Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
Remember a few weeks ago, when I talked about London growing outward and inward “expanding as I realize how much there is to see and do here, and contracting as I realize that each street corner has a lifetime of stories already in it”? Let me give you a quick example.
(Also, yes, I just quoted myself. Settle down, folks.)
Last night – Tuesday, for those of you keeping score at home – I went out for drinks and dinner with a few folks who I’d been put in touch with via a neighbor from back home in Chicago. Since they wanted to show me a bit of London’s history, they suggested we meet up on Fleet Street. This sounded just fine and dandy to me, and so at about 6:45 pm, we met at the Old Bell Tavern, near Ludgate Circus. Now, I know that for some (most?) of you, when you hear “Fleet Street,” you think of this guy:
Now, that’s all fine and dandy. I like Sweeney Todd too. But what you should also think about is newspapers. Lots of newspapers. For many years, the London Press Club, along with most of the major British papers, was based in a building on Fleet Street. Each pub on the street was therefore associated primarily with just one paper, giving each a flavor distinct from the rest. One of the fellows I was having drinks with was a long-time member of the Press Club, and so had spent quite a few hours at the Old Bell in his time. We enjoyed an hour or so of conversation over cider and wine, then headed across the street for dinner.
And this is where the story really gets interesting (at least for me, the nerd). We had dinner at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. It’s the one in the picture up there – and yes, it does say rebuilt in 1667. Bonus points if you can tell me why a lot of different buildings were getting rebuilt in 1667. Over the course of its history, “the Cheese” (as it’s apparently called), has hosted Mark Twain, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s gloomy and atmospheric inside, with sawdust strewn over the dark wooden floors and candles reflected in dirty mirrors. For a few moments, upon entering, you feel as if you’re standing on a movie set that’s been particularly well done – everything is so authentic! - when you realize that no, this is real, this is happening, this is it. The picture below is taken during the day, and in a different room than the one I was in, but it gives you a sense.
I had a superb dinner of steak and kidney pie – complete with lots of quite spicy mustard, which is apparently a thing – and then enjoyed an Eton Mess for dessert with some wine. After a month of student food for dinner and hunks of bread and cheese for breakfast, it was darn nice to get out and eat some restaurant food. Anyhow. I’m getting away from my point.
And here’s the point. Think of all the years I could happily spend in a place like the Cheese! There are dark rooms to explore, people to meet, food to try, things to read, and things to write. Think of the things I could learn just by sitting at one end of the bar and listening to the conversations that have been going on, incredibly, since the reign of Charles II. And then think of the camera panning upward, out of the bar, out of the Cheese, up – slowly – above Fleet Street, and it’s shops and pubs, up over central London, over the Houses of Parliament, up until finally you stare down at this city from above and wonder how you came to be living there, free for a year to see it all. It makes you think.