From smugglers and ghosts to bankers and politicians, Britain’s pubs have been the scene of countless shocking events and surprising anecdotes over the centuries. We’ve compiled a list of some of the most intriguing pub histories in the country, so if you like a good story to accompany your beer, read on…
The Turf Tavern, Oxford
A favourite of Oxford locals, tourists and students, this tavern has played host to many a famous face from the cast of Harry Potter to the likes of Thomas Hardy, Ernest Hemingway and even Stephen Hawking. Some of the Turf Tavern’s most prominent visitors have made history here for what they did (or didn’t) get up to; their stories are proudly displayed on chalk boards in the beer garden.
First was former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke who, in the 1950s, set the Guinness World Record for the fastest time to drink a yard of ale, completing the feat in less than twelve seconds. Later came Bill Clinton, former President of the United States; in 1968, he famously “didn’t inhale” while experimenting with cannabis as a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford.
These anecdotes have earned the Turf Tavern a worldwide reputation and have made it a popular spot for tourists, adding to the well-established student crowd.
The Admiral Benbow, Penzance, Cornwall
As with many coastal regions of Great Britain, Cornwall’s history is peppered with tales of smuggling; in fact, many local gangs operated from pubs where the landlords would turn a blind eye (or even take part in the criminal activity themselves).
One such pub is the Admiral Benbow in Penzance, which served as the headquarters for the Benbow Brandy Men in the 19th century. Only a few years ago, an extensive network of tunnels was discovered beneath a waterfront warehouse. These were used by the smugglers to transport gin, brandy and tobacco from the harbour to the pub, as well as providing a place to hide when the tax men came knocking.
In addition to the eclectic assortment of nautical artefacts inside the pub, a striking feature of the Admiral Benbow is the carved wooden figure which can be seen lying on the roof. This apparently represents gang boss Octavius Lanyon who climbed onto the roof to create a diversion during a raid.
The Old Bank of England, Central London
As you might have guessed from the title, this pub was formerly a branch of the Bank of England. The magnificent building has retained many of its original features, including the vaults in the basement; once upon a time, these vaults were used to store bullion and, during the First World War, they also kept some of the Crown Jewels safe from harm.
Situated on Fleet Street, this pub is said to be located between the site of Sweeney Todd’s barber shop and Mrs Lovett’s pie shop. According to legend, before being made into pies and sold in Mrs Lovett’s shop, Todd’s victims were butchered in the tunnels and vaults below this very building!
The Abbotsford, Edinburgh
This elaborately-designed Edwardian bar is the best-preserved public house in Edinburgh from the “Golden Age” of Scottish pub design. Ironic though it may seem, the years that produced the most beautiful pubs were actually during the height of the Temperance Movement.
In the 19th century, many social problems were blamed on the evils of drink, which led to the establishment of the Edinburgh Temperance Society. They advocated intentionally unwelcoming and unattractive pubs which would discourage drinking; in response, pub owners built grand and beautiful premises to attract customers.
However, pub owners were also taking steps to improve society through the design of their new establishments; at the Abbotsford, you’ll see an island bar and an open-plan layout, both of which were encouraged by the authorities as they enabled pub staff to keep an eye on patrons and thus minimise unruly behaviour.
The Oxenham Arms, South Zeal, Devon
This traditional Dartmoor inn conceals a mysterious prehistoric artefact within its walls – no, literally, IN the wall! The inconspicuous granite pillar encased in the wall of the back bar is actually a Pagan standing stone which dates back over 4,500 years. But why was a pub built around a prehistoric monolith?
Well, nobody really knows for sure. The most popular theory is that the building was originally a twelfth-century Benedictine monastery; the menhir was so firmly embedded in the ground that the monks could not dig it out, so they built around it instead. In making the stone form a part of the wall of the monastery, they neutralised its Pagan power and turned the site into a Christian place of worship.
But that isn’t the Oxenham Arm’s only story to tell: in 1542, this building became the birthplace and childhood home of Captain John Oxenham, whose family gave the inn its current name. This gentleman is notable for his many “firsts”: he was the first Englishman to build a vessel in the New World, the first non-Spanish European explorer to cross Panama, and unfortunately the first sea captain to be sentenced to death for piracy.
The Kirkstone Pass Inn, Ambleside, Cumbria
Positioned close to the summit of the Kirkstone Pass, this old coaching inn dates back to 1496. Over the years, several ghosts have been spotted at the inn, many of whom are believed to be spirits of travellers who died while making the treacherous journey through the mountains, where the weather is known to be particularly harsh and unforgiving.
That is how the ill-fated Ruth Ray met her end; travelling along the Kirkstone Pass, Ruth and her young child were unexpectedly caught in a snowstorm and lost their way. Ruth’s husband sadly found her frozen body lifeless, but the child survived. It is thought that Ruth haunts the Kirkstone Inn to warn walkers of the dangerous weather in the area.
However, not all of the pub’s ghostly guests remain at the inn today. In 1993, a family visiting the Lake District took a photo of the bar and, to their surprise, captured the image of a coachman from the 17th century. It turned out that the ghost was an ancestor of the family, so he followed them home when they left the inn and reportedly still lives with them today!