At The Grapes in Limehouse
Of a Summer’s evening it has become my habit to take an occasional leisurely stroll from Spitalfields down to Limehouse, to enjoy a few drinks at The Grapes. Out of all the historic riverside pubs, this tiny place dating from 1585, has best retained its idiosyncratic personality and modest charm, still resembling The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters in “Our Mutual Friend,” for which it is believed Charles Dickens took The Grapes as his model in 1865.
“In its whole construction it had not a straight floor and hardly a straight line, but it had outlasted and clearly would yet outlast, many a better trimmed building, many a sprucer public house. Externally, it was a narrow lop-sided wooden jumble of corpulent windows heaped one upon the other as you might heap as many toppling oranges, with a crazy wooden verandah impending 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…”
Coming down Narrow St, parallel to the Thames, you arrive at a handsome eighteenth century terrace and walk straight off the pavement into the bar of The Grapes leaving the sunshine behind, to discover that the building is just one room wide – no more than fifteen feet across. In the cool gloom you find yourself in a bare-boarded bar room full of attractively mismatched furniture and look beyond to the source of glimmering light, which is the river. Stepping through into the cosy back bar, no larger than a small parlour, you realise this is the entire extent of the ground floor. With an appealing surfeit of old brown matchboarding and lined with picture frames containing a whole archive of prints, photographs and paintings that tell the story of this venerable pub and outline its connection to the work of Dickens, this is one of the most charismatic spaces I know.
Through the double doors, you find yourself upon the verandah and the full expanse of the water is quite overwhelming to behold at this bend in the river where it twists towards Greenwich, shimmering in the distance. In fact, this is the frontage of the pub because, until recently, most customers would have come directly from the river. The photograph above, dating from 1918, advertises “You may telephone from here” to those passing on the water, while James Mc Neill Whistler’s lithograph of 1859 shows a gangplank laid across from the balcony onto a barge. If you are searching for the riverside atmosphere that once existed here, come one misty Autumn evening, enjoy a drink while watching the lights of passing boats gleaming through the raindrops upon the panes, and relish your proximity to the grim murky depths from the safety and warmth of the parlour.
Dickens described the landlady of The Six Jolly Fellowship Porter thus, “Miss Potterson, sole proprietor and manager… reigned supreme on her throne, the bar, and a man must have drunk himself mad drunk indeed if he thought he could contest the point with her. Being known on her own authority as Miss Abbey Potterson.” It was my pleasure to ascend the narrow staircase to the dining room overlooking the river where Dickens once sat. Here I enjoyed the honour of taking afternoon tea with the current sole proprietor and manager, the gracious Miss Barbara Haigh, who like her fictional predecessor also reigns supreme. As we sipped our tea, sitting close by the curved windows overlooking the water, it was as if we were in the stateroom of a great ship and the passing vessels, which interrupted our conversation – including a magnificent brown sailed Thames Sailing Barge – were there for our sole amusement, displaying themselves simply to enjoy the privilege of Barbara’s inspection.
The redoubtable Barbara, who has been landlady here for the past sixteen years, is a proud ex-Bunny Girl from The London Playboy Club in Park Lane, as well as a keen enthusiast for the works of Dickens and a passionate custodian of the history of The Grapes too. With so many exciting avenues to pursue, we barely knew where to commence our conversation. Speaking fondly of her twelve years at the Playboy Club, working her way up to become top bunny (appointed room director at the club), it was apparent that Barbara still retains the physical confidence and poise from these years. I was stunned when Barbara produced images of herself cavorting with David Frost, describing the camaraderie between the bunny girls, and recalling when the club shut forever in 1982.“We’d all become close friends, and we still have our reunions here each September, but when the club closed, I thought, ‘I’ll offer myself to a brewery and ask, ‘What do you want to do with me?”” Barbara’s Playboy years certainly taught her how to couch a proposition.
Working at first in partnership, Barbara quickly realised she could run a pub better by herself and, after a spell at The Brown Bear in Leman St, she was offered The Grapes although she was not at all enthusiastic at first. “I came down here to take a look at the end of February. It was freezing cold and windy. Quite desolate. I thought, ‘I’m not coming here to the back of beyond.’ All I heard was the creak of the sign blowing in the wind. But I came back for dinner and I fell in love with the place. When I first came here I used to sit in the bar after it was closed. Now I feel I was destined to be here.” explained Barbara, dismissing her former scepticism and casting her grey eyes with a tender smile of proprietary satisfaction around the narrow dining room, where she has created a reputation for serving fish delivered fresh daily from nearby Billingsgate Market.
“I haven’t changed it at all,” continued Barbara, her eyes glittering with defiance and affection, “but not a week went by during the first twelve years without a stand up row, to preserve it as it is and stop the brewery’s unwanted interference. I altered nothing but the atmosphere, I have warmed it up by loving the place. I’ve had three lots of staff in the last sixteen years, terrific teams that ran like clockwork. Then in 2006 I was offered the choice of redundancy or buying the lease, so now it is mine, until the three hundred years’ lease expires in 2042, then we’ll see what happens, because after all this time no-one knows who owns the freehold.”
Over these years, Barbara has lived in the tiny flat with river views perched precariously up on the top, and connected to the pub by a fine seventeen-twenties staircase. Her precious spare time has been spent researching the history and collecting the pictures that line the walls, becoming fascinated with Emily Judge, the model for Abbey Potterson, the landlady in “Our Mutual Friend”. With some remarkable detective work, Barbara has uncovered a portrait of Emily in an oil painting by the Victorian seascape artist Charles Napier Hemy, entitled”Limehouse Barge Builders,” which shows her bringing a basket of vittles to the group of men working on the shore, and wearing a stunning red cape. It cannot be an accident that it is the same hue as the leather jacket Barbara wears in the photograph below. We shall all be waiting to see if the mysterious freeholder appears in 2042, but in the meantime I will continue popping down to the The Grapes in the hope of stumbling upon a Bunny Girls’ reunion.
The grapes as portrayed by James McNeill Whistler in 1859.
“An old tavern on the riverside at Limehouse. There are still many delightful riverside scenes hidden away amongst much that is sordid and unsightly. Few but local inhabitants ever see them.” (This is the original caption from a magazine of a century ago)
A enigmatic face gazes down from the upper window upon landlady Charlotte (Lottie) Higgins in 1918.
This oil painting “Saturday Night at the Grapes” by Alice West in 1949, as exhibited at the Royal Academy, still hangs in the bar room today.
Looking through towards the Thames.
Looking back towards Narrow Street.
In the first floor dining room where Dickens sat.
Barbara in her heyday as a bunnygirl at the Playboy Club
Barbara making a literary connection with with Charles Dickens’ great grandson Cedric.
Portrait copyright © Alice Hawkins