Some time ago, I jetted off to London to spend a few days with a companion exploring the rich history and richer beer of that fine English town. Normally, when I travel I leave it up to myself to plot an itinerary and seek out the spots I want to visit. But in London, we had naught but a couple days and plenty of history to cover, so we signed up for one of those guided theme tours that sounded like it would appeal to me: Sinister London.
Not a walking tour per se, because who wants to walk hither and to in London in January? Especially considering how much of haunted London is spread out over a vast geographical region. So we opted for the bus-based tour, and one that gave you a sort of sampling set of atrocities and hauntings instead f concentrating on a singular topic like Jack the Ripper. I was tempted by the world-famous Jack the Ripper walking tour, but although the man who leads it is an undeniable authority on the topic of macabre London hot spots, he also spends the vast bulk of his website not telling you about his own tour, but rather ranting and raving about how much worse all the other tours are. I admire his bitter insanity, but it’s not exactly powerful marketing.
When our bus swung by to pick us up outside our hotel — another nice feature of the tour we chose — we joined three women and the guide, who informed us that because it was the off season, the turn-out for the Sinister London tour was as small as the turn-out for the Historic Pubs of London tour, so would we mind terribly if he combined the two tours into one, extended tour of London’s most sinister places and most famous old pubs, with ample time provided for both communing with ghouls and downing pints of ale? I saw no particular problem with this arrangement, especially when he threw in a visit to his favorite out-of-the-way fish and chips shop. That shop — Long Lane Fish and Chips, located on Long Lane on the south side of the Thames — was fantastic. And despite what hippies with backpacks tell you about never going where tour guides send you, this is the sort of place we would have cruised by without ever noticing had not our guide recommended it to us.
Well, we got not only fish and chips and a hilarious running commentary from our guide (“And here’s Marble Arch, the most boring attraction in London!”), but also a perfectly blended mix of ghastly locations and the historic pubs that happen to be nearby. When your history is as long, storied, drunken, and bloody as London’s, you have a pretty good chance of always finding a historic pub next to an historic nightmare, and vice versa. Since this is the Absinthe Diaries, I’ll save the talk of Jack the Ripper, grave robbers, and Execution Dock for later and concentrate primarily on the pubs and pints.
34 Bankside, Southwark, London, SE1 9EF
Our first pub was located on the less fashionable but obviously up and coming south bank of the Thames, in an area known as Bankside. Bankside was, for a time, the central entertainment district of London, the place you went to indulge in anything you weren’t allowed to do in the City of London proper. This means lords and ragamuffins, queens and con men, all descended on Bankside for a night that could consist of seeing the latest Christopher Marlowe play, drinking oneself silly at a pub like The Anchor, or consorting with ladies of easy leisure in one of Bankside’s numerous brothels. Although people sum it up as a “red light district” even though there were no lights, red or otherwise, at the time, it has a lot more in common with a place like Gion in Kyoto in that it’s not just sex; it’s sex and theater and booze and art and culture and general ruckus-raising.
Truth be told, I never even made it inside The Anchor, which is a shame. But the pub is located as sort of a nexus point between an assortment of other sites, including The Clink prison and prison museum, The Shakespeare Globe, and The Rose. Having just finished Leslie Silbert’s superb thriller, The Intelligencer, which deals quite a bit with Christopher Marlowe, I was keen on seeing the theater that had served as his sort of home court. Shakespeare’s Globe isn’t the original building (that burned down in the early 1600s thanks to a prop cannon igniting a thatched roof), and the current building is situated in a different location than the original. It serves primarily as a Shakespeare museum and is a little too modern in its interior decor to provide much of a sense of what it must have been like in previous times.
The Anchor itself has undergone considerable expansion, though the core pub remains largely intact and dates back to 1676, when what had been there before was severely damaged by fire. Additions and expansions have been tacked on throughout the centuries, resulting in a pub that is equal parts watering hole and confounding maze, which must really be dangerous after a few pints. The end result is that The Anchor is a series of smaller rooms and bars all contained in one growing organism. Decor varies from room to room, century to century, and you can get a lovely view of the Thames. The antique and even moody atmosphere of the cul-de-sac on which The Anchor sits results in a lot of movies being made in the area. Tom Cruise even has himself a pint in The Anchor in one of the Mission: Impossible movies. The Clink, an old prison that now has a sort of half-assed museum in it, sits inside an old stone tunnel that has been lovingly adorned with flickering lights and gruesome corpses dangling from cages.
