< >

Home New Products in BC Booze Reviews Past Events News Road Trips Upcoming Events Photo Gallery Where to go Tonight

                                                                                        Back to What's On

London Pub Reviews:

The Viaduct Tavern (020 7600 1863) is at 126 Newgate Street, London EC1. Tube: Chancery Lane or Barbican, then a five-minute walk. Open weekdays and evenings, with good pub lunches served between noon and 3pm. The Viaduct can also be booked for private functions at weekends, with no hire charge and a minimum £1,000 spend on drink and catered food.

Source: Food and Beverage News.com

London boasts 4,500 pubs and bars and the ones I like best are brimful with history - though at the thought of the more gory stuff I may well need a stiff drink… and then possibly another.

One of my favourite watering holes is also pretty much my local. It's the Viaduct Tavern, a wonderfully well-preserved gin palace built at the same time as the Holborn Viaduct alongside, a spectacular span opened by Queen Victoria in 1869.

Designed by City surveyor William Heywood, the 1,400ft viaduct bridging the valley of the long-covered River Fleet, and connecting Holborn and Newgate Street, is a marvellous marriage of Victorian art and engineering. It took six years to construct and cost the truly royal sum of £2.5m.

The bridge crossing Farringdon Street - from which the painted cast-iron supports rise up like the vaulting of a medieval cathedral - is decorated with noble bronze statues representing Commerce, Agriculture, Science and Fine Arts. Four Italian Gothic cum Scots Baronial turret houses stood at the corners of the span, two and a half of them still surviving - though the losses must be returned as a preservation/restoration priority.

In remaining turret niches there are statues of Henry Fitzailwyn, the first lord mayor; Norfolk's Sir Thomas Gresham, founder of the Royal Exchange and Gresham College; Sir William Walworth, the lord mayor who stabbed Wat Tyler; and Sir Hugh Myddleton, pioneer of the New River Estate which developed Islington.

Pity the queen - breaking into an eight-year-and-still-going-strong mourning period for her beloved Albert with a rare public engagement - couldn't have had a refresher at the Viaduct Tavern's bar.  She might have admired all the mahogany and the mirrors and the gilt, though an interior design deemed palatial by the brewers also had an air of the grand bordello. The sober monarch would certainly have been surprised to find that a state-of-the-art public house had become the first public building in London with electric lighting.

Then again, she couldn't stop long. For she was opening Blackfriars Bridge on the same day - before diving back into the successive seclusion of Osborne and Balmoral.

But it's back to the Viaduct Tavern for me…

Gin palaces first appeared around 1830, and by the 1850s London had about 5,000 of the glamorous, gaudy and bawdy pubs where the more louche members of the upper classes could mix with the low-life.  Charles Dickens lived nearby as a bachelor and newlywed, and who wrote Pickwick Papers in a High Holborn house now occupied by the majestically Gothic offices built for the Prudential Assurance Company. He could have been thinking of the Viaduct when, in Sketches by Boz, he wrote of a gin palace being “perfectly dazzling when contrasted with the darkness and dirt we have just left”.

Now Grade II listed, the Viaduct Tavern remains perfectly dazzling, while most of its rivals are long since bombed, bulldozed or wrecked by wretched brewery-wrought refits. Oil paintings of four alluring maidens echo the symbolic figures on Holborn Viaduct - though Miss Science is more than slightly the worse for wear, with a wound to one buttock caused by a soldier's bayonet or bullet during the heady party celebrating the end of the first world war.

At the rear of the bar there is a mahogany and etched glass pay booth where a dragon of a landlady would sell tokens which could be exchanged for gin via waitresses attending at the tables.  This procedure kept the cash away from possibly light-fingered staff and also carefully limited the gin so that customers didn't become too light-headed.

This splendid establishment had a reputation to maintain, after all. Surviving mirrors look worthy of the Moulin Rouge - though in fact they are superior to Paris, given their edging decoration of 24 carat gold and silver.  Gleaming with crimson paint, the ceiling is made of beaten copper secured in place by a gold-topped iron column like the tent of a desert sheikh.

Such an extravagant display of good taste was a fabulous façade, for in a room upstairs there was a thriving opium den.  The upstairs rooms could also be rented out by the hour - and not just for the reason you might think, but also for the outlook.

For the Viaduct Tavern had an unrivalled view of Newgate Prison across the street, a historic hellhole in which Norfolk's Elizabeth Fry had lately been a ministering angel. It would finally be demolished in 1902 to make way for the Old Bailey.

But in a sense the inn missed its moment, for just when it was opening the public executions on the crossroads outside - which had drawn huge crowds of baying, drunken spectators - were being ended, with Dickens among the revolted protesters.  Henceforward the killings were to take place inside the prison, where many other inmates were quietly succumbing to 'gaol fever' and other diseases.

But then neither was the Viaduct a mere observatory on the hideous nature of historic British justice. For it occupied part of the site of the Giltspur Street Comptor - a sheriff's office with a debtors' prison attached.  Designed by George Dance in 1791 and demolished in 1853, the underground prison held up to 20 detainees - sometimes entire families - to a 12ft by 6ft cell.

The only ventilation and light came from a hole in the ceiling to the street level, where friends and relatives might drop in food and money, and where those without connections would beg for alms from passers-by, even grabbing at their ankles. (But those free souls who liked to see felons hanging would also tip unmentionable substances down that tiny chute.)  One jailer described the opening of cells in the morning with “the stench being enough to turn the stomach of a horse”.  Amazingly, five of these cells remain, as they were perfect for pub cellars. When they're not too busy, bar staff are happy to give customers guided tours.

Some are still used for storage. But one damp, cold and darkened dungeon (the vent to the street now blocked) is eerily empty. Around the edges there are shelves which seem to have been designed for crates of beer or cases of wine but which were in fact ledges for human beings. No wonder the place is said to be haunted.

And now I definitely need a drink - though not, for me, the amazing variety of gins available in this old gin palace (not even the Victorian Hot Toddy with tanqueray, cloves, cinnamon and citrus).

This is a Fuller's pub, so I'm here for the beer.