From listed Victorian gin palaces to smugglers’ retreats, Adrian Tierney-Jones explores the enduring appeal of a boozer with a good story
Our historic pubs are at the heart of national life, which Historic England recently recognised in awarding Grade I listed status to the Victorian gin palace, the Philharmonic Dining Rooms in Liverpool.
Even though it was estimated in 2019 that up to 14 pubs a week closed, this news indicates that a love for those establishments – more than just places where beer and locally sourced dishes are on offer – still stirs our emotions.
What is the attraction of a historic pub? Could it be that serene tick-tock of the grandfather clock in the front parlour, the crackle and spit of logs in the fireplace or the gleam of well-polished architectural fittings put in place in the days of Victoria?
Or the whoosh of beer, bright and foaming into the glass, placed on a weathered wooden bar, once a tree when news of Trafalgar travelled by horse? Or could it be the elemental furnishings, elegant survivors from interwar years, sombre wall panellings, or smoothed flagstone floors on which generations have walked?
A historic pub doesn’t have to have been around since the Ark either, even though several, including Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St Albans (11th century), Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem (1189) and the Bell Inn (1437), both in Nottingham, vie for venerable status.
The inclusion of Ye Olde in front of a pub’s name is not always a sign of antiquity – Ye Olde Fighting Cocks was originally called The Round House until the 19th century. When cock fighting was banned in 1849 it became The Fisherman and then changed back in 1872.
Some pubs, such as the Albion in Conwy, North Wales, and The Grill in Aberdeen, have interiors that are untouched survivors from the Twenties, when breweries were making their pubs a lot more attractive to both men and women.
Then there are the country pubs that have just grown and evolved down through the years; almost taken root in their surroundings, becoming as comfortable as an old pair of slippers.
Sadly, many of us also know of closed historic pubs, perhaps because their owners want to sell up and put up a bunch of flats or change the use to a restaurant.
For instance, Bristol’s ancient Llandoger Trow was closed by its owners and put up for sale in 2019, because it didn’t fit in with the rest of the company’s estate. It remains shut.
Meanwhile the 19th-century Vulcan in Cardiff was shuttered, despite a campaign to save it, in 2012. It has been demolished and is being reconstructed at St Fagans National Museum of History.
Take a walk up Borough High Street in London and you will be surrounded by the ghosts of past pubs: the White Hart Yard, Talbot Yard and Mermaid Court are all that is left of the great galleried coach inns that used to ply their trade. Thankfully the George remains. Pubs don’t always have to close.
Recent years have seen concerned communities banding together to save threatened locals, most famously in 1999 when the villagers of Hesket Newmarket in Cumbria clubbed together to buy the local brewery and later the pub, The Old Crown.
Elsewhere, similar examples include The Duke of Marlborough in Somersham, The Fox and Goose at Hebden Bridge, and The Hope in Carshalton.
With grassroots activities and the intervention of heritage bodies, our historic pubs and inns have a chance.
I can still enjoy a Draught Bass at the Coopers Tavern in Burton or, closer to home, visit the Bridge Inn at Topsham and contemplate a glass of local strong ale in the ancient parlour-like surroundings of this magical place.
Here are some of my favourite historic pubs – what are yours? Email your suggestions to email@example.com, or leave a comment below.
This Grade II listed architectural time capsule is basically as it was when the then owners did it up in the Twenties, with art nouveau tiling, art deco flourishes and plenty of red brick. The pub was shut in 2011, but four local breweries and a businessman got together to reopen it while keeping its unique character.
Despite its name, this Grade II listed beauty lacks accommodation but has superlative beers from owners Thornbridge, delicious roast pork rolls, and fixtures and fittings that have remained unchanged since the Thirties. Check out the beautiful front window of coloured mullioned glass with the name picked out in black.
Time seems to stand still at this venerable institution, which started off as a rest house for 15th-century monks and became a tavern post-Reformation. There are flagstone floors, wooden panelling and snugs, and the brewery at the back does excellent ale.
Built in the early 19th century, the name comes from when the Army did its recruiting here. Solid Georgian on the outside, but inside it’s almost unchanged from the Thirties with original features such as fixed banquettes, classic fireplaces and a solid wooden front bar. Check out its incredible whisky range.
Built in 1841 at the end of a terrace of railway workers’ cottages, and saved from demolition in the Eighties, it is a comfortable multi-roomed hideaway from the busy road. Good selection of beers, including some brewed on-site, while the food features hearty rib-sticking dishes.
