The Grapes – originally The Bunch of Grapes – has stood on the pebbled Limehouse Reach, for nearly 500 years. Its official address in 76, Narrow Street, London E14 8BP.
Limehouse was first settled as one of the few healthy areas of dry land among the riverside marshes. By Queen Elizabeth I’s time, it was at the center of world trade and her explorer Sir Humphrey Gilbert lived there. From directly below The Grapes, Sir Walter Raleigh set sail on his third voyage to the New World.
In 1661, Samuel Pepys’ diary records his trip to lime kilns at the jetty just along from The Grapes.
In 1820 the young Charles Dickens visited his godfather in Limehouse and knew the district well for 40 years. The Grapes appears, scarcely disguised, in the opening chapter of his novel “Our Mutual Friend”:
“A tavern of dropsical appearance… long settled down into a state of hale infirmity. It had outlasted many a sprucer public house, indeed the whole house impended over the water but seemed to have got into the condition of a faint-hearted diver, who has paused so long on the brink that he will never go in at all.”
In the back parlour is a complete set of Dickens for further reading.
Other popular writers have been fascinated by Limehouse: Oscar Wilde in “Dorian Gray”; Arthur Conan Doyle, who sent Sherlock Holmes in search of opium provided by the local Chinese immigrants; more recently Peter Ackroyd in “Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem”.
Narrow Street is also associated with many distinguished painters. Francis Bacon lived and worked at no 80, Edward Wolfe at no 96. Whistler painted a “nocturne” of Limehouse. On The Grapes’ walls are an oil painting seen from the Thames by the marine artist Napier Hemy, watercolours of Limehouse Reach by Louise Hardy and “Dickens at The Grapes” by the New Zealand artist Nick Cuthell.
The Grapes survived the Blitz bombing of the Second World War and retains the friendly atmosphere of a “local” for Limehouse residents, where visitors are always welcome in the bars and upstairs dining room.