Some of the very best and most interesting of London’s pubs are along the river Thames. They provide an ever improving range of traditional English food, first rate views of the river and intimate details from England’s history, much to the delight of this pub-crawler.
Dr Johnson is alleged to have said “When a man is tired of London he is tired of life” and certainly this historic city possesses an endless round of attractions. Whether it be Royal London, Swinging London, Historic London, Cultural London or Tribal London there is seemingly something for everyone in the 600 odd sprawling miles that make-up this metropolis.
Numerous tourist guides are available to point you in the direction of the “musts” – the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, the “swinging Kings Road”, Chelsea, Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey and the Changing of the Guard. A lot of visitors, however, in addition to doing the usual sites, would like to visit a unique British institution – a pub – before they head for home.
London pubs come in all shapes and sizes: there are vast Victorian ale–houses, plush modern joints and typical olde worlde pubs. There are small, trendy and often over-crowded inns and even a few surviving, traditional Cockney ( native Londoners) knees-up haunts where the English themselves head for.
In a country that was not formerly renowned for the quality of its native cuisine, the visitors will often find a pleasant surprise in store. For the pub presides on the street corner or river bank with an ever improving range of traditional English food.
Some of the very best and most interesting of London’s pubs are to be found along the banks of the river Thames. There are few better places to start a riverside pub crawl than Greenwich where east really does meet west and if you have ever wondered how “Greenwich Mean Time” came about you will find all you need to know at the Royal Observatory. There has been a flurry of development here and among the big attractions is the Millennium Dome.
East of the splendid Royal Navy College on the river front is the elegant Trafalgar Tavern in Park Row which has an elaborate nautical décor, sophisticated cuisine and first rate views of the river. The lovely Regency style pub was built in 1837, the year Queen Victoria came to the throne. Still in Greenwich is The Yacht in Crane Street, which is not only conveniently located for the historical areas of this riverside borough but has the Thames running under its terrace. It is a popular pub with diners as well as drinkers and has an extensive menu.
The next pleasant port of call is The Gun in Coldharbour Lane in the Isle of Dogs – now very much the abode of yuppies instead of dockers. This hostelry is named after the gun yard next door, where the Royal Navy’s cannons were made in the 17th century.
Admiral Nelson reputedly used a small bedroom upstairs while awaiting fitting out men-of-war; Lady Hamilton meanwhile was quartered next door at Isle House. At The Gun there is friendly service and a marvellous atmosphere. Also in the Isle of Dogs is the Waterman’s Arms which is a high-ceilinged Victorian pub nicely refurbished in music-hall décor and which has live shows very much in the English music hall tradition.
At 76 Narrow Street in Limehouse Reach, down among what were once dockland’s wharves and warehouses, is The Grapes, which must rank as one of the quaintest pubs on the river, with a tiny balcony over the water. The bar itself is only about 14 feet wide and Charles Dickens wrote about it in “Our Mutual Friend” while the American-born resident of Chelsea, Whistler, painted it. It’s a gem of a place and well worth making tracts for; it also has a good reputation for its food, particular fish and seafood dishes.
Rotherhithe is further upstream and this where history buffs should make a pilgrimage to and, in particular, to The Mayflower. This is a historic, 17th century, riverside inn complete with lovely lattice windows, whitewash timbering and a balcony view of the spot from which the Pilgrim Fathers sailed. It is said to be the only tavern in London that is licensed to sell both British and US stamps.
The Angel is within walking distance of the Mayflower pub and was once Captain Cook’s “local” between those sea voyages that widened the world. It also happens to be opposite the execution dock of Judge Jeffries but is a very friendly haunt these days. The balcony affords some pretty stunning views of Tower Bridge and the city skyline. It serves Greenall Bitter at Bankside.
The Anchor Tavern is a thoroughly fascinating haunt, with its high arches and heavy beams, and its historical association with Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre nearby. Today, the Globe bar has a Tudor doll’s house which commemorates the great bard’s theatre while Dr Johnson’s room evokes memories of an earlier era too. There are a number of real ales for patrons, including Directors Bitter. Upstairs the neat restaurant specialises in good wholesome English food with grills and roasts being among the most popular dishes with customers. Tom Cruise had a pint here in “Mission Impossible” and the pub serves Courage Ruddles and Adnams beer.
Once a warehouse, Samuel Pepys, at Brooks Wharf in Upper Thames Street, turns out to be a modern pub-restaurant. But despite that it still has a distinctive Pepysian atmosphere, with its oak beams, ships’ lanterns, “serving wenches” and quotes from the diary and some of his letters on the walls. English cooking predominates at this comfortable riverside joint frequented by tourists.
The Dickens Inn in St. Katherine’s Way is a traditional wooden beamed and wooden floored pub serving up red ales, lagers, bitters, wine and spirits. A beer garden and restaurant balconies are open in summer and traditional pub food and snacks are available as well as more formal dining in a separate restaurant. The pub has an interesting setting over looking Tower Bridge and a Marina with the boats and walkways.
One of the best Thames-side Victorian pubs is The Crown on the Albert embankment which is just opposite the famed Tate Gallery. The nearest tube station is Waterloo. This basically jazzed-up Victorian pub has splendid views of the Houses of Parliament, Lambeth Palace and the numerous wharves which line the river banks. Hungry visitors would be well advised to try the restaurant. It provides one of the choicest menus of traditional English fare in South London.
If you are on the look out for celebrities, chances are that you will see some of them in The Kings Head and Eight Bells in fashionable Cheyne Walk in Chelsea. In the 18th century this was actually two pubs: The Kings Head for Naval officers, and the Eight Bells, for ratings.
It is set-back a bit from the embankment, from which it is separated by a very elegant town garden. The place has a spacious bar downstairs, an intimate cocktail bar and a nicely decorated eatery upstairs. It is a full of character and has a friendly atmosphere. The historian Carlyle’s house across the street is now a museum.
Down the river at Hammersmith is The Doves which has been a licensed hostelry for more than 400 years and is today the haunt of river men as well as literary and artistic people. It’s an unspoilt 17th century building, beamy and dark with an open fire. The outside terrace with a vine hundreds of years old gives a good view of the Thames. It boasts a long list of celebrity customers including Graham Greene, Earnest Hemmingway and AW. Herbert.
Not far away at Strand-on-the Green, Chiswick, you will come across the City Barge. Queen Elizabeth I granted this low-beamed inn a charter back in 1484 and the old portion is much as she saw it, so the historians tell us. The pub sign even has a picture of her barge on it.
The London Apprentice at Isleworth is an extremely attractive Elizabethan inn situated on a bend in the river much frequented by swans. King Henry VIII and his wives slept here often, en route to Hampton Court, and King Charles II also enjoyed the hospitality on offer. Tables on the terrace give a very peaceful prospect of Kew across the river. A small restaurant upstairs with bay windows overlooking the river specialises in English fare with its forte being steaks and fish dishes.
With 15 riverside pubs under out belt, our pub crawl along the Thames came to a stop. And needless to stay, our compendium of Thames-side pubs makes no claim to being complete.
About the Author
Raymond J.G. Wells is a British-born economist and writer currently living and working in Malaysia. Among his writing credits are articles in Trailfinders, International Living, the Rotarian, Home & Country, Dorset Life, Devon Life and Far East Traveler.