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Tell-tale signs

What have the Romans ever done for us? Well, for a start, they’ve given us pub signs…


What have the Romans ever done for us? Well, for a start, they’ve given us pub signs. As the Romans laid out their network of roads across Britannia, they built tabernae, or taverns, along the way where travellers could find food and lodging. Tabernae that sold wine would advertise the fact by hanging vine leaves from a pole outside – the first pub signs. In Britain, since vines were scarce, they would sometimes use evergreen bushes instead, giving us one of the earliest pub names, the Bush.

Over the following centuries, wine was largely replaced by ale and in 1393 King Richard II ordered that ‘Whoever shall brew ale in the town for the intention of selling it, must hang out a sign, otherwise he shall forfeit his ale.’ This was to make pubs easily identifiable to his ‘ale tasters’, who would travel the country inspecting ales for quality. One method they used, apparently, was to pour some ale on to a wooden bench and then sit on it – if they stuck to the bench then the beer was too sweet! I remember hearing that story over a pint of good ale at my local pub many years ago – I do hope it’s true and not the sort of tale told at the sign of the Cock and the Bull…

Back to Richard II. Many landlords thought it prudent to show their allegiance to him by sporting his emblem, the White Hart – still one of the top ten most popular pub names to this day. Richard’s all-powerful uncle John of Gaunt used a red lion as his heraldic symbol and this became a widely used pub sign too. The Red Lion moniker gained even greater popularity after the Union of the Crowns in 1603 when James VI of Scotland became also James I of England and decreed that the Red Lion of Scotland should be ubiquitously displayed, helping to make the Red Lion the most popular pub sign in Britain.

As the number of pubs grew so they began to use a wider variety of names and, since the majority of people couldn’t read, pubs would use their signs to illustrate the story behind the name. The sign might be a model of a plough or a bell or a crown, but, more often, it would be a colourful picture.


Every picture tells a story

All pub signs tell a tale, some stranger than others. The Bucket of Blood at Phillack in Cornwall tells of a landlord who went to fetch water from the well and drew up a bucket full of blood instead – it turned out that the bloodied head of an unfortunate exciseman had been thrown down the well. The Drunken Duck at Hawkshead in Cumbria relates to a landlady who found her ducks lying outside the back door, apparently dead. She started plucking them ready for the oven, when they woke up – it turned out they were not dead but dead drunk, having been sipping from a leaking beer barrel. In remorse, the landlady knitted them all waistcoats to keep them warm until the feathers grew back. The Rose Revived beside the Thames at Newbridge in Oxfordshire commemorates a visit by Oliver Cromwell. The rose he was wearing in his hat was wilting and so he placed it in a glass of ale and, hey presto, it revived!


Calling thirsty artists

Local artists were usually employed to paint pub signs, although some breweries maintained their own specialist artists. Alas, there is only one major brewery that still retains a full-time band of artists to hand-paint its pub signs, the Wadworth Brewery in Devizes, Wiltshire.

Bespoke hand-painted pub signs are becoming rare and sought after. One of the most talked about can be found in the We Three Loggerheads, near Mold in North Wales. A regular visitor in the 1780s was Richard Wilson, the first great British landscape painter and a founder of the Royal Academy. In return for a few free pints, Wilson agreed to paint the Loggerheads’ pub sign, which then hung outside the pub for over 200 years. It was eventually taken down to preserve it from the weather and is now displayed inside. Experts disagree on its authenticity but the sign has become a pub legend and people still come from far and wide to see it.


Signs of the times

There are a number of different types of pub sign. The most common are signs mounted directly on to the outside wall of the pub or hanging ones that swing from a bracket projecting from the wall. Then there are freestanding signs, which stand away from the pub building, usually at the roadside as a means of drawing attention to a pub that’s set back from the road.

The most unusual signs are gallows signs, which stretch across the road like an arch. As roads and vehicles have got wider and traffic busier, such signs have become increasingly rare and today there are only four left in Britain that I know of. Two belong to coaching inns: the George Hotel at Stamford, Lincolnshire, whose sign spans the main street into the town; and the sign for the Green Man & Black’s Head Royal Hotel (now closed) at Ashbourne in Derbyshire. Then there is the Magpie at Stonham Parva in Suffolk, which has a Grade II listed sign across the A140. Apparently, it also used to have a live magpie in a cage on the wall as a living pub sign. Finally, there’s the wonderful Grade II listed sign for the Fox & Hounds at Barley, Hertfordshire, with a fox running across it pursued by five hounds and two mounted huntsmen.

My own favourite pub, the Withies in Compton near Guildford in Surrey, is a lovely 16th-century pub tucked away down a narrow country lane. It looks tiny, but is quite spacious inside and also cosy, with a huge inglenook. I’ve been going there since I was a child and it doesn’t seem to have changed at all. The food is always excellent – especially the fresh crab sandwich for which the pub is famous. It’s child-friendly too and the cottagey garden has plenty of tables. Compton is an exceptionally pretty village, famous for the Watts Gallery and Chapel and for Surrey’s finest Norman church, celebrated for its unique double chancel.


Authored by Christopher Winn

Christopher Winn’s first book was the bestselling I Never Knew That About England, followed by volumes on Ireland, Scotland, Wales, London and many more. His latest is I Never Knew That About England’s Country Churches (Ebury Press, 2017).

Christopher Winn’s favourite pub is Withies, Compton, Surrey.


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