Victorian era backstreet pub (above) that serves perfect pints of the classic Draught Bass and home-made Scotch eggs. Contemplate your beer in the snug off to the left of the floor-tiled corridor or maybe the front room with its brewery mirrors and old portraits of Burton worthies.
Owned by the National Trust, this is London’s last galleried inn where coaches stopped and Pickwickian types tumbled out. Timber-framed and honeycombed with rooms, this pub (right) is an essential visit to see where our forebears raised their tankards.
It might style itself pub and restaurant but the Thames-side Dove still has a sense of history: aged wood panelling, solid Georgian brick and a compact side bar with four brass-trimmed beer hand-pumps (Fuller’s) that seem to come from another era. Rule Britannia was reputedly written here.
Started off life as a Victorian restaurant but became a pub in 1926 and the interiors are unchanged since then. Long solid wooded bar, incredible ceiling of patterned plasterwork and elemental hand-carved gantry above the bar. Has a superb selection of whiskies.
Also known as the Low House, this community-owned pub dates back to the 1500s and has provided food and drink to countless generations. Inside it’s a warren of rooms, with exposed beams and beer dispensed straight from the cask, alongside home-cooked and locally sourced dishes.
Another elegant example of late Victorian pub gorgeousness – exposed brick with the words ALE, PORTER, RUM, WHISKIES, BRANDIES picked out in a stone frieze just below the ceiling. The bar is like a confessional booth in the corner where supplicants can admit to wanting a pint or two of the excellent beers from Marble Brewery alongside a hearty dish from the superb menu.
I first visited Eli’s, as this is also known, in the Nineties – there was no bar, and there still isn’t. Just a selection of hand pumps while a rather joyful rural type suggested I pull my own pint. I waited and had a look around this rugged thatched multi-roomed country pub that reminded me of a halfway house between a chapel and farmhouse. It remains the same.
Gorgeously rustic village pub whose interior has a weathered and lived-in feel. Plenty of wood, solid furnishings and three comfortable drinking areas where you can study the generous selection of beers (some brewed on-site) and indulge in comforting bar snacks.
The oldest pub in Falmouth, dating from the Restoration, though the current building dates from 1800. Artfully distressed with weathered wooden fittings, nicotine colour scheme and a couple of snugs, one of which has a ceiling hatch through which coffins were lowered. On the Camra National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors.
This solid-looking inn is next to Batham’s Brewery, which has kept its Victorian pub ambience: coloured engraved glass partitions, ornate carvings and a parlour-like front bar. An afternoon passed studying its Best Bitter, sustained by pork scratchings, is well spent.
Local chef Christopher Ineson, co-founder of Oktopus restaurant, describes Peter Kavanagh’s as a time capsule. “We’re spoilt in Liverpool because we’ve got so many incredible tiny pubs that haven’t modernised, you feel like you’re in the Seventies.” On the edge of the city’s historic Georgian Quarter, Kavanagh’s is a no-frills boozer dating back to 1854, adorned with a wealth of decorations picked up along the years.
Said to date from 1189 when Richard the Lionheart became king – although seemingly acquiring its name some 600 years later – the Trip is enchantingly built into caves in the rock upon which Nottingham Castle is perched.
Supposedly, pilgrims and crusaders used the city centre inn, left, as a stopping point – a “trip” – en route to the Holy City. There are long-standing claims it is the oldest pub in the land (several other boozers make similar assertions).
Spendy, foodie and Farrow & Balled to within an inch of its life (it’s part of the Holkham estate). Friendly, buzzy, Norfolk classic, opened in 1837 – the year the Great Queen took the throne.
Named in sardonic tribute to a temperance newspaper which came out at the same time the pub began in 1834. Today it has an ascetic interior: lots of wood, a few old photos, proper blackboards and a legendary snug.
Another contender for oldest pub, going back to 1077 (and potentially the 8th century). Cromwell is said to have spent a night here and a tunnel links the cellar to the cathedral. More recently, Peta petitioned the pub, left, to change its name to Ye Olde Clever Cocks. Thankfully, this hasn’t yet been actioned.
The Bell is Camra’s Pub of the Year, run by the same family for 250 years. Hearteningly old-fashioned, with a real community feel, it champions Berkshire ales. Food is firmly old school. Legendary home-made soup and rolls (ox tongue, ham, turkey) – this is simple pub grub at its best.