The George Inn
77 Borough High St. Southwark, London SE1 1NH
Next up on the list south bank list was London’s only surviving galleried coach inn. Back in the day, when man traveled by horse and carriage, you obviously needed a place to store your horse and carriage when you stopped for a bite or an evening’s sleep. Coach inns were pretty much killed off with the spread of railway travel, and most of them disappeared from the London landscape. The George Inn, located in what was at one time one of the busiest intersections of travel, has survived and looks much the way it did when a fellow like Charles Dickens would retire to the place for a quick pint. Nearby is the courtyard but not the building that was once the location of the Tabard galleried coach inn, made famous in 1388 as the tavern that serves and starting point for the journey of the characters in Geoffery Chaucer’s damnable piece of medieval filth and moral corruption known as The Canterbury Tales. These days, the courtyard isn’t much to look at, but it’s still nice to imagine yourself walking the same cobblestones as Chaucer or his bawdy handmaid.
Both The George and the Tabard were destroyed in the 1676 fire that swept through Southwark and promptly rebuilt. But the Tabard was demolished for good during the 19th Century, while The George and its handsome balconied galleries overlooking the courtyard survive to this day. Parts of it were destroyed and used as a train depot, but the beautiful south building remains intact and is now protected by the National Trust. It’s also protected by a few burly looking doormen who stand at the entrance to the courtyard on Borough High Street and keep an eye out for anyone clad in too much partisan football club gear. The neighborhood has trouble with a couple rival clubs, and The George is keen on seeing its historic halls are not fucked up by fucked up footballers. As long as you’re not clad in a jersey or club jacket, the doormen won’t give you a second glance. But as we saw as we entered the courtyard, walking in with such clothing will get you stopped and interviewed, and possibly denied entry.
Like The Anchor but less expansive, The George Inn is a series of connected smaller rooms and bars, including the Coffee Room (now the Middle Bar), which was a favorite haunt of Dickens when he was jotting out various works about ragamuffins offering to shine yah boots, guv’ner or perhaps requesting that please sir, might they be granted a bit more gruel?
What to Drink: London Pride
If you’re touring pubs, you have to grab a pint of London Pride. So I’d been told, and I am nothing if not obedient when someone names something alcoholic and says, “Darling, you simply must try this!” London Pride is made at Fuller’s Brewery in Chiswick, London, which has been cranking out the brew for lo these past hundred and sixty years now. The Fuller Brewery is one of London’s few aged yet independent breweries. It occupies a plot that has been a brewery since the 17th century, and members of the Fuller family remain involved with the company as they have since 1845. London Pride offers a thirsty drinker a well-balanced complexity and depth of taste, made from three different types of hops but brewed so that the hops don’t dominate the malt. How’s that for some beer drinkin’ lingo? My usual is, “Dang, this shit good!” so I’m trying to branch out a little bit. If we had this beer in America, it would be my standard go-to beverage. It was absolutely delicious and went down very easy. Even my traveling companion, herself no fan of beer, was able to sample a sip or two without screwing her face up into a anguished visage of pain and terror, which is her reaction to most beers.
117 Rotherhithe Street, London SE16 4NF
Originally known simply as The Shippe, a boat captained by one Christopher Jones set out from a dock by this quaint and cozy pub one spring day in 1620, carrying on board a group of Puritans who I assume did not wander into the bar for a couple pints before their departure. The Puritans were departing England to escape religious persecution and establish a home for themselves in the so-called New World. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Anyway, after depositing his pilgrim passengers near a large rock in what would become Plymouth, Massachusetts, Jones returned to the Rotherhithe dock, dying in 1622 and being buried in St. Mary’s Churchyard, just a few quick steps from the doors of The Shippe.
