The number of pubs within London claiming to have connections to literary figures is nothing short of extraordinary (The Newman Arms, The George Inn, The Anchor Bankside). Indeed, you’d be forgiven for thinking that all the great tomes of the last few hundred years have been written while the author was more than a bit tiddly. In the case of a few writers, it possibly explains a lot about the tone and style of writing and indicates what sort of drunk they probably were. Dickens — rambling, spins a good yarn, takes a while to get to the point. Dr Johnson — pompous, self-important, likes to wedge in a few big words to try and win arguments. Orwell — paranoid. You get the idea.
Given its apparent age, it’s no surprise that Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese lays claim to having had most of these chaps within its walls at some point. Partly as a result of the long list of famous patrons, the ‘Cheese’ is often referred to as a ‘Fleet Street Landmark,’ and it’s hard to argue that this is anything but a fitting title.
The ‘Cheese’ is wedged rather unceremoniously down an alley; it has the vague feeling of a pub that has elbowed itself into existence regardless of how unfeasible its construction might appear to be. The small portion of the pub that is above ground consists of a dining room and a small bar, which usually has sawdust sprinkled on the floor (honestly not really sure why and it’s probably best not to ask). These rooms are both wood panelled and give the instant feeling that you’re in a BBC adaptation of something where everyone is wearing a frilly shirt and being dreadfully polite.
Depending on what source you believe, the building is either very old or extremely old, having definitely been rebuilt in 1667 (apparently, there was a fire or something the previous year), with parts of the lower cellars possibly being from an old monastery. As you descend — yes, descend — down one of the treacherous stone staircases, you’re drawn into the atmospheric gloom of a set of rooms, which have evidently been here for centuries. It’s a fairly intoxicating experience which can be made all the more euphoric by giving yourself an involuntary lobotomy on one of the worryingly low ceilings.
Within this rabbit warren are a number of bars within rooms of varying size, comfort and dampness. Current ownership of the establishment is in the hands of Sam Smith’s brewery chain (not the popular singer who can sing in a pitch only dogs can hear, another one), which means that the beverage options are fairly predictable although reassuringly reasonably priced — £2.95 for a pint. More satisfying though is a bar snack menu with inexplicable prices: crisps 84p, chilli peanuts £1.21, salted peanuts 89p, dry roasted peanuts £1.06. Maybe the 17p difference between the salted and dry peanuts has something to do with the love and care put into the roasting process, but the real explanation is most likely to make as much sense as having a pub in a motorway service station.
Though far from perfect, it’s impossible to do anything other than accept the ‘Cheese’ as a cornerstone of London’s true pub heritage. As with so many other London landmarks, it’s a place you must visit in order to say you’ve truly experienced the city because try as they might, no pub is ever going to replicate what can be found tucked away here just off Fleet Street. Grab yourself a proper pint and explore the maze, the cuttings on the walls and know that you’re walking in the footsteps of a few literary greats and many lesser drunks.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, 145 Fleet St, London, UK, +44 20 7353 6170