The Ed­i­tor’s Let­ter

This England - - The Edior's Note -

The sun­light fil­tered through the leaded win­dows, splash­ing spots of gold onto the stone-flagged floor and bright­en­ing the dark in­te­rior with its oak beams, long wooden bar and freshly pol­ished ta­bles. Be­hind the bar, bot­tles and dim­pled pint glasses gleamed like lights, and a row of Toby Jugs smiled, gri­maced and laughed, their char­ac­ters and colours as var­ied as the peo­ple who, from the mo­ment its doors first opened some time dur­ing the 17th cen­tury un­til the present day, have taken ad­van­tage of the hos­pi­tal­ity of­fered by that town-cen­tre inn.

Although it wasn’t yet lunchtime, from my ta­ble in the cor­ner where a cop­per-coloured pint of Wells Bom­bardier kept me com­pany (with, of course, a packet of pork scratch­ings) I was able to ob­serve the al­ready busy com­ings and go­ings. As the bar­maid went from ta­ble to ta­ble, deal­ing out beer­mats like play­ing cards, from some in­ner re­cess a woman who I took to be the land­lady ap­peared. She was car­ry­ing a tod­dler, a lit­tle boy to whom she chat­ted mer­rily and jig­gled up and down, and was fol­lowed into the bar by her hus­band. He nod­ded a “Good morn­ing” to me be­fore un­lock­ing the main dou­ble-door en­trance to the pub. As he pulled these open, the light from out­side washed in, car­ry­ing with it the sounds from the street: a car start­ing up, a man’s voice shout­ing, the rum­ble of a lorry.

It was the sig­nal for the first cus­tomers to ar­rive. A man who looked to be in his six­ties came in, ob­vi­ously a reg­u­lar as he was greeted by the bar­maid with “All right Don?” She then took a spe­cial tankard down from the shelf and be­gan fill­ing it from one of the hand­pumps. He told her that he didn’t want to or­der a meal to­day as he had a curry cook­ing slowly at home. Two other men joined him at the bar and as their drinks were poured they dis­cussed some work they were do­ing at a house “over the hill”.

Two cou­ples then ar­rived to­gether and asked if food was be­ing served. Hav­ing been told that it was, one of the women picked up a menu from the bar (be­side a no­tice publi­cis­ing forth­com­ing folk evenings and quiz nights) and the four of them made them­selves com­fort­able at a ta­ble near the log fire. Although early sum­mer, it was still quite chilly, so the land­lord had got a nice blaze go­ing — which was par­tic­u­larly ap­pre­ci­ated by the pub’s cocker spaniel who, ob­vi­ously ex­hausted by all the wag­ging he had done to wel­come vis­i­tors (and it wasn’t just his tail that wagged but his whole body) had set­tled down be­side it. The faint smell of woodsmoke per­me­ated the air, soak­ing into the panels and beams as it had done for cen­turies, just as the hushed con­ver­sa­tions from the bar and ta­bles about work, lo­cal events, fam­ily mat­ters and the weather joined those, stored in the fab­ric of the old build­ing but silent now, that had been spo­ken by men and women long-gone.

From around the cor­ner, to the right of where I was sit­ting, a door sud­denly burst open and a mid­dle-aged cou­ple emerged. Be­hind them, through the door­way, I could see a steep, dark stair­case. By their ac­cents I guessed they were Amer­i­cans, and look­ing at the bags and suit­cases they were car­ry­ing it was clear they had been stay­ing in one of the inn’s guest rooms. The land­lady, now tod­dler-free, greeted them, and as the woman signed the book and de­scribed their plans for the next few days, her hus­band said he would go and get the car and bring it round to the front. As he went through the door into the street he nearly col­lided with a man com­ing the other way who was dressed all in white and car­ry­ing above his head a large tray con­tain­ing loaves of bread. With­out a word, he strode swiftly through the bar into the kitchen.

My ob­ser­va­tion of events was sud­denly in­ter­rupted by a sound from the win­dow be­hind my seat: with much rub­bing and tap­ping a win­dow cleaner had started his work. On the wall next to the win­dow I no­ticed some old framed prints; in fact sim­i­lar pho­to­graphs were po­si­tioned all around the pub’s in­te­rior. There were pic­tures of farm­work­ers in a field, a group of sol­diers wear­ing First World War uni­forms, one or two uniden­ti­fied Ed­war­dian char­ac­ters look­ing very smart in suits and hats (and neat mous­taches), and a sepia im­age of the lo­cal hunt gath­ered in the nearby square more than 100 years ago.

