Even after the ravages of the Blitz, the property developers and trendy interior decorators, there are still innumerable decent pubs within and just outside the City, but for the Art Nouveau enthusiast, it’s hard to beat the Black Friar, just at the bottom of Queen Victoria Street, and right opposite (you’ve guessed it) Blackfriars station.img081 - Copy

The building’s been there since 1875 and is unusual now in its own right as the demolition of everything around it has left it as a narrow wedge standing alone hard up against the railway viaduct. It’s hard to imagine it surrounded by narrow alleyways now that major thoroughfares swish by on both sides, but a delve into old maps will give you an idea of just how crowded the area used to be. Indeed, some of my ancestors lived just the other side of the railway in Water Lane just about where the entrance to the loading bay of a massive office block sits. The area itself takes its name from the monastery that occupied the site between 1276 and 1539, home of Dominican Friars whose black habits gave their order – and the area – its name.

Anyway, jump forward to 1905, when the pub was acquired by William Petit, who employed H Fuller Clarke to remodel the interior. Meanwhile, the exterior was covered in mosaics and carved figures by Henry Poole. The theme throughout is the friars, albeit the fat, jolly variety beloved of 19th century writers. To quote the pub’s own information leaflet:

Friars in marble and brass carouse their way around the pub’s interior and exterior. Sunlight filters through a stained glass window and illuminates bronze bas-reliefs of well-fed monks who gleefully contemplate the delights of a well-stocked table. Meanwhile, others play their crumhorns for all they are worth as merry brethren of choristers chant happily in the background. One scene quotes ‘tomorrow will be Friday’ depicting that they are catching the fish they will feast on for Friday’s meal. Another scene entitled ‘Saturday Afternoon’ shows harvest time. The ‘grotto’ next to the bar is clad with matched Italian marble, topped with Romanesque ceiling gold leaf. Hidden amidst the riot of activity, one can seek out Aesop’s fables and traditional nursery rhymes, whilst around the walls are improving inscriptions such as ‘Don’t Advertise It, Tell a Gossip’ and ‘Finery is Foolery’.img081

The friars must watch over their former home, described as the best pub in the Arts and Crafts fashion in London. After surviving the wartime bombing that destroyed much of Queen Victoria Street and its surrounds, it came under threat again in 1964 when the area around it was proposed for redevelopment and the pub was marked for demolition. A campaign by the newly-formed Victorian Society, and led by poet laureate, Sir John Betjeman and Lady Dartmouth, saved it.

Unlike many pubs famous in their own right that trade more on their heritage value than their intended role, though, the Black Friar truly serves its purpose. It offers a good and changing variety of cask ales, a decent wine selection, and a menu of tasty and affordable meals. Although quite rightly busy at peak times, there are plenty of tables in its surprisingly spacious interior. It’s a great place to sit with a pint, soaking up the details of the decor, wondering how we could have been so crass as to consider it all expendable, and raising a toast to the likes of John Betjeman for allowing us still to be able to enjoy it, 110 years after the decorators went to work.img078

The pub has a page on the brewery’s website