Nestled between the financial district and trendy East London, Aldgate could mirror both, but ends up reflecting neither.
As we emerged from the station rather late on a bank holiday evening, the empty grey streets greeted us with indifference. Exchanging grimaces, we set off at a brisk, optimistic pace and soon spied The Chamberlain, a pleasant if unexceptional Fuller’s. We ordered two ales and sat gratefully in our first Aldgate pub. The decor was comfortingly faux – an opulent wall of gilt mirrors stood opposite a bookcase of military histories. (This sort of impotent ostentation can be found in many a chain establishment, presumably designed to convince the beer-swilling patrons that they are in far more superior surroundings than their choice of lager would otherwise indicate.) The bar staff were friendly but strangely sluggish, asking for IDs midway through our pints. I put this down to weighty bank holiday hangovers, the remnants of which Andy and I still felt, having spent a Bacchanalian weekend performing with By Moonlight Theatre at the vibrant Meadowlands Festival in deepest Sussex.
Moving on, we wandered through side streets peppered with closed pubs, until the welcoming glow of a Bavarian Beerhouse drew us in. This incongruent continental import came complete with table service from traditionally attired waitresses, so we manfully ordered a stein each. Andy, rather conservatively, chose Germany’s number one premium beer, Krombacher Pils, while I fearlessly plumped for the “rich, dark and complex” Krombacher Dunkel. By 10:30 we were the only ones left and the manager hovered nearby, eager to lock up and honour his homeland’s legendary time-keeping skills. We dutifully acquiesced, drank up, and departed.
Our mistake in venturing out on a bank holiday evening now became woefully apparent. Every pub we discovered was closed, and as 11pm drew ever closer we grew ever more desperate. Heading home after only two drinks seemed a crime – the blog deserved better than that. Our frenzied wanderings soon left Aldgate in the dust. As we strode up Bishopsgate we crossed the threshold of several pubs only to be cruelly turned away by stony-faced barmen, shutting far too punctually for thirsty young bloggers such as ourselves. The situation was getting desperate. Andy struck out ahead, drawing upon his Northern ability to divine booze at great distance. As we finally stumbled onto Commercial Road, his aim was proven true, as the Ten Bells appeared from the gloom.
It is a sad fact that the first pub we found with real atmosphere and more than half-a-dozen drinkers was this far from Aldgate. The historic Ten Bells has a grisly claim: it was here that Mary Kelly, the last known victim of Jack the Ripper, had her final drink (gin, of course) before being found mutilated in a nearby flat several days later. Scenes from Jack the Ripper film From Hell were filmed here, and the original Victorian tiling still remains. In dark homage, we ordered two G&Ts and sat contentedly under the gaze of two inseparable East Londoners, Gilbert and George, who take pride of place in a mural by Ian Harper which adorned the wall above us. In the late 1880s Mary Kelly would have been slugging back straight gins while tugging lustily at crotches and purse-strings, whereas here in 2013 us two fops cut our gin with tonic and sat discussing modern art. How times change.
Aldgate’s pubs may bustle on work nights but during our self-inflicted bank holiday outing it really did seem to be a bland no man’s land, squatting between thriving neighbours and losing in the struggle for a character of its own. It was only by escaping the dreary gravity of Aldgate that the evening was resurrected, ironically in a pub more famous for dealing death than enhancing life.
Next stop: ALDGATE EAST