Look­ing at these pic­tures and imag­in­ing all the peo­ple from dif­fer­ent walks of life and dif­fer­ent pe­ri­ods who had sought rest and re­fresh­ment within its walls, con­firmed me in my long-held be­lief that, not only are inns, pubs, tav­erns or what­ever you want to call them uniquely English, when it comes to bear­ing wit­ness to English his­tory and act­ing as stores of na­tional mem­ory, our inns are every bit as im­por­tant as our churches, abbeys and stately homes. And like English men and English women, no two es­tab­lish­ments — even if they are in the same street in the same town — are alike. Just as hu­man be­ings in­herit cer­tain char­ac­ter­is­tics from their fore­fa­thers, so every English inn bears the stamp of a pre­vi­ous owner or land­lord: a struc­tural al­ter­ation he might have made, the rep­u­ta­tion he gained for at­tract­ing a par­tic­u­lar kind of cus­tomer, the tra­di­tion he es­tab­lished for al­low­ing cer­tain rooms to be used for meet­ings etc.

I shall look at some of the pubs with solid claims for be­ing the old­est in Eng­land in due course, but even these ven­er­a­ble wa­ter­ing holes opened for busi­ness sev­eral cen­turies af­ter the ap­pear­ance of the first es­tab­lish­ments in the coun­try to of­fer thirst-quench­ing drinks. It was the Ro­mans, need­ing to pro­vide their troops with re­fresh­ment along the grow­ing net­work of roads, who in­tro­duced taber­nae: shops sell­ing wine. How­ever, the favoured drink among the na­tives was ale (a brew orig­i­nally made with­out hops, which in those days was much safer to drink than wa­ter), so this soon re­placed wine as the prin­ci­pal drink on of­fer, just as the word taber­nae even­tu­ally be­came cor­rupted to tav­ern. Ale brewed with hops (beer) was in­tro­duced into Eng­land dur­ing the 14th and 15th cen­turies.

Many of the ear­li­est inns de­vel­oped from ac­com­mo­da­tion pro­vided by re­li­gious houses for pil­grims on their way to and

from shrines. They also de­vel­oped from the out­houses erected by lords on their es­tates for the large ret­inues that al­ways ac­com­pa­nied their well-to-do guests.

A golden age for English inns was her­alded in 1784 with the in­tro­duc­tion of mail coaches, when coach­ing inns with their fa­mil­iar court­yards which can still be seen to­day were es­tab­lished along im­por­tant routes. As well as pro­vid­ing re­fresh­ment and ac­com­mo­da­tion for pas­sen­gers and crew, a break in the jour­ney at a coach­ing inn al­lowed a change of horses. A strict class sys­tem and or­der of pref­er­ence ex­isted be­tween those who trav­elled in­side the coach and the oth­ers who, what­ever the weather, clung pre­car­i­ously to the out­side. This ex­tended to the treat­ment given to the trav­ellers once they ar­rived at the inn, with the “out­siders” di­rected to the kitchen for their meals while the more af­flu­ent pas­sen­gers en­joyed the best hos­pi­tal­ity the land­lord had to of­fer.

The com­ing of the rail­ways in the 1840s brought the era of the coach­ing inn to an end, but the for­tunes of pub­lic houses did re­vive in the first half of the 20th cen­tury as more and more peo­ple took to the roads in mo­tor cars.

It is King Richard II (1377-1399) who is cred­ited with in­tro­duc­ing pub signs. In 1393 he is­sued a procla­ma­tion which said: “Whoso­ever shall brew ale in the town with the in­ten­tion of sell­ing it must hang out a sign; oth­er­wise he shall for­feit his ale.” To­day, those inn signs, whether en­coun­tered in a coun­try lane, a city sub­urb or in a fish­ing vil­lage over­look­ing the sea, cre­ate a rich mo­saic of Eng­land and the English way of life. Many are works of art, and de­scribed and de­picted on them you can dis­cover na­tional sym­bols (Al­bion, Bri­tan­nia, John Bull, St. Ge­orge), fa­mous his­tor­i­cal fig­ures (Lord Nel­son, Duke of Welling­ton, Mar­quess of Granby), roy­alty (Queen Ade­laide, King Wil­liam, Queen El­iz­a­beth, Prince Al­bert), lo­cal oc­cu­pa­tions (Jolly Farmer, Brick­layer’s Arms, Fish­er­man’s, Bull and Butcher), folk­lore and leg­end (Green Man, Robin Hood, Mer­maid) and Chris­tian themes (An­gel, Cross Keys, Adam and Eve, Goat and Com­passes — ap­par­ently de­rived from God En­com­pas­seth Us).

