The great British pub is a wonderful institution and a good one – we are fortunate enough to have an exceptional pub no more than a twenty-minute walk from Blogger Towers (it takes slightly longer to get home!) – is something to cherish. It can be the focal point of the local community, somewhere to sit, relax, drink (of course), chat, set the world to rights and, even, fall out. Alas, though, this once mainstay of British life is under considerable threat with as many as 31 closing every week.
There are many reasons why pubs are closing – some simply deserve to – increasingly sophisticated clientele, the smoking ban, high rates of tax on the hooch, cheap booze sold at supermarkets, high rents, the land on which the pub stands being more valuable if sold to a property developer – these are some of the reasons trotted out to explain their demise. To lose this institution completely would be a disaster and, perhaps, what we are seeing is Darwinian evolution theory at work. Perhaps.
Every pub has a name and, generally, this is emblazoned on the outside of the establishment, often in the form of a sign hanging from a bracket attached to the outside wall or as a free-standing sign – a bit like a gibbet. In my haste to get inside and taste the wares and in my befuddled state upon leaving the establishment, I am guilty of not paying too much mind to the signs nor, indeed, to the name of the gaff. But the names and signs of our pubs have much to tell us.
I suppose the first question is why have a sign? In times when illiteracy was the norm there was no use a trader hanging up a beautifully written sign because very few would be able to read it. Rather trades developed their own system of signs to denote the type of trade that was transacted within their premises. So you would have three balls denoting a pawnbroker, a red and white pole denoting a barber (or surgeon) and so on.
The original sign for a pub was a bush and this was an institution that can be traced back to the Romans. Along the Roman roadside the traveller could find tabernae which were shops which sold wine and often extended their services to offer food and overnight accommodation. All tabernae selling wine were required to affix branches of evergreens to the outside of the building, the greenery symbolising the Roman god of wine, Bacchus.
This custom was adopted in Britain, although the usual vine leaves, which were a rarity over here, were replaced by small evergreen bushes. The Bush which is a common name for a pub owes its origin to this custom.
Alternatively, a pub would advertise its existence by hanging long poles or ale stakes which were used to stir the brew on the exterior wall of the building. If you came across a pub displaying a bush and a pole, then you were likely to find wine and ale inside.
The convention for naming and signing pubs took off in the 12th century and in 1393 it became compulsory, Richard II requiring them to display a sign to make their existence known to the official Ale Taster.
During the course of the next few weeks I will be taking a look – after extensive research! – at pub signs, common and unusual, and the stories behind them.