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Historic Eastside London Pubs and Walks

See also London’s Maritime Pubs and Restaurants

London’s Eastside was once the home of the world’s largest trading port, with as many as 3500 ships loading and unloading exotic cargoes, or simply waiting their turn. Many waterside pubs sprang up as a result, some serving honest sailors and dockers, some less honest pirates and smugglers. Today, the dockers and pirates are long gone, but not the places they eat and drank in, many on the riverside.

The pubs of Wapping all have their own stories to tell. The Prospect of Whitby is London's oldest and one of the most famous riverside taverns, which started life in 1520 as The Devil's Tavern due to the villainy of its customers. A list on the wall outside the pub details all the monarchs who've reigned during the pub's existence. Today's name comes from a collier bringing coal from the Tyne, which used to tie up alongside. The fine views, much appreciated by today's visitors, were sketched in earlier times by Turner and Whistler, and both Samuel Pepys (no doubt to see how many smugglers he could spot - this being one of their favourite hangouts) and Charles Dickens were regular visitors.

A noose hanging outside the pub's window is presumably in honour of 'hanging' Judge George Jeffreys, who was infamous for sentencing people to the gallows; he lived nearby and was a regular at the Prospect of Whitby until anti-royalists toppled the Crown and sent him scarpering for his life. He was captured in the nearby Town of Ramsgate pub and given a taste of his own medicine: he was hanged!

Another pub, the Town of Ramsgate, originates from the Wars of the Roses in the 15th century. By 1750, the pub was just one of 36 along the High Street alone, serving the thirsty needs of the shipyards and wharves that made Wapping one of the busiest parts of London. The pub has been known through the years as The Red Cow, on account of the barmaid's red hair, and then The Prince of Denmark, to encourage Danish sailors into the pub. 18th Century press-gangs used to work in the pub, imprisoning drunks in the pub's wine cellars and pressing them into the King's service as sailors on Naval vessels.
In the 19th Century, it came to be called the Town of Ramsgate after the fishermen who landed their catches at Wapping Old Stairs. Those Old Stairs are still next door, and you can still see the post to which the bodies of hanged pirates were chained and then left for three tides to wash over them.

The Captain Kidd pub was named after a Scottish colonial ship-owner who became a privateer to hunt and capture pirates and later turned to piracy himself; he was arrested, convicted, and hanged at Wapping on May 23 1701. During his execution the rope broke; he was hanged on the second attempt. His body remained on the gallows until it had been washed by three tides; it was then tarred for preservation and placed in gibbets for public display at Tilbury Point in Essex to discourage other pirates. The 17th Century building was originally a warehouse used by tradesmen making boats, repairing sails, and working on the river.

In the Pool of London, in St. Katharine Docks, The Dickens Inn, built between 1793 and 1799, was originally a spice warehouse and the Liberty Bounds, stands in historic Trinity Square, adjacent to the impressive Port of London Building built in 1912 and Trinity house dating from 1792. This Wetherspoons pub has great views of the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, and the Mayor of London’s new headquarters.

The George Inn, which stands on the south side of the River Thames near London bridge, is London's only surviving galleried coaching inn. The George was rebuilt in 1676, after a devastating fire swept Southwark. It was one of many such inns in the area, perhaps the most famous being the Tabard, where Chaucer began his Canterbury Tales in 1388. The Tabard too was rebuilt after the fire, but was demolished in the late 19th century, despite a public outcry. The George also narrowly avoided total destruction.

In Greenwich, the most well known pub is the Trafalgar Tavern. Built in 1837 it is named in honor of Admiral Nelson whose body lay in state at the Painted Hall in nearby Greenwich Hospital following its return from Cape Trafalgar. Many famous writers and politicians, including Dickens and Thackeray, have been associated with it, especially in Victorian days. Cabinet ministers at the end of the parliament session, travelled from Westminster to enjoy a Greenwich specialty here: a whitebait supper, still available today. To eat whitebait at its best it was caught in the river outside the Trafalgar, cooked and served within the hour. Charles Dickens’s son said ‘there is no such hangover as the one that followers a whitebait supper at the Trafalgar’. Supper was served with champagne.

The Trafalgar Tavern became a seaman's charity when it closed in 1915 - a casualty of World War I - and didn't reopen as a pub until the mid-1960s. It was also at one time an employment office. The Trafalgar stands on the site of an old Waterman’s pub called The George. It is from this time that the ghost that haunts the main bar is said to come. He is seen in Georgian dress sitting at the bar or the piano drinking beer. When he finishes his drink, he gets up and walks through the wall where the fireplace is. This is where in the old pub the door was. Ghosts stay in their own time.

