When I visited London this year, there were two things I especially wanted to do: see Shakespeare’s recreated Globe Theatre, and visit the home of Samuel Johnson, one of the great figures of English literature. I missed the Globe Theatre — arrived too late in the day. But I did manage a visit to Dr. Johnson’s house, followed by lunch in his neighbourhood pub, another authentic piece of old London.
You may know Samuel Johnson as the man who wrote the first authoritative dictionary of the English language. Its publication in 1755 was a watershed moment in the language’s history, and played a central role in the development of modern English.
The dictionary was the fruit of eight years’ work, and it was an amazing achievement for one man, with 42,773 entries. But it wasn’t the only thing that made Dr. Johnson famous (his doctorate was a purely honorary one).
He was also a prolific writer, who worked in almost every form and took on almost every subject. He wrote poems, essays, plays, reviews, even sermons, and could dash off a book in a week. As well, he was the subject of one of the world’s most famous biographies, written by his friend James Boswell.
Johnson lived in many places in London, but to write his dictionary he moved into a townhouse on Gouge Square, just off Fleet Street, the centre of London’s newspaper district. His house is the only original building left in the square, and happily, it’s been preserved as a museum.
I found it after wandering down a maze of narrow alleys; luckily, there was a sign pointing the way. Around a couple of corners, and I came upon an unremarkable-looking house surrounded by modern buildings.
Once inside, however, there was no doubt I was stepping out of the 21st century and into the 18th. That’s due mostly to the efforts of a Member of Parliament called Cecil Harmsworth, who bought house in 1911. It was in disrepair, but he recognized its importance and started a major overhaul that faithfully recreated Dr. Johnson’s house of the 1700s.
Many of the building’s original features are still intact, including the wood panelling, floor boards and pine staircase — even the original door handles. As well, all the artifacts in the house have some connection to the writer, and the period furniture looks as if he might have just left the room. You can even sit on the chairs.
Being a literary lion, Dr. Johnson was a voracious reader, so his house was always full of books. This room, with its massive bookcase, would have been a good place for reading, and for working on the massive dictionary.
The rooms are also lined with paintings from Dr. Johnson’s lifetime, including this one, depicting him and Boswell visiting a woman named Flora Macdonald on a trip to Boswell’s native Scotland.
There were also old manuscripts to look through, and sheets with insights into the lives and characters of the two. Despite his celebrity, Dr. Johnson was an odd fellow, given to tics and other strange mannerisms — probably caused by Tourette syndrome. As for Boswell, he was a bit of a rake: during his life he contracted at least 17 cases of venereal disease.
My visit to Dr. Johnson’s house finished just in time for lunch. And there was only one place to have it: his neighbourhood pub, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. Amazingly, it still exists, only a couple of blocks from the house, down another narrow laneway. If I’d ever wanted to experience an old, authentic English pub, this was it. The sign out front gave a hint of just how old it was: “Rebuilt 1667”, exactly 350 years ago.
Stepping inside, it looked as if not much had changed since then. Dark rooms and murky shadows conjured up scenes from the novels of Charles Dickens. That was no coincidence, since Dickens is thought to have been a regular, even mentioning the pub in A Tale of Two Cities.
A warren of small rooms led me down into the basement, where I found a table in a dark room filled with ancient wood and antique glass.
The Cheshire cheese isn’t completely living in the past, of course. A pretty bartender offered me a selection of English craft beers and ales, and a menu of contemporary food. But I chose to go traditional, and ordered the ploughman’s lunch. There was more cheese than I usually eat in a month, but then, I was in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese …
Before leaving, I decided to take a look around. How much of this place is authentic, I asked the bartender. Some, she said. But if you want to see the really old part, go downstairs to the sub-basement: it was the only area that wasn’t destroyed in the great fire of 1666.
So down I went, another floor underground. And there, amid tunnels left over from a 13th-century monastery, I found people having lunch in rooms where others probably dined back when Shakespeare was alive.
Lunch was over. And off I went, out into the noise and traffic of Fleet Street. This being London, it was starting to rain, but I pulled up my collar and set out to have more adventures. As Dr. Johnson said: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”