There are nu­mer­ous oth­ers that don’t fit into a par­tic­u­lar cat­e­gory and re­quire fur­ther ex­pla­na­tion. The Prospect of Whitby on the banks of the River Thames in Lon­don is one such ex­am­ple (it was named af­ter a ship that used to berth next to the pub) as is Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem in Not­ting­ham (sol­diers stopped there on their way to the Cru­sades). I can re­mem­ber vis­it­ing a pub in the Lake District called The Mor­tal Man and was told that the un­usual name came from a verse writ­ten by one of the Lake­land po­ets who were reg­u­lar vis­i­tors: “Oh, mor­tal man that lives by bread, What is it makes thy nose so red? Thou silly fool that look’st so pale, Tis drink­ing Sally Bir­kett’s ale.”

Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem is usu­ally in­cluded in lists of the old­est pubs in Eng­land. Other “reg­u­lars” in­clude: The Fight­ing Cocks (St. Al­bans, Hert­ford­shire), Ye Olde Man and Scythe (Bolton, Lan­cashire), the Adam and Eve (Nor­wich, Nor­folk), The Bin­g­ley Arms (Leeds, York­shire), The Old Ferryboat (Holy­well, Cam­bridgeshire), The Ostrich (Colnbrook, Berk­shire). Ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey I found, the most pop­u­lar pub names in Eng­land are, from first to fifth: Red Lion, Crown, Royal Oak, White Hart, White Horse.

Just as the names of pubs can tell you some­thing about Eng­land and English his­tory, so many of the pubs them­selves have as­so­ci­a­tions with im­por­tant events and notable peo­ple from the past. There are nu­mer­ous pubs in Lon­don that were fre­quented by writ­ers such as Charles Dick­ens and Sa­muel John­son (who mem­o­rably wrote: “There is noth­ing which has yet been con­trived by man, by which so much hap­pi­ness is pro­duced as by a good tav­ern or inn.”) Else­where you have The Ea­gle in Cam­bridge where, in Fe­bru­ary 1953, Fran­cis Crick an­nounced his dis­cov­ery of the struc­ture of DNA, the King’s Arms at Om­ber­s­ley (Shrop­shire) where Charles II took re­fresh­ment dur­ing his flight from the Bat­tle of Worces­ter in 1651 and The Lord Nel­son (for­merly The Plough) at Burn­ham Thorpe in Nor­folk where the great ad­mi­ral him­self (who was born in the vil­lage in 1758) used to drink. The list is end­less.

The English inn has fea­tured in many works of lit­er­a­ture, and one of my favourites is Charles Dick­ens’ de­scrip­tion of The Six Jolly Fel­low­ship Porters in Our Mu­tual Friend (1865). I also re­call the Ad­mi­ral Ben­bow in Trea­sure Is­land (Robert Louis Steven­son, 1883), the Potwell Inn in The His­tory of Mr. Polly (H.G. Wells, 1910), the Mid­night Bell in Twenty Thou­sand Streets Un­der the Sky (Pa­trick Hamil­ton, 1935) and the Bar­ley Mow in Three Men in a Boat (Jerome K. Jerome, 1889).

Af­ter ob­serv­ing that lit­tle episode of English life as I en­joyed my lunchtime drink, and re­search­ing this cel­e­bra­tion of our English inns, I was sad­dened to learn that a lot of pubs are clos­ing: an av­er­age of 27 each week. A num­ber of fac­tors have con­trib­uted to this: changes in life­style, cheaper al­co­hol in su­per­mar­kets, high tax on beer which adds 52 pence to the price of a pint, so-called beer ties in which the pub land­lord rents the pub from the brew­ery or com­pany that owns it but is com­pelled to buy his stock from the par­ent com­pany rather than source it on the open mar­ket etc. In re­cent years a num­ber of pubs have been de­mol­ished or turned into flats.

Since it was formed 45 years ago in 1971, that ad­mirable or­gan­i­sa­tion the Cam­paign For Real Ale (CAMRA) has en­joyed tremen­dous suc­cess in pro­mot­ing good-qual­ity beer, con­sumer choice and value for money. It is now lead­ing the way in cam­paign­ing to pro­tect pub­lic houses by en­cour­ag­ing com­mu­ni­ties to have their lo­cal listed as an “As­set of Com­mu­nity Value”, and co-op­er­at­ing with other groups to en­sure that his­toric pub in­te­ri­ors are pre­served.

I fer­vently hope that they are suc­cess­ful and that all those inns, quintessen­tially English places that as well as be­ing in­ter­est­ing his­tor­i­cally are lively haunts for lo­cal peo­ple, will sur­vive. Per­haps it is time to take heed of the warn­ing by the poet and es­say­ist Hi­laire Bel­loc (1870-1953): “When you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of Eng­land.”

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