On a drinking safari through literary London
An unusual walking tour that includes talks and performances, the London Literary Pub Crawl explores the favoured watering holes of the city’s famous writers
Sitting with a quill and paper for hours at a time couldn’t have been easy. Perhaps that’s why most novelists, playwrights, and poets, down the centuries, nursed a pint – or two – at the neighbourhood pub every evening. They weren’t the only ones! Historians, diarists, philosophers, and other authors also routinely gathered at taverns and boozers to let off steam and connect with the community.
Charles Dickens, Samuel Johnson, Samuel Pepys, Alexander Pope, Mark Twain, Alfred Tennyson, William Thackeray, Arthur Conan Doyle, David Garrick… the list of the pub clientele across London reads like a who’s who of the writing establishment. Many of these impresarios of the literary world often found inspiration in the local public house where they regularly ate, drank, discussed, thought, ideated, and worked.
To know more about the connection between authors, their writing process, and pubs, I decided to sign up for the London Literary Pub Crawl, a theatrical tourist attraction, performance tour, and guided walk. This artist-led walking tour, arranged by the not-for-profit charity Maverick Theatre Company, explores the watering holes of some of London’s most famous writers, and involves talks by local writers and performances by artists from London’s West End and the UK TV and film industry.
Nick Hennegan started the theatre company as a means of increasing access to the performing arts “through the presentation of contemporary classics and new works in mainly non-theatre environments”.
Hennegan’s background is strictly non-artistic or academic, he says, adding that a succession of events led him to work on a radio show with “lots of lovely Oxbridge University types” where he realised that appreciating art and culture was “not about intelligence, but an opportunity”.
In 1994, he started the Maverick Theatre Company to attract new audiences to the theatre and began producing contemporary classics and presenting them in non-formal theatre spaces – mainly pubs. “Which is, of course, how Shakespeare started!” he says. His adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V as a one-person show, Henry V – Lion of England, was picked up by producers after one performance in Birmingham, taken to Edinburgh Fringe, and went on to tour the world.
Hennegan believes that the London Literary Pub Crawl (launched in 2012) probably “would not have happened if I’d been from London, but “being from Birmingham in the English Midlands I had a ‘tourist’s’ eye”.
He soon found new inspiration in Fitzrovia, more specifically in the Fitzroy Tavern, a pub that famously hosted George Orwell, Dylan Thomas, and Lawrence Durrell among others.
“When I finally came full-time to London to go to university, a friend from Birmingham told me that if I wanted a cheap beer, I should go to the Fitzroy Tavern. It was relatively cheap for London but I noticed downstairs they’d got a bar called the Writers and Artists Bar. (The bar now houses the toilets!) I saw photos of famous writers and artists on the walls… I thought if all these people had come here, there must be some stories to tell. So I started researching and, sure enough, there were some great stories!” he says.
Hennegan soon put together a two-person script, with audiences being greeted and shown around by Virginia Woolf and Charles Dickens. The actors stayed in character throughout the show, although they became other characters at various pubs to illustrate different stories.
“As we are a theatre company, rather than a travel company or a commercial outfit, we weren’t really sure how to promote it,” he recalls. But the show went on. Soon, overseas tourists started to attend and just before the lockdown a journalist wrote a story that appeared all over the world. “The phones and the emails didn’t stop! We were looking at hundreds every day and I was recruiting new teams of actors. But, two weeks later we got locked down with Covid-19,” he recalls.
Three years on, things have picked up well for the literary pub crawl, and I see why. Hennegen’s literary walk brings together books, authors, stories, histories, and liquor to create a sense of place and time. And allows attendees to learn about authors and their work in a completely new way.
We kick off at the pub where Welsh poet Dylan Thomas met and fell in love with his wife, and then meander through the streets of Fitzrovia and across the ‘Great Divide’ (as it’s sometimes known locally!), Oxford Street – into Soho.
“Soho is an area known for years for its creativity and characters. We don’t go into all the pubs for drinks as that would be very difficult but we have three or four stops – again, depending on the group. This is a pub crawl so the people on it are important. We look at half a dozen pubs that have stories relevant to today,” he says.
The performance tour, which lasts anywhere between three to four hours, goes through the public houses of Soho and Fitzrovia and highlights the writers and artists they inspired. The guided walk includes sites visited by authors, poets and thinkers such as TS Eliot, Karl Marx, George Orwell, Anthony Burgess, and Virginia Woolf. It also takes in some contemporary spaces, including those relevant to songwriters such as Sir Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix, and Damien Hirst.
The actor made up to look like Charles Dickens has plenty to say as we trudge along. Re-enactments of key moments in Britain’s literary history add much interest as do the anecdotes that reveal some of the events and occurrences that shaped some of British literature’s most famous works.
As the tour is conducted by artists, things sometimes go off-script! “One of our current ‘Charles’ often gets so carried away, one tour he did lasted 14 hours! Also, because we are artists, the people on the tour are very much a part of the mix, along with the script, performance, and places. So the duration very much depends on the individuals who are on the tour,” Hennegen says.
The tour covers just over a mile, and is basically an amble, but sensible shoes and an umbrella are always a good idea. Apart from a quiz and multiple readings, the tour offers a closer look at things you would probably not notice if you weren’t told where to look. Fragments of social history are “often tucked away in the fabric of old buildings, usually above the eye line or down an alleyway”, and this tour helps unearth that with snippets about authors now renowned the world over. The crawl ends as it began – in a pub – most likely with a pint and sing-song to finish the day.
The British pub is now an institution, one that’s crucial for communities – especially after the pandemic. The founder of the pub crawl believes that pubs are important, “perhaps now more than ever”.
“I do most things in the pub. I wrote Henry V – Lion of England at a pub in Birmingham and my second Shakespeare adaptation, Hamlet – Horatio’s Tale, which attracted the talent of legendary actor Sir Derek Jacobi, in a pub. My third play, A Ghost Of A Chance, won a Guinness Award through the Royal National Theatre and was written in a pub,” he says.
Maverick Theatre Company works with numerous artists and aims to give everyone a fair chance. “Coming on the London Literary Pub Crawl means you are supporting a new generation of London writers,” Hennegan says.
The company is about to start a tour at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where it will present a new play, The Birth of Frankenstein, this August. It will also release two books in Spring 2024: The Good (Literary) Pubs Guide and Plays Down The Pub - How to Make A Crisis Out of A Drama (the story of Maverick).
Hennegan is also doing more to further the cause of the English pub. He recently launched Bohemian Britain, which offers podcasts, blogs, reviews, and videos about pubs, writers, attractions, theatre, and a bohemian lifestyle in modern Britain.
Meanwhile, what about those who cannot get to London to enjoy the pub crawl? “We’ve not announced it yet, but we are going to try and do a virtual literary pub crawl in autumn, one that anyone in the world can join online,” Hennegan says.
Teja Lele is an independent editor and writes on books, travel and lifestyle.