The recent surge in craft brewing and specialist pubs in London means that the Borough of Southwark is perhaps not the standalone beer mecca it once was. That said, it remains home to such luminaries as The Rake, Brew Wharf, The Market Porter and The Dean Swift, as well as more understated beery excellence down at Harvey's Royal Oak.
The modern visitor supping his Kernel IPA in The Rake may not be aware, however, that Southwark's beeriness stretches far back into history. Borough High Street was the thoroughfare along which Kent's precious hop harvest was transported north each year and the old Hop Exchange building is still standing in the area. One of London's most famous breweries was also based in Southwark: Thrale's, later Barclay Perkins, later yet Courage. The first Russian Imperial Stout was brewed here on the south bank of the Thames. The stories of London and its beer are bound up together in Southwark and it's this history that Pete Brown explores in Shakespeare's Local: Six Centuries of History Seen Through One Extraordinary Pub.
The pub referred to in the title is the George Inn, which is still trading today under Greene King's management, tucked away in a yard off Borough High Street. It is the last of the galleried coaching inns, several of which once lined the High Street and acted as pubs, hotels, meeting rooms, goods stores, transport hubs and much else besides. The George dates back to at least the 1400s though none of the current building is older than 1676 when a fire destroyed much of Southwark. It's also a good deal smaller than it was in its heyday when storerooms and stables were essential to the operation of an inn.
The connection to Shakespeare is tenuous. The Globe Theatre was only a short distance away so it's certainly likely that Shakespeare visited the George and the other Southwark inns, though there's no direct evidence of him having done so. He gives just a tantalising mention of the inn next door, the White Hart, in Henry VI Part 2. Going further back in time, Chaucer began his Canterbury Tales at the Tabard Inn, a few doors down from the George, but literary mentions of the George itself are rare. Dickens's Little Dorrit contains one of the very few specific references to the place.
But much more than the literary history of the George, Shakespeare's Local is a social history. The unique status of Borough as an area outside the City of London but backing on to the only bridge over the Thames into the city for hundreds of years meant that all manner of unsavoury characters met here to conduct their business, and pleasure, away from the laws and ordinances of London proper. Brown picks out and describes the most interesting events and people from the 600 years he covers, as well as tracing how broader historical happenings affected Southwark and its people, like the coming of the railways and the Blitz.
The author's eye for the entertainingly grotesque is as sharp here as in his other books. We learn in great detail how Elizabethan theatres hosted spectacles much more gruesome than Shakespeare's plays; where Guy Fawkes's head went when it parted company with the rest of him; as well as the fate which befell Austria's Marshal Haynau, the notorious "Hyena of Brescia", when he visited the Barclay Perkins brewery in 1850 (spoiler: he escaped, though his enormous moustache did not). While the book has plainly been meticulously researched it is also accessibly written; erudite but, above all, fun to read.
If you've never been drinking in Southwark, this book will make you want to go. And if you think you know the area quite well it adds a whole fourth dimension to the neighbourhood.