Category Archives: Pubs

The inn-significance of the Red Lion

Karl Pearson, whose sesquicentenary was celebrated earlier this year, is an excellent example of how extremely intelligent people can hold deeply stupid beliefs. Pearson was a huge and important figure in the development of mathematical statistics, he founded the Department of Applied Statistics at the University of London, and his writings on science influenced Einstein’s thoughts about light and time. He was also a eugenicist and Aryan supremist with irredeemably racist views about “lower tribes” that would rightly get him dismissed from any university today. On the credit side, he turned down a knighthood from George V, and he delivered an excellent motto for those of us sometimes accused of trivial pursuits: “Not one subject in the universe is unworthy of study.”

Many would regard the study of pub names as an insignificant field of enquiry, but I like to paddle in its shallows – I’ve a dozen books on the subject, including an “original” Larwood and Hotten (all right, 12th edition, 1908). Sometimes I feel I ought to join the Inn Sign Society. However, I cure myself of this urge by logging on to the society’s website, and the unthought-out nonsense that is peddled there on the origins of common pub names makes me want to slap someone.

Here’s what the ISS says about the Red Lion, often claimed to be the commonest pub name in Britain (though at around 650 examples it is probably just beaten by the Crown):

… most Red Lions originate from the reign of James I. Already James VI of Scotland when he ascended to the English throne in 1603, on arrival in London the new king ordered that the heraldic red lion of Scotland be displayed on all buildings of public importance – including taverns, of course.

Let’s just forensically dissect this claim. First, is there any evidence at all that James VI/I made such an order?

No.

Second, would there be a sensible motive for him to make such an order?

No, quite the opposite. James had been the heir presumptive to Queen Elizabeth since the death of his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, in 1587, but it had never been certain he would be offered the crown, and while he arrived in London with a fair degree of goodwill from the bulk of the English population he would not have pushed the fact that they were now ruled by a king from another country in their faces by insisting that Scottish red lions be put up everywhere.

Third, if such an order had been made, is it likely it would have affected pub and inn names?

No – if all the “buildings of public importance” bore red lions on them (and incidentally, the ISS’s statement begs the question that a tavern would be seen as a “building of public importance” anyway, a highly questionable assumption), then how could you tell, if someone said “I’ll meet you at the Red Lion”, which “Red Lion” was which?

So, to sum up on the ISS’s statement that the Red Lion pub name comes from a decree by James 1 in 1603: there’s no evidence for it, it doesn’t make sense historically and it’s nonsense from a practical direction as well.

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The Dove, Hammersmith – a tiny mystery

The Dove in Upper Mall, Hammersmith is one of London’s favourite riverside pubs, famous for good beer, for a fine view of the Boat Race and for what is supposed to be the tiniest public bar in Britain, at just four feet two inches wide and seven feet ten inches long. This is the story of that tiny bar, a tale of deceit and mystery.

The pub’s popularity means a raft of mentions in guidebooks, with most of the “facts” printed about it being demonstrably wrong. At least two current guides to riverside pubs claim Charles II and his mistress Nell Gwyn used to visit the Dove, which would have been difficult without a time machine, as it wasn’t built until around 60 years or more after Charles II died.

Even the 2008 Good Beer Guide entry on the Dove contains four historical errors in 70 or so words. It says the pub was “licensed in 1740 as the Dove’s [sic] coffee house” (it wasn’t), and James “Thompson” (sic – it was Thomson) composed Rule Britannia in an upstairs room (he didn’t – in fact he didn’t “compose” it at all, Thomas Arne composed the tune and Thomson wrote the words, most probably at his home in Kew).

How the Dove came to have such a tiny bar was explained by George Izzard, the pub’s landlord from 1931 to 1965. He wrote one of the best “landlord’s memoirs”, One for the Road, and he made the Dove a magnet for celebrities from Ernest Hemingway to Alec Guinness (who drank Guinness) to Dylan Thomas (whose usual order was mild-and-bitter, according to Izzard).

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Rake’s Prowess

Co-incidence time again – I went to the Rake by Borough Market last night with Patto, who was over from Amsterdam, without knowing that it had just won the best bar award in Time Out‘s Eating and Drinking Awards.

It’s not the smallest pub I’ve ever been in but it’s certainly smaller than my living room, and if they ever got the 40 people I’ve seen claimed as the maximum capacity in there, then nobody would have much room for elbow-raising. Three people at the tiny bar and no one else can get served. I could understand how the manageress, as she showed us the award, now on a shelf behind the bar, was clearly in several minds about the accolade: it’s great to pick up a prize as the best in the capital, but not if you’re too small to cope with the army of new customers likely to be attracted.

