The Editor’s Letter
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.”