Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
From Dr. Johnson’s house to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is a journey of about 120 yards, 360 feet. A somewhat square sign alerts visitors to the pub’s entrance in the alley. The dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral beckons for later in the afternoon.
Located at 145 Fleet Street, EC4A 2BU, YOCC was rebuilt in 1677 – yes, rebuilt (check out the modest lettering beneath the pub’s name on its alleyway badge) after being mostly destroyed by the Great Fire 0f 1666, before that some sort of pub had existed here for about 130 years. These days YOCC is “tied” to the Samuel Smith Brewery which means all the beers here come from Samuel Smith.
If you’re not going to be living in London and looking for your own local pub, the lure of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is not the beer served here but rather the people who have been served here in times past – and on this particular day – one of those served here in times present. There is a pub near Bristol, The Crown, that gives the feel that a highwayman might just walk in at any moment – the Cheshire Cheese hasn’t retained quite that much authenticity but it still has the feel of an old fashioned pub: no music, lots of dark spaces and dark wood, hard to find rooms, meandering stairs, the hum of private conversation.
On our visit we sat facing other pub goers on hard wooden pews in a hall connecting two rooms; it was in that way that we met a Yorkshireman, now living in London who had traveled from his rooms across town because Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese was his “local”. For about twenty minutes he spoke about how his world had changed from the time when he enjoyed modest but consistent financial success working in a hotel to his now somewhat reduced circumstances which caused him to live across town. After several years in a new neighborhood he still didn’t feel comfortable there and now made the journey to YOCC several times a week after work, despite its distance from his home.
He spoke movingly – in the stoic way men of his generation have – of a car left in the car park of the hotel where he used to work; a white BMW it remained unclaimed for many days after Pan Am Flight 103 went down – although he never learned the fate of the car’s owner he was quite sure the person had been a passenger on that tragic flight. He talked of the African man (“a good chap”) who lived down the hall from him and how they would sometimes get together in one of their rooms and watch Tottenham play football. He recalled the strikes that had reduced workweeks and altered forever England’s economy. A simple spoken man with an air of decency – although, of course, who knows on such a short time spent together – our Yorkshire acquaintance had the tired air of a man watching the world he knew drift away and trying very hard to adapt the new one left in its place. For all the difference in their ages, he reminded me of the young man who had served us in the pub at The Royal Oak.
There was not time though, unfortunately, to pursue or ponder, ahead of us lay an afternoon exploring Saint Paul’s Cathedral.