A century later, the Shippe was renamed The Spread Eagle and Crown, which sounds like a particularly complex position from the Kama Sutra. Restoration of the pub occurred in 1957, and apparently that lot of Puritans who sailed on Jone’s ship, The Mayflower, had made something of themselves by then, and so the pub was rechristened The Mayflower in their honor. Word has it that planks from the original Mayflower were even used during the 1700s reconstruction of the pub. As to which planks those actually are, I don’t know, but The Mayflower is an immensely cozy and inviting place to sit back for a bite or a pint.
What to Drink: Abbot Ale
Brewed in the Suffolk town of Bury St Edmunds, Abbot Ale is the Greene King Brewery’s flagship brand, and it certainly didn’t let me down. I’ve heard that there is a tremendous difference in the taste and quality of beer in England versus the same beer, if you can find it, in America. This is no wives’ tale. The difference in taste was remarkable and instantly obvious. Apparently, I’d just never had beer. Even something as simple as Guinness or Bodington’s is better in England, and that’s not just a myth or trick of expectations. I got to experience fine English beer served at the proper temperature, which is coolish but not cold, and although my nation of ice cold beer drinkers may be aghast at the concept, it’s good. Chilly temperatures kill the active yeast cultures — not that I complain about ice cold beer in the right situations. Full-flavored and smooth as a Southern gent, Abbot Ale is brewed with pale crystal and amber malts to give it an appealing color and rich, malty taste with floral tones and a distant hint of fruit. Abbot is one of the big names in British beer, and I have to say that it pretty much lived up to the hype for a relatively unsophisticated beer drinker from America like me.
84 Commercial Street, London E1 6LY
On the night of November 9, 1888, a prostitute by the name of Marie Kelly left a pub called The Ten Bells on the corner of Commercial and Fournier Streets, presumably to ply her trade with someone she’d met in the bar. She was young and still had her looks, which may explain why she was able to afford a room in which to practice her craft rather than do it in a dark alley or other such popular place for men to couple with women of ill repute. Whether or not that potential customer was Jack the Ripper we’ll likely never know, but it was with the Ripper she had her next appointment, and it was in her room just a stone’s throw from The Ten Bells that Saucy Jack, who himself had no doubt been sitting in The Ten Bells, murdered and mutilated his final (confirmed) victim. Thus that bloody chapter in the history of London, Whitechapel, and The Ten Bells came to a close.
Well, not exactly. Time heals old wounds, and once the Ripper murders were a grisly passage in a history book instead of current events, the down-on-its-luck East London neighborhood of Whitechapel wasn’t above playing home to countless Ripper tours, t-shirts, and whatever else you can think of. The Ten Bells was eventually purchased by a proprietor who gave it the subtle tourist trap name Jack the Ripper before it was renovated and reverted to its original name in the 1970s. It sits across one street from Spitafields Market and across another street from the menacing Christ Church. Viewed amongst these landmarks exclusively, it’s not hard to imagine a Victorian prostitute filing out of the front door of The Ten Bells followed by a shadowy figure in a great cloak and hat, carrying a leather satchel, or whatever it was the Ripper might be carrying. It was a shopping bag from Tescos for all I know. Expand your view, however, and you’ll see that Whitechapel has rudely refused to remain stuck in a Victorian time capsule, and although still a somewhat blue collar neighborhood, it’s as modern looking and plain as any other London neighborhood. Still, that doesn’t stop the nightly Jack the Ripper walking tours, and if you take one, you’ll need a strong narrator to guide you through and create a false sense of ambiance.
The Ten Bells pub is always a key stop in any Ripper tour, and that’s gone from being an attractive way to bring in new clients to being a major pain in the ass, since most of the people on the tours are coming in to gawk and take some photos, but not to buy any drinks or crisps. These days, The Ten Bells is a perfectly average single-room neighborhood pub, not entirely inviting, and honestly, not all that interesting to look at. The renovation that took place during the seventies means that very little of the original decor remains, and the ambiance of the place can best be described as “unremarkable.” It’s just a place where locals go to talk loud, have a pint, and listen to one of the worst selections of music in any pub in London — and this takes into account the dreadful music that was playing in The Mayflower when we were there. Backstreet Boys? Really, now. So if you want to tour sinister spots in London, you have to stop at The Ten Bells, even if it’s unimpressive as a pub. But be a sport, and if you go in, buy a drink or two. If nothing else, maybe it’ll help them purchase better CDs.
