Which is the oldest of them all?
Britain's oldest pub. Where is it, and does anyone care?
Saturday 09 April 2022
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Have you ever been to a pub that claims to be the oldest in England? I’m betting that many of you probably have, and it’s likely not the same one for each of you, either. The fact is, there are quite a few pubs in England which claim to be the oldest in the country, and they can’t all be right. Or can they?
The Porch House hotel in the Cotswolds reportedly dates back as far as 947 AD. The Bingley Arms in Bardsey, West Yorkshire, is a pub that can supposedly trace its beginnings to the time of the Viking conquest. And in St Ives in Cambridgeshire, The Old Ferry Boat is a thatched inn on the banks of the River Great Ouse, which claims to have records of alcohol being served there as far back as 560 AD. With these examples, we are barely scraping the surface of the list of pubs in England that have been referred to as ‘the oldest’ in recent years. Many of the pubs making this claim certainly have some impressive historical credentials, so getting to the bottom of this issue once and for all could prove tricky to impossible.
In Buckinghamshire, The Royal Standard of England is another pub with a claim to the title, and owner Matthew O’Keeffe provides some extra context. “The previous landlords marketed the pub as the ‘oldest Freehouse’ because the other older pubs were all brewery or now pub company owned, not Freehouses,” he says. The pub claims to have survived the raids of the Dark Ages due to its secluded location, and the stories of its past are enthralling, particularly pertaining to the 17th century. The story goes that it was used as a base by Royalists during the Civil War, and later, once he was restored to the throne, King Charles II gave permission for the pub‘s name to be changed from The Ship to The Royal Standard of England. The king reportedly bestowed the pub with this honour due to the support that was offered to him and his father by the landlord (for King Charles II, it is said, used the inn’s upstairs rooms to meet with his mistresses).
In order to decide conclusively which pub is the oldest in the country, we would first have to agree on precisely what that means. Would it be the one that has operated as a tavern or an inn for the longest time, or the one that occupies the oldest physical structure? Depending on the answer, the true oldest pub would likely be different. To complicate matters further, many pubs might have begun life as alehouses or farmhouses. These were dwellings where a member of the household happened to make and sell ale. And then, eventually, ale would be served on the premises. In these cases, it can be difficult to say exactly when the premises became a pub, but the site’s history as a boozy location could still be touted as the pub’s own beginning.
For example, Karl Gibson, general manager of the Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham, claims that the history of the pub goes back even further than when it formally established as one. “Officially, the date above the door is 1189, but we do also know that in the caves side of the pub, beer was being produced here from 1068,” he says. “Given our location next to Nottingham Castle, we know now from archaeological research that the original Castle Brewhouse operated from the cave network of the Trip, initially brewed for the workers building the castle and then later for the castle itself.” He points out that a serving hatch survives in the pub’s Rock Lounge, claiming that this is where the site’s early occupants would have used a pulley system to get the beers through the floors and into the castle.
Karl also clarifies that the ‘trip’ in the pub’s name meant something quite different in the English of the Middle Ages, referring not to a journey, but a resting place along the way. “For those barons and knights travelling down from the North to board the ships on the South coast to fight in the Crusades, Nottingham and the Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem in particular would have been the perfect stop off,” he says.
Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St Albans (which has closed down temporarily at the time of writing) is yet another pub that has been referred to as the oldest in the country. “[The pub] started life in the grounds of the Abbey and was moved to its present position following the dissolution of the monasteries,” says beer writer and St Albans resident Roger Protz. “It has survived wars, including the Civil War when Oliver Cromwell allegedly slept there and even took his horse inside.”
The pub that we see today was built in the 11th century, and its octagonal appearance can be attributed to its former use as a pigeon house. As with nearly all pubs with long histories, there is some disagreement about historical accounts. For example, according to an article published by St Albans & Hertfordshire Architectural & Archaeological Society, the pub was not formerly known as ‘The Fisherman’ as a board that hung on the building claimed, but rather, this is a conflation with another former pub that was in a slightly different location.
The claims of the various pubs insisting that they are the oldest by some measure or other can be dizzying, and beer historian Martyn Cornell has his doubts that many of them can be proven with hard evidence. "There's no way that you can put any specific date on any building before, really, 16th century at the earliest,” says Martyn, pointing out that the scant records going that far back simply aren’t reliable enough. "Fires happen, people lose things,” he says. "Much of the time the documentation isn't there, at all." And even when there is some documentation available, more could yet turn up at any moment, throwing out the claims of pubs whose records don’t reach quite as far back into the annals of history.
All pubs are rooted in their communities, but historic pubs have a special place.
Why, then, do so many pubs claim to be the oldest? At first, the sheer volume of pubs making this sweeping claim shocked me, but when we fetishize the accolade as we do, it’s hardly a surprise. “All pubs are rooted in their communities, but historic pubs have a special place,” says Roger. “Cities such as St Albans and Nottingham are rich in history and the old inns are a key element of that history.” Pubs with great stories and pasts shrouded in legend tend to intrigue their regulars, and the likes of Ye Olde Fighting Cocks and Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem have this in spades. And of course, a fascinating tale can make for good marketing too. "People don't mind paying a bit more if they think they're getting a bit of history thrown in as well,” says Martyn.
Perhaps it will never be possible to finally decide upon which pub in the country is the very oldest. Even if we could all agree on the definition, it seems there are simply too many pubs which have some kind of claim to the title. The pedant in me feels frustrated by the lack of resolution. But does it even matter? The point of pubs, after all, is to provide a sense of community. For many, learning about the rich history of their local might contribute to a sense of community and continuity, so perhaps a little playful boasting about the heritage and history on one’s own doorstep isn’t so bad. And it’s just as well, because it is likely that publicans will continue to make their own claims to the title, and beer historians will continue debating this issue for years to come.
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