Stories abound about this historic Hampstead pub – one of London’s oldest, not the least about the origins of its name.

Spaniards-InnTheories about the name include that it was named for a Spanish ambassador attending the court of King James I who sought shelter here during an outbreak of plaque. Others suggest it was named for a Spanish landlord – Francisco Perrero – or for two brothers who once owned it (that is, until one of them died in a duel they fought over a woman).

Whatever the truth, the atmospheric pub, located on the edge of Hampstead Heath, has apparently been around since 1585 and the stories about its connections with the famous (and infamous) number even more than those about its origins.

Highwayman Dick Turpin is associated with the pub (some stories suggest he was born here, although this seems unlikely) and the establishment  is known to have played an important role in sparing nearby Kenwood House, then the home of Lord Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice, during the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780 – apparently it was the action of the landlord, Giles Thomas, in throwing open the cellars which diverted the attention of would-be rioters from the task at hand to one perhaps more enjoyable.

The pub also features in Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers and in Bram Stoker’s Dracula while among those who frequented it were painter Sir Joshua Reynolds and Lord Byron as well as John Keats who, the story goes, wrote Ode to a Nightingale in the rather extensive garden.

Located in Spaniards Road, this Grade II-listed pub, as well as the main building, features an old toll house on the other side of the road which contains a horse trough (it has been suggested that Turpin stabled Black Bess there but take such claims with a grain of salt!).

Well worth a visit for refreshments after a stroll on the heath. For more, see www.thespaniardshampstead.co.uk.

PICTURE: Philip Halling/Wikipedia 

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Cabmen's-ShelterThe London Festival of Architecture has returned with a month long celebration of the city’s built form in a program of events including talks, tours and exhibitions. Among the latter is Lesser Known Architecture – A Celebration of Underappreciated London Buildings – a free exhibition at the Design Museum which runs until 22nd July and looks at 10 structures ranging from London Underground Arcades and Cabmen’s Shelters (one of which is pictured) to Nunhead Cemetery. Other events include an exhibition at Somerset House – Nicholas Hawksmoor: Methodical Imaginings – looking at churches designed by Hawksmoor in the late 17th and early 18th centuries (this runs until 1st September), and The Secret Society – A Sculptural Banquet, a large scale installation by artist and designer Kathy Dalwood at Pitzhanger Manor in Ealing, west London (ends this Sunday). For more on the festival, check out www.londonfestivalofarchitecture.org or for fringe events, http://londonarchitecturediary.com.

A new exhibition featuring more than 100 images from space – including images of the colourful dust clouds in which new stars are formed, the aurora on the surface of Saturn and the sight of Earth from the International Space Station – opens at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich tomorrow. Visions of the Universe takes visitors on a “visual trip through our solar system” with images of the moon, sun, plants and distant galaxies. It looks at the development of telescopy and photography and examines our understanding of our place in the cosmos. Space scientists including Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees and The Sky at Night‘s Chris Lintott introduce each section of the exhibition which has at its centre a 13×4 metre curved wall known as the ‘Mars Window’. It has the latest images from NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover projected onto it. There is a programme of events accompanying the exhibition which runs until 15th September. For more, see www.rmg.co.uk.

Tate Britain is undergoing an overhaul this year with the opening of new galleries and a rearrangement of the institution’s collection. Last month, a new chronological presentation of the institution’s British art opened across more than 2o of the institution’s galleries. BP Walk through British Art features around 500 artworks, dating from the 1500s to present day, by artists ranging from Sir Joshua Reynolds and William Hogarth to JMW Turner, John Constable, Lucien Freud and David Hockney. Meanwhile new galleries have opened dedicated to the works of sculptor Henry Moore and artist William Blake. Around 30 of Moore’s works are featured in the rooms as well as more than 40 of Blake’s works. For more see www.tate.org.uk.

