Drink to 1000 years of beer and pubs
Cheers! England’s beer capital is marking 1,000 years of brewing tradition this year. Though no one can put an exact date on the opening of the country’s first pub, it is thought they have been around for just as long, starting when almost every household offered home-brewed ale to weary and thirsty pilgrims and other travellers.
Whether or not you are partial to a pint of dark British beer (‘bitter’), to visit some of the country’s pubs is a must for most visitors. I have been lucky enough to drink in some of the most distinctive and historic ones.
It is Burton-upon-Trent, a bustling town in central England, 123 miles north-west of London, which is the self-styled capital of brewing. Benedictine monks are credited with the discovery that brewing with the town’s well water produced superior beers. In the year 1002 a local nobleman, Wulfric Spot, bequeathed land and money so that the monks could establish an abbey, and the rest is history.
Burton’s best-known brewer, Bass, is marking its own anniversary, its 225th, this year and its Bass Museum – the nearest England has to a national museum of brewing – is well worth a visit. 100,000 people a year come to view the museum galleries, admire the beautiful shire horses and sample the beers from its own micro-brewery. The latest, “Queen’s Ale”, marks Queen Elizabeth II’s golden jubilee: the British monarch visited in July to start the brewing process. One of the anniversary events planned is a lively Octoberfest beer festival (October 18-20).
Several pubs are contender for the title of the oldest in the country. One, The Fighting Cocks at St. Albans, 23 miles north of London, is within a short walk of St. Albans abbey. With foundations archeologists have dated to AD 795, it takes its name from the cock fights once staged there.
Another contender is the Olde Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham, 128 miles north of the capital. Dating from 1189, it was stopping place for Richard the Lion Heart’s crusaders on their way to battle in the Holy Land – its rooms are hollowed out of the same cliff that Nottingham Castle stands upon.
Because monks were among the earliest brewers, many inns have religious names: often a clue to a pub’s great age. So look out for names such as Hope and Anchor (a bible quotation); Cross Keys (the badge of St. Peter) and The Lamb (of God).
London has many historic pubs that deserve to be on every visitor’s itinerary. They include The George in Southwark – just a short walk from London Bridge railway station – which is the capital’s last remaining galleried inn, dating from 50 years after William Shakespeare’s death. You half expect a stage-coach to come clattering into the courtyard. On the other side of the River Thames, beside Blackfriar’s Bridge is the Black Friar. Built in 1903, it is an art nouveau parody of a monastery, with marble columns and ornate bronze friezes depicting monks and elaborate quotations.
In High Holborn is The Princess Louise, a former Victorian ‘gin palace’ whose decorative interior includes etched and gilt mirrors, moulded plaster ceilings and slender columns: even the men’s lavatory is subject of a special preservation order!
In fact, ask a local in almost any British city to direct you to an historic pub and you will find yourself spoilt for choice. A list of the best would probably include: The Philharmonic in Liverpool (where the young Beatles supped ale); the ornate Crown Liquor Saloon in Belfast (preserved by the National Trust charity); Peveril of the Peak, with its stained glass and ceramic tiling, in Manchester and The Café Royal in Edinburgh, but there are many more.
An area with more than its fair share of pubs with character – and, notably, pubs that brew their own beer – is the Black Country, the former industrial heart of England’s Midlands between the cities of Birmingham and Wolverhampton. Why the Black Country? The long-disappeared coal-mines and furnaces of this home of the Industrial Revolution would turn the sky ‘black by day and red by night’. Thirsty workers would drink gallons of ale as a restorative. The area makes a convenient stopover between Shakespeare Country and the pretty borderland linking England and Wales.
Among the Black Country pubs I have visited are:
- The Bottle & Glass Inn, one of the highlights of a period town within the Black Country Living Museum at Dudley, recreating the sights, sounds, smells and way of life of the area. An authentic recreation of a working men’s pub at the beginning of the 20th century, down to the sawdust coated floor and oil lamps.
- The Crooked House at nearby Himley Park, where ground subsidence has caused the building, its doors and window frames to twist in different directions. Coins appear to roll uphill, the floors are uneven and you feel drunk without even having a drink!
- The Old Swan Hotel at Netherton, full of varnished woodwork, horse-brasses, etched mirrors and an unusual enamelled-iron ceiling. Faggots (a type of meat-ball) are a house speciality and the landlord will turn on the pianola music machine on request!
- The Beacon Hotel (Sarah Hughes Brewery) at Sedgley, one of four pub micro-breweries in the area. A mention of our interest in beer to the barman led him to take us on a tour of the pub’s historic working tower brewery – reminiscent of a windmill minus the sails – and not easy to climb after a pint or two of Dark Ruby. The recipe for this beer is a closely guarded secret. Thought lost, it was discovered in a cigar tin after a gap of 30 years.
The British may have been brewing for 1,000 years but there is no sign of “Last orders!” being called in their pubs.
Useful tip: Pubs are relaxed and informal places – there is no table service. You buy your drinks at the bar, pay immediately and take them back to your table.