Sunday, June 28, 2009

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese

This pub, mentioned in Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, was already well known in the 17th century, but other pubs had previously occupied this address (one of them, the Horn Tavern, was recorded in 1538). The earliest incarnation of this site was a guest house belonging to a 13th century Carmelite Monastery; the pub's extant vaulted cellars are thought to belong to that building. However, the pub was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 and rebuilt the following year, giving us the building we enter today.

Approached through a narrow alleyway (Wine Office Court off Fleet St., east of the Temple Church), the “Cheese” boasts an entrance board listing the reigns of the 15 monarchs through which this grand old pub has survived. The dark wooden interior is a warren of narrow corridors and staircases, leading to numerous bars and dining rooms. There are so many, even regulars get confused.

A portrait of one of the Cheese's most famous patrons, Dr. Samuel Johnson (his house is around the corner) hangs on a far wall, and his chair is set upon a shelf. A copy of Johnson's dictionary is nearby. Another painting of Johnson and his biographer, Boswell, was found in a cellar relatively recently and restored. Other distinguished patrons were Goldsmith, Dickens, Pope, Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, Voltaire and Thackeray.

One famous mascot was a parrot who's mimicry entertained customers for 40 years; the bird’s death in 1926 was announced on the BBC, and obituaries appeared in newspapers all over the world. I’m not making this up.

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