Narrow Street is an interesting little slice of London. Running alongside the Thames, its humble collection of crooked brick buildings stand in stark contrast to the towering skyscrapers standing behind it in neighboring Canary Wharf. Local Limehouse residents cherish their little historic street, which was once the heart of London’s mighty maritime trading empire; home to boisterous pubs, Chinese opium dens and a colorful cast of seamen, writers, artists and dreamers.
Much of East London was destroyed in the Blitz, which subsequently helped give rise to the mammoth financial centre that is located there today. Narrow street, however, survived the Nazi onslaught relatively unscathed. In fact, one little pub in particular has quietly thrived on this street for nearly 450 years.
A pub has stood at The Grapes (76 Narrow Street) since 1582. To put things into perspective, seamen and Londoners were throwing back ale and other alcoholic concoctions here almost 200 years before America declared its independence. In fact, Christopher Columbus had only ‘discovered’ America 90 year prior and the Portuguese were only a generation or two into their colonization of Brazil.
I stepped into The Grapes for a quick lunch today, 431 years since its opening. Breaching the flower-filled facade transported me to a pub lost in time. Scarcely 15 feet wide and dimly lit, the first thing I noticed was a strange sweet smell — the smell of wood that had been continuously soaked in beer for hundreds of year. At the center of the narrow pub was a small bar and at the end was a small deck that looked directly out onto the Thames.
The interior was rough and worn with uneven floors and furniture from at least the previous century. The light of midday shot through to its center where it was then blocked by a tiny staircase leading to a dining room. The walls were adorned with drawings of Charles Dickens, who knew Limehouse well and was probably a patron here at some point in the first half of the 19th century. In fact, according to The Grapes’ landlord Sir Ian McKellen (yes, that Sir Ian McKellen), Dickens made reference to the riverside pub in the opening chapter of his novel ‘Our Mutual Friend’.
“A tavern of dropsical appearance… long settled down into a state of hale infirmity. It had outlasted many a sprucer public house, indeed 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.” — Charles Dickens, ‘Our Mutual Friend’.
I’m happy to report that The Grapes remains, nearly 200 years later, just as Dickens described it. Sitting on torn upholstery and enjoying a decidedly modern BLT sandwich over a glass of merlot, I couldn’t help but think of London’s remarkable history and how amazing it is that little places like these have survived as almost a sort of living time capsule or museum.