Apsley House, regency home of the Duke of Wellington, is hosting a series of events every weekend in June in the lead-up to the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. Interpreters will be at the house, known as Number 1 London, this weekend to discuss the dress and manners of the era while next weekend (15th and 16th June) visitors have the chance to meet some of Wellington’s soldiers and their wives. Gentry from the Napoleonic era will be celebrating the victory at Waterloo on 22nd and 23rd June while on the final weekend of the month, the focus will be on the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Vitoria in 1813, which led to eventual victory in the Peninsular War. For more, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/apsley-house/.

On Now: Coins and the Bible. This free exhibition at the British Museum looks at how money was referred to in the Old and New Testament, and the use of Christian symbols such as crosses or monograms derived from Greek letters on later coins. These include the first coin, dating from about 450 AD, to depict an image of Jesus (the coin, on loan from the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, is included in the exhibition). There are also early Biblical fragments on papyrus and vellum lent by the British Library and an ivory panel dating from the early 400s AD which includes an image of the purse of 30 pieces of silver Judas received after his betrayal of Jesus. Held in Room 69a, the exhibition runs until 20th October. For more, see www.britishmuseum.org.

In the first of a new Wednesday series looking at historic London garden squares, we take a look at what next to Trafalgar Square, is the most famous square in the entire city – Leicester Square.

Located in the heart of the West End, Leicester Square’s history finds its origins back in the 17th history when Robert Sidney, the 2nd Earl of Leicester acquired property on the site where the square now stands. Then known as St Martin’s Field and located within the parish of St Martin’s, Sidney purchased four acres in 1630 and constructed Leicester House on land now located at the square’s northern end.

Leicester-SquareThe earl raised the ire of locals, however, when – having subsequently fenced off the land to prevent people from wandering on to his property – he enclosed what had previously been common land.

The people appealed to King Charles I who appointed three members of the Privy Council to look at the issue. Their decision? That the earl keep a section of his land open for the use of the parishioners of St Martin’s.

First known as Leicester Field, it was this land which later became known as Leicester Square. Fine homes were built around the square (its proximity to the Royal Court and centre of government made it a desirable place to live for the well-to-do and those seeking influence) with the centre enclosed with rails (it’s pictured here in 1750).

The square’s reputation also had a royal boost when, in 1717/1718, Leicester House became home to Prince George (later King George II) and his wife Princess Caroline along with their court after the prince fell out with his father King George I and was banished from St James’ Palace (this story is recounted in marvellous detail in Lucy Worsley’s terrific book, Courtiers: The Secret History of the Georgian Court).

The prince remained at the house for 10 years and was proclaimed King George II after his father’s death at its gate. Interestingly, King George II’s eldest son, Prince Frederick, also lived here for a time after he too fell out with his father (King George II). Apparently their relationship was even worse than the previous generation’s had been.

Despite its royal attractions, even at this stage the square apparently had it’s darker side with some less than savoury characters attending the hotels and livery stables that were built there. But things were to get worse as the wealthy moved out – a situation not helped when Leicester House was demolished in the 1790s.

Leicester Square became known as an entertainment venue in the 19th century (among attractions was the short-lived Royal Panopticon of Science and Art which showcased the best in science and art and Wyld’s Great Globe which contained a gigantic model of the earth) and received a new injection of life when theatres and music halls moved in, bringing the crowds back with them.

Shakespeare-StatueMeanwhile, the status of the square – and whether it could be built upon – remained a matter of debate well into the 19th century. That ended in 1874 when businessman Albert Grant bought the freehold of the land, had the garden created upon it and then donated it to the Metropolitan Board of Works as a gift to the city.

Responsibility for the management of the square now rests with the City of Westminster. The square area – which is now known for hosting film premieres as well as the tourists who inevitably gather there – was pedestrianised in the 1980s and has just undergone a redevelopment and modernisation which was unveiled last year.

