At the Hoop & Grapes
David Milne (curator at Dennis Severs’ House in Folgate St) took me along to the Hoop & Grapes in Aldgate for a drink yesterday, revisiting a special haunt that he was introduced to by Dennis Severs back in the nineteen eighties.
We walked together from Spitalfields up through Petticoat Lane until we arrived at the busy junction in Aldgate where traffic careers in every direction.“This was the major road in and out of London and it would always have been as full of people as it is now.” said David, as he peered down the road towards Whitechapel, wrinkling his brow to imagine centuries of travellers, before fixing his gaze directly across the road at three of the last remaining timber frame buildings surviving from before the fire of London. The central building, squeezed between its neighbours like a skinny waif sat between two fat people on a bus, was the Hoop & Grapes.
It is the oldest licensed house in the City, built in 1593 and originally called The Castle, then the Angel & Crown, then Christopher Hills, finally becoming the Hoop & Grapes – referring to the sale of both beer and wine – in the nineteen twenties. The first impression when you turn your back on the traffic to enter, is of the appealingly crooked Tudor frontage with sash windows fitted in the seventeen twenties at eccentric angles, and of two ancient oak posts guarding the entrance, each with primitive designs of vines incised upon them.
Stepping through the heavy door patched together over centuries, the plan of the narrow house is still apparent even though the partition walls have been removed. A narrow passageway ran ahead down the left of the building with small rooms leading off to the right, a structure which is revealed today by the placing of the beams in the ceiling and the bulges in the wall where the fireplaces in each room have been sealed up. Opening to your left is the bar, where the premises have expanded into the next house and to the back is flagged floor next to the largest chimney breast in a space that was a kitchen in the sixteenth century.
David and I enjoyed the privilege of access to the cellar where the landlady led us through a sequence of narrowing brick vaults built in the thirteenth century, until we reached the front of the building where she pointed out an old iron hook in the ceiling, held back by a lead catch. “No-one knows what this was for,” she admitted, prompting David to look down at his feet where a metal cover was set into the floor.“There was a well beneath,” he said, speculating,“the Aldgate pump was not far from here and the water table is high.” Then the landlady released the hook to hang vertical and it hung directly over the centre of the cover, perfect for hauling up a bucket. We all exchanged a smile of triumph at solving the puzzle, and stood together to appreciate this rare medieval space, essentially unchanged since Elizabeth I met Mary Tudor fifty yards away at Aldgate in 1553.
Upstairs, the landlady pointed out the site of a listening tube, centuries old yet covered over when a speaker system was fitted recently. This tube enabled whoever was in the cellar to hear what was spoken in the bar and vice versa. David believes it was used in the days of Oliver Cromwell by the landlord, who was in the pay of the authorities, to eavesdrop upon conspirators who chose this pub just outside the City gate for illicit liaisons, and there is no doubt that – thanks to the sparse renovations – once you have been here for a while you can begin to imagine the picture.
We sat down at the quiet corner table next to the crooked window with our drinks. “Dennis and I had this way of looking at things and making it more than it is,” confessed David to me with a contemplative affectionate smile “and that’s what we called ‘the theatre of life’. I used to come and visit him, and we’d go for walks around Spitalfields and end up here for a pint. We were looking for what remains – the signposts to the great City of old – the street that ran down to the City of London was full of houses like this. We would sit here and create a story about the merchants who lived in these ancient houses.”
In this no-man’s land between the City and Whitechapel, the Hoop & Grapes is a reliably peaceful place to go where just a few commuters drop in for a pint and tourists rarely appear – because it does not readily declare its history. Yet time gathers here in the stillness of this modest Tudor building – constructed atop a medieval foundation with eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century accretions – while the world rushes past as it always has done.
Through his house in Folgate St, Dennis Severs’ reinvented the way that historic buildings are presented. When David Milne came here with Dennis Severs thirty years ago, all that was in the future, and today more than ten years after his death, David is one of those who maintains Dennis Severs’ creation. “He was a remarkable man,” confided David, as we took our leave of the Hoop & Grapes, “and now this place is a signpost to my past with him.”
David Milne first came here with Dennis Severs thirty years ago.
The thirteenth century cellars.
An ancient hook above the well in the cellar.
Two venerable oak posts carved with vines guard the door, and sash windows added in the seventeen twenties sit within a crooked sixteenth century structure.
An insurance plate from 1782 still adorns the frontage.
The three sixteenth century timber frame houses in Aldgate, predating the fire of London which came within fifty yards. The house on the right was refaced in brick in the eighteenth century.
Photograph of the Hoop & Grapes in the nineteen fifties copyright © Bishopsgate Institute
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