Distance: About three miles, with all the twists and turns taken into account
Time: an extremely leisurely four hours, including pub stops. Best done on a weekday, to ensure everything’s open. (We learned the hard way that Bank Holiday Mondays are not ideal.)
Provisions: a half in each pub, and maybe a bag of pork scratchings if you feel you’re flagging. A copy of Nairn’s London by Ian Nairn. (All page references refer to the Penguin 2014 reprint.)
Begin at Simpson’s Tavern, Balls Court, EC3 (26). A pub ‘of the old school: dark ceilings, dark woodwork, marble-topped tables, high-backed seats, and polished brass.’ I can’t say how much of this survives – Simpson’s, being a city pub, doesn’t even open on weekends, so expecting to get in on a Bank Holiday was total folly. A peek through the window suggested good things, though.
From here, you can snake through the Cornhill alleys (26), eventually making your way out to the unnamed junction where Cornhill, Lombard Street, King William Street, Queen Victoria Street, Poultry, Prince’s Street and Threadneedle Street meet (21): ‘the dead centre of the city, just as Piccadilly Circus is the centre of Westminster. To make such a vortex twice looks very like carelessness… In fact it is an exciting place, with buses whistling off at all angles and a pedestrian platform in front of the Royal Exchange to look at the traffic jams.’
Follow Queen Victoria Street, passing the first of many Wren churches - on the right, St Mary Aldermary (21), and on the left, St Benet, ‘probably Wren’s most lovable church’ (30). Just before crossing under the railway bridge, take a detour up Blackfriars Lane to take in the ‘complete serenity’ of Apothecaries’ Hall (30): ‘You enjoy the calm after the hubbub; but you also enjoy the hubbub after the calm.’
Head back into the hubbub, under the railway bridge, and you’ll find yourself at The Black Friar (29), the ‘late-nineteenth-century equivalent of the Soane Museum, with mirrors and deception everywhere.’ It’s a lovely wedge of a pub, squeezed between road and railway, but as Nairn says, ‘the theme of bibulous friars is flogged to death’, and the walls do indeed look like ‘very old gorgonzola’; ‘but much worth seeing, in any case: there is nothing else like it’.
Follow the Victoria Embankment down to the river, until you can turn right into The Temple (91), that ‘oasis that most cities would give their eyes for.’ Take in Middle Temple Hall, Temple Church (92) - ‘London’s Notre Dame and Sainte Chapelle rolled into one’ - and make your way to Pump Court: ‘Stop underneath in the middle of the Cloisters and pivot; you can hold the whole of this extraordinary equation in the palm of your hand.’ If you’re there in working hours, make your way out through Devereux Court to stop at the Devereux pub (‘goes very legal in the evenings and then closes early’ - I don’t think we missed much).
Make your way back to the Embankment and walk along, under Waterloo Bridge, turning right up Savoy Street, and taking in the sight of the Savoy Chapel (87) against the ‘glazed white backside of the Savoy Hotel. Neither part is memorable but the tension between them is. And the tension not only comes by accident, but depends on it. Only a sadist would design this kind of affront, yet the affront is the essence of the place.’
Continue up Savoy Street, cross the Strand to The Wellington (87). Nairn calls it ‘extraordinary-ordinary’: the ‘good stuff’ is still behind the bar – a surprisingly good range of ales – although the ‘spirited Irish girls to serve it’ are a thing of the past.
Zigzag your way through Covent Garden. Escape the tourists and street performers by ducking into the quiet garden of St Paul (85), Inigo Jones’s ‘box with a lid on it’, before slipping down Goodwins Court (73). A totally unexpected treat: ‘Hey presto, a Georgian street, bow windows and all’.
Follow the court to the end, and you’ll find yourself opposite The Salisbury (73). ‘In the middle of theatre-land, just about the perfect theatre bar, with as much sparkle as a brandy-and-soda.’ And it’s still got it – the pub looks remarkably unchanged from the 1966 photo in Nairn’s book; all that’s missing is the electric radiators, which looked to be doing nothing for the ambiance anyway.
From here, I’m afraid you’ll need to make your way through the horror of Leicester Square (about which Nairn has almost nothing to say). Get through quickly, and out into the somewhat lesser misery of Piccadilly Circus. Stop on the corner of Coventry Street and Shaftesbury Avenue to mourn the passing of something truly wonderful sounding: Ward’s Irish House (76). ‘It is not trying to be Irish; it just is. A big bare room with a central zinc-topped bar; no concession to comfort, but on the other hand some of the best draught Guinness in London… Like many places in Ireland, what you see is just the top of the iceberg. The rest is atmosphere, here as tangible as bricks and mortar.’ How this place was ever allowed to disappear is a mystery.
You’ll be wanting to escape by this point, but take a moment to stop under the statue of Eros and swoon over Nairn’s words on Piccadilly Circus (75), which are very nearly enough to make you want to linger:
This really is the centre of London. But why? What makes it the focus of everyone’s night out; why, when you stand under Eros, with the traffic swirling endlessly round, does it suddenly feel as though the whole enormous city is in the palm of your hand? What happens, I think, is a mixture of Nash and accident. Every important line of force in the West End goes through here: not only Nash’s axis of Regent Street dividing Mayfair and Soho, which now leads directly to the Victoria Tower of the Houses of Parliament in one of London’s great views. Piccadilly comes in, looking utterly respectable and club-like. Coventry Street slips in short and lewd from Leicester Square. Shaftesbury Avenue creeps out as though it knew that it led nowhere. And behind the bland façades on the north side, a dozen alleys slip away into Soho and sin. Long may they stay sinful.
To begin the final leg of the journey, make your way down Piccadilly turning left into the churchyard of St James (76) – ‘Wren’s favourite church, and no wonder. This is as far as the Wren virtues can take you, as good of its kind as it could be. Lucid, sane, balanced, not unfeeling.’ Head out through to Jermyn Street, to the only shop mentioned in Nairn’s London, Paxton & Whitfield (78), a cheesemongers that still looks as good as Nairn described – ‘amongst all of London’s West End tinsel, this is a bit of real gold’.
Turn the corner onto Duke of York Street to find the last stop, the Red Lion (78). This was the greatest tragedy of our Bank Holiday walk, so I can’t say for certain, but if it’s only a tenth as good as Nairn makes it sound, it must still be one of the best pubs in London. ‘It sees and feels everything, yet you are thrown back on your own resources, enriched. This is the opposite thing to the gentle, sentimental pub where you can wash your troubles into oblivion. If you had a problem, the Red Lion could not ease it, however much you drank; instead it would strengthen you.’ A perfect place to end.