Meanwhile, work to restore the 19th century Shakespeare statue and fountain in the square’s centre is about to be completed (pictured). The square also contains a statue of actor Charlie Chaplin in the square as well as busts of scientist Sir Isaac Newton, painter and first president of the royal Academy Sir Joshua Reynolds, 18th century pioneer surgeon John Hunter, and painter William Hogarth.

The tradition of the entertainment continues in the modern era through the cinemas which now stand in the square and regularly host film premieres (an interesting, if oft-repeated, film-related anecdote connected to the square is that it was in a phone booth located at the square that during the 1960s a young actor Maurice Micklewhite saw a poster for The Caine Mutiny and decided to change his name to Michael Caine).

PICTURES (top) Wikipedia and (below) City of Westminster.

• Leicester Square officially reopened last night following a £15.3 million transformation which has seen every paving stone replaced, new plants, and 40 new water jets placed around the Grade II listed fountain and statue of William Shakespeare. The 17 month makeover also included new lighting, new seating and a refurb of the underground toilets. The square – which owes its name to Robert Sidney, the 2nd Earl of Leicester, who purchased this land in 1630 and, after building himself a mansion, kept aside part of the land for public use – now welcomes as many as 250,000 tourists a day and is known as one of the world’s premiere sites for the release of new films.

• The Royal Academy of Arts is marking the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee with a new exhibition opening tomorrow which features a selection of paintings by Royal Academicians elected during the early part of the Queen’s reign. The Queen’s Artists will include works by Jean Cooke, Frederick Gore and Ruskin Spear and will be displayed in the Reynolds and Council Rooms. Meanwhile The Saloon will house a collection of sculptures, paintings and drawings prepared by Royal Academicians for British coins and royal seals on loan from the Royal Mint Museum. The collection includes portraits of the Queen by Edward Bawden and Sir Charles Wheeler which have never before been shown in public, and Sir Anthony Caro’s new coin design of the London 2012 Olympic Games. Over in the Tennant Gallery, The King’s Artist’s George III’s Academy, will look at the king’s role in the foundation of the academy in 1768 and his influence in selecting the first artists. Highlights include portraits of King George III (pictured) and Queen Charlotte painted by the academy’s first president, Sir Joshua Reynolds. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.royalacademy.org.uk. PICTURE: Copyright Royal Academy of Arts, London/John Hammond.

• A new exhibition focusing on Londoners and their treasured souvenirs commemorating Queen Elizabeth II opens tomorrow at the Museum of London. At Home with the Queen features 12 photographic portraits of Londoners at home with their mementos as well as a selection of royal commemorative objects from the museum’s collection. The latter include trinkets produced for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, official Coronation Day street decorations, Silver Jubilee paper tableware and souvenirs relating to the current Diamond Jubilee. Runs until 28th October. Admission is free. For more (including a series of events running on conjunction with the exhibition), see www.museumoflondon.org.uk.

The Royal Parks’ Shire horse, Jed, retired last week after a decade of service working in Richmond Park. The Queen presented a commemorative retirement rosette to Jed who was born in 1993 and joined the Royal Parks from Bass Brewery in Burton upon Trent almost 10 years ago. Horses have been used in Richmond Park since it was enclosed by King Charles I in 1637. The horses took a break in 1954 but the Shires were reintroduced in 1993 as a way to sustainably manage the parkland. For more on Richmond Park, see www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/richmond-park.

On Now: The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot. This major free exhibition at the British Museum is part of the august institution’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations and traces the history of the horse from domestication around 3,500 BC through to present day, with a particular focus on Britain’s equestrian tradition, from the introduction of the Arabian breed in the 18th century to events like Royal Ascot. Highlights include one of the earliest known depictions of horse and rider – a terracotta mould found in Mesopotamia dating from around 2000 to 1800 BC, a cylinder seal of Darius dating from 522 to 486 BC depicting the king hunting lions in a chariot, a 14th century Furusiyya manuscript, an Arabian manual of horsemanship, and the 19th century Abbas Pasha manuscript, the primary source of information about the lineage of purebred Arabian horses acquired by Abbas Pasha (mid-nineteenth century viceroy of Egypt). The exhibition is being held in Room 35. Runs until 30th September. For more, see www.britishmuseum.org.

