As many people know, the local pub is the cornerstone of British culture. Not only that, the country itself is rather old, meaning you can pop for a pint at establishments formerly visited by the likes of King Richard the Lionheart and Oliver Cromwell. Here is an assortment of medieval ale houses to whet your appetite as we near the weekend.
Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem, Nottingham
There has been no shortage of debate over the years about which surviving British pub is in fact the oldest (more below), but Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem certainly has a fair claim. Nestling beneath Castle Rock, the sign outside dates the building to 1189 AD, although the main building is thought to be rather newer, probably only 300 years old! That said, the pub’s famous “caves” beneath and behind the building, forming its oldest drinking rooms, date back to the construction of castle in 1089 – so the claim still stands!
Folklore has it that crusading knights dropped in for a pint here on their way from Nottingham Castle to the Holy Land, and that King Richard I himself was a regular at the bar – unlikely since he actually spent most of his reign away from England crusading rather than frequenting the local pubs of Nottingham. However, it is worth noting that the word “trip” relates to “a break in the journey”, rather than the entire journey. So perhaps there is some truth in the legend after all.
Needless to say, the pub is a centre of supernatural activity. The cursed galleon is a small wooden model that has supposedly brought death to anyone who has ever tried to clean it over the years. Such is the superstition surrounding it that numerous landlords have refused to allow anyone to clean it. As a result, it is now preserved in a glass case, covered in decades of dust. Curiously, an antique chair inside “The Trip” is thought to make women who sit in it more likely to become pregnant, although this could of course have more to do with the beer!
Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, St. Albans
Standing in the shadow of St. Albans Abbey, Ye Olde Fighting Cocks is one of the strongest contenders for oldest pub in the land. The pub itself is 11th century, although documents show that the foundations and cellars date back to 793 AD – meaning there’s been a fair bit of boozing done in here over the years!
Originally called The Round House (it was built as a pigeon coup), it is thought to have been renamed The Fighting Cocks around the 1800s after the sport – banned long ago in Britain – that used to take place there. The original “cock pit” is now one of the bars, although this room originally served as a stable for the inn. It is said that this is where Oliver Cromwell stabled his horse when he spent the night here.
There are also believed to be tunnels running between the old cellars and the nearby cathedral, which were once used by monks for safety. The Fighting Cocks is believed by many to be the oldest true pub, as opposed to a tavern or inn which has accomodation. (These words are often used interchangably today.)
Ye Olde Man & Scythe, Bolton
I think by now we’ve established that any establishment with “Ye Olde” in its title is going to be up there with the most antiquated of them. And here’s another trying to stake it’s claim as the oldest watering hole in the realm! Ye Olde Man & Scythe actually only dates back to 1251, and even then it’s only the cellar.
The building on the site today is much more modern – 1636 to be precise. But that hasn’t stopped the landlord trying to convince all and sundry that the original cellars are 234 years older than is generally acknowledged, and if so, could potentially bump the old pub up the list. Either way, Ye Olde Man & Scythe oozes history.
A chair hanging in the pub bears the inscription: “15th October 1651 In this chair James 7th Earl of Derby sat at the Man and Scythe Inn, Churchgate, Bolton immediately prior to his execution.” After enjoying his last few pints, James was then taken outside and executed for his role in the English Civil War. But legend has it that he is still around!
The Old Queen’s Head, Sheffield
As a Sheffield native, I felt obliged to throw this charming old battlecruiser in! The oldest domestic building in Sheffield, the Old Queen’s Head was built by George Talbot, the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, around 1475. It is the last remaining section of a timber framed medieval town and, as part of the Earl’s estate, may have been used as a banqueting hall for parties hunting wildfowl in the nearby ponds. The only reminder of this – other than the river – can be found in the name of the road the pub is built on: Pond Street.
In reality, the Old Queen’s Head is today sandwiched between the 1960s Post Office building and the city’s bus interchange. And if brutalist architecture is your thing, the Eastern Bloc-era flats on the hillside behind received a mention is this earlier article.
The pub boasts several interesting gargoyles, including Spring Heeled Jack – a well known local legend about a mischievous sprite that supposedly lived in the tunnels beneath the city and would jump out on unsuspecting pedestrians when the mood took him. Some are even trying to capture any supernatural activity at the pub on camera!
The George Inn, London
Okay, so this one isn’t trying to claim the accolade of oldest pub in the land, dating back to a mere 1676. But it is the only galleried coaching inn surviving in London and was the local pub of Charles Dickens, who gave it a mention in his much loved Little Dorrit. Once upon a time, plays were performed in the yard at the back (now the beer garden), with spectators watching from the galleries lining the side of the building. But the most famous pub in the area was The Tabard, located nearby. It was here, in 1388, that Chaucer’s characters met before embarking on their pilgrimage to Canterbury. The Tabard was sadly demolished in 1873, although the original one had burned down long before.