Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is one of the few pubs in London that can justify the ‘Ye Olde’ in its name. It was well known in the 17th century and many pubs have previously occupied this site, one of them, the Horn Tavern is recorded in 1538. The earliest incarnation was a guest house belonging to a 13th century Carmelite Monastery, the pub’s vaulted cellars are thought to belong to that building. The pub was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 and rebuilt the following year.
Approached through a narrow alleyway (Wine Office Court) the Cheese beckons you into a bygone world. By the entrance a board lists the reigns of the 15 monarchs through which this grand old pub has survived. The dark wooden interior is an enchanting warren of narrow corridors and staircases, leading to numerous bars and dining rooms. On the ground floor are two rooms. The smaller is a very dark panelled bar with a large open fireplace and high mantle, above which is a portrait of William Simpson. He started as a waiter here in 1829 and his portrait has been passed down to successive landlords.
The Chop Room across the corridor is usually reserved for diners. Here high backed settles have been arranged back to back to create small booths. 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 set upon a shelf. A copy of Johnson’s dictionary should be nearby. Another painting of Johnson and his biographer, Boswell, was found in a cellar relatively recently and restored.
In the main stairwell increasingly narrow steps lead up to a couple of atmospheric dining rooms and to private quarters. Unfortunately these rooms are often closed, which is a shame as they give a feel to the rambling nature of this wonderful old building.Negotiating the narrow and awkward steps down to the cellar bars is rewarded with the discovery of the vaults, a fascinating series of tiny, honey coloured stone rooms. These vaults were part of the original guest house’s chapel. The steps continue into the cellar proper, where a further bar and dining area can be found.
Volumes of visitors books were kept and signatories include Ambassadors, Prime Ministers and Royalty. Unfortunately these records began after the likes of Dr. Johnson, James Boswell, Voltaire, Thackeray and of course Charles Dickens (originally a Fleet St. journalist) drank here. One famous resident was a parrot whose mimicry entertained customers for 40 years, its death was announced on the BBC and obituaries appeared in newspapers all over the world. Each generation that passes through the Cheese adds to its rich history.