LONDON'S HIDDEN HAUNTS
Less than half a mile from the towers of Canary Wharf, a three-hundred-year old riverside pub invites you back to a more congenial time, writes Richard Brown
THE GRAPES - 76 NARROW ST, LONDON E14 8BP
The Grapes is a one-room pub with a dining space above it. It can’t be more than 20 metres long and four metres wide. It has wood panelling on the walls, a tiny terrace out back and Gandalf’s staff behind the bar. To get served, you have to shout above the people sitting at the counter. I’ve eaten dinner standing up.
When I first started visiting, shortly after moving into a flat across the road, The Grapes was run by an ex-Bunny Girl from Park Lane’s long-shuttered Playboy Club. For a time, she was the pub. In 2011, Evening Standard publisher Lord Evgeny Lebedev, writer-director Sean Mathias and Sir Ian McKellen clubbed together to purchase the pub’s lease. McKellen lives nearby. Hence the staff behind the bar. Occasionally, he takes part in the Monday night quiz. It costs just £2 to enter.
A cabinet containing the complete works of Charles Dickens (left) - Rupert's choice from traditional menu, washed down with a pint of the good stuff (right)
Orwell would have liked The Grapes. There’s no music. No TVs. It’s a place of nooks and crannies; of uneven floors and breezy bar staff. You sit – if you can get a seat – shoulder-to-shoulder on hard wooden benches around mismatched tables balanced by stacked-up beer mats. The stairs to the toilets are so steep that you feel like you’ve had a skinful, even if you haven’t.
Across from the terrace, standing on a plinth in the Thames, looking up at the towers of Canary Wharf, is a cast-iron sculpture of a life-size figure by Anthony Gormley. It’s dedicated to the late actor and human rights activist, Paul Cottingham, who lived in Limehouse with his politician husband, Lord Michael Cashman (McKellen and Cashman helped co-found LGBTQ+ charity, Stonewall, in the actor’s neighbouring house). At high tide, water laps the figure’s feet, but, cleverly, never passes the top of the plinth. I’ve always presumed that was calculated, but perhaps they just got lucky.
Inside, on a shelf next to the bar, is the complete works of Charles Dickens. The Grapes is said to have inspired the tavern in the opening chapter of Our Mutual Friend. ‘The whole house impended over the water but seemed to have got into the condition of a faint-hearted diver, who has paused so long on the brink that he will never go in at all.’ But then I suspect every pub along this stretch of the Thames claims the same thing.
‘Soul is a quality emitted from something, whereas sentiment can be attached to anything.’ Not Dickens, but Rupert Shreeve, Bennett Winch’s co-founder and Design Director, writing in the previous issue of this journal. I’m incredibly sentimental about The Grapes. Crikey, have I had some nights there. But, pay a visit for yourself, and tell me the place doesn’t have soul.
Richard Brown is regular contributor to the Bennett Winch Journal, a freelance watch and style writer and Editor of Luxury London Magazine.