In 1837 a big rebuilding/redevelopment of the whole town centre was started. The old small unhygienic buildings were demolished. The architect Joseph Kay designed what we see today with the Spanish Galleon on one corner and other pubs such as the Cricketers and the Coach and Horses around the new area with the market covered in the centre. Joseph Kay was also the architect of the Trafalgar.

Built in 1795, the Gipsy Moth changed its name from the Wheatsheaf to Gipsy Moth in 1975. This was to mark the arrival in Greenwich of Gypsy Month IV. This was the boat in which Francis Chichester completed the first single handed round the world voyage in 1967. It now nestles in the dry dock next to the Cutty Sark. Lady Chichester came to Greenwich for the name change.

Francis Chichester was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II on the steps in front of the Royal Naval College. The Queen used the same sword that was used to knight Sir Frances Drake, in 1581, on board his ship the Golden Hind at Deptford in the presence of Queen Elizabeth I.

The Plume of Feathers, a quaint old English pub just outside Greenwich Park, dates back to 1691 and, given its position, has a plethora of naval and maritime artefacts. It's also bang on the Meridian Line and you can work out pub opening times in the rest of the world as you sup your pints. The road outside Plume of Feathers was once the main road passing through Greenwich. It divided the park from the Tudor Palace, which stood by the river. Along the road stood Tudor buildings connected with the Palace. It is said that it was in one of these building that Edward VI, Henry VIII son, died at the young age of 16 having been ill for many years.

And finally, the Cutty Sark Tavern, an 1805 Grade II listed building, was the Union Tavern until it was renamed in 1954 when the Cutty Sark arrived at Greenwich permanently. The pub is designed to resemble the inside of an 18th century ship: low-beamed ceilings, creaky wooden floors, dark panelling, and beams like a ship’s timbers.

The best way to explore the area is by Docklands Light Railway (DLR), London's fully automated driverless light rail system.

Itinerary One

Start the day by visiting one of the many attractions in the Pool of London such as Southwark Cathedral, the Old Operating Theatre, the Fashion & Textile Museum, Britain at War or the HMS Belfast, Tower Bridge Exhibition before stopping for lunch at the George Inn. After lunch walk through Hay’s Galleria and along the riverside walkway past the HMS Belfast and the Greater London Authority building.

Afternoon options are:
A walk through Butlers Wharf, once one of the busiest docks in London, receiving cargoes of tea, coffee and spices, at the end of which you will find the Design Museum.
A visit inside the Tower Bridge Exhibition, where you can find out about the bridge’s history and how it works. View the architecture from the inside and enjoy the views from the high level walkways. Purchase a Tower Bridge Exhibition and Monument combined ticket and enjoy the historic self-guiding trail.
A walk across Tower Bridge and a visit to the Tower of London before stopping for one last drink at St Katharine Docks.
Take the DLR from Tower Gateway to West India Quay where you will discover a whole museum dedicated to the Docklands area. The Museum in Docklands tells the story of London’s port, river, and people from the Roman settlers to today’s modern developments. Take this opportunity to experience the drastic changes which have turned the disused docks and canal basins into the new high-flying financial district and shopping paradise that is Canary Wharf.

Itinerary Two

Starting at St Katharine Docks, walk along Wapping High Street and Wapping Wall, visiting the many watering holes along the way, including the Captain Kidd, The Prospect of Whitby and the Town of Ramsgate. You can either hop onto the DLR at Shadwell DLR (shorter tour) or at Westferry DLR (longer tour including many more historic pubs at Limehouse) and, whilst admiring the views of the Docklands and Canary Wharf, make your way to Greenwich (Cutty Sark DLR). Once in Greenwich you are spoilt for choice: the Gypsy Moth, so-called in celebration of the famous vessel, which Sir Francis Chichester circumnavigated the world solo in 1967; the Trafalgar Tavern, a Greenwich favourite for well over 150 years and immortalized by writers and artists such as Dickens and Thackeray; the Plume of Feathers and the Cutty Sark Tavern.

After lunch, take in some of Greenwich’s hidden gems: the unique Fan Museum, followed by a look around the new Wernher Collection at the Rangers House or discover the delights of The Chapel and Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College.

The Greenwich Tour Guides Association is also happy to arrange specialised historic pub walks within Greenwich to suit the requirements of your group. To arrange a tour for your group, please contact the Greenwich Tour Guides Association on 020 8858 6169.

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