Sir Ian McKellen and The Grapes

‘Meet me at The Grapes, Narrow Street in Limehouse – Ray knows it – twelve-thirty tomorrow.’ Tavinor nodded. ‘We’ll be there.’

It was a pleasure to meet up with acting great Sir Ian McKellen at his pub, The Grapes, recently. Sir Ian is one of the world’s most gifted and widely-respected actors. He is best known to modern audiences for his character Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, but his roles on the stage both in London and Broadway, together with his Shakespearean parts, have brought ever more critical acclaim. He is also a leading campaigner for gay rights. When making Sir Ian a Freeman of the City of London, London’s Lord Mayor Fiona Woolf described him as a “tireless campaigner for equality”. The Grapes is situated on the River Thames in Limehouse, East London, and is featured in my books A Candle for Consuela and A Flyblown Solution. It is a historic drinking house – originally The Bunch of Grapes – and has stood on the pebbled Limehouse Reach for nearly 500 years.

By Queen Elizabeth I’s time, Limehouse was the centre of world trade. From directly below The Grapes, Sir Walter Raleigh set sail on his third voyage to the New World. In 1820, the young Charles Dickens visited his godfather and allegedly danced on the bar. Dickens knew Limehouse and the district well for over 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.”

I wrote a fair bit of both books – A Candle for Consuela and A Flyblow Solution in the back parlour of the pub beneath a complete set of Dickens works. A character in my books – Gerry Keane – lunches there with a bottle of Paddys Irish Whiskey, a fag, a good book and silence. Other writers have been fascinated by Limehouse, including Oscar Wilde in “Dorian Gray” and Arthur Conan Doyle, who sent Sherlock Holmes in search of opium provided by local Chinese immigrants. 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.