Pub Primer

· Exploring the magic of the English pub ·

For hundreds of years pubs have been the centerpiece of British life. The pub is where communities have long come together to socialize, conduct business, and relax. While they may no longer hold quite the place they once did, it is still where many finish their days. What is it that makes pubs so integral to British culture?

A traditional pub with thatched roof in Grantchester

First off, there’s the history. Pubs and their precursors date all the way back to when Britain and London (or Londinium as it was called then) were part of the Roman empire. Back then, a sort of inn where travelers could get refreshments were called “tabernae” and they popped up on the Roman Road. After the Romans left, these tabernae transitioned into alehouses which typically originated in domestic dwellings. These alehouses eventually grew into a place where people came to socialize. Due to the community aspect, they began to be called public houses, or… pubs.

The Devonshire Arms near Chatsworth House

Due to the potential power of these public houses, they have almost always been closely regulated. Way back in 965, King Edgar decided that there should not be more than one pub per village. This law didn’t last too long as by 1577 there was one pub for every 187 people in England and Wales.

Something that did stick around a little longer was Richard II’s 1393 decree that all pubs must have a sign outside. This was so that ale inspectors (they judged the quality of the ale #dreamjob) could easily recognize an alehouse. Because most people were illiterate, the signs often featured an illustration rather than a written name. The name of the pub was then typically derived from the picture rather than vice versa. Today, many pubs still have these illustrated signs outside their doors, though most of the time the name came first.

So clearly pubs are quite the mainstay of British culture. Today, there is every kind of pub you can imagine. Historical pubs with Tudor timber frames and dark wooden bars. There are gastro pubs (so many gastro pubs) that serve hearty meals of burgers, pies, and fish and chips. There are tiny pubs out of old houses, and everything in between. No matter what kind, they still hold sway as a place to congregate. In my family growing up, we went to church on Christmas Eve. In Britain, many go to the pub where guests all join in singing carols into the cold night.

Not only that, but British history and literature has been born in pubs. In Cambridge, The Eagle is where Francis Crick and James Watson celebrated discovering DNA. Pubs have had a place in English literature going back all the way to The Canterbury Talesby Geoffrey Chaucer. More recently, The Eagle and Child (nicknamed The Bird and Baby) in Oxford was frequented by some of your favorite fantasy and children’s authors: JRR Tolkein and CS Lewis. Charles Dickens enjoyed his time in pubs and worked them into his novels. Meanwhile, The Ten Bells in London was the favorite pub of many of Jack the Ripper’s victims. The list goes on…

As an outsider, it doesn’t take long to become enamored with pubs. The warm atmosphere, variety of beer, tasty food, and convivial pub-goers, it’s easy to slip seamlessly into pub culture. Perhaps that’s part of the appeal. They are so non-judgmental and (typically) non-threatening places, it doesn’t matter if you’re there for a quick pint, coffee, or a bite to eat, you have a place. Nor does it matter if you are alone or in a large group; again, anyone is welcome.

Old, young – unlike many bars in the US, pubs typically allow children with their families – it’s not uncommon to see a curmudgeonly old man next a group of young women next to three generations of a family. In London, businessmen and women will spill out into the streets outside a pub after 5 for a quick one after work. Depending on when you go, pubs can be quiet or quite loud and boisterous. Either way, you’re bound to have a good time.

The Blackfriar in London. Built where the former Blackfriar Priory stood, the inside is an art nouveau dream

When I temporarily moved back to the States, people would ask me what I missed the most about living in London. I would always tell them the pubs. I would have to explain that pubs are far removed from our American notion of bars and are more a meeting place. Some of my favorite memories are when my friend and I would end up at a pub for beer and chips (in the British sense of the word) and we’d pass the afternoon there laughing and chatting. When I’d come back to visit my boyfriend, I stipulated that we must go to one pub a day as I was deprived in the US.

Being back in England, we typically hit a pub at least once during the work week and once on the weekend, often more. We have three “locals” within a few minutes’ walk, all of which serve great beer and have a nice atmosphere. Our favorite has a fireplace and we’ll pop over after dinner, enjoy a casual pint before turning in for the night.

That’s the beauty of the pub. You don’t have to plan or change your clothes. It doesn’t have to be a big production and it’s easy to make last minute plans to meet someone at a pub. They are warm and welcoming and have so many different varieties of beer to try. With the history, the atmosphere, and the laid-back culture, once you’ve tasted pub culture, you’re bound to be hooked. You’re not the first (by hundreds of years) and you certainly won’t be the last.

Anyway, I’m off to the pub.


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