Britains pubs are famous worldwide for both their unique character and the fundamental role they play in urban and rural community life. Popping down to the pub for a pint and a chat is inextricably woven into the fabric of modern British society.
City dwellers head for the nearest pubs and bars to unwind after a hard days work, friends gather to gossip and villagers in remote areas visit their local to put the world to rights over a pint of their favorite brew.
Bars selling impressive varieties of beer exist in many different countries around the world. None, arguably, can beat a great British pub for cheery, friendly ambiance and a traditional welcome. Most pubs are also family friendly and serve affordable pub grub (food).
Public Houses Under Threat
Traditional British pubs and regional, independent brewers are going out of business at an alarming rate. Their demise is attributed to a combination of factors, including untenable competition from larger pub companies and major global breweries.
CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) recently launched a campaign to “Save Britain”s Independent Brewers ” and the great British institution, the local pub.
Origin of Pubs
Public houses or “tabernae ” (taverns) originated in Roman Britain over two thousand years ago when humble roadside inns were set up to cater for travelers needs. These taverns provided accommodation, warm hospitality and basic food and drink. Interestingly, the Romans also gave us the first pub signs, in the form of vine leaves, to indicate their trade.
The popularity of the original Roman style tavern dwindled over the centuries, re-emerging in the Middle Ages as monastery-run inns catering to travelers and pilgrims. Pilgrimages like the one Chaucer depicted in The Canterbury Tales were a common feature of British life. Monasteries were renowned for their generous hospitality. However, the sheer volume of customers led to the establishment of numerous secular inns around Britain, to cope with the monastic overspill.
During the Middle Ages, inns run by innkeepers flourished throughout Britain. Inns, hostelries and public houses in market towns also thrived, serving traders who required overnight accommodation, food and liquid refreshment.
Because water pollution was a big problem in the Middle Ages, ale became the top alcoholic drink as it was considered safer to drink because of the brewing process.
Alehouses began to flourish: brewers sold beer from rooms in their homes as well as in village alehouses. Ale was generally served in a single large vessel that was handed around, with portions marked by pegs. This peg system was open to abuse and drunkenness was rife.
A precursor of the modern wine bar, the Elizabethan tavern catered to the professional classes, initially selling only wine and quality food to well-heeled city workers. Thanks to increased international trade and Britains commanding position in world affairs, Britains public houses began to flourish as city taverns, during the Elizabethan period.
Traditional English taverns, however, fell into decline towards the end of the eighteenth century. An increase in drunken behavior was a major reason the professional classes turned their affection to the newly emerging gentlemens clubs.
Heyday of Coaching Inns
Coaching Inns flourished as travel by horse and carriage became increasingly popular throughout Britain during the Industrial Revolution from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century.
Coaching, however, fell out of favor with the introduction of the railways. Coaching inns could no longer compete with the new public houses and bars served by the railway network springing up in major cities. However, certain coaching inns on major routes continued to survive, albeit on a lesser scale. Today, some of these original coaching inns are trendy rural pubs, decorated with memorabilia and oozing postcard nostalgia.
Nineteenth Century Beerhouses
The abolition of the beer tax in 1830 meant that any ratepayer could sell beer without a beer license. This led to the establishment of numerous beerhouses and backroom bars across Britain.
However, in 1869, regulations were introduced to control the burgeoning and often illicit brewing trade. Many small brewers were forced out of business as the larger breweries took over. Commercial breweries began to control the beer market; indeed, they continue to do so today. The Victorians coined the term “pubs ” for public houses.
Pub Signage Explained
Ever wondered why pubs have such imaginative names and signage? Some names are clearly derived from historic events, myths, legends, royalty, topography, landmarks, trades or local connections. Other pub names seem inexplicable. However, there is a perfectly reasonable explanation: customers who frequented the early public houses were generally illiterate and therefore needed a picture sign to point them in the right direction.
Funky, contemporary pub signage, with names including Slug & Lettuce, Pitcher & Piano, Spinning Wheel, Plough & Harrow, Smokin Dog and Bank Statement, has more to do with clever marketing than heralding the existence of beer purveying establishments!
The pub name, Pig and Whistle is a corruption of”peg and wassail”wassail meaning to toast someone. Wassail is also beer made from apples, sugar and nutmeg.