Let me ask you a question: When was the last time you sat in a coffee shop, sipping a steaming latte/flat white/americano? If our coffee-fuelled society is anything to go by, chances are it won’t have been that long. Have you ever wondered how this magical black elixir came to be such a vital part of our culture today? Or to put it another way, have you any idea how many aspects of society have been influenced by coffee over the years?
Unreal City Audio have just launched a Coffeehouse Tour, traversing the streets of The City exploring the rich history of London’s coffeehouses over the last 350 years. For those of you who read my previous post, Coffee Culture, and are noting some similarities, you’d be quite right. The tour was led by Dr Matthew Green, who gave the excellent lecture at Selfridges a few weeks back. However this time, we were standing on the actual sites of the coffeehouses, rather than looking at drawings and paintings, and we were joined by actors and musicians, who brought the historical documents to life.
I won’t rehash all of the history from the previous post, nor do I wish to spoil the tour for any future participants, but I hope to capture some of its essence and persuade you to book in for the next date – I’d wholeheartedly recommend it. Enough of the preamble: to the tour.
We meet in front of St Michael’s church, an unassuming building on Cornhill, now hidden amongst the surrounding office and tower blocks. Fittingly enough, we’re opposite a Starbucks, and several of the tour members are clutching a coffee in a desperate attempt to stave off the -1°C chill. Matthew greets us and we start to retrace the steps of our coffee-drinking ancestors.
The first stop is the The Jamaica Wine House, which stands on the site of London’s first ever coffeehouse, set up by Pasqua Rosee. Three hundred and fifty years ago, we would have been standing at the residential core of London. As vivid and evocative as Matthew’s descriptions are, it’s difficult to imagine that this peaceful courtyard would have been a bustling metropolis and Pasqua Rosee seems like a fictional character long since forgotten. That is, of course, until a triangle is dinged and we are transported back in time… The soulful notes of a violin come drifting around the corner, and then Pasqua Rosee himself comes leaping out from an alleyway, hawking his coffee, exuberantly expressing the ‘vertue of the coffee drink’ in his thick Greek/Turkish accent.
Extract from The vertue of the coffee drink, a bill published by Pasqua Rosee, c.1652.
It is excellent to prevent and cure the Dropsy, Gout and Scurvy. It is known by experience to be better than any other Drying Drink for People in years, or Children that have any running humors up on them, as the Kings Evil. It is very good to prevent Mis-carryings in Child-bearing Women. It is a most excellent Remedy against the Spleen, Hypocondriack Winds, or the like.
In the quiet of The City on a Saturday, Pasqua Rosee’s flamboyance (played by Jonathan Hansler) echoes around the courtyards, attracting a few inquisitive stares from passersby. And so the tour continues, with in-depth historical information and anecdotes interspersed with captivating performances – the ghosts of 17th century London brought alive by a simple Pavlovian ding of the triangle. Matthew acted as our guide not just to the streets and alleyways of the city, but to the characters who walked those streets and whose lives were shaped (and in some cases, destroyed) by coffee over three centuries ago.
We continue down Lombard Street, and arrive at what was once Lloyds’ Coffeehouse– the first port of call for weary men coming off the ships, bringing news of the colonies. It soon evolved into London’s first insurance broker. Time moves on relentlessly and the site is now a Sainsbury’s, the counter that once housed underwriters and financial backers now home to ‘Meat & Fish’. It’s this juxtaposition that makes you realise how easy it is to miss the underlying history of this ever-changing city. We stop briefly at Garraway’s and Jonathon’s coffeehouses (birthplaces of the auction house and stock market respectively).
Passing our sixth Starbucks of the tour, we at last hear of the global brand that – love it or hate it – has taken over our high streets. A short polemic on the prolific chain follows from both Matt and Pasqua Rosee, who has been catapulted into the present day only to discover that someone else realised his dream of creating multiple coffee shops across the city and that to his horror, it is not a Turk’s but a mermaid’s head that hangs above the door.
We continue to the steps of St Paul’s, where a hot cup of Turkish coffee is gratefully gulped down, regardless of the grit and bitterness, before moving onto Fleet Street. I won’t list all the sights and coffeehouses we visited but suffice to say I had no idea the square mile was quite so overflowing with history. Indeed, it made me wonder what legacies we are leaving behind. Will the Gherkin, London Eye and Shard still be standing in 350 years time? What about the underground? (I have serious doubts it can survive the summer, let alone a couple of centuries, but I digress.)
The tour ends at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub, which was quite a revelation. Whilst it has always been a pub, not a coffeehouse, it does date back to the 16th century, so its decor is similar to that which you would have found in many a coffee shop of 1667 (following the Great Fire). Low ceilings, big oak beams, dark wooden panelling and exposed brick in the cellars… It’s the perfect place to end a fascinating and captivating tour.
Unreal City Audio are running the Coffeehouse tour (£12) on 24th March (11:30am and 3pm), and a special Chocolate Tour (£15) on 7th April at 3pm.