Old English Bars
In England, it is still quite common to have a historic pub near at hand. The pub is still the hub of the community where people and families meet to eat and drink. Recent studies do show that the tide is turning, however, and people now are more likely to go to a pub for food (72%) rather than drink (63%). This trend looks set to increase. Whilst there are still plenty of thriving pubs per head of population, there has been a steady decline over the last decade in particular, and some think the traditional type of pub may have a limited lifetime.
In this article, I want to focus on some pubs that are more well-known and some that are not. Each one has very special qualities, and they are all seriously historic!
5 Fine English Pubs to Visit
- The Trip to Jerusalem
- The Prospect of Whitby
- The Wheatsheaf
- Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
- The Punch Bowl
I can think of five pubs I could walk to within 15 minutes of this house and another four if I walked for 25 minutes or so. That's nine pubs, nine potential 'locals', several of which date back to the 18th century. Not so old for an English pub!
Orwell's Criteria for the Perfect City Pub
In his 1946 essay "The Moon Under Water," George Orwell, a regular pubgoer, set down 10 key points as criteria for his perfect city pub. These ranged from a need to have friendly barmaids on first-name terms with their customers to serving beer in handleless glasses only!
Orwell was a bit of a stickler when it came to what could and could not go on in his ideal pub. I'm not such a diehard as Orwell, but I do appreciate and support the idea of the pub being a top place to socialise and have positive times. I hope to show you some of England's finest.
1. The Trip to Jerusalem
It's called Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem and has stood beneath the walls of Nottingham castle since approximately 1189 A.D. That's right. 1189. This hostelry could claim to be the historic English pub. With its medieval architecture, tapered chimneys and white paint, it is one of the world's finest-looking buildings and fully deserves pride of place as number one, the grandfather of pubs.
It's incredible to think that early Crusaders would meet here for a tankard or two before embarking on their trips to Jerusalem to fight for their God against the heathen hordes. Although I never got to don a full suit of armour I was a regular at the 'Trip' during my four years as a student in the city. I had many a happy and educative night in the cave—an incredible nook carved out of the sandstone rock with low light, oak table, bench seats and an ancient bull&ring game above our heads, stuck to the rock itself. All on the thick worn stone of the ground floor.
Next door was the snug with open fire, soft seats and heavy tables. Loads of photographs, beermats and notes (different world currencies) adorned the walls. On the first floor was the rock bar, again a space hewn out of the rock where you could and still can buy food to eat in relative peace.
There's so much history in this place you could take it home in a bottle. They have some good real ales on tap too. The best times to visit in my experience are 'early doors' (opening time) 10.30 am/11 am when the ghosts are still mopping the floor and there's just you and a suspect-looking barmaid straight out of Moll Flanders and you've the whole architecture of the Trip to yourself ... or Christmas Eve/New Years Eve, when the floorboards are creaking in the rock bar, the cave nook is packed with revellers, the fire crackling, the fiddler toasted and all manner of jolly-faced patrons heaving at the bar.
A truly special place to visit. The one pub you must experience before you die!
How to Get to Nottingham From London
National Express coaches run a regular daily service from London Victoria Coach Station to Nottingham Coach Station. The duration of the journey is 2h 50m / 3h 10m depending on which service you choose.
Regular trains run from London Saint Pancras to Nottingham. The duration of the journey is between 1h 55m and 2h 10m.
2. The Prospect of Whitby
A 400-year-old pub that sits right on the River Thames in the east end of London, Wapping to be precise, the Prospect would have been a welcoming sight to the many seafarers docking at Wapping. Once upon a time, you could have stepped off the rigging and straight into the low-ceilinged long bar for a rum and a bowl of jellied eels! These days the city gents and smart set plus a few tourists make up the clientele.
You'll find real ales and bar food at the Prospect. The beauty of this pub is that you can sit outside on the wooden balcony, sip your beer and watch the boats sail past on the River Thames just below. An absolute delight on a balmy summer evening.
I've had a few very special nights out at the Prospect. If you stay long enough, especially on weekend evenings, you'll no doubt strike up a conversation with a local or two, or vice versa, and there's nothing quite so timeless as a 'chinwag' with a proper Londoner. You might even bump into a genuine Cockney (a Londoner born within the sound of Bow Bells; see my article to understand more)
Keep a watch out for the hangman. His gallows are set up for Captain Kidd and the noose is ready!
3. The Wheatsheaf
When the poet Dylan Thomas came to London in 1933 he began to frequent the local pubs near to where he lived. One of his favourite haunts was the Wheatsheaf. It was here in the spring of 1936 he met and fell in love with Caitlin Macnamara, a dancer.
An extraordinarily gifted poet Dylan Thomas went on to marry Caitlin. They had a colourful, tempestuous relationship.
Remember me? Round, red, robustly raddled, a bulging apple among poets, hard as nails made of cream cheese, gap-toothed, balding, noisome, a great collector of dust and a magnet for moths, mad for beer, frightened of priests, women, Chicago, writers, distance, time, children, geese, death, in love, frightened of love, liable to drip.
—Dylan Thomas, Selected Letters, edited by Constantine Fitzgibbon, New Directions
4. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
Another London pub, this one is reputed to be the most atmospheric if it's 18th/19th century England you're after. As the sign says it was completely rebuilt following the disastrous Great Fire Of London in 1666, which destroyed many buildings within the city limits. The vaults beneath the ground floor are even older - 13th century- believed to be formerly part of a Carmelite monastery.
This pub has great literary connections. Oliver Goldsmith, Mark Twain, Alfred Tennyson, Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton, W.B. Yeats, Charles Dickens and Dr Johnson are all said to have frequented this pub on a regular basis at one time or another.
5. The Punch Bowl
York is one of England's oldest cities and still retains the Roman walls from the time it was a Roman stronghold (and called Eboracum in Latin). It has many fabulous pubs, some centuries old yet still thriving. A stroll down the narrowest street in England - The Shambles - will lead you on into the centre of the city, one of the best preserved in Europe. Here you'll find the pubs, beautifully preserved with stone and oak beams, sending you back to a pre-industrial age!
The best time to visit a really old pub in this city is first thing in the morning, say 11 am, when the landlord has just opened up and the natural light is filtering in through the original windows. You get a deep sense of history certainly, but there's something more. Perhaps it's the feeling that such a pub has been the meeting place for generations of locals of all persuasion and type, and that a drink and a chat is a sort of universal pastime we can't do without.
As you drink, soak up the atmosphere for a few moments then wait for the first local to enter and see if you can start a conversation. Listen, can you understand the northern English? It's guttural and rich in dialect. If you wait long enough and don't drink too much you might not need an interpreter!!
The Future of the Historic Pub
Although there are many pubs on the verge of closing in towns and villages all over Great Britain, the future is still rosy for the historic public house. In some places, the locals are taking over establishments once owned by large brewery companies and making a go of things as volunteers; microbrewers are also on the increase and selling their 'non-chemicalised' old-fashioned ales from their own premises.
More and more people are beginning to value the character of the historic pub. In an age of plastic, carbon fibre and titanium metal, the atmosphere of stone, polished oak and homemade log fire and food is hard to beat. Let's not forget the social history too, always that bit more interesting when there are flavoursome drinks to hand.
© 2012 Andrew Spacey