Still, it’s good to see a bar recognised for having such a great beer range. The Rake is one of the few pubs that can offer a wider bottled beer selection than your local supermarket, and perhaps its victory will encourage other places to emulate it, and bars like The Lowlander in Covent Garden, and get in a more interesting beer selection. (Though admittedly the Rake has a big advantage in being owned by the people who run the excellent Utobeer stall around the corner in Borough market itself. My only complaint about Utobeer is that I can never carry away as many bottles as I want to, since I go there by train …) And if it does get overcrowded now it’s won an award, there are several other good pubs nearby …

Beer trivia alert – the Rake’s telephone number (and I bet the Utobeer guys don’t know this) reflects the beery history of Southwark, the borough in which it is situated. Back when I were a lad, London telephone exchanges all had names, like FLEet Street and WHItehall, and you dialled the first three letters of the name, plus the four-digit number of the individual subscriber. Southwark’s exchange was named HOP, to mark the fact that it was the centre for the hop-factoring industry: the hops would be brought up to Southwark from Kent, and sold at the Hop Exchange. When the telephone exchange names were changed to numbers, they were simply altered to the numerical equivalent of the letters on the telephone dial, so FLEet Street became 353, for example, and HOP became 407. Later all the central London exchanges has an extra 7 added to the front of their number, so 407 turned into 7407. The Rake’s phone number is 7407 0557 – or 7HOP 0557, if you like …

Young’s makes me feel you so

There are not many pleasures as fine as good, real, live beer, but one of them is good, real, live jazz.

Luckily, for the 25 years I’ve lived back in London, in eight homes and four different boroughs, I’ve never been more than about 15 minutes’ drive from the Bull’s Head at Barnes. Young’s beer on handpump in the music room itself, almost invariably great performances from the stage by terrific musicians: it’s one of the regularly available delights of the capital that make up for the hassle, the noise and the expense of living in London.

Last Saturday, for example, the band at the Bull’s Head was a quintet led by the piano player Stan Tracey, a man justly called by the BBC “the godfather of British jazz”, with Stan’s long-time collaborator, the Glaswegian tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins, Stan’s son Clark on drums, Andy Cleyndert on bass and Guy Barker on trumpet. Terrific modern jazz, played with panache and passion – and all for £12 at the door. Frankly, I feel guilty paying so little for something so good – it would cost you more for a not-very-good bottle of wine in the restaurant next door.

Seeing Guy Barker reminded me that I have an LP (remember those?) released exactly 30 years ago by the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, called In Camra, and featuring tunes “inspired” by real ale and real ale breweries. Guy was in the trumpet section, and I’ve been trying to spot him on the cover, which shows the entire NYJO in the brewery yard at Young’s Ram brewery, with Ramrod the sheep front and centre and a fully loaded horse-drawn dray in the background.

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Waggle-and-Special

My third-nearest Young’s pub (which is named after the unpleasant, and unreadable, poisoned dwarf Alexander Pope, but I try not to let that damage my enjoyment of it) is currently selling draught Waggledance, the honey beer now, since all brewing of Young’s beers moved to Bedford, on its third brewery. This is not a beer I drink at home, but as I was in a pub I thought I’d experiment with Waggledance as a mixed beer. Young’s ales, since they have plenty of individual character, make excellent mixes, the best being a classic, Winter Warmer and Ordinary. This is the traditional “Mother-in-Law”, or old-and-bitter (no reference is intended here to any of my mothers-in-law, living or dead, and certainly not to you, Kate, as if …).

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Anchor-ite

Not particularly a propos of drinking Courage Imperial Russian Stout as brewed at the Anchor Brewery, I called at the Anchor Tap in Horselydown Lane, round the back of the old Courage Brewery and a tourist’s gob from Tower Bridge, just for an update.

Architecturally it’s a fine old pub with an interior layout dating back 150 years at least, and in a style now hard to find – two bars, lots of little rooms off those, and rooms off corridors, there’s even a darts board … Of course. the wasp in the pintpot is that the beer is now Samuel Smith’s, which means, as it does in most Sam’s pubs in London, no handpumps, and their own eccentric choices of fizzy keg beers that are apparently meant to be Tadcaster’s answer to the best-sellers from other brewers – Sam Smith’s wheat beer instead of Hoegaarden, Sam Smith’s Extra Stout instead of that stuff from Dublin.

I feel when I’m in a Sam’s pub that I have entered the premises of a peculiar cult, where nothing from the outside world can be allowed to sully the Yorkshire purity that exists between these four walls: “Tha keeps thy Guinness to thissen, lad! Us’ll ‘ave nowt but gradely beer from God’s Own County!” Continue reading Anchor-ite