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Near Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese and Dr. Johnson’s House

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is a London pub that was rebuilt in 1667 after the Great Fire of London in 1666. We hoped to meet friends there for a pint and a meal but it was not to be.

A little bit about the Belle Sauvage before the Cheshire Cheese story

Our route to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese started a little distance away to the east, and took us through what looks like nothing more than an alley connecting some office buildings to Farringdon Street. The alley is called Old Seacoal Lane, and it connects to Limeburner Lane.

I was on a mission to see this place again as I hadn’t had the chance to explore it yet, only to see where it meets Ludgate Hill. This time we turned and walked through from Ludgate Hill (one busy street) to Farringdon Street (another busy street running at right angles to Ludgate Hill).

Old Seacoal Lane takes its name from the former Seacoal Lane that was nearby, but the name of Limeburner Lane is  modern, from the 1990s.

This patch of ground has been worked and re-worked. At the moment there is nothing I could see to mark its former use as the Belle Sauvage Inn (also called Bell Savage Inn) standing from at least 1420 until 1853. The publisher, Cassell’s, had their presses on the site from 1852 and the place was called Belle Sauvage Yard until sometime in the 1980s or thereabouts.

The May 5, 1949 edition of the newspaper The Scotsman, reports an event at Belle Sauvage Yard the day before. The paper calls the yard “one of the biggest, ugliest bomb sites in the City of London” and says it is going to be turned into a public garden.

If you have read about Pocahontas in London, you may already know that she stayed at the Belle Sauvage Inn back in 1616. That’s just one little piece of  history associated with this place. There’s a lot more, but you wouldn’t guess any of it by walking on Old Seacoal Lane today.

 

Old Seacoal Lane where the Belle Sauvage used to be

Old Seacoal Lane where the Belle Sauvage used to be

The mission of exploring Old Seacoal Lane was done, so we wandered on to find Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese.

A few things about Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese

Here are a few things about this pub:

  1. It’s one of London’s oldest;
  2. It has a lovely quirky interior, small rooms, steps, a real rabbit warren;
  3. The word “Ye” means “The” not “Ye” and there are a lot of people who would pronounce it “The” but it’s possible you will sound a bit pretentious for so doing (let me know what happens);
  4. Dr. Samuel Johnson lived nearby and probably drank here;
  5. Charles Dickens did drink here and mentions it in some of his writing;
  6. Unlike Dickens and probably Johnson, we didn’t get a drink at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese because it was just too Ye Olde Popular on a Friday evening.
Sign of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, one of London's most famous old pubs

Sign of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, one of London’s most famous old pubs

It being obvious at a glance that YOCC would not be a great place to wait for our friends, we instead explored the streets close by.

We explored Gough Square and found Dr. Johnson’s House and a cat statue

Just around the corner and around the corner again a couple more times is Gough Square and a statue of a cat called Hodge.

Hodge was a favourite cat of Dr. Samuel Johnson, and in the days when oysters were a poor person’s food, Johnson would go out himself (instead of sending his servant) to buy some for Hodge. On the statue there are some empty oyster shells, Hodge presumably having already polished off the contents.

Hodge, a favourite cat of Dr. Samuel Johnson

Hodge, a favourite cat of Dr. Samuel Johnson

What I know about Dr. Johnson can be summarized in one sentence: He was a leading writer in the 1700s who published “the” dictionary, he was known for his witty and notable sayings (“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”), his companion James Boswell travelled with him and wrote his biography, and Hallmark greeting cards used to advertise with this version of another Johnsonism, “A man, Sir, should keep his friendships in constant repair”, which I have always liked.

In the long list of people about whom I would like to know more, Dr. Johnson must be included.

Dr. Johnson had a wife, who knew?

I was surprised to read just now that he was married. Did not know that. His wife, Elizabeth, was 46, widowed with three children, and Johnson was only 25 when they married, but it was a love match.

Over time, Johnson had about 17 London addresses. The house at 17 Gough Square was one of them, where he lived with Elizabeth during their marriage. She was ill during much of her time in London and had gone to the country before her death in 1752.

Dr. Johnson’s House is open to visitors (there is a charge) but we were there at night when things were all closed up. We did get a nice look at the outside of the house.

Dr. Johnson's House at 17 Gough Square, London

Dr. Johnson’s House at 17 Gough Square, London

There is a blue plaque on the house, of course, although in this case it’s not blue but brown. It’s not the only Johnson plaque in the neighbourhood. He lived at another house around the corner as well.

Dr. Samuel Johnson plaque at 17 Gough Street

Dr. Samuel Johnson plaque at 17 Gough Street

After Elizabeth died, Johnson was deeply depressed.

This is when Francis Barber arrived, a 15-year-old sent by one of Johnson’s friends to be his valet.

Plaque for Francis Barber on Dr. Johnson's House in London

Plaque for Francis Barber on Dr. Johnson’s House in London

Of course, the story of Francis Barber must be intriguing. It will have to wait for another day.

All I need to say now is that Gough Square was a treat to see, with a calm, dignified Georgian feeling despite some of the buildings being modern.

When our friends arrived, right on time, we did traipse through the Cheese, and I would definitely like to get back there on a Tuesday around 3 in the afternoon when perhaps it wouldn’t be so busy.

Instead we headed to another pub for drinks and finished with a very satisfying dinner.

 

 

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2 Comments

  • Reply
    Rachel Heller
    December 10, 2016 at 12:16 pm

    I would have liked to see pictures of the inside of Ye Old Cheshire Cheese. I guess I’ll just have to go check it out myself next time I’m in London! Even if it’s crowded, l love atmospheric old pubs.

    • Reply
      jill
      December 15, 2016 at 5:27 pm

      Thanks, Rachel – It was so crowded the only pic I could have taken would have been the back of the head of the person in front! Definitely worth another visit. I hope you get there and post pics of what I didn’t see. Cheers.

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