It was eerily quiet on the street after the friendly clamor of The Horse Under Saddle, despite the fact that it was only eight in the evening. He heard the occasional voice in the distance or the rumble of a vehicle creeping along in the dark. The most persistent sound was that of glass crunching under his feet, a disconcerting reminder of where he was and the damage that had been done in the months and months of relentless bombing that was simply called the Blitz. (Not2Nite)
What’s in a name? With apologies to William Shakespeare, would a Rose and Crown by any other name smell as sweet? Perhaps. But it might not be as much fun to visit.
The first official pubs in Britain date back to Roman times. They were called tabenae (the root of our modern word tavern) and sprang up in the first century CE along those lovely roads the Romans were so fond of building. The owner would hang a holly branch outside the tabenae in imitation of the vine leaves used in Rome to indicate a place where one could wet one’s whistle with a cup of wine. For centuries after the Romans had scarpered back to Italy alewives, the women who traditional ran these small establishments until the men saw how profitable they were and took over, continued the tradition of putting an evergreen outside their door when the ale was ready to drink.
In 1393 Richard II enacted legislation to force brewers to post a sign outside their door so inspectors could find them. (A couple of centuries later, John Shakespeare, whose rather more famous son we’ve referred to in the first paragraph, was one such inspector.) Most people at this time were illiterate, so the sign usually took the form of a picture. Often the actual name of the pub came about long after the picture had been erected and even though nowadays pretty much everyone can read the tradition continues. British pubs wouldn’t be the same without their iconic signs.
Currently the most popular pub name in England is the Red Lion. This is what is referred to as a heraldic name, or one that’s based on heraldry. The Boar and Ragged Staff would be another example of this kind of name. Other pubs, such as the Royal Oak (number three in popularity) are based on historical events. This name commemorated the time Charles II hid in an oak tree to escape the Roundheads. Names can be based on myths and legends (The George and the Dragon), personal names (The Duke of Wellington), plants (The Ivy) and a whole host of other categories. The Horse Under Saddle, the pub Guy came out of in Not2Nite was wholly made up, but would probably fall under the category of a pub named after a sport, in this case hunting.
Over the years funny stories have sprung up over the origins of some of the more unusual British pub names. The Drunken Duck in Ambleside apparently came about when the mistress of the establishment woke up one morning to discover all her ducks dead. Not wanting to waste anything she plucked them for the pot and had just finished the job when they started waking up. It was then she discovered one of the beer barrels kept in the yard had sprung a leak. There were webbed footprints all around it. The birds were simply sleeping it off. In remorse she is said to have knitted them all little sweaters until their feathers grew back in again.
As if it weren’t enough to be granted the opportunity to sample a pint of best bitter, British pubs can also teach you a lot about history – and do so before you even step over the threshold.