Monday, February 2, 2015

Unusual Tales of the West Country Local

by Diane Scott Lewis

For over a thousand years, the British public house or “pub” has been enjoyed by rich or poor as a gathering place for friends to share news—or to foment discontent, and of course enjoy alcohol.

In 1872, politician Sir William Harcourt said, “As much of the history of England has been brought about in public houses as in the House of Commons.”

Many public houses started out as different types of establishments. The Holman Clavel near Taunton in Somerset, dating from the fourteenth century, was at first a resting place for monks on pilgrimage. Charlie, a defrocked monk, (who apparently enjoyed his alcohol more than prayer) is said to still haunt the place by moving ornaments about or making items fly off the wall.

Another pub that began as a house of rest for pilgrims is the Shave Cross Inn, near Bridport in Dorset. At this site, a mysterious female saint (St. Candida or St. Wite) had her remains entombed in a plain stone chest below which were three wide openings. In the fourteenth century, pilgrims would stick their afflicted limbs in these openings, hoping for a cure. If they’d waited too long, and died, their bodies were removed by way of a coffin shoot, located supposedly where the pub bar is today.

The long bars we’re used to didn’t come around until Victorian times. Serving hatches were in some pubs, the precursor of the bar. Most establishments had pot-boys that scurried back and forth from the barrels carrying the brew to the tables. These boys carried the potboy’s beer tray or pot-board, which resembled a carpenter’s wooden toolbox. Inside were eight or ten beer pots and, on the top, clay pipes for those who wanted to smoke with their beer.

The seventeenth century Rose and Crown near Langport still has no bar, as the owners wish for it to keep its authentic charm.

The eighteenth-century Square and Compass in Worth Matravers, which started out as a pair of cottages, still has its serving hatch (and no bar).

During WWII the pub served the men of a secret RAF base that was developing radar right behind the establishment. When the Germans found out, in 24 hours the base personnel disappeared elsewhere for safety’s sake. And the pub lost 2,000 customers.

The Coach and Horses in Devon’s Buckland Brewer dates from the thirteenth century. Rumored to be haunted, on the ceiling of a bedroom above the bar hangs a hook directly above a trapdoor. Local hangings must have taken place here in the past.

The corner in the taproom, directly below the trapdoor, is so haunted that dogs refuse to go near it. Two cavaliers have been seen standing in a corner (the same sinister corner?) and a Roundhead has disturbed the sleep of visitors.

When food was short, beer was a source of nutrition for the poor and cheaper to buy than bread. In the 17th century, several ale houses were closed in Somerset to save on the grain being used to make beer. So the poor lost out on their "cheap" meal.

If drinkers today complain about the head on their beer (thus giving them less alcohol), in 1364 a dishonest West Country ale-wife was charged with the reverse. She sold quart pots into which she’d put an inch and a half of pitch at the bottoms.

Martyn Cornell’s Zythophile
The Local, Ales and Tales of the West Country, 1999, by Chris Denham


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  1. When I was in London we did not hunt out the old pubs, but we did end up one evening at one of the very old ones.And we spent to much time at Witherspoons' Moon Under Water that on our last visit, the staffers came by to wish us God Speed.

  2. A thoroughly enjoyable post!

    I'm fascinated with old buildings, and more often than not the pub is one of the oldest building in a village. It's so amazing to imagine how much history their walls have seen!

  3. This was a fascinating post. I love the idea of haunted old buildings and would love to go to one of the haunted pubs you mentioned. I've been to England a few times with my husband and we find the pubs so full of atmosphere. A step back in time, some of them, and loaded with story.

  4. Great post. I always think the origin of pub names is fascinating.


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