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A Drink At The Hoop & Grapes

March 16, 2017
by the gentle author

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-five years ago, all that was in the future, and today more than fifteen 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-five 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

Archive photograph of the Hoop & Grapes courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

You may also like to read about

Sandra Esqulant at the Golden Heart

At the Grapes in Limehouse

At the Ten Bells

At the Carpenter’s Arms

Other Dennis Severs’ House stories

Isabelle Barker’s Hat

Simon Pettet’s Tiles

Dennis Severs’ Menagerie

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Jim McDermott permalink
    March 16, 2017

    What a lovely layer-cake of London history, like St Bride’s in Fleet St.

  2. March 16, 2017

    I’m going to that skinny waif!
    Love those windows

  3. March 16, 2017

    How amazing these buildings have survived. I recognise David as the theatrically stern custodian from the Dennis Severs House who bade us to shush as we entered. Bossy as this seems, it really did give my friend and I such a lot to share and mull afterwards as we compared our personal experiences of the house.

  4. March 16, 2017

    I am happy to see that one landmark of my childhood is still there! Valerie

  5. Juliet permalink
    March 16, 2017

    I wonder if the plate in the penultimate picture is a parish boundary marker of some kind?
    “St BA” could be St Botolph (without) Aldgate.

  6. Malcolm permalink
    March 16, 2017

    I have spent many a happy hour (and many a shilling!) in the Hoop. We used to go there every Christmas for drinks and plates of very tasty home-made sandwiches. It was, and still is, a remarkable building, a survivor of fires, wars and not least, voracious developers. Aldgate used to be so much more interesting than the mess that has resulted from years of terrible planning that has seen all but a few of the historic buildings and streets erased and replaced with carbuncles and idiotic road systems. Gardiner’s Corner was a landmark until it was torn down in the name of progress. We can only hope that the venerable old Hoop and Grapes continues to survive in the face of the most brutal destruction program that has taken place in London since the old City gates were demolished in the 18th century.

  7. Paul Ridgway permalink
    March 16, 2017

    Are you sure that this is an insurance plate from 1782 adorning the frontage?
    Would not ‘ StB A ‘ indicate St Botolph’s Aldgate, the parish within which the tavern stands?
    So it marks a parish boundary.

  8. Paul Ridgway permalink
    March 16, 2017

    I nearly had my chips at Aldgate the other morning.
    For 40 years I had always crossed at the lights outside the Tube when coming from the station.
    If no more traffic was coming from my left, the east, off I went
    until there was hooting, tyre smoke, invective as car(s) came to a rapid and noisy halt to my right
    from where none had come before.

    Imagine, all that life unlived.

  9. March 16, 2017

    Lovely pub.

  10. Debra Matheney permalink
    March 16, 2017

    Lovely story! I nearly had my visit to Dennis Severs’ house ruined by talkative folks. Sorry, Bailey, but the rule is not to talk so as to really get into the atmosphere of the place and be able to hear the sounds Dennis wants us to hear. Touring the house was the most moving experience ever, a true trip back in time.

  11. Phyllis permalink
    March 18, 2017

    I must see the Hoop & Grapes in person!! Checking flights to LHR.

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