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Shakespeare's Local

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by Pete Brown

Beer and travel writer Pete Brown's eagerly awaited latest book takes us on another intriguing journey.

Shakespeare's LocalBut, unlike his last title, Hops & Glory, in which he carried a keg of IPA all the way to India, following the original sea route, his new work, Shakespeare's Local, is firmly set in one spot. The journey this time is through time not place.

The subtitle 'Six Centuries of History Seen Through One Extraordinary Pub' provides the itinerary, the pub in question being the remarkable George in Southwark, London.

It's a pub I have visited on countless occasions, always marvelling at how such an ancient establishment has survived the centuries to provide a quiet sanctuary today from the fumes, grit and rush of noisy Borough High Street.

I have often wondered what stories the gnarled woodwork, crooked ceilings and weathered galleries could tell if only they could speak. Now they have a mouthpiece.

The George is the last survivor in a street that once housed numerous pubs, inns and taverns. Its near neighbour was The Tabard, the place where Chaucer's pilgrims congregated before beginning their tale-telling trek to Canterbury.

Brown freely admits to not knowing when The George was built – it's a mystery lost in time – but is happy to discuss its presence and importance way before the first recorded date of its existence in 1542.

He explains how The George and its contemporaries grew up on one of the great ingress roads to London, the road that led, right from Roman times, up to the foot of London Bridge.

He describes how the area here, on the south bank of the river, remained outside of the city's control and became not just a terminus for travellers heading into town but also a buzzing area for the industries that catered for them.

City-Without

Striding through the centuries, Brown describes the social and economic changes that affected this bustling city-without community and the sort of people who made it their home, from watermen and prostitutes to hat makers and hop merchants.

Quoting liberally from contemporary accounts and later historical reflections, he pieces together a world of vibrant colour and character, a place where entertainments varied between bear baiting and the performance of Shakespearean tragedies, some in the inn courtyards of Southwark, possibly even in that of The George.

Indeed, the arts feature strongly in this part of London. Shakespeare lived nearby (hence the book's title, although Brown concedes he can't say for sure that the bard was ever a regular), his Globe Theatre was around the corner and Dickens certainly knew the inn, possibly featuring it as The White Hart in his Pickwick Papers, although Brown dismisses this is as unlikely.

Much of Brown's story speaks of Southwark in general but The George – as the one constant through all this time – while not always central to the action, plays key witness.

That said, there are also amusing or telling anecdotes about the pub itself, from the time when Puritan church wardens came knocking to see if drinks were being served when everyone should be in church to a notorious Sunday in 1960 when it played host to a lock-in for Princess Margaret, Lord Snowdon and the Bishop of Southwark.

In truth, Shakespeare's Local is much more of a history book than a pub or beer book (although there are some interesting sections on the importance of the local hop trade and Thrale's brewery on the South Bank), but this is history in its most readable format, well illustrated by anecdotes and newspaper reports from the time.

Brown's gently flippant style is always engaging, much of the humour coming from his tangential footnotes. On the downside, the absence of an index is disappointing.

One other great disappointment is that Brown's research has failed to uncover one of the most important occasions in The George's recent past – the day I hosted a launch party there for Good Beer Guide 1997. Astonishing!

First edition (2012)

352-page hardback (Macmillan)

£16.99

Order now at a discount from amazon.co.uk

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