What to Drink: Spitfire
I admit that I’ll drink pretty much anything named after a weapon or military aircraft, so I was happy to run across Shepherd Neame’s Spitfire, originally brewed in 1990 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, which you can learn about from any decent history book or, better perhaps, from the movie Battle of Britain. Spitfire is created from a blend of English malts, which dominate the flavor and mix well with a hint of toffee (oh, those Brits and their toffees) and citrus spice that comes from the hops. Kentish hops, to be precise, which is fitting since the Battle of Britain took place over those very hops fields. I presume there are different hops growing there now than the ones from 1940, but they’ve still been heartily nurtured with blazing aerial combat, which is where they get that delicious flavor that goes into every pint of Spitfire. Shepheard Neame Brewery claims to have been in steady production since the late 1600s, and since I wasn’t around at the time, I’m going to accept their claim. A spectacular ale with a full body, very refreshing and easy to drink.
Prospect of Whitby
57 Wapping Wall, London E1W 3SH
Ahh, now here’s a pub I was looking forward to, not that I don’t look forward to just about any pub. But this one, the last one for the night, combines everything from the Sinister London Tour with everything from the Historic Pubs tour. Prospect of Whitby was built in 1520 on the banks of the Thames and, by the 17th century it had become one of the most notorious haunts of smugglers, pirates, rakehells, ne’r-do-wells, rascals, rapscallions — you name it, and they were probably drinking at the place that became known as Devil’s Tavern. Rumor — probably started by the pub itself some time after the fact — locates the infamous Execution Dock right outside the pub’s back door. Execution Dock is where particularly unsavory characters were executed in a manner befitting their lives as waterborne criminals. They were lashed to a leg of the dock during low tide and left there to drown when the tide came in. Legendary pirate Captain Kidd met his end on that dock, as did many others. Of course, not far down the street is a pub called The Captain Kidd that claims to be the location of Execution Dock — sort of how every church in Europe has the original nails from the Crucifixion.
As I have put my life of swashbuckling piracy on the high seas behind me, the actual exact location of Execution Dock isn’t of huge concern to me, especially after this many pints. What is important is how nice the pub is, and Prospect of Whitby is a spectacular pub on which to close the night. Deep brown wood with a beautiful pewter top bar highlight the large main area, and chairs an couches strewn about give you a lovely view of the river — as well as a noose and gallows, just to establish mood. Upstairs is a restaurant, and there’s additional dining space in another room on the ground floor. Our small crew sank deep into overstuffed couches for our final pub and final pint of the night. All in all, a spectacular evening. The tour guide was funny and charming, the pubs and haunts (I’ll cover those later) were a blast, and the beer was better than I ever thought beer could be. Anyway, I could call Prospect of Whitby home, especially if the pirates and scalawags ever come back. Cap’n Kidd, this pint’s for you.
What to Drink: Bombardier
It seemed fitting, at least to me, to end the night with something explosive, so why not another destruction-themed ale? Well’s Bombardier has been called the definitive English bitter, and although my top honors for the night probably go to Abbot Ale, the distinctively copper-colored Bombardier certain ranks among the very finest beers I’ve had, all of which, frankly, were beers I had on this tour. Up until then, it was too-cold Guinness and Bodington’s, though I’m certainly not planning on turning my back on Bod’s any time soon, especially since there seems to be a dearth of pubs in New York keeping Spitfire, Bombardier, Abbot, or London Pride on tap. Guess I have to start haunting those crazy “400 different kinds of beer!” stores now to see what I can turn up stateside. Bombardier drinks rich but light, with complex fruity flavor and a hint of malt and caramel, as well as a slightly spicy scent. Apparently, improperly cared for Bombardier can turn pretty ugly, but properly stored and properly served, it’s quite a treat.