.
Now, nearly 200 years later, Bride Lane houses the only distillery in the City. Established in 2012, the gins produced here have been winning awards. You can book a distillery tour and tasting session, finding out about the botanicals added to give it its distinct taste. Or you can add to your skillset and sign up for the popular gin making experience, design your own gin recipe and distil your very own personalised bottle of London Dry style gin. Cockle warming stuff.
CITY OF LONDON DISTILLERY, 22-24 BRIDE LANE, LONDON, EC4Y 8DT
Cross over Fleet St and turn west and look out for the most historic pub in the city:
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
Rather like the winding atmospheric city lanes, the interior of this famous Fleet street pub is a labyrinth of narrow corridors, low ceilings, cosy nooks and sawdust (changed twice a day). The first new building erected in the area after the Great Fire of 1666, it has changed little since the 17th century.
Pop in here for a pie and a pint and you could just imagine a couple of amiable bewigged gentlemen puffing on pipes and gossiping over pints of old speckled peculiar. Dr Samuel Johnson (who lived a stone’s throw from here) may well have frequented this pub: there’s a plaque which claims to mark his favourite seat in the ground floor restaurant. Other literary figures who have dined here include Mark Twain, W.B. Yeats, P.G. Wodehouse, Oliver Goldsmith and Charles Dickens, who even featured it in his novel A Tale of Two Cities.
The Cheshire Cheese was also home for 40 years to Polly the parrot whose fruity language is said to have shocked even the local newspapermen, and whose death in 1926 prompted a flurry of obituaries in the press worldwide. You’ll find Polly well stuffed and perched in the Snug.
When it comes to dining, it’s unashamedly British fare with pub classics the order of the day; Ye Olde Steak & Kidney Pudding is the star signature dish.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese Pub and Chop house, 145 Fleet St, London EC4A 2BP
Exit from the Cheshire Cheese and turn right into Wine Office Court, turn left at the cannon, and step through the red brick arch into Gough Square where you’ll find:
Dr Johnson’s House
According to his biographer and friend James Boswell, Samuel Johnson – creator of the first ever comprehensive English dictionary – had 17 London addresses, but this is the only one still standing. He lived here from 1748-59, and it was in the attic that 6 copyists stood transcribing entries for the tome which, following publication in 1755, was destined to become the basis for all future English dictionaries. Johnson was also a prolific biographer, essayist, editor, literary critic, novelist, poet and man-about-town. He clearly found city life stimulating; it was he who declared that “…a man who is tired of London is tired of life.”
Johnson was also a passionate opponent of slavery, and following the death of his wife took on a former Caribbean slave, Frank Barber as his manservant, who lived with him for 30 years and ultimately became his heir.
Look out for the bronze statue of Johnson’s beloved cat Hodge sitting on a plinth in the square.
The house today is a museum with a regular programme of events, talks, exhibitions and concerts as well as a reading group which meets once a month. It’s open five days a week, from Tuesday to Saturday from 11 – 5pm (last entry 4.30pm). You no longer need to book in advance, just turn up and ring the doorbell for entry.
Dr Johnson’s House – 17 Gough Square, London, EC4
Fancy seeing Fleet St for yourself? Our Across the Pond; the London haunts of some famous Americans walk will take you there.