London

The most beautiful old pubs in London by Thomas O'Malley

I wrote this piece on London's most traditional pubs for Gridskipper, the Gawker Media Travel blog, as part of a series of weekly travel round-ups in my role as London Correspondent.

For every splendid Victorian pub in London, there's a crapload of identical chain bars serving overpriced, badly kept beer in quirky glasses, or pretentious refitted "gastro" pubs likewise lacking in local color or traditional trappings. But you're in safe hands now, because this post will guide you from one gloriously decked-out historical London pub to the next (all in the same day if you're game), where inspiration is just another drink away. If you need an excuse, consider these words from London's fourth-best playwright and Shakespeare's pal, Ben Johnson: "Drink today, and drown all sorrow; You shall perhaps not do it tomorrow; Best, while you have it, use your breath; There is no drinking after death." On that note, mine's a pint.

Jerusalem Tavern

55 BRITTON ST, ISLINGTON, GREATER LONDON, EC1M 5, UK

This 300 year-old boozer in Clerkenwell is a rustic little gem. The tall glass frontage gives it the look of a Dickensian shop, and the tiny interior is back to basics tavern -- wooden floors, painted brown walls, and old hardwood tables and stools. It's the one pub in London owned by the St. Peter's brewery, who create a range of old-world inspired ales naturally flavored with blackcurrant, gooseberry, and grapefruit.

The Blackfriar

174 QUEEN VICTORIA ST, LONDON, GREATER LONDON, EC4V 4, UK

At the North end of Blackfriars Bridge, the Blackfriar boasts one of the most striking pub interiors in the city. It's art nouveau innards are inspired by the medieval history of the location, with mosaics depicting monks, plus vaulted ceilings and private wooden booths. The pub gets a bit crammed with office workers in the evenings, but it makes for a fine spot for afternoon or weekend drinking.

The Lamb

LAMBS CONDUIT PASSAGE, CAMDEN TOWN, GREATER LONDON, WC1R 4, UK

On a quiet street in refined and regal Holborn, this welcoming pub with dark wood ceilings, quaint fixtures, and green tiled frontage feels like a set from a RichardCurtis film, in that it's so close to being a perfect pub it doesn't seem real. A bit further from the center of town than the other places on this list, but well worth the trip for the friendly bunch of locals, old-world atmosphere, and traditional fittings.

Cross Keys

31 ENDELL ST, CAMDEN TOWN, GREATER LONDON, WC2H 9, UK

The grand frontage of this pub is completely covered with hanging baskets and plants, which prepares you for the interior, similarly stuffed with old paintings, Beatles memorabilia, plastic fish, and copper kettles. There's barely a spare square inch of wall or ceiling, but that serves to make the pub homely and comfortable. The beer is sometimes below par and the service a little chilly, but the Victorian decor is the real deal, and you'll struggle to find a more traditional pub in Covent Garden.

Dog & Duck

18 BATEMAN ST, LONDON, GREATER LONDON, W1D 3, UK

This tiny little Soho drinking den oozes historical atmosphere. The walls are covered in green and yellow tiles, the lighting is flickery, and the creaky wooden staircase is a museum piece. It leads up to a separate dining area that smells of shepherd's pie called the Orwell room, named after the great man reputed to be a regular here. Best visited on a cold evening for a pint of Harvey's and some of their award-winning sausages.

The Windmill

MILL ST, LONDON, GREATER LONDON, W1S 2, UK

This popular pub close to Regent Street dubs itself, a tad loftily, the Institute for Pie Excellence. But they have won a heap of awards for their pies, especially the steak & kidney, so we'll let them off. There's a pleasant local vibe within despite its centrality, the Young's beer is good as ever, and the food is pure English pub and filling as hell, with all mains priced under a tenner. Shropshire ham egg and chips, Windmill fish pie, and traditional fish and chips are on the menu alongside the pies, and you can get further supplement your gluttony by tucking into sides like greens with bacon or mushy peas.

Dover Castle

43 WEYMOUTH MEWS, PADDINGTON, GREATER LONDON, W1G 7, UK

Tucked away down a side street behind the Embassies of Portland Place, this charming little establishment feels more like a quaint country pub than a city boozer frequented by diplomats and plastic surgeons from nearby Harley Street. The inside is cozy and homely with dusty pictures of old cricketers hanging on the beamed walls. The Sam Smith brewery operates here, serving their range of decent, low-priced beers. It makes for a peaceful drinking haven on weekends thanks to its clandestine location, despite being only five minutes from Oxford Circus.

