Renowned the world over, the great British pub is not just a place to drink beer, cider, wine and even stronger beverages, it is a unique social centre, very often the focus of community life in villages, towns and cities across the UK.
Strange as it may seem, the great British pub started life as a great Italian wine bar and probably dates back nearly 2000 years. The Roman armies built the first serviceable roads and established Roman pubs, known as ‘tabernae’, in 43 AD. They helped to quench the thirst of troops as they marched the length and breadth of England. Native Brits were already tippling ale and the ‘tavernae’ quickly became taverns serving the locals with their favourite brew.
Things got out of hand and taverns rapidly flourished nationwide to the extent that King Edgar even tried to limit alehouses to one per village, with little success.
Taverns and alehouses provided food and drink to their guests and inns offered accommodation to tired travellers. They also had military purposes. In 1189 ‘Ye Olde Trip’ is said to have been a recruitment centre to enlist volunteers for the crusades.
Taverns, Inns and alehouses became known as public houses and then simply pubs during the reign of King Henry VII. By 1577 there were an estimated 17000 alehouses, 2000 inns and 400 taverns across England and Wales, about one for every 200 people.
Although coffee and tea were introduced into Britain in the mid-1600s, only the rich could afford them. However, quite soon, cheap spirits from France and Holland invaded our shores and gave rise to the ‘Gin era’ of 1720-1750. The drunkenness and lawlessness created by gin was seen to lead to the ruination and degradation of the working classes. Despite legislation, the gin houses or ‘Gin palaces’ spread and well into the 19th century they were considered places of sin and depravation. The Gin Acts of 1736 and 1751 reduced consumption considerably and returned some semblance of order to the pubs.
Under the banner of ‘reducing public drunkenness’, the Beer Act of 1830 introduced a lower tier of premises permitted to sell alcohol, the Beer Houses. At that time beer was considered much less harmful than gin and other spirits; even young children were given what was described as a small beer. Within eight years there were as many as 46000 beer houses. The number grew to such an extent that the growth had to be checked by magisterial control and licensing laws which placed stricter limits on opening hours and who could buy alcohol. Right up until the Second World War new laws were passed and by the mid 1960s pubs could open only a few hours in the morning and until 10.30 in the evening. Today most pubs are open all day and many serve hot lunches and dinners. Few resemble those ‘spit and sawdust’ places of the post war era where pubs were divided into the bar, the lounge and the smoking room. Fortunately you can still buy a good pint in old fashioned pubs mainly in city centres and villages but have a word with the locals before buying a pint as they know the best one. In any case, always go for the real ales and make sure they are keg brewed… and don’t forget your packet of crisps or peanuts!!