Why on earth would anyone suggest that I might like to visit a pub? More to the point, why would someone I’ve never met suggest I might like to visit a pub? But that’s exactly what my ether-friend, Adrian, over on Google Plus did. It was a few years ago, when A Bit About Britain was in its infancy, and up popped Adrian with a fine picture of what looked like a neat little boozer, the Two Chairmen in London. “Oh”, I commented, “That looks like a neat little boozer.” And Adrian came back with, “Maybe there’s an article there for you, sometime in the future.” He went on to explain that the Two Chairmen was, if not the oldest, then one of the oldest pubs in Westminster. And, situated opposite the notorious Cockpit Steps, just off Birdcage Walk – named for James I’s aviaries – it has an interesting past. So it was the history, rather than anything to do with beer, that prompted Adrian’s suggestion. Mind you, he works in advertising so I figured he might have had an angle somewhere.
Anyway, I made a note of it because Adrian seemed like a nice bloke and, in truth, I have been known to visit pubs – just for research purposes, you understand (pubs are nasty things, full of beer and temptation) – and I do find myself in London occasionally.
The Two Chairman is a short walk to the west of Parliament Square, in Dartmouth Street, which bisects Queen Anne’s Gate and Old Queen Street. It is indeed opposite Cockpit Steps, the alleged haunted site of the Royal Cockpit – a dodgy 18th century cockfighting venue. A little off the beaten tourist track, it’s a relatively peaceful, but handy, location to have a watering-hole: close to all of the capital’s Westminster attractions (and essentials such as New Scotland Yard and the Chilean Embassy) as well as being in a Disney-like part of London, full of smart Regency town-houses – all big shiny doors, gloss-black wrought-iron, polished brass and door entry systems.
The pub gets its name from the chairmen who worked sedan chairs – single-seat carriages carried on poles by two strong men – taking their wealthy clients to the cockfighting and waiting in the pub for their next fare. The pub’s website once claimed that this practice might be the origin of the expression “cheerio”, because customers wanting a sedan chair would shout, “Chair Ho”. Actually, from what I can make out, “Cheerio”, meaning “good wishes”, “goodbye” or used as a toast, comes from joining “cheery” with “O!”. As you do.
There’s a belief, dating back to at least the early 19th century, that sedan chairs originated in the French town of Sedan. In fact, chairs supported by poles, canopied or otherwise, have been used in various cultures in Europe and the Far East since ancient times. They became popular in Britain from the late 17th century and the name is more likely to be derived from the Latin verb sedere, to sit.
All that aside, I did engineer a visit to the Two Chairman. We came upon it via Whitehall and St James’s Park and found it to be an unpretentious, clean, traditional, London pub, clearly frequented by a number of regulars; I liked it. To be sure, it is no quaint village hostelry; but then neither is it a brash, soulless, bar – though, unfortunately, it does have a TV. Most importantly, it served good beer; just to be sure, I had several pints of Fuller’s London Pride (which seemed to improve with each glass) and I’m advised that the Merlot was pretty decent too. It being lunch time, we felt it only right to try the food – which was of the no-nonsense pub grub variety, tasty and plentiful. We had fish and chips, steak and ale pie and chicken pie – I should mention that there were three of us. The service was cheerful and friendly and, despite the fact that the place was doing a brisk trade, everything arrived promptly. I will be back. One day, though, I will find out why it is that loos in the basements of older pubs in London all seem to exude an aroma similar to that of a river estuary at low tide…
Just to see what other people thought of the Two Chairmen, I had a quick look on Trip Adviser and saw one comment suggesting it was really only suitable for adults. I have to agree, but wanted to ask what sort of masochist would want to take their children to a grown-up pub in central London anyway? Family-friendly is all very well, but it’s a different market; and, personally, the last thing I want when I’m enjoying a jar and a bit of conversation is a load of screaming kids running amok (even my own). Let’s be clear: one of the Two Chairmen’s selling points is that it has nowhere for children to play. Chiefly, though, its location close to so many attractions, yet obscure enough to avoid becoming a typical tourist pub, is hard to beat. A further inducement to visit, if you’re that way inclined, is that it’s close enough to the Houses of Parliament to lure in the odd politician; and, to illustrate the point, it is alleged that Nigel Farage and Liberal Democrat MPs have been spotted quaffing there (not necessarily together).
I subsequently discovered that Adrian was chairman of Red C, a marketing company whose clients included the business that owned the Two Chairman. So, well done Adrian; I hope business is booming and you’re still playing the drums. Since my visit, the pub’s brand, Taylor Walker, has been acquired by brewery and hospitality giant, Greene King. So I’m assuming that the London Pride has been replaced with Greene King’s Abbot – another extremely palatable ale; either one would certainly receive a welcome from me at my own little local, the Olde Ruptured Ducke.
If you’re desperate for more information, visit the Two Chairman’s sadly uninspiring website. The nearest tube station is St James’s Park – District (Green) and Circle (Yellow) lines, but Westminster – District, Circle and Jubilee (grey) lines – is pretty close too.
As with other articles on A Bit About Britain, rumours that I have been paid a modest fee of £2000 plus expenses to write this unbiased review are, alas, untrue.