The character of these buildings, for me, includes not just the exterior architectural ornament, but also the interior and one of the most distinctive features of any pub – its sign. I am guilty of stopping to photograph pub signs no matter what other activity I might be engaged in at the moment – fortunately, I’ve never been driving when my attention has been distracted by a particularly fanciful or lovely sign.
Thinking about the connection between architecture, social companionship and a good pint naturally led me to my other major obsession besides architecture – literature. Pubs with literary connections abound across Britain, though I won’t delve into the relationship between alcohol and creative output.
For the purposes of this pub crawl, I’ve divided pubs into two camps: urban and rural. (And this is by no means an exhaustive list, just a few of my favorites.)
The urban pub usually consists of an attached or semi-attached multi-story building in a built-up, dense urban context (in other words, lots of buildings to either side). Usually masonry (brick or stone, though a few timber-frame buildings with stucco veneer can always be found), these buildings vary in size, but many have a storefront-type ground level, with the entry door flanked by windows.
The ground floor is often demarcated from the other floors by use of architectural ornament. And the architecture of these pubs? Take your pick, especially in an area with successive periods of building, rebuilding and updating. Georgian rubs shoulders with Gothic Revival, next to an Edwardian building, which may be across from an Art Deco gem.
London, of course, teems with examples of this first type – the Fitzroy Tavern in central London attracted artists of all kinds in the first half of the twentieth century. Dylan Thomas drank here, and George Orwell made occasional visits to the four-story brick building that wraps around the corner of Charlotte and Windmill Streets. It’s a handsome late-19th century building that received its current name in 1919.
I associate Samuel Johnson more than Charles Dickens with Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, but many a pint has been shared by writer, wanderer and tourist in its gloomy interior. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese sounds like it might belong in suburban shopping center in the States (ye and olde are often slapped onto commercial ventures for an instant patina of age), but the name in this case is justified.
A pub has been located at this location off of Fleet Street since 1538 – the current building dates from 1667 (rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1666). One of the most enchanting aspects of this pub is the maze of rooms, with different bars and dining rooms on numerous levels, accessed through narrow hallways and cramped staircases.
(On a side note, one of the things I’ve noticed about British pubs over the years is the increasing amount of pubs owned by large corporations or breweries. Both the Fitzroy and Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese are now owned by Samuel Smith Brewery.)
Urban pubs on a different scale abound in Oxford. The Eagle and Child is likely the city’s most famous pub with a literary pedigree. (I also feel like it is in the background of every Lewis episode, but that is just an exaggeration.) Located on the west side of St. Giles Street, the building dates from around 1650. The two-and-one-half story rubble and timber building has a stucco façade, with casement windows on all stories.
“The Inklings,” a group of Oxford writers, chief among them C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, met here regularly from around 1933 to 1961 to read and discuss their work. At the time, the Eagle and Child had a private room at the back known as the “Rabbit Room” which allowed the writers privacy to hash out modifications or questions about their manuscripts.
A renovation to the Eagle and Child in 1962 opened up the formerly private Rabbit Room, and the Inklings moved across the street to the Lamb and Flag (which was featured in Dorothy L. Sayer’s Gaudy Night).
The Bear (more formally, the Bear Inn), one of the oldest public houses in Oxford, dates back to 1242, though the current building was constructed in the 17th century. Like many Oxford pubs, it earned a mention in Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series.
Located at the corner of Blue Boar Street and Alfred Street, the three-story timber frame building is clad in stucco, with a Welsh slate valley roof (Welsh slate is the most durable slate around, with a life expectancy that far exceeds that of the supporting roof timbers). The original timber-framing is only visible from the inside now – and what a tiny interior! The Bear has low ceilings, wood paneled walls, and an impressive collection of men’s ties (snippets only) – all in two rooms. In the summer, you can sit outside on a collection of picnic tables at the rear of the building.
The Bear Inn
The second camp of pubs would be the detached pubs in towns, villages and in rural areas of the country. Many of these examples began as inns, serving travelers and locals alike, and many are still offering lodging, food and a pint. Trying to classify the architecture of the rural pubs is a futile exercise – it’s better to just look at a few.
Dating from 1669, the Waggon and Horses pub in Beckhampton was described in Charles Dickens The Pickwick Papers, as a “comfortable-looking place. There was a strong cheerful light in the bar-window.” The coaching inn, a popular stop on the route between London and Bath, is built of limestone, with a thatched roof. It now consists of the original 17th century portion and later additions dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Anchor Inn in Exebridge is a lovely rural inn and pub featured in R.D. Blackmore’s Lorna Doone. Located on the River Exe, the 17th century pub has been modernized (new roof and new windows, among other updates), and is now a bed and breakfast with six rooms. The idyllic setting of the Inn includes large riverside gardens, and fishing rights on the Exe.
The Mortal Man in Troutbeck (Lake District) is one of my favorites – it is easy to see why writers of the Romantic period (Wordsworth, Coleridge, etc.) were drawn to this site. You can just as easily become drunk on the scenery as you can on the good ale.
An inn has been on this site since 1689, and while portions of a 17th century building could well be incorporated into the current building, the exterior is unapologetically Victorian. The roofline bristles with front-gable dormers, and stone chimneys erupt with a cacophony of chimney pots.
The interior is cozy, with three rooms, each with their own fire. The food is superb, the beer excellent, and the landscape is brilliant – plus, if you eat too much, there’s lots of good walking to be had right outside the inn!
Urban pub or rural pub – nearly every hamlet and town in England has a public house with an interesting back story or two. Those stories provide fodder for all types of creative folks – artists, writers, or even your occasional blog writer. I would be interested to know what pubs stick in other people’s memories – either for the building itself or for the stories associated with the site. Please share!
Janie-Rice is an intrepid architectural historian with a double first name. She enjoys dark chocolate, old dilapidated buildings, and darting around English country houses in all sorts of weather. She’s a proud native Kentuckian and a farmer’s daughter. Janie-Rice is currently plotting her next trip to England and looking for a patron to sponsor it (landed gentry preferred.) Visit her at www.fhandfag.blogspot.com.