After Charles II’s restoration to the throne, the pub was given its current name in 1663. A perhaps apocryphal story suggests the rooms above the inn were where the king met his mistresses. The Royalists had used the pub as a mustering place. It has bags of history, not least the 800-year-old building, and was long famous for exceptionally strong beer.
Continuing the Civil War theme, the Eagle and Child, aka the Bird and Baby, was used as a playhouse by Royalist soldiers.
Its literary links endured, with writers such as Tolkien, C S Lewis and Hugo Dyson, known as The Inklings, meeting here weekly to discuss works.
It’s not so much the building itself, which goes back to the 17th century, as the extensive collection of nautical memorabilia – much of it rescued from vessels shipwrecked on the Cornish coast over the last 400 years – that makes this a treasure-house of seafaring lore. The dining area is panelled with wood from a Portuguese man o’war.
The 800-year-old Lamb is the archetypal country pub, set in an enchantingly pretty village. And the amenities stretch beyond darts and upstairs rooms. The Lamb organises shoots (there’s a gun room), and has dog showering facilities for dog walkers and those returning from a hunt. According to Telegraph reviewer William Sitwell, it is “the personification of warm hospitality”.
Like many, The Porch House claims to be Britain’s oldest pub. The evidence is convincing – there has been an inn on the site since 947. Wonky ceilings, low beams, English quaintness: there’s a reason why American tourists and the well-heeled of London flock here.
This was a stopping point on the ancient Saints’ Way track, which cut through Cornwall from north to south, and is thought to have been favoured by Irish pilgrims to continental Europe. Since the 12th century, then, weary travellers have drunk and eaten at the unassuming pub, which now showcases Cornish beers by Sharp’s and Skinner’s.
St Ives’ famous harbour attracts thousands of tourists every day in the summer. The pub heaves, too. In the quieter months, you’ll have more space to enjoy views of the harbour (the sea is a few feet away), with a pint of real ale and local seafood. The pub makes its own 1312 Gin, named for the year it is said to have been founded.
Possibly Wales’ oldest pub, the Blue Anchor Inn, a former smugglers’ tavern, dates back to 1380 and is rumoured to hide secret tunnels for transporting contraband to and from the beach. Today, the award-winning pub has hosted the likes of Robert De Niro, Clive Owen and Jason Statham, who shot a scene here for 2011 thriller Killer Elite.
A hiker’s paradise, the Grade II listed Skirrid Mountain Inn overlooks the Black Mountains and is situated near Offa’s Dyke. Another establishment that claims to be Wales’ oldest, it was reputedly used as a court of law, with capital punishment dished out on site, and may have served as a rallying point during the Welsh Revolt. More recently, a propensity for the paranormal has led to it featuring on several ghostly television programmes.
Opened in the 1860s as an actors’ pub, Bittles Bar became a hotspot for lawyers and journalists during the Troubles. Similar to New York’s Flatiron Building in appearance, Bittles is a “no-nonsense bar with an amazing range of Irish whiskey, and changing beer taps with beer from local brewers, and none of that hipster nonsense,” says local chef Brian Donnelly. John Lennon and Van Morrison are said to have frequented the pub.
This boozer played host to everyone who was anyone in the bohemian Fitzrovia scene. George Orwell was a fan. It is, as per his 1946 essay The Moon Under Water – in which he describes an ideal public house, “uncompromisingly Victorian”, with saloon bar, snugs, stained glass partitioning, traditional ales and stouts, and an upstairs dining room. One of central London’s cheapest.
Locals assert that this charming 17th century inn is London’s best “country-pub-in-town”. Today The Spaniards Inn serves muddy walkers floating off Hampstead Heath, but it was once a haunt for Romantic poets such as Byron and Keats, who wrote Ode to a Nightingale in its gardens. Mentioned in Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, not many pubs in the UK can boast such a significant literary backstory. It’s closing for a two-week refurbishment in March.
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Opened by a German, this was a meeting point for Charles De Gaulle and the French Resistance during the Second World War. Later, it became the focal point of bohemian Soho, with regulars such as Francis Bacon, Dylan Thomas and Lucian Freud.
It launched the career of Fergus Henderson, arguably Britain’s most influential chef, serves only half pints, and has a strict no-phones policy.
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