Fighter pilot, Royal Navy 1945, Hydrographer Iraq 1947-52 India 1952-53, Canadian Hydrographic Arctic explorer 1953-1960, Writer-producer Canadian National Film Board 1961-72, Freelance journalist, audio-visual producer 1972-2009, National Press Club of Canada 1961 - 2006

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A London Tavern of Ancient Note

Just after World War Two, in the years 1946 and 1947, my London office was on Fenchurch Street, one of the most ancient thoroughfares in the centre of the City. That’s not the city of Greater London. Just the City. Period. Because still today, as for centuries past, that is the name which refers to the heart of the financial and business centre of Britain.

In fact, Londoners, when taking a taxi outside Buckingham Palace (or inside it for that matter) or when hailing a taxi circling the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus—both places considered by most people as being the centre of London—when those people tell the cabbie to take them to the City, they mean they are headed for the original site of the ancient Roman town of Londinium, which is about two miles further east, near the Tower of London. During the centuries following the withdrawal of Caesar’s Legions this historic square mile was continually overbuilt one city atop another to eventuually become the crowded medieval City of London proper and the nucleus of today’s vital hub of finance and commerce.

The bounds of this city within a city extend westerly from Aldgate Pump in the east, past London Bridge, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Bank of England, the Mansion House and Ludgate Hill, to the Law Courts and Fleet Street, Its other dimension runs north from the Thames to the length of London Wall, a well-known Roman remains.

It was here, sixty three years ago, that one of my favourite places in the City, was a cosy tavern where full pints of honest ale and superb hot and cold edibles were readily available. It was the ancient Tiger Tavern (or according to some, the erstwhile Ye Tygre Taverne) right across from the main gate of the Tower of London itself.

Inside this compact little tavern at lunchtime, a chef would carry a tray of raw meats and delicacies—goose legs, chops, cuts of venison, sea trout, live lobsters—over to prospective diners, mostly ubiquitous so-called city-gents, for close-up scrutiny so that they might select the actual savoury morsel they wished to have broiled to their order. Moreover the pub was especially renowned for delicious ultra-fresh seafood included in its profferings. This was due no doubt to the Tiger then being but a scant quarter of a mile distant from London’s bustling Billingsgate fish market before it was removed eastwards to the modern Canary Wharf developments.

The little, tucked-away facings of the old Tiger tavern fronted directly onto the sinister cobblestoned square which in earlier centuries had been the place of public execution for many of the aristocratic and political prisoners held inside the grim walls of the adjacent nine-hundred-year-old Tower of London.

Yet, incongruously, according to a popular belief so trusted that it was fully acted upon every day, at some time in history that one-acre-square of cobbles had long ago been designated, by royal decree no less, as a place for no-holds-barred, blatant, free public speech. So thinking ourselves securely immune from any risk of being dragged across the road and thrown into the Tower’s dungeons for participating in treasonable disturbances, my two business colleagues and I, before going into the Tiger, often listened to outrageous advocates of sedition, revolution, republicanism, and personal mayhem. This was all intermingled with eccentric extolling of shocking philosophies, weird religions, devious aspects of sexual activity—plus any other deep thinkings that might occupy the minds of free-born English men and women in that immediate post-war era.

The most notable, fearless, and regular Tower Hill speaker, who took the legendary treason-immunity clause as guaranteed gospel to its ultimate reaches, was a very disreputable-looking and vociferous gentleman we all called ‘Old Proverbs’. This on account of his frequent pauses in mid saliva-spluttering speech to say he had an old proverb somewhere about his person, to bolster that particular point in his argument. Whereupon he delved into one of the voluminous pockets of his tattered overcoat to bring out sheaves of scrawled wisdom. He would pick out a shabby, creased and dirty document, loudly read out its words of enrichment, then after using his coat sleeve to wipe off most of his spittle he would refile the bespattered paper in one of his big secretarial pockets for use another day.

