Christ Church, Spitalfields, in the heart of London’s old East End
The fog of Dickens’ East London has made way for the glass and steel of the world’s leading financial centre and trendy media types on fixie bikes, but you can still experience the East London of yore in wonderfully preserved pockets. You just need to know where to look. Considering a third of East End buildings were destroyed during the Blitz and the brutalism of post-war town planning that followed, we should be grateful that the pubs on this tour are still standing at all.
This pub crawl in total is 3.7 miles (6km) in length, and takes in five historic pubs as well as the famous Cable Street Mural, starting in Spitalfields and ending by the lapping banks of the Thames. There is a map at the foot of this page.
Starting point: Ten Bells, Spitalfields
Nearest tube/station: Liverpool Street (Central Line), Aldgate East (District Line)
The Ten Bells will forever be associated with Jack the Ripper and the murders of two of his victims, Annie Chapman and Mary Kelly. The ten bells in question are a nod to the clangers at the magnificent Hawksmoor-designed Christ Church next door.
The famous Ten Bells, Spitalfields
You really step back in time when you enter the Ten Bells; the high ceiling, wooden central bar, massive, etched windows letting mellow evening light in. My gran, a native of Bethnal Green (more on her later) used to tell of how the pubs around this area were thick with the cigarette smoke of market traders and the ceilings tarred yellow as a result. The Ten Bells strikes the right balance of being a modern pub while retaining a lot of the old school, down-at-heel feel, which is one of the reasons it’s one of my favourite pubs anywhere.
Oh, and they serve Truman’s beer, which recreates the recipes of the original Truman Brewery of nearby Brick Lane. The Runner and the Three Threads porter are particularly impressive.
Truman’s – a revived East End beer
Watch your head on the way down to the toilet and entertain yourself with the graffiti scribbled on its walls.
Second pub: Carpenter’s Arms, 73 Cheshire Street, E2
From the Ten Bells, wander through the film set-like streets up Brick Lane past the Old Truman Brewery itself and take a right after the railway tracks onto Cheshire Street.
We’ve left Victorian London behind for now and are going to experience the criminal underworld of the 1960s East End. The Carpenter’s Arms at 73 Cheshire Street was quite famously a gift of the notorious Kray twins to their mother Violet.
It’s now an award-winning free house in the middle of trendy East London, saved from developers who wanted to put up flats there. 1-0 to history. As a free house, the pub stocks beer from all over the world, including a massive selection from Belgium.
Third pub: Blind Beggar, Whitechapel Road
You cannot escape the shadow of the Krays in this part of town and, having headed south down their old stamping ground on Vallance Road (they lived for a while at no. 178), take a left onto Whitechapel Road and visit The Blind Beggar.
The ‘blind beggar’ in question is mediaeval landlord Henry de Montfort who, after losing his sight at the Battle of Evesham in 1265, is reputed to have begged on the crossroads and become known as the ‘Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green’.
This is where Ronnie Kray shot alleged rival gang informant George Cornell in front of witnesses. It’s also the site where William Booth’s sermon led to the creation of the Salvation Army.
A copper takes a punch on the Cable Street Mural
Fourth pub: The Prospect of Whitby, Wapping
As you head south towards the river through Stepney, take a brief detour on Cable Street (see below map) to view the Cable Street Mural. This Guernica-esque mural commemorates the Battle of Cable Street (1936), which saw hundreds of local activists clash with police and ultimately prevented a planned march through Stepney – an area with many immigrants – by Mosley’s fascists.
When I was a teenager going through a Goth phase I wore dark clothing a lot, and my gran (alluded to above) remarked; “If you saw some fella in a black shirt round our manor in my day you’d knock his bleedin’ ‘ead off!” – I guess she must have been there.
Keep wandering south to the river and reward your long haul with a pint at the famous Prospect of Whitby. This is possibly London’s oldest and most famous Thames-side pub, dates from 1520 and has entertained the likes of Samuel Pepys, Charles Dickens and the painter J M W Turner. It’s a traditional boozer with knock-out river views and a great selection of cask ale.
You may want to enjoy the food and view and call time on your pub crawl here. If not, why not press onto Limehouse?
Fifth and final pub: The Grapes, Limehouse
Head east along the Thames and you’ll come to The Grapes at Limehouse, formerly the heart of London’s docklands and notorious for its Chinese-run opium dens in the Victorian era. This pub has stood here since 1583 and was even used in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend as the model for The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters.
Enjoy the stretches of river and views across Canary Wharf and reflect on the journey you have been on, with London past and present stretched out before you; a mighty city that keeps reinventing itself but leaves gems of its rich past behind for us all to witness.
If you enjoy London’s history and pubs, then you can read more on London’s best historic pubs and also explore London’s best riverside pubs. Please leave your tips in the comments section. We’d love to hear from you.
Historic East London Pub Crawl Map