How to Spot a Proper Pub: A Londoner’s Guide
We often get asked about the pub at London Tailored Tours – and we’re not ashamed to say we’ve done extensive research! The pub is a uniquely British institution, though it may be copied by many all around the world.
There are 3,823 pubs in London: that’s one for every 2,346 Londoners. Life is too (cruelly) short to visit them all, so here’s our team’s guide to finding the ‘proper’ (aka most authentic) pubs in London town.
So, Where did the ‘Proper Pub’ Begin?
In the 1700s gin arrived in Britain, and a love affair began that’s still going strong. Gin was initially marketed as a medicine; it was supposed to cure gout and indigestion. But its main attraction was being cheap to buy, which it would have to be! Some of the bootleg gins were mixed with sawdust and turpentine to cut costs. This made them about as toxic as most banned substances today. The population of 18th century Britain quickly became addicted to the stuff, selling their possessions and homes (and even their children) for gin money.
The government was slow to catch up with the phenomenon, but it did eventually pass several laws to curb the damaging effects of gin. Unfortunately, the main result was a thriving black market. Cue the Duke of Wellington: in 1830 he introduced the Sale of Beer Act. This law removed all taxes on beer, and allowed anyone to open a tavern by paying a two-guinea fee (equivalent to £65 in today’s money).
So, anyone with a living room could open their home to sell beer as a ‘public house’. Or, ‘pub’, for short.
A Proper Pub should Feel Like Home
Have you ever gone into a pub, and felt as if you just walked through someone’s living room? This is how a proper pub should feel. Up and down the country, the same ideal has always been true of ‘the pub around the corner’. This is somewhere to meet friends, to exchange stories, to relax after a hard day’s work.
Tour Guide Tip: One of the best ways to enjoy a ‘proper pub’ is to indulge in a Sunday Roast, complete with Yorkshire puddings and plenty of colourful veg.
The quintessential local should feel like they have since 1830: a home. That might mean a crackling fireplace and a cosy chair, beautifully worn timber floors and features, or perhaps a turntable and a space for live music by local bands. The ambience should be a home from home, a put-your-feet-up kind of place, somewhere you can be yourself. Mi casa es su casa!
A Proper Pub should be Independent
Sadly, pubs owned by huge chains now far outnumber independent establishments. And London Tailored Tours loves to support small businesses, like the shop where we buy our signature bags, or the London cabbies we hire as drivers. Well, pubs are no different. When you buy a pint from a local pub, it’s satisfying to know that you are supporting a family, or even a group of friends. Most important is the sense of a community watering hole. The neighbourhood should really be reflected throughout the setting, and photos hanging on the wall of local people and the area through the generations is always a good sign.
If you’re lucky you may even find the landlord, or landlady, at the bar. They’re still called that because even today it’s a position of respect. You can expect to hear tales of the area and the people from them. And perhaps even the weird and wonderful things to have taken place within the four walls of the pub.
A Proper Pub has its Own Local History
Our guides love making history fun and interactive, and some of the most outrageous and iconic moments in London’s history have taken place in the modest surroundings of a pub. Perhaps you’ll find the place where Charles Dickens, the voice of an era, was inspired to write some of his many novels. Or maybe the inn where pirates and sailors came bursting back into London after months on the seven seas. Every historic pub has its own character and often it’s the most amazing way to learn about some of London’s most colourful characters.
In a city where skyscrapers tower above us, and global markets influence the future of the capital, it’s nice to know that taverns from our past still survive centuries later. And they’re still enticing and exciting people, boasting bygone eras.
Tour Guide Tip: J.R.R Tolkien and CS Lewis were part of a group called The Inklings who would regularly meet in one of Oxford’s many pubs to discuss literary matters.
So whatever your tipple: ale, lager, wine, gin, or just a lime and soda, there’s a world of fantastic ‘proper pubs’ to be found in London. But to give you a head start, we put together a handy list of our team’s favourite pubs to give you a flavour of what London has to offer in our next blog post: Our Five Favourite ‘Proper Pubs’
Can’t wait to get into Britain’s pub culture? Then join one of our expert guides on our ‘Proper Pub Experience‘ for a first-hand experience of just what we’re talking about.