One of his most seditious themes which he took to extreme lengths was his rant about how ‘they’ had betrothed our lovely young princess and heir to the throne to some rotten, greasy Greek (this was in 1947). No good could come of this he goaded his large audience, just you wait and see. Well, now we have. And it appears to have turned out more or less preferable to many other royal marital adventures that followed.

All in all, the oddballs who appeared at Speakers Corner far to the west in Hyde Park on Sundays, were tame in comparison to those on Tower Hill during the workaday week. Other attractions on the Hill were acrobats, strong men, escape artists, tricksters, revolutionaries, et al.

And though it was in the nearby Cheshire Cheese under the railway bridge in Crutched Friars, near Pepys Street, (a tavern not to be confused with the quasi-tourist trap Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese along Fleet Street), where we would sometimes see Old Proverbs counting the well-earned coins his audience had dropped into his hat, it was the venerable Tiger tavern that was our big attraction.

This lovely little pub was literally within spitting distance of where Old Proverbs sputtered away at his hodgepodge audience gathered outside on the old execution ground.

Dating back hundreds of years, the Tiger was all low black beams of ancient oak thick with the musty stench of history and authentic Elizabethan spilled beer. An observation that rings literally true considering it is on record that Good Queen Bess herself patronized the place as a young princess after being released from her two months of imprisonment in the Tower in 1554. And it has been said that later on both Charles, the First and the Second, were sometime visitors.

Yet there were no boasting signs or plaques, either inside or outside the pub, which other establishments used to attract customers. The Tiger had no need to bring such attention to these past honours. Because in the Tiger it was so generally and unquestionably accepted that such visits had indeed occurred. It was just considered an established normal part of the Tiger’s role during England’s fairly recent history.

This atmosphere was advanced by the presence as often as not of half-a-dozen or so amateur historians gathered together in one corner or other of the pub where a measure of the conversation would be of past kings and queens, executions—and in particular—unassuming references regarding the notables who had been patrons over the centuries of the very pub in which we were now drinking.

These history-conscious City gentlemen, young and old, added a precious and wide perspective to the venerable Tiger pub

Dressed uniformly and sartorially-perfect in pin-striped trousers and black jackets or smartly-cut dark business suits, they were of course, all bowler-hatted, and impeccably shirted-and-tied—even during the warmest summer days. They were perfectly in tune with the tavern’s pleasing, and somehow muted hubbub. A soft civilized background murmur of quiet conversation which echoed the serious business of serving over-filled pints of ale, pink-gins and whisky-sodas in the grand old pub.

The Tiger tavern’s origins dated way back to 1500. So probably, around the period when Queen Elizabeth made her initial youthful visits, those noted navigators and sea-dogs, Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake and Sir Martin Frobisher quaffed many a tankard in the Tiger. Sir Walter, at least, is reported to have made numerous low-profile visits to the pub. His visits had to be low profile one supposes. Because, remarkably, they actually took place during his twelve years of imprisonment in the Bloody Tower before he was finally executed.

These remarkable stolen hours of conviviality for Sir Raleigh were facilitated by means of a secret underground passage that ran for a matter of 120 yards from inside the Tower, under the road and the cobble stones of the Tower Hill execution site, before coming up in the Tiger’s cellars. This route was also reportedly followed at least once by the then young Princess Elizabeth during her own two-month incarceration. This commendable, understandable and I expect very enjoyable royal pub session took place only four years before Elizabeth became queen.

During those romantic decades other fabled historical figures probably mingled at the Tiger’s tables. a company which particularly and momentously included William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe—the two most distinguished of the several famous Elizabethan writers.

