There’s something about mixing history, battered fish with chunky chips and a good ale that I can’t resist. I love English pubs and everything they stand for, but there are some that are particularly special; that have outlasted multiple eras, withstood wars and in one case … launched a thousand ships.
Welcome to The Grapes, a narrow riverside pub that’s stood on the pebbled banks of the Thames in London’s Docklands area for nearly 500 years. And guess who owns it today: none other than Lord of the Rings’ wizard himself– Gandalf, a.k.a, Sir Ian Mckellen.
Appropriately located on “Narrow Street”, this cozy establishment is part of a terrace of Georgian houses called Limehouse Reach and survived the Nazi Blitz that pulverised most of the Docklands in WWII.
During the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth, this patch of dry land among the riverside marshes became the centre of world trade in the 16th century, and when the tide goes out, you can still see the pebbly beach below from which famed explorer Sir Walter Raleigh set sail on his third voyage to the New World.
Appearance wise, this old hostelry, which dates from the 1720’s (although it has been the site of a pub since 1583), has changed very little over the centuries.
Charles Dickens knew the area well and in the opening chapter of his novel, “Our Mutual Friend”, he described a pub which is widely believed to be The Grapes.
“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.”
On a sunny day, sit with a pint on the small balcony at the rear of the pub overlooking the Thames and imagine the voyages that began here after a friendly send-off at the bar; boats heading out to sea with a few too many wobbly sailors aboard.
Centuries later, The Grapes retains the welcoming atmosphere of a “local” for the Limehouse residents, counting among them Sir Ian McKellen, who lives a few doors down. Behind the bar is a stuffed fluffy cat given to him by his old friend Patrick Stewart. By the window there’s a bronze sculpture of Gandalf, naturally.
The house favourite – fish & chips of course– won’t set you back more than tenner, or you can opt for the fancier dining room upstairs.
McKellen’s co-owner of The Grapes is newspaper magnate, Evgeny Lebedev who also owns The Evening Standard, the Independent. Before the Winter 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Lebedev organised a meeting in the upstairs dining room between Prime Minister David Cameron and activist comedian Stephen Fry to discuss gay rights in Russia.
Oh, and a Monday night, when he’s not off making Hollywood movies, Sir Ian McKellen usually hosts the pub’s quiz night.
History is still being made in this improbable little pub. So take a venture to London’s Docklands, where the tang of the Thames constantly assails your nostrils and a terrific, historical pub lunch awaits– and maybe a pint with Gandalf.