Mark Mason

In search of Britain’s oldest pubs

In search of Britain's oldest pubs
The Royal Standard, Beaconsfield
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‘When you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England.’ So said Hilaire Belloc. Thankfully there’s little sign of England, or indeed Britain, being down to its last pub – but which was its first? As ever with these debates, a definitive answer is hard to find: accurate record-keeping wasn’t a priority several centuries ago, when the pubs pulled their early pints. But here are a few of the boozers with a claim to be the country’s oldest.

Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, St Albans

Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, St Albans

This watering hole is first on the list because it has Guinness World Records on its side – or rather it did until 2000, when Guinness retired the category of ‘oldest pub in England’ because they’d never really been sure about the answer. The pub’s foundations are said to date from 793, though the current building is largely 11th century in origin. Its unusual octagonal shape is due to a previous life as a pigeon coop used by monks, while the name comes from the cockerel fights that once took place here. Oliver Cromwell spent a night here during the Civil War, and the pub featured in a 1990 episode of Inspector Morse. In February it closed because of the financial impact of Covid restrictions, but reopened again in April. You can’t keep a pub this old down for long. The new management team were blessed by a local vicar with a meditation by St Brigid: ‘I’d like to give a lake of beer to God. I’d love the heavenly host to be tippling there for all eternity.’

Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, Nottingham

Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, Nottingham

Its name denoting the fact that knights drank here before heading off on their crusades, ‘the Trip’ has been in business since 1189. It certainly feels old, its many rooms (or rather caves) carved out of the rocks on which Nottingham Castle stands. Curiosities include a cursed ship that allegedly kills anyone who cleans it (a good excuse not to do the dusting), and a chair which is said to increase a woman’s chances of becoming pregnant. Though this surely applies to any chair in any pub.

Ye Olde Salutation Inn, Nottingham

The city’s second entry in the list (which won’t surprise anyone who knows Nottingham’s reputation for hospitality). Caves underneath the Salutation are thought to be from a 9th century Saxon farm, though the date claimed for the pub itself is 1240. The original name was ‘The Archangel Gabriel Salutes the Virgin Mary’, which is difficult to say even before you’ve started drinking. Oliver Cromwell (him again) might have signed Charles I’s death warrant in the inn, and during his reign it switched to being The Soldier and Citizen. After the monarchy’s restoration the pub became the Salutation, and included both a brothel and a sweet shop. Now known locally as ‘the Sal’, the pub hosts heavy rock nights. Recent acts have included Swamp Coffin, Death Ingloria and Pist.

The Royal Standard of England, Beaconsfield

The Royal Standard of England, Beaconsfield

Listed in the Domesday Book (1086) as the Ship Inn, the Royal Standard got its current name from Charles II after the pub let him entertain his mistresses here. They’d also allowed him to hide in a priest hole in the roof when he was being sought by … yes, you know. (Another of his hiding places – a tree in Shropshire – gave us the common pub name The Royal Oak.) A 17th century highwayman called James Hind often stayed here – he disguised the direction of the tracks left by his horse by fitting it with circular shoes. The Royal Standard appeared in Hot Fuzz, and has featured in Midsomer Murders so often that the chicken pie is now named after the series.

The Old Ferry Boat Inn, Cambridgeshire

Drink at the water's edge at The Old Ferry Boat Inn

Alcohol has been served on this Cambridgeshire site since 560, though the foundations of the pub itself are 15thcentury. That was about 400 years after a woman called Juliet, who had killed herself after being jilted by a lover, was buried here. She is said (would you believe it?) to haunt the place to this day.

Ye Olde Man and Scythe, Bolton

Another old pub (the name is mentioned in a charter of 1251) with a boast of a ghost. This one’s rather posh – it’s James Stanley, the Earl of Derby, who was executed outside the pub in 1651. The Chinese artist Lu Pingyuan ‘stole’ the Earl in a canister, as part of a 2016 project in protest at British colonialism. The pub’s landlord wrote demanding he return the spirit. A sighting of the ghost in 2018 seems to imply the demand was met.

The Prospect of Whitby, London

The Prospect of Whitby, Wapping

This Wapping institution claims to be Britain’s oldest riverside pub, having been established in 1520 (and having been known over the centuries as The Pelican and then The Devil’s Tavern). It featured in Only Fools and Horses, when Uncle Albert went missing and Del Boy and Rodney combed London looking for him – Rodney is shown walking out of the pub. Its rare pewter-topped bar is a thing of beauty.

The Skirrid Mountain Inn, Abergavenny

This drinking hole on the edge of the Brecon Beacons seems to have a pretty good claim to the title of Wales’s oldest pub – there’s been an inn here since 1110, with the current building dating from the 17th century. The oak beam over the bar has scorch marks, allegedly made by ropes when the beam was used to hang participants in the Monmouth Rebellion against James II.

The Sheep Heid Inn, Edinburgh

The Sheep Heid Inn, Edinburgh

A strong contender for the Scottish title – 1360 for the first inn on the spot, 1710 for the current name. Mary Queen of Scots came here to play skittles, while her son James VI gave the landlord an ornate ram’s head snuff box (which may explain the name). Meanwhile the current monarch popped by in 2016 after a day at the races. The Queen and her companions took a window seat and ordered two portions of lamb rump, a seabass fillet, half a bottle of white wine and a martini.