Tuesday, 4 October 2011

London Coffee Walking Tour

Wanting to make the most of this last glorious weekend I took to the streets on a walking tour of London's historic coffee shops. It's a great way to see Covent Garden through a new lens giving you a view of the history of the area and getting you buzzing on caffeine. You can definitely do it in a lunch break.

Now before you jump to conclusions, this is not a tour guide-led, lollipop sign in the air, tour for foreigners (though I'm sure they're fun too). This is a tour for self-respecting Londoners to get better acquainted with their fine city and its heritage.

The tour is taken from the Guardian's free guide. It's an interactive mp4 track that you download and listen to in real time while you walk around through your own headphones, under your own steam. Millie and I shared a headphone set which worked great. It's accompanied by the above Google map overlay with all the sites listed.

The walk takes just over 30 minutes and takes you through the history of coffee in London from its 1650's introduction from Turkey and influence on the great playwrights hanging out in Will's to the 3rd wave of coffee pioneered by the Ozzies and Kiwis and their flat whites. Confused? All is explained in the guide... and below.

The start is the Marquis of Anglesey (described as a 'gastro-pub', overkill if ever I have heard the phrase). Don't let the pub get you down though. Stay just long enough for the audio guide's actors and narrator to stir your imagination out of the generic pub and whisk you off back in time to the 1600's (when it was called Will's Coffee House) as they conjure up Samuel Pepys describing the poet laureate, Dryden, and the other 'wits of the town'.

Now follow the audio instructions and leave. I opted to avoid drinking here.

Walk to Covent Garden and peak into Buttons, 10 Russell St, where the coffee scene moved to after the death of Dryden. The house was set up by Mr Addison in 1712 to coincide with the launch of the Guardian, the journal that he set up that year and edited and published each day. Button was the name of his butler. Inside there was a white marble lion's head statue that people posted literary work into. Addison would review submissions and publish the best every few weeks in a special magazine called the 'Roarings of the Lion'.

Wander through Covent Garden market. Less whores now, apparently you couldn't move for them once, the guide says.

Onwards now to the 1900's and Frith Street, Soho.

Bar Italia, opened in 1949, with a competition: whoever could drink the most coffee won a coffee machine. Probably no longer a viable competition I imagine. 1950's binge drinking?

Bar Italia is a prime time people watching spot. You will have to pay for the pleasure at upward of £3 for a coffee but then where can you see a man drinking coffee off his Italian scooter? Take a paper, bask in the sun and enjoy your time - they won't hurry you.

Refueled, time for some shopping? Visit the Algerian Coffee Stores opened in 1887 and still open. A small shop lined wall to wall with coffee beans and teas from all over the world.

Coffee had a major influence on rock and roll. You didn't know that? Check out the plaque on Old Compton Street. This commemorates the site of the 2i's Coffee Bar where a young Cliff Richard found his first band mates and formed the Drifters (later known as The Shadows).

Lastly to the 3rd wave of coffee (bypassing the 2nd wave - Starbucks and the other mass globalised brands). The 3rd wave is geek coffee. These are the perfectionists who have made coffee an art again. They are always searching for the perfect bean, the perfect way to roast it, the best way to indulge all your senses from taste to smell and sight. Arriving in Flat WhiteBerwick Street Market, our final destination, we could understand. Look at the results of their trademark flat white. Beautiful.

Here's an extract from Flat White's website:

flat white noun /Austral. flaat whyette/ /NZ flet wyte/ 1 An antipodean style coffee which is served as a strong shot of espresso served in a small cup with textured milk; a damn good strong coffee. 2  51.51 (51°30') | -0.13 (0°8').flattie noun. colloq. flat white; I'm gonna smash back a couple of flatties bro /NZ/ mate /Austral./

If you've ever spent any time in Melbourne you'll understand for these guys it's an obsession. Australians rejected Starbucks when it arrived on their shores and tried to colonise. With their rich history of Italian and Greek immigration, they were well tuned into good coffee and had no desire for generic stores serving $5 liquid confectionery. Now they're teaching us what great coffee is again. Good call.

Two coffees down in quick succession, we were wired.

When coffee arrived in London in 1651, five hundred coffee shops sprung up in the first few years. Now there are thousands. So the walking history of coffee in London finished, the challenge for another time: where are the best London coffees brewed?  Begrudgingly we walked up home down Monmouth Street passed Monmouth coffee shop. Another coffee shop for another day....

1 comment:

  1. Another brilliant blog/tale. You need a wider audience, there is so much here............. keep them coming.