Attestation regarding these most illustrious figures as being among past customers to the tavern was provided matter-of-factly by Colonel Mountjoy-ffoulkes. This cultured gentleman, about 50 years old in 1946 had at that time, in keeping with my colleagues and myself, just recently stepped out of wartime uniform to return to civilian life. Colonel Mountjoy, was very proud of his full double-barreled name (mainly because it sported the age-old and very rare English double-ff spelling denoting a capital letter) and directed the fortunes of his nearby family-owned commodity business with offices in Mincing Lane. The business also owned an adjacent strong-smelling granary warehouse housing all the different magic ingredients required by the brewing and baking industries. In fact, back then, a walk through the maze of narrow streets, passages and alleys in that part of the City meant inhaling a tantalizing, almost overpowering, mix of rich odours produced by the many variations of grains, cereals and seeds, which in Britain go collectively under the generic title of corn, all stored thereabouts. It was in that traditional locality, around Mark Lane and St. Mary Axe, where the Corn Exchange had conducted its unvarying business through the centuries.

On one occasion Colonel Mountjoy brought his elderly father to the Tiger tavern. As a young man this older Mr Mountjoy-ffoulkes had been a regularTiger customer for several years before General (Chinese) Gordon was murdered at Khartoum in 1885. He had also witnessed the Tiger’s 1893 renovation. And harking back to an even earlier generation, old Mr Mountjoy affirmed that his own father, had also been a Tiger customer reaching as far back in time as the era of the Napoleonic wars. He said his father had often spoken to him of the legendary visits to the tavern by Mr Shakespeare (the term by which both the Mountjoys referred to the bard). He, grandfather Mountjoy, had affirmed to his son, the old Mr Mountjoy, that Shakespeare’s reputed visits to the Tiger 200 years before his own, were held to be a tacit matter of historical fact by all the Tiger’s customers during and before the reign of Queen Victoria.

Envisaging jovial meetings in the Tiger between historical notables through the decade immediately following the Elizabethan-Stuart divide of 1603 could well have included such others as a very young Izaak Walton, author of the enduring 1653 classic, The Compleat Angler. In earlier years Walton had also published several other biographical and religious literary works and was only thirty years Shakespear’s junior so perhaps they conversed as writer to writer in the Tiger.

This is very feasible as during his last couple of decades or more of life, Shakespeare, beginning just after 1588—the year in which the Spanish Armada was defeated—is said to have lodged and bought houses in several places in London and was a frequent visitor to many taverns including the Boar’s Head in Eastcheap, the Pimlico in Hoxton, the Mitre in Fleet Street, the Devil’s Tavern in Wapping, the Anchor Hill on Bankside and the Mermaid in Bread Street.

And most notably, he lived for some time in Southwark, (pronounced Suthark by modern Londoners) on the south bank of the River Thames. There he was close to the Globe Theatre in which as a leading dramatist he not only had an obvious professional interest but also a substantial financial stake. Also, living in Southwark, Shakespeare was conveniently adjacent to the southern end of London Bridge, the sole bridge spanning the river at that time, and the only means for crossing the Thames other than using one of the hundreds of small ferry row-boats.

It takes little imagination to picture Shakespeare browsing among the many bookshops that are known to have been located amid the scores of other shops, mills, multistory wooden houses and market stalls built right upon and across the full 350-yard span of that old London Bridge, before it was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666.

The northern, City end of the bridge, was lined up with Fish Street, so it was situated a little further east and downriver than subsequent London Bridges. From here the Tiger pub on Tower Hill was only 500 yards away. So, in pleasant retrospect, one can imagine the great playwright, after having breakfast in one of the taverns in Southwark, strolling across the bridge, pausing to browse in the bookshops, then taking a brisk ten-minute walk towards the Tower and into the Tiger for a glass of wine or, more likely, a tankard or two of ale.

And on some of those very same days a youthful Izaak Walton bent on visiting the same congenial destination, might also have been strolling the mile or so from his London place of abode in the vicinity of St. Paul’s.

All of which, for those of us like myself who are anglers, leads to a happy thought: Izaak Walton, who lived the first ten years of his life under the last of the Tudors, can therefore be legitimately included among the renowned writers of the Elizabethan era.

