A wry view of life for the world-weary

Sign Of The Times – Part Five


Work and play

All work and no play, so they say, makes Jack a dull boy. With a strong industrial heritage and a tradition of inventing and participating in organised sports events it is no surprise to find this reflected in the names given to and the signage associated with some of our public houses, themselves firmly rooted as a venue for passing the downtime between the hours of work and sleeping.

Some sports which were practised in olden times wouldn’t suit modern sensibilities. An example of one such “sport” is cock fighting where two birds, known as gamecocks, specially bred for stamina and strength are pitched against each other, allowing their congenital aggression against other males to rule the roost. For extra excitement on-lookers would strike bets as to which of the gamecocks would win, the loser usually perishing in the process. It is thought that cock fighting was introduced from the Far East after the voyages of discovery conducted by Magellan and others in the 16th century. Magellan’s chronicler, Antonio Pigafetta, produced the first documented account of a cock fight he witnessed in the kingdom of Taytay in 1521. It was banned in the UK in 1849 but bouts are still held clandestinely, we are told.

Anyway, a public house called The Fighting Cocks bears testament to this barbaric sport and it is likely to have been a venue for bouts. Recently, animal rights campaigners have put pressure on the landlord of one such gaff in St Albans, one of the many reputed to be the oldest pub in England, to change the name to something more politically correct such as the Clever Cocks.

Organised hunting is another country pastime that has fallen out of favour and indeed has been made illegal in this country, although rather emasculated variants are still practised and there is a powerful lobby working to restore it as part of the weft and warp that makes up the English countryside. Many country pubs bear testament to the practice of hunting in names such as the Fox and Hounds, the Dog and Duck and Hare and Hounds. The greyhound was Henry VIII’s favourite breed of hunting dog and pubs bearing that name pay homage to the prowess of that dog which, in particular, was used to course hares. Occasionally you might find a pub named The Slipper which refers to the red-coated official who holds back the greyhounds until the poor hare has enough of a head start to ensure a ”fair” contest.

Pubs have long been the heart of a community and one of the sad consequences of the wave of closures of rub-a-dubs and village post offices (but that is another story) is that they often herald the gentrification and the death of rural communities. In times past the pub would act as an employment exchange – even today, if you want a tradesman, often the best place to find one is asking around in the local. Pubs bearing names such as the Bricklayers, the Blacksmiths (the addition of Arms adds an amusing reference to the proverbial strength of the smith) and the Carpenters reflect the trade of many of the habitués and for someone on the look-out for a tradesman somewhere to hire one.

There is a pub in Long Eaton in Nottinghamshire – I’m pretty sure it is still open but it is many years since I visited it – which bears the unusual name of Tappers Harker. A Tapper Harker, as I am sure everyone knows, is someone who was employed on the railways and their specific job was to hit the wheels of trains with a hammer to check their soundness. After a day of that you would definitely need a pint!


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