What is the oldest pub in England?

This is an interesting question with all kinds of philosophical implications: is a pub a building, or an entity?

When people ask this, we think they want to know about the oldest historic pub they can go for a drink in – not an old building that was converted to a pub in 1983, or a building that used to be a pub but is now a private home.

The other problem is the tendency of pubs to tell outright fibs about this kind of thing. It turns out that many such claims can be dismantled with a bit of work and you soon learn to ignore any information board that opens with it “It is reputed that…”

In their book Licensed to Sell, published in 2005 and revised in 2011, pub historians Geoff Brandwood, Andrew Davison and Michael Slaughter dedicate a chapter to the myth of ‘Ye Olde Englishe Pube’. They dismiss waspishly claims to great antiquity from several of the best-known contenders, which arguments we’ve drawn on below.

It’s a great book – do buy a copy.

Some contenders for oldest pub

(Ye Olde) Fighting Cocks, St Albans | Claim: 8th century | Brandwood et al are very snarky about this one: the building dates from the 17th century, the licence from the early 19th, and the claim to antiquity is a 20th century development.

Eagle & Child, Stow on the Wold | Claim: 10th century | Not recorded as a pub until the 18th century, the building is from c.1500.

Bingley Arms, Bardsey | Claim: 10th century | Brandwood et al confidently state that this is an 18th century building with no evidence to suggest an earlier founding.

(Ye Olde) Trip to Jerusalem, Nottingham | Claim: 1189 | The famous cellars may have been used for brewing at around this date but the pub building dates to the late 17th century.

(Ye Olde) Man and Scythe, Bolton | Claim: 1251 | Supposedly mentioned by name in the town’s market charter of 1251, except… it isn’t, according to this 1892 history of Bolton. The present building is mostly from the 17th century.

The George Inn, Norton St Philip | Claim: 14th century | “Believed to be the earliest surviving, purpose-built inn, it was erected in the late 14th century… [and] refronted about 1475-1500.” – Brandwood et al.

So, the oldest pub is…

The George Inn seems to have a pretty convincing case, only strengthened by the fact that it isn’t called Ye Olde George Inn. If it’s good enough for Big Geoff B, it’s good enough for us.

If you know of other contenders, and can point to evidence to support the claim from a source other than a board inside the pub or a souvenir booklet, we’d be interested to hear more – comment below!

Everything we wrote in June 2020

It felt as if we didn’t get much blogging done in June but, looking back, we managed about as many posts as usual. Which is, of course, partly why we undertake this little stock-taking exercise.

The month began with a bit of philosophical pondering on the important question of which is the best seat in the pub and the degree to which the choice is subjective:

Our next door neighbours gravitate to the opposite corner, near the bar. Mr Priddy, who is in his late eighties, seems to prefer a bench midway along the wall. Some people, inexplicably, choose to sit on the pew near the bins, even when they don’t have to. The rack of CAMRA magazines at the other end of the bench from our favourite seat seems to lure lone drinkers. And Big Bantering Lads generally prefer standing along the centre bench.


The Comet, Hatfield.

Do you know The Comet in Hatfield? It’s a beautiful Art Deco pub particularly beloved of retro bloggers. Here’s our attempt to tell the story of this gorgeous, significant building.

Continue reading “Everything we wrote in June 2020”

Brewery merger amnesia

The recently announced ‘joint venture’ between Marstons and Carlsberg made us think about how modern brewery mergers are much more commercially savvy than 1960s and 1970s equivalents.

Nowadays there is a recognition that local brands are important and that if you keep then more or less the same then, after a while, people might forget that there is a new parent company.

A while back, for example, we were corresponding with a journalist about modern bitter brands and he was completely unaware that Marstons had taken over the brewing arm of Charles Wells.

More embarrassingly, I momentarily forgot that Magic Rock had been bought out by Lion in March 2019 – and I’ve written about Magic Rock at length on multiple occasions.

To be fair, it isn’t featured at all on their lovely pictorial history page, or on their about page, so maybe they forgot too.

We’ve also astonished friends by breaking the news to them that Camden and Beavertown are no longer independent. Those takeovers were big news for beer geeks but outside the bubble, people either missed the announcements, or instantly forgot.

And in one case, they were gutted about it, too: “Oh. I thought I was supporting a local independent brewery.”

You might say it’s too early to tell how things will play out with some recent takeovers. The Big Six in the post war period usually allowed a year or so before closing down breweries and rebranding products. (See: Usher’s.)

And consumer preferences change. During the takeover mania of the 1960s and 70s, CAMRA lambasted Watney’s and Whitbread for doing away with local brands. Now, you might argue that at least their uniform packaging and design was honest.

When there’s actual ownership and rights splits, provenance can be more obvious. So, for example, when Asahi bought the Fullers’ brewery, there was a requirement to set up a separate Fullers Brewery website to maintain the distinction between that and the pub operator. And that website does mention Asahi at a couple of points.

Interestingly, though, the first search results for “fullers beers” still takes you to the pub company’s website, so if you weren’t following closely, you might just assume it was business as usual.

All of this underlines that transparency isn’t a one-off event – ownership needs to be clear to consumers from packaging and promotional material on an ongoing basis.

News, nuggets and longreads 27 June 2020: All eyes on 4 July

Here’s everything on the subject of beer or pubs that grabbed our attention in the past week, from the re-opening of pubs to taproom culture.

The big news this week was the announcement by the UK Government that pubs will be permitted to re-open from Saturday 4 July, following new guidelines. Reactions to this have been mixed, it’s fair to say.

Some fear it is too much, too soon, and don’t trust the industry or drinkers to behave themselves.

Others think it’s too little, too late, and see the guidelines as fatally restricting and/or pointlessly vague.

