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Get drunk with Charles Dickens

Posted at 6:00 pm, December 22, 2011 in Food & Drink

Dickens pub crawlChristmas is definitely the season for a spot of boozing. Why not combine it with the Dickensmania around at the mo and do our Dickensian pub crawl to discover a new side to London. Let Sam Binnie and Louise Willder from Penguin Classics (which is reprinting all his works) be your expert guides.

Our walk starts south of the river Thames at the  George Inn (1) (77 Borough High Street, SE1). This is the last of London’s galleried coaching inns, the kind described in ‘The Pickwick Papers’ as ‘great, rambling, queer, old places, with galleries, and passages, and stair-cases, wide enough and antiquated enough to furnish materials for a hundred ghost stories’. Dickens drank at the George Inn; he mentions it in ‘Little Dorrit’, and his life insurance policy is displayed on the wall there. Borough also had darker associations for Dickens: in the defining tragedy of his young life, his father was imprisoned in the Marshalsea debtors’ gaol on the High Street.

Cross the river and enter  Leadenhall Market (2) (EC3). This is the site of fictional inn the Blue Boar, where the funniest character in Dickens’s most alcoholfilled novel – Sam Weller in ‘The Pickwick Papers’ – goes to write a valentine to his lady-love while cradling a glass of ‘brandy and water luke’. As you’re here, have a pint in the eighteenth-century  Lamb Tavern (3) (10/12 Leadenhall Market, EC3).

Head to the nearby George and Vulture (4) (3 Castle Court, EC3). Tucked away in an alley, this is the ultimate Pickwickian pub, mentioned at least 20 times in the novel (they drink an awful lot). Pickwick and his friends Tupman, Winkle and Snodgrass make this their London base, enjoying a pint of ‘particular port’ in ‘very good, oldfashioned and comfortable quarters’. Saved by the author’s great-grandson when it was threatened with demolition, the George and Vulture is adorned with Dickens-related portraits and photographs.

Carry on along Cheapside on the way to the next pub, stopping briefly at the junction with Wood Street. Railings with cross keys on them mark the site of the old Cross Keys Inn (5), where Pip in ‘Great Expectations’ first arrives in ‘ugly, crooked, narrow and dirty’ London, fresh from the Kent marshes.

Stop at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (6) (145 Fleet Street, EC4). Dickens worked on Fleet Street as a young reporter and often drank in this rambling, warren-like inn. This is believed to be where Sydney Carton takes Charles Darnay in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ to restore his strength ‘with a good plain dinner and good wine’.

Continue north to the Bleeding Heart Tavern (7) (Bleeding Heart Yard, EC1). If this dark, ghoulishly named courtyard hadn’t already existed, Dickens surely would have invented it. He knew this site well, and made it the location of the Plornish family home in ‘Little Dorrit’. The sinister name comes from the story of a society beauty found mutilated on the cobblestones – her heart still pumping her blood.

Cross the road to the (8) One Tun (125/126 Saffron Hill, EC1)., where Dickens himself drank in the 1830s. The pub is thought by many to be the Three Cripples in ‘Oliver Twist’ – the smoky, shuttered, dangerous haunt of Bill Sikes and Fagin’s gang of thieves.

Add a quick stop at the Betsey Trotwood (9) (56 Farringdon Road, EC1). Although it’s not known if this pub was frequented by Dickens and it doesn’t appear in any of his novels, it is a beautiful old Victorian inn named after one of his most loved characters, David Copperfield’s redoubtable great-aunt.

Go south via the Inns of Courta (10) , and you can glimpse many buildings that remain entirely unchanged since Dickens
worked here as a legal clerk. The days spent here by him clearly shaped many of his novels, as the law and legal proceedings appear again and again; see ‘Bleak House’ and ‘David Copperfield’.

Next, off to the Cittie of Yorke (11) (22High Holborn, WC1), once the site of the Gray’s Inn Coffee House. When David Copperfield returns to London in low spirits, he stops here to enquire after his old friend, Tommy Traddles. The Cittie’s cellars (known in the book as Henekey’s) are also the hiding place of the rioters in ‘Barnaby Rudge’.

Carry on south, through Lincoln’s Inn Fields, to wave briefly to the Old Curiosity Shop (12) on Portsmouth Street. Stop for a drink at the  George IV (13) (Portugal Street, off Portsmouth Street, WC2), celebrated as the Magpie and Stump in ‘The Pickwick Papers’, when it advertised not only Devonshire cider to Mr Pickwick, but the 500,000 barrels of ‘double stout’ that were held in the cellars.

Next, turn towards Covent Garden and take a gentle stroll, as Dickens might have done during his long bouts of insomnia. Dickens’s nocturnal wanderings were an inspirational exercise that he wrote about in his ‘Night Walks’ essays. Then, our last stop: the Lamb and Flag (14) (33 Rose Street, WC2), whose neighbouring alley bears a plaque commemorating Dickens’s drinking time there. It may whet your appetite a little if you bear in mind that in Dickens’s day this pub was known as the Bucket of Blood, thanks to the bare-knuckle boxing that took place here.

Congratulations! You are now a qualified scholar of Dickens’s London drinking dens.

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