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Pubs and Pub Signs

It all started with the Romans (what didn't?) who displayed vine leaves to show that an establishment sold wine.  With no vine leaves in Britain, the first taverns substituted the bush, which is the derivation of the proverb, "Good wine needs no bush."

Some Roman taverns displayed facilities for playing chess by painting chequer boards on the door post.  Thus many early pub names were "The Chequers."

In 965, King Edgar decided there were too many such establishments, and decreed that there was to be only one ale-house per village.  Horrors!

In 1188, King Henry II raised the Saladin Tithe, the first tax on beer.  What a precedent to set!

The Middle Ages was a time of pilgrimages to religious sites.  Monasteries provided guest houses as lodging, and wayside inns were set up between religious houses to cater to pilgrims.  It was quite common for the brothers and their visitors at the monastery to overindulge, which led to the ale tankards being marked with vertical pegs, to indicate the amount of ale to be consumed in a single gulp.  This is the origin of the phrase, "to take down a peg."  During the Middle Ages, early British tavern keepers used pub signs as visual advertising for a mainly illiterate population.

In the early 17th century, King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England, and ordered that the red lion of Scotland be displayed on all important buildings, including taverns. That is why the most common pub name in the UK is The Red Lion - there were over 600 of them!

The development of pubs now follows social history.  The 18th century was the heyday of coaching inns. The 19th century saw widespread railways, with an increase in pubs being built near to railway stations. When the automobile became the major means of travel, country inns came back into popularity.

Britain has a unique heritage in its pub signs.  They record British history. . . .

There are about 56,000 pubs in the UK - all of them different.

A pub is likely to sell more than 15 different beers.

UK pub prices are among the cheapest in Europe, even though the beer tax is among the highest.

Pubs are Britain's number one choice for eating out at lunchtime.

When a pub says it is a "Free House," that means it is not owned by a particular company, and can sell whatever beer it chooses.


The most common pub names are . . .

   The Red Lion

   The Crown

   The Royal Oak

   The Swan

   The White Hart

Some of the more unusual pub names are . . .

   The Bucket of Blood (Cornwall)

   The Sociable Plover (Portsmouth)

   The Drunken Duck (Ambleside)

   The Old Thirteenth Cheshire Ashley Volunteer Riflemans Corps Inn (Stalybridge) - this is the longest pub name.

   The Blazing Donkey (Ramsgate)

There are two claimants to being the oldest pub in the UK -

   The Fighting Cocks, in St. Albans, Herts, which is an 11th century building on an 8th century site.

   Ye Old Trip to Jerusalem, in Nottingham.


Part of the fun of pubs are Pub Games - traditional games are darts, dominoes, pool and cribbage.  Sir John Suckling invented cribbage in the 1660s, and is said to have amassed a huge personal fortune by playing with marked cards.  Other pubs offer bar billiards, skittles and quoits.

The late 20th century introduced Dwile Flonkin - promoted by the great Michael Bentine of Goon Show fame:

Two teams of twelve partake, dressed as 'country bumpkins.'  One side forms a circle and, with hands linked, turn in the direction nominated by their captain.  Inside the circle is the 'flonker.' who armed with his 'dwile,' an ullage-soaked rag on the end of a 'driveller' or pole, turns in the opposite direction.  Upon the appropriate word of command, or signal, the dwile is flonked at the opposing side and points scored for striking various parts of the anatomy.  Should the flonker fail to hit his opponents on either of his two turns, a penalty has to be paid.  This generally involved drinking vast quantities of ale from a chamber pot or similar device. When all members of one side have been flonked, the roles are reversed. The winning team are the ones with the most points awarded by the umpire, though results are always dubious and contested. Get involved at your peril! Don't say you haven't been warned!


UK Pubs and Rooms

Fat Badgers Guide

British Beer and Pub Association

Midlands Pubs

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