The most acclaimed tragic actress of the 18th and early 19th centuries, Sarah Siddons is best remembered for her iconic role as Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth.

Born in 1755 into the theatrical Kemble family (her father was an actor and theatre manager and many of her 11 younger siblings, including John Philip Kemble, also went on to be actors) in Brecon, Wales, Siddons first began appearing with Kemble’s company while still at school. Still only a young teenager, she also began a romance with one of the company’s actors, William Siddons.

The liaison was discouraged by her parents (as was the idea of her acting) and in 1770 she was sent into service with a family in Warwick. She had kept up correspondence with Siddons, however, and, after her parents withdrew their opposition to the match, they were married on 26th November, 1773.

The couple rejoined Kemble’s company initially but were soon working for another, Chamberlain and Crump, and it was while doing so in the spa town of Cheltenham that Siddons’ abilities came to the notice of famed actor, playwright and theatre manager David Garrick.

Invited to London, her initial foray into acting there, however, fell flat and, following a short-lived season at Drury Lane Theatre which resulted in her services no longer being required (it is believed the fact she had two very young children at the time, having only just given birth to the second, didn’t help her performances), Siddons instead headed to the country and worked in places like York, Manchester and Bath, rebuilding her somewhat battered reputation.

It proved a successful move for when she was invited back to London in 1782, her now not just restored but blossoming reputation preceded her. To much acclaim she performed in the title role in David Garrick’s play, Isabella, or, the Fatal Marriage.

It was to be the first of many high profile roles – the most famous of which was to play Lady Macbeth – and Siddons soon rose to become the most sought-after actress in the city, a position which allowed her to mix among the elite of society (among her friends were counted lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson and philosopher Edmund Burke and she even appeared before King George III and Queen Charlotte). Venerated as a “cultural icon”, her star continued to climb in the 1780s and it was in 1783-84 that she sat for a portrait, The Tragic Muse, by Sir Joshua Reynolds (pictured).

Her personal life, meantime, was another matter and in 1804, Siddons and her husband – who had increasingly spent time apart during the preceding years, formally separated (William died in Bath four years later). She had also experienced the deaths of many of her children – in fact, only two of her seven children were to outlive her.

Siddons retired from the stage in 1812 – her final moving performance was, you guessed it, as Lady Macbeth – but continued to appear on special occasions until 1819.

She died in June, 1831, and, following a huge funeral, was buried at St Mary’s Cemetery at Paddington Green. There is a statue of her at the grave. Siddons is among those actresses currently featured in the National Portrait Gallery exhibition The First Actresses – Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons. The exhibition runs until 8th January (an admission charge applies). For more information visit www.npg.org.uk.

For further reading – Robyn Asleson’s A Passion for Performance: Sarah Siddons and Her Portraitists

PICTURE: Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse by the Studio of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1784  © National Portrait Gallery, London

There’s a number of contenders for this controversial title and a number of different ways of looking at the question. So, rather than take sides, we’ll just canvas a few of them.

Our initial contenders are:

• Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (145 Fleet Street, the City). Built in 1667 after the Great Fire of London, the current building replaced one previously on the site. The cellar is apparently 13th century and forms part of the remains of an old monastery on the site. Dr Samuel Johnson, who lived just around the corner while creating his famous dictionary, was a regular here and the pub is also said to have been frequented by writers Mark Twain, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes.

The Spaniards Inn (Spaniard’s Road, Hampstead). Located on the edge of Hampstead Heath, the Spaniard’s Inn dates from around 1585. The story goes that it was named after the Spanish ambassador to the court of James I who lived here for a time (another version says it was two Spanish brothers who first converted the building into a pub in the 1700s). Other historical figures associated with the inn include the highwayman Dick Turpin (some say he was born here while others say he used to wait here while watching for vulnerable coaches to pass by), the poets Byron and Keats and the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds – who apparently visited, and Charles Dickens who mentioned the inn in the Pickwick Papers (it also gets a mention in Bram Stoker’s Dracula).

