We were watching Inside The Factory on BBC iPlayer (watching Gregg Wallace amble around a production line is a guilty pleasure). They were explaining the popularity of oysters in Britain in the nineteenth century and their subsequent decline. The event that really sparked that decline was a banquet at Winchester in 1902, where guests became ill with typhoid and four people died, including the Dean of Winchester Cathedral. What really caught my attention was the source of the oysters – Emsworth in Hampshire.
Emsworth is a pretty little town just five minutes up the road from where I work. It’s quite pretty, with a nice harbour and some good walking routes into the nearby countryside. There are also some particularly good pubs and restaurants. This dark past suddenly made sense. One of those pubs, the Blue Bell Inn, teamed up with a Portsmouth brewery, Staggeringly Good, to make an Oyster Stout called Bishop Slayer.
Some of the proceeds from the beer go to project called the Solent Oyster Restoration Project, which is slowly reintroducing oysters to the Solent (as you might guess from the name). Before the early twentieth century oyster scare and more recent pollution, the Solent was europe’s biggest oyster growing region and the aim is to make it so again – with a goal of five million oyster in five years. Whatever your thoughts are on the subject of fish and beer, that has to be a good outcome.
In 1683 John Locke fled into exile in Holland, after being connected to a scheme to assassinate Charles II. While there he denied involvement or knowledge in such a plot and refused to implicate his friends. His excuse, which amuses me, was that he was simply in Holland because he preferred the beer! It seems pretty plausible to me.
(Unfortunately, I haven’t actually been able to find a primary source for that; it was mentioned in the introduction of my Penguin Classics’ collection of his Political Writings, and I have found mention elsewhere online. Annoyingly many of his letters have been collected by a fellow called E.S de Beer, so google searches have been pretty difficult. The man did seem to know his beer – as noted in this beer blog, with John Locke organising various types of British ale into categories.)
I’ve been to The George Inn on Borough High Street several times. It’s a lovely looking building, all lop sided balconies and dark old-fashioned windows, with a layout of rooms that don’t seem to go where you expect. Typically it’s packed with tourists and the beer (from Greene King) is average (though it is slightly less obnoxious than nearby the Anchor Bankside). There is an atmosphere however. Even on a busy summer’s day, it’s possible to find a space somewhere and soak in the history. And there is quite a lot of history.
The title of this book suggests that Shakespeare frequented the pub – Brown admits that this isn’t backed up by evidence. Like many stories around the pub though, it’s a reasonable guess. The inn next door, The Tabard, was used as the starting point for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The George was one of many inns known for theatre and entertainment during the Tudor period. It later became one of the big coaching inns for travellers to and from London, before popping up in Dickens in the early Victorian era. It wasn’t the biggest or most famous of pubs in the are, but it is the one that survived. By telling the story of Southwark and its pubs in general, Brown manages to focus in on the George as it somehow survived through changing and often turbulent times.
In tone, I didn’t enjoy it as much as Hops And Glory (where the author brews a traditional IPA and transports it to India). Occasionally the humour doesn’t land and the stream of anecdotes can feel a little relentless. In terms of the topic though, I really enjoyed it. That humour does take the edge off topics that could otherwise be dry (a short history of road transport?). It was interesting to note the changes that have happened in Southwark even in the short period between this book in 2011 and now in 2017. Reading this just after the attack at London Bridge, when the area was very much in mind, it was a reminder of how things change in London and how they remain the same.
My last post was on City Tavern in Philadelphia, a tourist trap historical pub with (as it turned out) a surprisingly good set of beer and food. McSorley’s is quite a different beast. It is certainly a tourist spot, but it comes across much more naturally. Certainly it is much simpler. At McSorley’s you have three choices – a dark beer, a light beer or a mixture of the two (half of each, rather than some sort of terrible cocktail). On the floor you have sawdust. For furniture we have plain wooden tables and chairs. It’s all very spartan, but in a good way – the staff are friendly, the beer is good and the atmosphere is pleasant.
Continue reading Post 69 – McSorley’s – New York
I recently went on holiday to New York and Philadelphia, spending a lot of time looking at art, visiting historical/tourist sites and drinking in bars. At one point I combined two of these by visiting the City Tavern in the old part of Philadelphia. This is an recreation of an old 18th century tavern frequented by many of the US’s founding fathers. Living in England where actual pubs from that time and earlier are commonplace, I was dubious.
Continue reading Post 68: City Tavern – Philadelphia
Obviously London is not short of drinking establishments, but many of these have been refurbished or rebuilt over the years so that it can be difficult to trace their true history. With that in mind, I thought I’d just give a short review of a few pubs with interesting histories.
The White Hart, Drury Lane (1216?)
This has a fair claim to being London’s oldest pub – if you don’t mind it being refounded every few centuries. There’s very little of its age apparent in the modern pub, which is a mixture of traditional counters and low comfortable sofas, but it has been linked to some fairly high profile characters. In the 17th century Drury Lane was pretty fashionable and the likes of Nell Gwynne, The Marquis of Argyll or Oliver Cromwell may have stopped in for a drink at their local. Well … maybe not Oliver. By the 18th century things had went downhill for the area and it was now a slum of ill-repute, but this still had its own fame. The White Hart was commonly used for one last drink by condemned men before their hanging, and indeed Dick Turpin, the famous highwayman, drank here in 1739 before he went off to be hanged (it was the usual spot for condemned men). The area can also linked with The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay, and Jack Shepard (the inspiration for MacHeath) and Lavinia Fenton (Polly Peachum) may have also been regulars.
Continue reading Post 17: Historical Pubs: London
Having said in my recent post on David Crowther’s History of England podcast that I should probably check out their Facebook group, I did and reading a few of the posts there was inspired to write a blog entry on this old pub in Nottingham. I’ve got a few other old pubs in mind too, so I may well end up doing a few of these. I was in Nottingham for reasons related to work, but took the advantage of some free time to look around the city. The pub, which claims to be the oldest in England – founded in 1189, is near the castle on the West side of the city centre. It’s probably one of the most impressive locations for a pub that I’ve seen, overshadowed by and more or less built into the huge limestone cliffs, just around the corner from the statue of Robin Hood.
Continue reading Post 11: Historical Pubs: Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem (1189)