How Old is your Pub? Who cares, make sure it stays open!

Walking through the charming Cotswold village of Stow-on-the-Wold last weekend, I was struck by the bold statement on the sign of The Porch House pub. It read: ‘England’s Oldest Inn c.947AD’

I’ve been to Stow on numerous occasions over the years and had never noticed, let alone heard talk of, this claim. Rather disappointed – considering myself somewhat of an expert on the pubs of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire – I wandered on in search of an anodyne tea shop.

There are, of course, similarly triumphant proclamations across the country and the subtle differences between inns, pubs and ale houses all come into the mix.  Yet I had been convinced on travelling to Nottingham several years ago that I had ticked this particular task off my bucket list.

Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem is a pub that knows how to promote itself. Tourists, students and ale connoisseurs alike flock to its quaint frontage against the castle walls for a quick sup…or a quick selfie.  Its founding date is stated as 1189, somewhat coincidental given that this was the year of Richard I’s ascent to the British throne and the beginning of the Third Crusade.  Yet I too was on pilgrimage, thirst and historical intrigue quenched in one alcohol-soaked burst.

Since then I have come across other boozers that defiantly lay claim to an earlier establishment, not to mention the plethora of pubs claiming to be Britain’s ‘Most Haunted’!

But 947AD seems uniquely ancient.  Eadred was King of the English, a Hungarian army invaded Italy, and Al-Masudi completed his masterly The Meadows of Gold.  To think of wayfarers stumbling into a parochial medieval settlement and being greeted with a freshly-constructed tavern, and possibly a flagon of ale or two, is astonishing to say the least.

Eadred: a pioneer of the pub?

However much we may doubt the grandiose pronouncements of the British pub sign – archaeological and historical research rarely verifies them – they are demonstrable of the cultural importance such establishments have had, and continue to have, in the country.

The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) regularly decries the decline of the old-fashioned pub in an era of inflated prices and fast food.  They are right to; every pub that perishes takes a bit of history with it.  There is nothing more fascinating than sitting in the dimly-lit corner of The Three Pigeons or The Eagle Tavern, or whatever your local might be, mulling over the day’s events or a contentious topic with a glass of beer in your hand.

All the while you are surrounded by the trinkets and bric-a-brac of yesteryear, which would otherwise be confined to an antiques shop or the dusty bottom draw of a former landlord.  Farming implements and silver goblets, extinct currency and brown-stained beer mats, photographs of country markets and horse-drawn wagons, advertisements of long-forgotten brands: ‘Yorkshire Relish: the most delicious sauce in the world’.

What’s not to like?

Britain needs these places, particularly in such days of uncertainty.  Yes many are becoming increasingly expensive, catering for the friendly but oblivious elite whose bottomless pockets and penchant for rural charm lure cash-strapped owners into desperate ‘rebranding’ schemes.  Yes many are chain-owned, their souls threatened with exorcism by standardised beer taps and menus.  Yes many could do with a lick of paint, a livelier ambience, a wider drinks selection.

But they are all unique, they all have stories to tell, and they all offer us a numbing place of refuge from the oft-painful tribulations of reality.

The Great British pub is one of a kind and, no matter its age, it is worth fighting for.

One for the road?

The Race for the Arctic and Memories of the Aleutian Islands Campaign

Along with space, one of the 21st century’s main battlegrounds promises to be the Arctic. With a shrinking ice cap and previously unimaginable technological leaps, the resources of the region are being opened up like never before. With potentially vast reserves of energy resources and extensive fisheries, global powers are taking note of the icy north.

A Russian oil platform in the Arctic

This, of course, has already begun somewhat of a geopolitical scramble. Russia has increased its footprint in the Arctic as has China, despite somewhat tenuous links to the region. The USA, meanwhile, is slowly beginning to invest more in its military forces in Alaska, whilst strengthening ties with the Nordic nations of Europe – Norway, Finland and Sweden – who fear Russian encroachment.

America’s 49th state is seldom given much air time, particularly outside the US. Yet its strategic importance is nothing new and is only likely to increase as the Arctic’s riches are greedily pursued in the coming decades. In Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands, the US has an important fishing port and the last refuelling point for vessels heading further into the Arctic Circle.

Dutch Harbor: one of the more remote US outposts

Interestingly enough – and something rarely mentioned – Dutch Harbor was bombed by the Japanese during World War Two. Why? Because of its strategic location and use; a naval base at the northern extremity of the Pacific, an ocean Japan was intent on controlling.

In June 1942, Japanese aircraft were launched from carriers and undertook two air raids on the naval and merchant ships moored in Dutch Harbor. Whilst of little note compared to the attack on Pearl Harbour, the bombing in Alaska was the precursor to Japanese forces invading the islands of Attu and Kiska. These were American property and the daring incursions sparked the Aleutian Islands Campaign, with US territory invaded and occupied for the first time since the War of 1812.

Japanese bombs fall on Dutch Harbor

US and Canadian support troops would eventually retake Attu in May 1943, a battle carried out in freezing conditions that concluded with bloody hand-to-hand fighting and the loss of more than 500 Allied and 2,300 Japanese troops. Kiska was recovered in August 1943, the Japanese abandoning the island shortly before a massive Allied invasion force landed.

Slain Japanese troops after the Battle of Attu

Although only a footnote in history, the Aleutian Islands Campaign confirmed the perception of both the US and its arch-enemy of the strategic significance of the nation’s northwestern lands. Barely inhabited, the territory commands an important location within a precariously navigable waterway, offering access to the shipping lanes of the Pacific and, increasingly, the Arctic.

It is little wonder that the American government is belatedly turning its attention towards Alaska in an era of new strategic competition. Russia too has vast Arctic territory and numerous islands from which it can project its power. With China’s nefarious island-building activities in the South China Sea, who knows what slice of the pie Beijing envisages for itself in the polar climes.

A new Coastguard forward operating base at Kotzebue, Alaska

Names unfamiliar in both an historical and contemporary context may soon be commanding an attention worthy of their 21st century importance.