When I first started this blog I wanted to run a couple of features. The first being the best places in London to enjoy a coffee and read a book. To go in search of the lost London literary coffee houses if you like.
England may be known as a nation of tea drinkers but originally back in the 17th-century, coffeehouses proliferated. It was a meeting place to discuss world and current events for people of any social standing. It wasn’t uncommon for shoeblacks and “gentlemen” to be found in any of these establishments, cheek-by-jowl, starting the day with a coffee and reading the newspaper.
Coffee also helped to usher in the age of enlightenment. Before coffee was imported to London, people used to begin the day with an ale or a beer as the water was so dirty you risked death if you drank it. Obviously drinking a beer first thing isn’t conducive to clear and coherent thinking: people were in varying states of inebriation most of the time.
The London Stock exchange and insurance industries were kick-started into life in the mid 17th-century. Lloyd’s of London, the world’s leading insurance market, for example, was founded in Lloyd’s coffee house in 1686. In the early 18th-century there were more coffee houses in London than other Western city, with the exception of Constantinople (Istanbul), with some estimates placing the figure between 1,000-8,000 shops, although modern historians believe the figure to be closer to around 550.
As the phenomenon carried on growing, so did the importance of the coffee houses and what was discussed there. The coffee houses became places for spirited debates and the exchange of ideas with politics a particularly popular topic: so much so that King Charles II tried to ban them in 1675, concerned that people could freely and easily discuss politics for a 1 penny entrance fee.
As the centuries progressed, these establishments sadly died away. They’ve been replaced by charmless chain coffee stores serving mediocre to bad coffee. The last 15 years though has seen a renaissance in independent coffee shops opening, serving excellent coffee and offering a variety of entertainment options: from book readings to live music.
With this short history lesson over I would like to compile a list of the current London coffee houses where you can sit with a nice coffee and read a book in peace. Somewhere to meet like-minded people without the incessant message notifications and phone conversations that frequently blight any visit to a Starbucks or a Caffé Nero.
I start my search at Hackney Coffee Company. Opened in 2015 on Hackney Road in Bethnal Green, it’s a beautiful space that is significantly larger than the shop front suggests. I walk in and I’m immediately impressed by the exposed brickwork and the dark-wood countertop. Walking around the corner, the cafe sprawls into a cavernous, brightly lit space with comfortable chesterfield armchairs and sofas and long tables with benches as the communal seats. I’m excited. I feel like this is exactly the sort of place I’ve been searching for. We settle down and I go to order some coffees.
I take the coffees back to our seats and as I admire the surroundings, the art work on the walls, the seating, the hanging plants and artful lighting, I realise that the music is incredibly loud. The customers are chatting and people type away on their laptops: this is clearly a place that people have come to socialise or work. Why they feel the need to have the music (indie rock in case you’re wondering) this loud is beyond me.
It appears that this coffeehouse has fallen into the trying-too-hard-to-be-cool camp. This is a space which could have been really wonderful; instead, I’m not likely to return, at least not in the near future. The coffee is good, nowhere near the best I’ve had in London or even the area but it’s good enough. The food looks nice too with brownies and pasteis de natas on display. Unfortunately, I am not going to stay and try it. I have to leave. The music is driving me crazy.
It bills itself as a hidden gem. It feels this way too, the unfussy exterior belying the tardis-like, tastefully furnished interior. It is not packed. The customers are not on their phones and chatting loudly. I cannot fathom the need to have the music volume so high. Maybe I am getting old or maybe I am unlucky and I have come on a bad day but it’s hard to feel that it would be any different on another day though. The place just gives off that “ultra-trendy” somewhat pretentious vibe. I don’t even get the chance to crack open my book. Anyway, the search continues.
Thanks for reading.