Through the Ages – The British Pub
Romans are famous for many things – baths, gladiators, togas and…pubs.
It sounds strange but the Great British Pub has it’s origins in the rule of the Romans.
Romans brought a lot to the UK and although Hadrians Wall is nice, most people would prefer to sit in a nice old – fashioned traditional British pub. Well, maybe not if the sound of a fruit machine, karaoke or dart throwing annoys you.
Romans brought tabernae to Britain with them. Tabernae were wine shops, built along the (straight) roads for passersby to stop and enjoy some sustenance. The buildings were marked with a sign outside displaying vine leaves.
When the Romans left, the wine shops ceased trading – possibly because the Brits weren’t too keen on wine or maybe because they were happy to see the back of the Roman legions that had taken over their country.
Ale was the common drink in ancient Britain and in villages where a good brewer lived, his house was frequented by those who wanted to buy some of this tasty beverage. Sometimes the brewer’s wife would serve snacks to keep the locals happy and it is probable that there might also be a spare bed for travelers who needed somewhere to spend the night.
There are a multitude of ancient British pubs that can be found and taking a trip to look at various signs can be fascinating – The Rat and Canary, the Queen’s Shoe, The Highwayman…these types of names evoke a richness and diversity in society and the history of the area that is evident as you travel around the UK. Inns and taverns were an important part of the community but in the 19th century when railroads started to convey travelers from place to place, inns were no longer as necessary as before. During the end of the 19th century and throughout the First World War, drinking was frowned upon and taverns and inns were no longer frequented and many laws and regulations were introduced to manage the abuse of alcohol.Inns were born at this time and these buildings were a bit like the original wine shops of Roman England. A place where a traveler could take a bed and get some food and ale, inns could be found all around the country.In the 10th century, King Edgar of Kent decided that there should be a standard drinking vessel for ale and particular places where ale should be consumed. Alehouses were born and ale cups were shared by all the drinkers gathered at the time and marked with a peg. A drinker was meant to drink from one peg to another then pass the cup on. Sometimes the drinker would have a bit more than his share and this is how the term ‘taking it down a peg or two’ originated.
Ale was still as popular as ever as Christianity spread and special brews were made for religious occasions. Ale was not deemed ‘evil’ as basically there was nothing else to drink – water was disgusting and dirty and was the cause of many deaths.
Ales brewed especially for church festivals were known as ‘scot ales’. Some brewers brewed their ales in secret so that they could avoid giving a share to the church and these brewers became known as ‘scot free’, another term we use a lot today meaning that someone has managed to do something without being found out.
More and more people were traveling around the country after the Middle Ages due to a rise in trade and rooms were needed by these travelers to break up their long journeys. Monasteries provided shelter for weary travelers but they found their resources were stretched to the limit when Christians made pilgrimage from all over the country (and from overseas) to shrines throughout Britain (these pilgrimages started when Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered at Canterbury Cathedral in 1170).
Pilgrimages continued for another two centuries and in 1388, Chaucer began his famous Canterbury Tales from the Tabard Inn at Southwark in London.
In 1393, King Richard II passed an order making all taverns and inns display a sign at their front to identify them to the Official Ale Taster. As most people could not read or write, emblems were chosen – in fact, King Richard II’s own emblem could be found at the White Hart in London.
Inns and taverns had signs that reflected the importance of religion or community activities, places of significance in the area, and so on.
After the religious reform in the rule of King Henry VIII, many inns and taverns had to change their name and signs from those of Catholic significance.
In Elizabethan times, wine became popular amongst the higher classes and taverns were formed in cities and towns. Taverns sold only wine and were a place where solicitors, doctors and other notable professionals could get together for a good chat and some good wine. Inns however, remained to be places of necessity and sold only ale.
It was not until the advent of the motor car that pubs developed, as we know them today. As people traveled around the country or just went out for the day, pubs became the place of choice to stop and enjoy refreshment. Many larger towns became home to some of the larger brewing companies who in turn brought work to the areas. And what did workers want after a long day? A pint of beer of course and some good company.
Each pub has it’s own character and some pubs (that are completely fictional) are very famous – The ‘Rovers Return’ for example, from the TV program ‘Coronation Street’ or the ‘Queen Vic’ from ‘Eastenders’.
Pubs are places where the community gathers. The winkles and mussels served at pubs traditionally in wartime Britain have been largely replaced by hearty meals, sometimes even gourmet food.
Darts, cards and pool are still played in many pubs and a lot of country pubs have great beer gardens where drinkers can enjoy the last of a long warm day in the summertime while the kids play on the playground.
Creaky floors, smoke stained walls, open fires, wooden beams and resident ghosts; the good old British pub is hard to beat.
Join us soon for another Through the Ages