The oldest pub in Britain is reputedly Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St Albans. Reputed, that is, by the pub’s own menu, which informs credulous tourists and sots alike that the building is an “11th-century structure on an 8th-century site”, and by way of evidence cites a reference in Guinness World Records. Now, while Norris McWhirter and his successors may well be global authorities on high-speed baked-bean eating and the longest bridge on the planet, it is probably fair to say that the folks down at English Heritage know a little more about historic buildings. The Fighting Cocks’ “architecturally amazing claim” is greeted here with the healthy scepticism and laconic humour which characterises this entertaining book. It seems the “oldest pub in Britain” probably dates from circa 1600, and was, moreover, not fully licensed until 1951. So much for the thirsty Anglo-Saxons conjured up by the menu.

However, the Fighting Cocks is at least a genuinely historic pub – in all too many cases, over the past two decades, period fittings have been ripped out by profit-thirsty breweries eager to transform old-fashioned drinking dens into hyper-trendy bars and gastropubs, with interiors that are unlikely to survive more than five years before being, in turn, gutted and replaced. In fact, less than four per cent of British pubs still retain their pre-World War II décor. The second half of the 20th century, it seems, did for the public house what the earlier part of the century did for the grand private house – little by little, one by one, they were destroyed and vandalised in the name of modernity. Who would miss just one ceramic-tiled bar counter, thought the developers; who would mourn just one ornately carved Victorian snug?

Licensed to Sell raises a glass to the gin palace and the alehouse, in particular the few that have survived the attacks of temperance-movement puritans and (latterly) the breweries themselves. The styles on display are rich and varied, ranging from the typically unrestrained interiors of the late 19th century to rubber-floored Modernism.  And, in case there are any of those gullible tourists reading, there is also a look at the styles known as Brewers’ Tudor and Publican’s Rustic – which unsurprisingly reveals that all those hand-carved beams of great antiquity, the ones that make various city and country pubs seem as old as Stonehenge, were usually added sometime between the 1930s and the 1970s. The saloon bar has long been associated with spinners of far-fetched tales; when it comes to the age of the building, it appears the publicans can be as cavalier with the facts as their patrons.

First published in World of Interiors issue 275. Reproduced with permission.

Licensed to Sell: The History and Heritage of the Public House

by Geoff Brandwood et al  (English Heritage)

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