• The Lamb and Flag (33 Rose Street, Covent Garden). The building has been occupied since Tudor times but it’s only been a licensed premises since 1623. The pub, certainly the oldest still standing in Covent Garden, was previously associated with prize fighting and was apparently once called the Bucket of Blood. The poet John Dryden is said to have been involved in a fight here.

The George Inn (77 Borough High Street, Borough). Located on the south side of London Bridge, the George Inn is a rare surviving galleried coaching inn. Now owned and leased by the National Trust, the current building dates from 1676 after the previous inn was destroyed by fire. The inn is mentioned in Dickens’ Little Dorrit and the author himself was apparently a regular visitor.

UPDATE: It seems we left one of the list which is certainly worth mentioning –  The Prospect of Whitby in Wapping (57 Wapping Wall). There’s been a tavern on this site on the bank of the Thames since 1520 and during its early days it became known the ‘Devil’s Tavern’ due to its rather dodgy clientele, alleged to have included smugglers, prostitutes and thieves as well as more famous people such as diarist Samuel Pepys, the notorious Judge Jeffreys, known as the ‘Hanging Judge’, and much later, Charles Dickens. Later destroyed by fire, it was rebuilt and given the new name, The Prospect of Whitby, after a ship that moored nearby. The building now incorporates a ship’s mast.

In a new special, we’re taking a look at some of the key sites London landmarks designed by renowned 17th century architect Sir Christopher Wren. To kick it off, we’re taking a look at the building for which he is most known, St Paul’s Cathedral.

Wren’s involvement with the current St Paul’s came after the Great Fire of London in 1666 left the old medieval cathedral in ruins (there is believed to have been four previous cathedrals built on the site with the first dating from around the early 600s). He had already been involved in repairing the old cathedral and had even submitted plans for a new domed cathedral on the site when the Great Fire swept through the city.

Wren had already been appointed Surveyor to the King’s Works when, in 1668, he was asked to submit plans for the a new cathedral. After his first few designs were rejected and abandoned, Wren’s plans, albeit substantially altered, were finally approved and the first stone laid in 1677.

The design was ambitious and the church now features what is the second biggest dome in the world after that of St Peter’s in Rome as well as a monumental west-facing facade complete with two towers (the final form of the western facade wasn’t settled until 1707 and both of the towers were originally designed to hold clocks. In the end only the right tower did.)

Building took more than 30 years and it wasn’t until 1710 that the new cathedral was officially declared completed. Interior features include the Whispering Gallery (located 30 metres above the floor below the central dome, it gets its name from the fact that a person whispering into the wall can be heard across the dome by someone who puts their ear to the wall), choir stalls which feature the work of renowned woodcarver Grinling Gibbons, and poet/preacher John Donne’s memorial from 1631, the only pre-Great Fire monument to survive intact. There are spectacular views over London from the Stone Gallery or the highest point of public access, the Golden Gallery.

Since its opening, St Paul’s has hosted the burials of numerous of Britain’s luminaries – the tombs of Admiral Horatio Nelson and the Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, are both in the crypt as are those of 18th century painter Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Alexander Fleming, the man who discovered penicillin along with a host of memorials. Others events hosted at the cathedral include Winston Churchill’s funeral and the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana in 1981.

Wren, who died in 1723, was the first person to be interred in the crypt. His tomb bears an inscription in Latin which says: “Reader, if you seek a monument, look around you.”

WHERE: Ludgate Hill. Nearest tube is St Paul’s; WHEN: Monday to Saturdays, 8.30am to 4pm. COST: £12.50 adults/£11.50 seniors/£9.50 students/£4.50 children (aged 6-16)/£29.50 family; WEBSITE: www.stpauls.co.uk