Two pints of lager and a view of St Paul’s: the secret life of London’s most thrilling boozers

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Oliver Wainwright

What makes a pub special? From the perfect place to flog atomic secrets to the official strictly protected viewpoint for St Paul’s, a new book tells the amazing stories behind the city’s greatest bars

When you stumble out of the medieval warren of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub on Fleet Street, it’s easy to think you’ve had one too many. As you gaze east towards the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, the skyscrapers of the Square Mile appear to lean back in a woozy limbo, as if lurching to get out of the way.

It’s not the effect of the real ale, but the result of a curious planning rule. The City of London’s policies have long specified the pavement outside this particular pub as the hallowed spot from which Wren’s dome must be perfectly visible against the sky. Even the towers that stand behind it to the east, like the Cheesegrater and the Scalpel, derive their strange chamfered forms from having to preserve a sacred gap behind the cathedral’s silhouette, when seen from outside the pub.

Trace the lines of London’s historic protected views, and you’ll find that many of them end up outside pubs. It reflects not just the fact that the surveyors enjoyed a pint or two, but the central importance of the public house in shaping the history of the city – a phenomenon that is celebrated in a new book.

“There are already so many books about pubs,” says David Knight, co-author of Public House with Cristina Monteiro. “We wanted this one to be different. It’s not a guide to the best places to have a pint but a collection of social and cultural histories, trying to bring together a more diverse range of voices to explore the value of pubs to the city and society.” While the majority of pub literature may be of the stale white male genre, this compendium includes South Asian Desi pubs, African-Caribbean pubs, and a range of pubs that have played a role in LGBTQ+ history.

Knight and Monteiro, who run the architecture practice DK-CM, have a longstanding interest in pubs, as more than just places to drink. I first met them a decade ago when they were busily campaigning to save their favourite boozer, the Wenlock Arms in Hoxton, from being flattened by a housing development. Its special value, they argued, lay not just in the convivial island bar, jazz pianists and eclectic range of clientele, but in the upstairs function room that served as a vital space for the community, from hosting birthday parties to meetings of the British Stammering Association. The campaign mostly succeeded: the pub was saved from demolition and it is thriving under new management, although the upstairs room was lost to flats, which now also hem it in on all sides.

In an unusual move, the authors have used pubs as the theme for their architectural teaching, running design studios at Kingston University looking at what lessons these spaces might hold for the design of sociable public buildings. Their students produced meticulous drawings of pub interiors (some of which feature in the book), and they even attempted to have the London Public House, as a “type”, listed by Unesco as a site of intangible cultural heritage. As Knight said at the time: “When you talk about a special pub and what’s unique about it, it suddenly seems a bit futile to only protect the physical elements of the building, without thinking of who uses it and for what.”

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