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February 02 Issue

Ian Bowie
The last twenty years of the twentieth century were not kind to the good old English pub.

If you have ever visited England then the chances are, unless you were considerably under the age of eighteen at the time, you will have visited a pub. Hopefully both the beer and welcome you received were warm and it was an enjoyable experience you long to repeat. While sitting and enjoying your pint did you stop to consider the history of these now world famous drinking establishments, somehow I rather doubt it. Well, in time for your next visit and something you can impress anyone who hasn’t read this with, a little history lesson for a Sunday morning.

Although the inhabitants of the British Isles are known to have been drinking a beer like liquid since the Bronze Age it was not until the arrival of the Romans that the first Taverns began to appear. Originally meant to provide food and refreshment for Roman soldiers they were built all over England. When the Romans finally withdrew from Britain they left behind the beginnings of the modern pub. In 965 King Edgar the then ruler of England decreed that there should be one Ale House per village. By this time the use of signs was also well established helping the largely illiterate population to identify drinking establishments around the country.

If you have ever wondered where the measure of a pint comes from it dates back to 1215 when a measure for ale was standardised in the Magna Carter. The word Inn is derived from the Saxon meaning room. At one time each establishment was named according to what services it was legally allowed to provide. An ale house could only serve ale, a tavern was the urban equivalent to a country Inn both providing rooms for travellers in addition to being able to serve food and ale. The difference between these three establishments has become blurred with the passage of time; Inns and taverns have evolved into hotels the ale house into what is the modern pub.

By 1625 there were over thirteen thousand Inns and Taverns around the country for a population of just five million. As the number grew so did the number of breweries and by 1800 there were twenty four thousand. This number has of course fallen quite considerably and today there are just three large breweries together with three hundred independent regional ones all operating in a highly competitive market. In order to ensure market share for their beers breweries also own their own pubs, a prime example of this is the ‘Firkin’ brand. Anyone who has visited England recently may well have had a pint or two in something called the ‘Frog and Firkin’ to name but one of the pubs to carry the name of its owner.

The most common name for a pub today is ‘The Red Lion’ of which at the last count there were 603. The name originates from the time of James VI of Scotland when he ascended the English throne in 1603. He ordered that the heraldic red lion of Scotland be displayed on all buildings of importance including taverns. A way for Innkeepers to show their loyalty it is perhaps no surprise that so many pubs bear names such as ‘The Kings Arms’ ‘Royal Oak’ or ‘Queens Head.’ In fact pub signs commemorate many important events and people throughout British history for example ‘The Duke of Wellington’ ‘The Shakespeare Inn’ and ‘The Battler of Britain’ to name but a few. Still more pubs are named after sports or sporting heroes, ‘The Cricketers Arms’ ‘The Henry Cooper’ are just two examples.

Sadly the last twenty years of the twentieth century were not kind to the good old English pub. Many have been knocked down while still others have been closed and converted into private homes. Perhaps the saddest and most regrettable of all changes has been the introduction of the so called ‘theme pub’. Often forming part of a chain these pubs have had their traditional interiors ripped out to be replaced with false walls and plastic beamed ceilings. Devoid of character, charm or atmosphere they should be avoided at all cost by the visitor. Thankfully many charming pubs of great character and historical interest do remain quietly plying their trade supplying the great British public and visitors alike with a traditional pint.

If you are planning a trip and would like some suggestions of likely pubs of interest that also serve decent beer let me know I’ll be happy to help. To serve as an example of how deeply entwined in English culture the pub is I would like to leave you with this quote by Hilaire Belloc.
‘ When you have lost your inns drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England.’

© Ian Bowie 2002
More by Ian Bowie

Ian Bowie
'Perhaps what needs doing doesn’t actually need doing ‘right now’ or ‘immediately’
but simply ‘soon’ or ‘in the near future'.

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