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.
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’.
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.