And another delightful thought: Maybe at that same time, in that same famous public house, one or two of my own family forbears drank pints of dark Elizabethan ale, smoked rich Virginian tobacco in ornamental clay pipes and relished dishes of fresh, fresh shellfish taken in the early morning from the lower reaches of the historic River Thames. They may even have discussed—both with Shakespeare and Izaak Walton himself—the merits, pro and con, of using a ten-foot-long fishing pole as against employing, a rod with nearly twice that reach, as was then often the practice.

Elizabethan Tiger patrons could have feasted on broiled salmon to their stomachs’ fullest content at what was then, most likely, give-away prices. Because at that time London had a human population far less in numbers—around 400,000 souls—than had the Thames with its thriving salmon population. For eons before the first Romans arrived and sent back reports of the bounty of fine fish there was to be had for the taking all along the river, and even up until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (a time when many labourers wanted a stipulation in their work contracts that they were to be fed salmon no more than three days a week), the exquisite Thames-run Atlantic Salmon was a bountiful source of cheap food. Then neglect and filthy garbage and sewage habits completely eradicated these wonderful fish from London’s river. Sadly, salmon were no longer to again enter Thames water until the last couple of decades of our own most recent century after new enlightened clean-up measures were taken in the 1970s. Then, miraculously, some were to return, albeit in small numbers only.

When the Tiger was extensively rebuilt in 1893 the secret tunnel under the road from the Tower was disclosed and was finally blocked off. During that reconstruction one can surmise that much of the original oak framing, panelling, fittings and furniture were retained and recycled. This would have preserved that wonderful musty Tudor smell I so relished in 1946 and 1947.

Though the nearby Tower of London itself took a direct hit from a German high explosive bomb, the ancient pub escaped destruction during the London Blitz. It was the second notable time it had narrowly escaped destruction. In 1666 the Tiger just missed obliteration by the Great Fire of London, and though probably singed on its fringes became a welcome part of the temporary market that was set up on Tower Hill to help meet the stricken city’s urgent needs.

But during a visit from Canada, three hundred and ten years after it had survived the great fire, and probably half a millennium since it was initially built, I was aghast to see this wonderful long-lived haven had been torn down and an awful modern monstrosity built to take its place. Right across from William the Conqueror’s tourist-crowded Tower of London.

I wept. Surely if such sacrilege had been done in the reign of Good Queen Bess she would have had the perpetrators’ heads chopped off. Their heads rolling over the cobblestones just a few yards away from the Tiger’s front door to spurt pools of dark arterial blood in fitting, vivid penance. And appropriately right there in the middle of the Tower Hill courtyard where so many of the Royal Blood and aristocratic elite, accused of much lesser crimes, like alleged treason and other simple transgressions against the crown, met that inexorable fate after long months and years confinement in the Tower. But certainly not for crimes as heinous as destroying the Tiger tavern.

Going to work in the ancient square mile of the City of London business district was full of interest. Every morning, as they still do today, around half a million people poured into the ancient centre of bustle and business. They arrived by bus, trolley-bus, commuter train and underground railway. Floods of people arrived at London Bridge Station from innumerable trains, then crossed over London Bridge on foot from the south side of the Thames, while thousands more came from outlying suburban areas to the north, east and west. But by seven o’clock in the evening all was quiet, the hordes had gone home to suburbia and the streets were practically deserted. So most City pubs and restaurants closed up shop when their last customers, making their way homeward, disappeared down into the tube stations or, as many of them did, headed west for the continuing night life of the West End—the Strand, Piccadilly, Mayfair, Chelsea, and Knightsbridge. For the rest of the night the City was sparsely inhabited, peopled only by office cleaners, stalwart constables of the City of London’s own police force treading their silent patrol beats, and a few late workers and lonely caretakers.

But down near the Tower and the river’s edge, the old Tiger tavern during its last two decades of existence, remained as it had ever been for generations of London’s ladies and gentlemen: An inviting haven of traditional hospitality and living history.

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