Camden is home to some fantastic pubs, ranging from the historic hostelries of Hampstead through to the grungy Rock ‘n Roll boozers of Camden Town. In this blog I am going to take you on a gentle stroll from Holborn up towards Kings Cross, popping into some of the atmospheric alehouses that you might visit for drink along the way. As well as looking splendid, these pubs have their own often fascinating stories, and a wealth of charm and character. These are just some of the wonderful pubs of WC1
The Princess Louise - 208 High Holborn WC1V 7EP
At first glance, the rather plain exterior gives us little clue as to the delights that can be found behind the wooden doors, but once inside you will be treated to the sight of one of the finest, most authentic and well-preserved Victorian pub interiors in London.
Originally built in 1872, its interior upgraded in the 1890’s, and named after a daughter of Queen Victoria, everything about the pub reminds us of a time when opulent, ornate and well-crafted décor was the height of fashion.
Take a look at the magnificent tile work, plaster ceilings, mirrors and wooden snob screens, partitions which were built with the intention of allowing middle class drinkers to avoid the gaze of the Holborn hoi polloi, who would have also enjoyed a few pints here.
A special mention must be made of the grade II listed gents loo, with its massive marble urinals and tiled floor.
The Queen’s Larder - 1 Queen Square WC1N 3AR
Just a stone’s throw away from the hustle and bustle of Southampton Row, The Queen’s Larder is a corner pub overlooking the plane trees and medical institutions of leafy Queen Square. The pub is named after Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III, who, between 1788 and 1789 was receiving treatment for mental illness at the Queen Square home of his physician Dr Francis Willis. Queen Charlotte rented a small cellar beneath the nameless alehouse which had stood on this spot since at least 1720, in order to store delicacies and provisions that she felt might help to relieve the boredom and misery of the king’s confinement.
The Queen’s Larder has a comfy crimson interior with lots of cosy hidden nooks and crannies, and, when I last visited, the clientele seemed to consist old school Londoners out on a jolly before travelling back to the suburbs on the night bus.
The Dolphin Tavern - 44 Red Lion Street WC1R 4PF
The Dolphin is another corner pub located on a quiet corner of Holborn, just around the corner from Red Lion Square. There has been a pub on this site since Victorian times, with the current red painted building having been constructed after the First World War.
This corner of Holborn hasn’t always been quiet however, specifically on the evening of September 8th 1915, when a German airship, floating high above the dark streets of London dropped a massive bomb onto the Dolphin. The pub was reduced to little more than a pile of smoking bricks, wood and glass, and, tragically, three drinkers were killed.
In fact, the only item to survive that terrible evening was the old pub clock, battered and scarred, it’s hands permanently fixed at 10.40pm, the exact moment when the bomb landed with such devastating consequences.
The stopped clock was placed on the wall of the newly rebuilt pub and, for around a hundred years, has been telling the correct time twice daily to those drinking in this quiet, atmospheric local. The Dolphin is well worth a visit for this alone. Little details such as this really do bring history to life, especially when accompanied by a nice glass of wine!
The Duke - 7 Roger Street WC1N 2PB
The Duke is best approached from the north, walking down pretty Doughty Mews, which leads from Guildford Street to this wonderful pub, which somehow feels not quite part of modern twenty-first century London, quietly tucked away just off of the busy Grays Inn Road. The Duke of York, as it was known when it first opened in 1938, is home to many striking Art Deco touches including mirrors and light fittings that would look at home in a World War Two period drama.
There is a dark red piano, wooden widow booths, and the lino on the stairs leading down to the loos looks like it has been there since the day pub opened, which I consider a very good thing. The best time to visit The Duke is in the autumn or winter, preferably on a drizzly Saturday afternoon when the rain is trickling down the Art Deco windows, and a late 1930’s pre-war melancholy hangs agreeably in the air.
Gordon Comstock, the hero of George Orwell’s novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying would have felt very much at home in the Duke, as would Patrick Hamilton, author of the boozy low life London classic Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky. The Duke is definitely worth a visit, maybe for a glass of something dark and sour.
The Lamb - 94 Lamb’s Conduit Street, WC1N 3LZ
The Lamb has a really inviting exterior, the outer walls being clad in striking green tiles, with well cared for hanging baskets and a huge hanging lamp lighting up the exterior, tempting would be customers to enter and see what lies behind frosted windows, etched with golden images of a lamb. The creature after which the pub, and the street in which it stands is named, was of the human rather than the farmyard variety, a Sir William Lamb who, in 1577 improved the already existing conduit to bring water down into the area from Holborn.
The pub was originally built in 1729 and, like the Princess Louise, mentioned earlier, contains a fine collection of snob screens. It would seem that here in WC1, drinkers of all classes could often be found in the same pubs, but were at great pains to avoid having to mix with each other when out socialising.
The Lamb is home to a fine collection of pictures of the music-hall stars who would have performed at the now long-demolished Holborn Empire. Another local who would have almost certainly popped in for a drink was the author Charles Dickens, who, between 1837 and 1839 lived at nearby 48 Doughty Street, now the location of the Charles Dickens Museum. Dickens loved walking through London, stopping for refreshment along the way, small pleasures that can still be enjoyed at relatively small cost to this day.
The Calthorpe Arms - 252 Grays Inn Road WC1X 8JR
The Calthorpe Arms is an old school London pub standing opposite St Andrew’s Gardens, a former burial ground that was closed to the dead in 1850. The pub is used by locals who come here to enjoy decent beer and food in unpretentious surroundings, many of them maybe not realising that the pub was the location of a tragic historical event.
Back in May 1833, an unlawful demonstration took place in nearby Coldbath Fields with 450 constables drafted into the area to break up the gathering. The police charged the demonstrators, and demonstrators charged the police. Bricks were thrown and truncheons were used with the police trapping a group of protestors in Calthorpe Street. In the chaos that ensued a PC Robert Cally was stabbed before running into the Calthorpe Arms where he is said to have seized a barmaid by the wrist, exclaiming ‘Oh I am very Ill’, before dying on the spot. The unfortunate Robert Cally is generally regarded as being the first police officer to have been killed whilst on duty in London.
Whenever I am in the Calthorpe Arms, I like to raise a glass to the Welsh émigré writer and visionary Arthur Machen who tells us ‘He who cannot find wonder, mystery, awe, the sense of a new world and an undiscovered realm in the places by the Grays Inn Road, will never find those secrets elsewhere…’. I’ll drink to that!
McGlynn’s - 1-5 Whidborne Street, WC1H 8ET
McGlynn’s Free House can be found tucked away in the atmospheric streets just south of King’s Cross, in a part of town that still retains some of the character that has been so tragically destroyed to the north of the station. Unlike the other pubs mentioned, as far as I know, McGlynn’s isn’t home to a well-known historical story, and its well-worn interior (and well-worn black and white cat) doesn’t feature in any London pub guidebooks, but, sitting outside, on a warm spring afternoon, is one of the great London experiences. Take a look at the splendid old garage opposite with its archaic telephone exchange prefix still above the door. Admire the skinny house on the bend in the road.
As the day draws on, one can enjoy the never-ending stream of humanity that walks past, Whidborne Street being one of the best places in London for people watching, a spot where old and new King’s Cross characters can be seen at home in their natural environment. There is really nothing quite like a drink outside of McGlynn’s, a prime spot on the theatre of the streets, here in the heart of the London Borough of Camden.
Haydon, Peter (2011).London’s Best Pubs, New Holland.
Olins, Ben (2014). A London Pub for Every Occasion, Ebury Press.
All photographs taken by Jeffrey Prior.
Thanks to Mark and Kate for help with research. Cheers!