For as long as I can remember, there has been a small watercolor of the Hoop and Grapes pub in London hanging in my parents' living room. Neither my mom nor my dad can remember where they bought this picture but they both acknowledge they purchased it before we left the U.K. in 1979, meaning they have had it up on their wall (or walls, I guess, given that they have lived in three places since we moved here) for at least 35 years now. It's a great little painting. It's very simple and representational. It's one of my favorite things art-wise that my parents have ever bought.
My mom and dad have never visited the Hoop and Grapes. Not even close. They don't visit London that much and I don't think they'd give much thought to stopping in there if they did. I think it's very interesting that they even decided to buy this picture because bars and pubs have little to no place in their lives at all (unlike their oldest and only son). But since I was headed to London for a week or so in late August of this year, I thought I owed it to this picture and to my parents to find the Hoop and Grapes to see if the place looked like the image on their wall and to connect on a deeper level with something that I have been looking at for over three decades.
The Hoop and Grapes is located just east and south of the entrance to the Aldgate Tube station near the intersection of Aldgate High Street and Mansell Street. The neighborhood is a little less than half a mile from the Thames but Aldgate is not what you would call a tourist-heavy area of town; there's absolutely nothing to draw out of town visitors to the area around that particular Tube station. And after a couple of days in London at the city's top attractions surrounded by Americans all day, that was just fine with me.
The pub building is almost the spitting image of what hangs on my parents' wall. The red door is gone and the stucco below and above the upper story building is now white instead of black. But other than that, it looks pretty much exactly the same. The surrounding context, meaning the buildings to either side, is missing from my mom and dad's picture, and in person, it looks like the pub is squashed between the two neighboring buildings, probably because the building to the right was scaffolded all the way out to the sidewalk and because the ground floor bay window of the Hoop and Grapes looks like it's being pushed to the left.
The point of going to the Hoops and Grapes was two-fold. First, to see if it looked like the image in my parents' house. That box got checked pretty easily. The second reason I wanted to visit was to understand what it was like inside. But before I relay what I found, there's one other thing about my mom and dad's picture worth discussing. Beneath the watercolor portion of the picture on their wall is a caption "London's Oldest Pub" written in block capitals. I am sure it might have been one of the things that drew them to this painting. But is it true? It turns out that it's pretty unlikely.
I can't fault the artist for noting that the Hoop and Grapes is London's oldest pub. The definitions of "London", "oldest" and "pub" all seem to be really really relative. Over the centuries, London has expanded, so the city today is much larger than it was a few hundred years ago and includes parts of England that were heretofore not named London. Oldest as it refers to parts of properties is also fluid. Does a building built on a foundation from the 1600s make the building itself old? I'm sure some folks might think so. And new pubs are in buildings that are extremely old. Is the pub the business or the building? I'm not sure about that. So depending on how you structured your argument, I am sure you might be able to construct a case for the Hoop and Grapes being older than any other pub in London. I'm not sure what the argument is, but I'm sure you could make one.
So determining which pub is actually London's oldest is a total moving target. Even the Hoop and Grapes can't seem to agree with itself. The painted words on the wall of the pub indicate the the building was built in 1593 whereas the pub's website state's the building was built in 1721. The website also acknowledges the cellars below predate the building by probably 50 years or so putting them as being in place just after the Great Fire of 1666. However, the pub's menu claims the building survived the Great Fire so there's that too. Pinpointing the exact date when the place was built using only internet resources seemed to be a bigger task than I was really capable of so honestly I just quit.
There does seem to be little question that there are older pubs in present day London. The Prospect of Whitby (founded 1520) on the north bank of the Thames river and the Mayflower (founded around 1550) on the south bank are clearly older than the Hoop and Grapes. I don't think there is much debate about that, although curiously the Mayflower claims it is the oldest pub on the Thames. Not going there. But if the artist intended to mean central London, the Hoop and Grapes may have a claim, although it's fairly clear that the place wasn't a pub until centuries after the Great Fire. It's all very confusing and I'm not sure that it really mattered to me when I visited. I just take the caption on the picture with a fairly sizable grain of salt now.
While the Hoop and Grapes may not be the oldest pub in London, I'm pretty sure it was the oldest pub I drank at during my nine days in England last month. And I drank in quite a number of pubs in those nine days. I believe 11 in total. That's not to say that I drank a lot of beer while I was in those 11 pubs, although I guess there are some folks who might disagree with my opinion on that matter. Regardless, I don't think I had a couple of beers in a building older than the Hoop and Grapes.
Inside the building, the pub looks like a typical English pub that I love. It's walls are trimmed in dark wood, there is very little sunlight from the small windows illuminating the interior and the rooms are full of couches, wooden chairs and (perhaps most importantly) English people having a pint after work. It's dark and cozy and gives you shelter from the outside world over a beer or two for a few hours. I love places like that in the United States. I certainly appreciate finding one just like that when I was in London.
The building wasn't always a pub and it shows. Walking through the front door (now black instead of red) you enter into an entry hallway flanked by the front room to the right and leading to the main body of the pub if you continue straight on. It looks decidedly like a former row house. There is a small room with tall tables and chairs beyond the entry hall and the main dining area is located beyond that. The bar (which is the most important part because that's where the beer is) is to the left of the room with the tall tables and chairs. It's a classic English serving bar with no chairs, which distinguishes itself from most American bars.
The Hoop and Grapes is a Nicholson's pub, tied to the Nicholson's brand but also allowed to serve other breweries' products, unlike most of the other pubs in London I visited which were Fuller's houses (this was on purpose - I was on a quest to drink as much Fuller's product as possible). I tried a Nicholson's Pale Ale which turned out to be a pretty typical pale ale although not as aggressively hopped as it would have been in the hop-crazy United States. After that pint, I moved on to a glass of Who Is Tom Ditto?, a local beer made by Truman's, one of the original London breweries whose name was resurrected in 2010 by two beer enthusiasts. This beer was darker than a pale ale with a more aggressive hop flavor and maybe a touch of liquor on the palate. At least it tasted that way to me anyway.
After a day of walking about 10 miles (a typical vacation day for me) in London, I only stopped into the Hoop and Grapes for a couple of pints before heading back to my hotel. But I know next time I visit my parents' house that the picture on their wall is going to mean a lot more to me now. I will be able to imagine walking through the main door to the bar, ordering a pint and then sitting on the couches in the front room looking out the window that appears to be pushed to the left. Although from the inside, it's pushed to the right. And it really is, by the way. According to the words on the pub's front room, the building has shifted 18 inches over the centuries it has stood. It's great that it's still standing up.