Argyll Arms

ARGYLL ST, LONDON, GREATER LONDON, W1F 7, UK

The drinking area within this pub is divided by awesome Victorian etched-glass partitions known as "snob screens" for their original purpose of keeping the social classesapart. Today, they do the job of making the pub more pleasant by sectioning off the crowds. And crowds there always are, because this is the closest boozer to Oxford Circus and consequently heaving with shoppers and tourists. But that shouldn't deter you from popping in for a drink, marveling at the remarkable interior, and thinking that if you could transport the whole place about half a mile north, it would probably be the best pub in the world.

Behind Bars: Drinking in London's Former Prisons by Thomas O'Malley

A piece for Gridskipper on London drinking establishments built on the site of historical prisons - a fun one to research.

Whatever your views on London as a world-beating capital, few rival cities can top our distinguished history of locking people up. Two hundred years ago, there were upwards of twenty prisons in the center, crammed with thieves, debtors, prostitutes, and the like. These institutions, mostly long gone, were rife with violence, gambling, and drunkenness. Rather apt then, you might think, that what few traces remain can be found in pubs. In terms of ambiance, this is undoubtedly of benefit for said establishments, because nothing evokes authentic old-London like the imagined wails of hapless prisoners serving their stretch. So prepare to get incarcerated (and inebriated) with our guide to jailhouse drinking.

Southwark Tavern

22 SOUTHWARK STCAMBERWELL, GREATER LONDON, SE1 1, UK

This popular pub stocks a vision-blurring range of European beers and bottled cider, and thanks to its proximity to Borough Market, sells above par food for the prices. It can get crowded after office hours, so head downstairs where (you've guessed it) you'll find a semicircular row of stone prison cells. Today converted into intimate candlelit booths, they're a popular spot for friends to drink and dine in cozy captivity. Admittedly most of the cells have had a modern refit, but take a look up at the discolored brick ceilings complete with narrow air vents, and you'll be in no doubt as to the authenticity of the setting.

Morpeth Arms

58 MILLBANKLONDON, GREATER LONDON, SW1P 4, UK

Just West from the Tate Britain on the riverside, this well groomed public house hides a similar dark secret in its underbelly -- a spooky row of stone prison cellsdating back to the 1840s. Supposedly haunted, the cells were part of the now extinct Morpeth Penitentiary, a transit prison for undesirables waiting to be shipped off to Australia. Come and enjoy a pint of Pride from the upstairs bar with commanding views of MI6 just across the Thames. Then at closing time, play out your prison fantasy by catching a riverboat from Millbank pier outside. This is the same journey that the pitiable Morpeth lags would have made, although you'll probably disembark at Embankment. Their voyage was just beginning.

Courthouse Hotel Kempinski

19 GREAT MARLBOROUGH STLONDON, GREATER LONDON, W1F 7, UK

This hip hotel near Carnaby Street is a former Magistrates court, so call in for a rosemary vodka-infused martini in the chic bar, and take your seat in one of several private booths in the former holding cells. Should you decide to serve a longer stretch, you can book a night's stay in the judge's private rooms, complete with oak floors and original Robert Adams fireplaces. For fine dining in some truly unsettling surrounds, head downstairs to the Silk Restaurant, serving Thai-influenced international cuisine in a fully preserved courtroom. Order!

Viaduct Tavern

126 NEWGATE STCITY OF LONDON, GREATER LONDON, EC1A 7, UK

The street name says it all. This ornate Victorian boozer opposite the Old Bailey is built more or less on the site of Newgate prison, probably London's most notorious lockup. Inside, elbow past city workers and the odd high-court judge, and you'll be rewarded with a choice of 10 gins and some reputable cask ales. And if you ask nicely, Sidonie (the landlady) will show you round the cellars, which are built into the crumbling remains of a former 19th century debtors' prison. Make sure you seek out the tiny "family cell" complete with rotting wooden bunks on iron struts. Brrr.

White Tower @ Tower Of London

Tower Hill, Greater London, UK

Sir Walter Raleigh, Guy Fawkes, Rudolph Hess, Anne Boleyn, the Kray Twins. For a mere £12,000, you and a hundred or so friends can join this illustrious guest list by hiring out the White Tower for the evening and partying like it's your last. Without doubt this 1,000-year-old building is London's most famous place of imprisonment, torture, and execution, and for your cash, you get a tour of the Crown Jewels thrown in too. Don't try anything funny though, or you risk staying at the next place a little longer than planned...

Wandsworth Prison Visitors Centre

17 Heathfield Rd Wandsworth, Greater London, SW18 3, UK

Go directly to Jail. Do not pass go. Do not order a pint. If all this boozing is taking its toll, pop in to one of Europe's largest working prisons for what we promise will be a sobering experience. Open until 8 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the Visitors Centre at Wandsworth Prison sells coffee, cakes, and snacks, along with all the jail-related leaflets you can read. As you sit with your coffee and bun, remember that not too long ago in London, you could be banged up for bankruptcy, vagrancy, and even debt. Be thankful you're just visiting.