Soaking up some history

When the Old War Office on London’s Whitehall officially reopened its doors recently as Raffles London at the OWO it couldn’t fail to impress with its largesse. Its gargantuan 71,000 sq m encompass four kilometres of corridors, and the cost of acquiring the lease from the government and renovating the property totaled a hefty £1.4 billion.

The Old War Office aka OWO

It now houses 85 residences (from £4 million for a one-bedroom apartment), a 120-room hotel (starting at £1,100 per night), and as many as 12 restaurants and bars of which the top of the tree is the Mauro Colagreco at Raffles London restaurant where the three-Michelin star, Côte D’Azur-based chef will cook you a set menu for £165.

It’s not just the glitzy fittings, the acres of marble, the meticulously prepared cuisine, or a double Remy Martin Louis XIII cognac served with caviar for £600 that will attract customers to the OWO. It’s really down to the fact it is dripping in history. It was where the first formal meeting of the Secret Service Bureau (which later became MI5 and MI6) was held, and where the secretaries of state – Lord Haldane, Lord Kitchener and Winston Churchill among many others – made some landmark decisions. It is also where Ian Fleming is believed to have thought up the James Bond series.

The Guards Bar at OWO

If the history sounds great but the stuffiness and the cost of the OWO sound a bit off-putting then I’ve got a great idea – why not soak up some historical facts down the pub. As the OWO swung open its doors I instead revisited The Lamb & Flag pub in Covent Garden as it was announced by owner Fuller’s that it was celebrating 400 years of a pub located on the site. Along the way it has seen bare knuckle prize fights and in the alleyway beside the pub an attack was made on poet John Dryden in 1679 by some heavies employed by the second earl of Rochester.

This celebration coincides with the 200-year anniversary of the Coopers Tavern in Burton-upon-Trent. It was originally a malt store owned by William Bass and over time became the tap room for the once mighty Bass Brewery where the brewers would meet to discuss and test samples of the beers flowing out of the famous brewery over the road that would be dispatched around the globe.

Covent Garden’s Lamb and Flag

Also hitting its 200-year mark is the London theatreland-based pub the Tom Cribb that is celebrating the milestone with a major £800,000 refit by owners Shepherd Neame. It’s named after a world champion boxer who ran the pub when he retired and is packed with memorabilia among its distinctive tiling.

This little bunch are effectively no more than a random selection of pubs not unlike many others around the country. They are all individual and often sufficiently rich in history that a mere scratch below the surface invariably throws up some historical nuggets.

In stark contrast to these venues are the wet-led concepts and chains, which are thankfully relatively thin on the ground in the pub world. The likes of O’Neill’s and Walkabout are among those to have made modest inroads over the years but many have ultimately failed such as Scream and the Firkin chain some years back. Brewdog is currently having a good stab at building a chain of branded bars but the sector has certainly failed to mirror the success of chain restaurants that have pervaded high streets across the country to varying degrees of success.

Maybe the lack of traction of pub concepts is because, like me, most people want pubs to be differentiated and to have some history that supports their reason for visiting them even though most pubs typically handle this part of their fabric very lightly and don’t push it much.

I’m certainly looking forward to crossing the threshold of the OWO and admiring its impressive, sweeping marble staircase that has greeted many big-time decision-makers over the years. But my big decision at that point will be over which pub do I hot-foot it to in the area to soak up some history. And all for the cost of a pint of beer.

Glynn Davis, editor of Beer Insider 

This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Beer Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.