Here’s a small selection of the commentary:


Bermondsey

Will Hawkes continues his excellent series of of lockdown beer business vignettes with notes on a conversation with Andy Smith of Partizan Brewing and the future of the Bermondsey Beer Mile:

“A lot of Bermondsey is in very close quarters,” he says. “It’s a bit of a cattle market. If you try and extend queues, they’re going to be really long queues, stretching down those roads. And then there are the toilets: that’s a big challenge… For me, it depends on how well it is policed. It is a really challenging decision to be open on that Saturday … Why have they done it on a Saturday? Everyone is going to be so geared up. It’s good for restaurants, where you can get everybody seated properly. But the Bermondsey Beer Mile? It’s a real challenge, but I don’t want to close – it’s not good for the business, and I don’t want to be responsible for creating more carnage elsewhere.”


Illustration: "Odd One Out".

For Good Beer Hunting Stephanie Grant has written about the experience of being the only black person in all-white American brewery taprooms:

I remember the first time I stepped into a brewery about 10 years ago, unsure and precautious as I waded through the sea of White people dressed in white and blue polo shirts and khaki pants. My husband and I made our way through the crowd and ordered with some guidance from the server behind the bar… With my glass in hand, I became more intrigued by the surrounding atmosphere. Everywhere, there were groups of young, White men who looked like the frat guys who roamed the halls of my college. Their postures conveyed how comfortable they were in an environment that was foreign to me. I felt like an outsider, an unwanted guest encroaching on someone’s private space.


Virtual events
SOURCE: Chris Montgomery on Unsplash.

Though not directly related to beer, there’s lots for beer people to learn from this piece at the AV Club on the recent surge in online events. Its three contributors together argue that for disabled and marginalised people, virtual festivals and conferences aren’t a compromise but something close to ideal:

For some, events like concerts, drag shows, and comedy open mics being moved online… has been a windfall, with more live entertainment than ever before now at their disposal. There are a number of reasons why someone might struggle with attending, say, a concert: The venue may not be ADA-compliant, for example, or they may have trouble standing for hours at a time, or they may simply be located far away from a major city without the funds or free time to travel.


Here’s an interesting new development for Bristol: an off-licence dedicated to stocking and serving booze made by women. There’s a piece on Bristol247 explaining the concept.


And finally, from Twitter…

For more good reading, have  a look at Alan’s selection of links from Thursday.

Initial thoughts on the guidance for reopening pubs

The government has published its long awaited guidance on safely opening pubs, or to give it its full title, ‘Keeping workers and customers safe during Covid-19 in restaurants, pubs, cafes and takeaway services’.

It’s written for employers and business owners, but here are some thoughts from a consumer perspective. 

The language is very much should and not must. So although there is talk about apps for ordering and disposable cutlery, these are not mandatory.

This is helpful for businesses as it allows flexibility and puts the onus on their risk assessments and their decisions about what is safe.

While some people may object to this, it would in practice be impossible to legislate for every leisure and hospitality business. And we think that customers will vote with their feet if they don’t feel businesses are operating safely.

On that latter point, we think it’s a no-brainer for pubs to share their risk assessment, or at least evidence that they have done one.

It’s a really good way for them to reassure customers that they have thought about everything from a customer and an employee perspective.

It’s also a good way to deflect potential criticism such as “Why aren’t your staff wearing facemasks?” As the guidance says, “face coverings are not a replacement for the other ways of managing risk”. You could cover of all your other decisions with reference to the guidance in the same way.

We also think it’s interesting that keeping customer data for 21 days is only a should. We’d be pretty happy to provide contact details to a venue, as tracking and isolating is going to be the only way to return to anything like normal.

People may have concerns about data protection but it’s all covered by GDPR, and it can be as simple as a behind-the-counter visitor book, with the relevant pages destroyed after 21 days.

Incidentally, there is a slightly mysterious line in the guidance about government working with the industry to design a suitable recording system for customer contact, which rather implies pubs won’t need to worry about this if they don’t already have something in place.

A couple of other things really grabbed us:

  • There is advice to keep background music and noise low to discourage shouting. This is likely to have as many fans as detractors. 
  • Public transport limitations still apply so venues are encouraged to think about providing bike rack space or other ways to discourage travel by public transport. Obviously this is going to impact more on venues where people are going to become intoxicated. So pubs will need to think about who is within walking distance, which may not be their existing clientele. 
  • Limits on gatherings still apply – although this will be relaxed to being able to see another household.

The latter is probably the most important point for us.

As we wrote in our newsletter the other week: What is the point of going back to the pub if you can’t meet up with friends, let alone mingle with strangers?

This isn’t to say we disapprove of people going to the pub when they reopen.

We’re lucky to have our own drinking bubble, and doubly lucky to have the Drapers round the corner selling takeaway cask ale.

Without these things, we’d probably be more likely to be heading pubwards on, or soon after, 4 July. 

Ultimately,for us, going to the pub is more than an economic transaction.

It’s about enjoying a space that isn’t yours. It’s about mixing with other people in your community. It’s about (slightly) losing your inhibitions. It’s about popping in on instinct, or staying for one more than you should.

These are all things that are fundamentally at odds with battling a pandemic.

There will be plenty of other customers who are too nervous to go back into public spaces at the moment.

Many people are uneasy about the fact that “the two metre rule has been relaxed” without a clear accompanying message from scientists that this is “safe”. Of course people will have their own thresholds about what they consider to be safe, and ultimately both this and the progress of the fight against the pandemic are outside the control of the pub landlord.

So what’s the solution?

It’s easy for us to say as consumers and armchair publicans but a hybrid business model seems to be the way to go.

Offer a cut down and carefully controlled space for people to visit but also provide takeaway – which will also provide some kind of contingency in the event of future lockdowns.

Long Live the Jug and Bottle!