Pubs have always been a centre of social life in Britain, with their own quirks and idiosyncrasies.

Pubs have traditionally been an integral feature of life in Britain. They still are, although as people now have a far wider range of entertainments to choose from and can travel far more easily, they are not quite such a central part of the community, though many now serve food as well as drink.

My house, in a village some 10 kilometres from Cambridge, used to be a pub. Indeed, we celebrate that with a sign near the door which proclaims “The Old Rose and Crown”. It had ceased to be a pub when we arrived in the village, which then had a population of about 2,500. Even so, there were five pubs. Now, some 40 years later, with the population up to 4,500, there are two-and-a-half — the half being one that closed recently and may not reopen.

Social hubs

In the old days village pubs were beer houses, sometimes brewing their own beer, in conditions which would make today’s health and safety enforcers shudder in horror. Each was also a focus of community life. One in our village, for example, was The Ringers’ Rest, situated opposite the parish church, and used by the church bell ringers. There is still a team of ringers, but no pub dedicated to their enjoyment.

As visitors to the United Kingdom will know, there is a wide variety of pub names. Some are quirky; one in a village in Cambridgeshire, located on the river Cam, is called The Five Miles from Anywhere. It is not a completely accurate description, but, situated on the river bank and on the edge of a small village, it is indeed quite a long way from other towns and villages.

Links to history

Many pub names are historically significant. In our village, for instance, there is the Duke of Wellington, and there are many similarly named pubs in different parts of the country, commemorating the general who defeated Napoleon, and later became prime minister in an era when peers of the realm could hold that office.

In the City of London — the UK’s financial centre — is the East India Arms, which got its name from the East India Company, which was powerful and influential from 1600 until its demise in the middle of the 19th century.

In Fleet Street you will find the Punch Tavern and Ye Olde Cock Tavern, which were popular with journalists in the days when newspapers were located there. Now, there are no newspapers in Fleet Street — and Punch no longer exists; I have no idea where the present clientele come from.

Ye Olde Cock is just one example of animal names, which are widespread. You can find pubs called The Swan, or The Dog and Duck, or The Bull. (One of the remaining pubs in my village is the Black Bull; nothing surprising about that, given that this was for centuries a community dedicated to agriculture and horticulture). Some of the animal names, however, are difficult to explain. Why, for instance, should The Red Lion and The Green Dragon and The Blue Boar be so named? Most people have seen black bulls, but that certainly cannot be said of red lions, green dragons and blue boars — except possibly by those who have imbibed too much of what they have on sale.

Some pub names are found only in limited areas, because they commemorate local landowners or other dignitaries. They often have signs — and indeed names — reflecting the coats of arms of the landowner. In Otterburn in Northumberland, for example, there is the Percy Arms, named after Sir Henry Percy, son of the Earl of Northumberland, who led the English army in the Battle of Otterburn in 1388.

Many pub names commemorate historic events. That is true of “our” pub, the Rose and Crown, which is a symbol of the English monarchy, united after the Wars of the Roses between descendants of the Duke of York and the Duke of Lancaster. The Crusades are also recalled in the names of pubs. In Nottingham, for example, there is one called Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem; it was said that Nottingham was a staging post for the Crusaders on their journey to the holy land.

Many pub names tell a historical story — but for most of those using them the question is not “what is the historical significance?” but “what are the beer and food like?” That was my question last week in a Taverna — a pub — in Madrid.

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. Email him at: bill.kirkman@gmail.com