The Old Inns of Village and Town
The old inns of village and town would make the programme of an itinerary to describe which would require many volumes. It is a subject which has produced an iconography and a bibliography of immense and ever-increasing proportions; it is the theme of Chaucer and Shakespeare and Charles Dickens; it is the inexhaustible topic which has inspired the pens and pencils of innumerable moralists, satirists, novelists and archaeologists.
The inns of England have played a large part in the history of England, and not an inconsiderable one in the development of English literature. It is not an exaggeration to say that English literature found its cradle in a London inn, for it was at the Tabard in Southwark that Chaucer, the father of English poetry, set forth with his immortal Canterbury Pilgrims.
It. is possible that the first regular inns appeared after the Norman Conquest, when the country began once more to enjoy a peace it had never known since the Roman legions left. In every manor there was a manor-house, which was the hub and court of justice of the settlement, besides being the residence of the ruler of the community. Such few wayfarers as were in need of lodging for the night always sought the hospitality of the manor-house; it was a well understood custom in those times. No honest traveller was ever refused accommodation. The arrival of a wayfarer did not seriously interfere with the routine of the manor-house. The lord of the manor's followers and soldiery slept around the fire in the great hall, and an extra bundle of rushes for a bed was all that a guest required. The hosteller of the manor-house was the officer who received and looked after travellers, and he placed them at the common table, above or below the salt, according to their rank and occupation in life. It is typical of the persistence of custom that to this day the nomenclature of Norman England still continues to be used in our modern inns. The hosteller survives in our country hotels as the ostler, and the chamberlain's post is now filled by a chamber-maid. The "bar" of a public-house perpetuates the "bower" of the early guest house. Near the porch of a monastic inn or manor-house a small chamber was generally reserved for the distribution of ale, wine and bread. This compartment was known as the bowre, and it is said that it derives its name from the Norse Bur, meaning buttery. Many of our most picturesque wayside inns were first of all monastic hostelries and pilgrims' hostels.
The monastic hostelry was often a sanctuary in addition to a house of refreshment. Such a house was the Star inn at Alfriston, Sussex, which flourishes as an hotel to this day.
The Great Abbey of Glastonbury was such a popular objective for travellers that a new building was erected outside the abbey precincts solely for their use. After the dissolution of the abbey the house was maintained as an ordinary inn, and since that time it has developed into the well-known George Hotel at Glastonbury. To this day the inn retains its fifteenth-century facade.
The Fighting Cocks at St. Albans was built upon the water-gate of the abbey, but is not a pilgrims' inn. The signboard states that the inn was established "before the flood," not the Noachic deluge, but a local affair which inundated the water meadows which adjoin the garden of the inn.
The Angel at Grantham is a very ancient religious house. This building was formerly in the possession of the Knights Templars, and still retains many remains of its former beauty, particularly the gateway, with the heads of Edward III and his queen, Philippa of Hainault, on either side of the arch; the soffits of the windows are elegantly groined, and the parapet of the front is very beautifully fashioned.
Our wayside inns, as a rule, are not rich in architectural refinements, good solid walls, sweeping roofs, tiled or "healed" with slabs of local stone, wide Tudor chimneys and courtyards paved with ancient ripple-marked stones, suffice to make them comfortable and picturesque. Inglenooks and quaint recesses are still common features. Some of the best examples may be found at the Crown at Chiddingfold, the Bell at Burwash, the Ship, Porlock, and the George, Lacock, Wilts. The latter inn preserves a dog wheel, inside which the unhappy animal was placed to revolve a cooking-spit that roasted the meat for the guests. Few galleried inn yards have escaped the ravages of modern improvement. The New inn, Gloucester, a pilgrims' hostel dating from 1457, has a striking galleried courtyard; the George at Winchcombe possesses a projecting balcony and a huge stone bath, in which pilgrims made their ablutions before entering. At the Bull, Dartford, there is a roofed courtyard and gallery, and at the Bull, Long Melford, in Suffolk, is a glazed gallery once used to facilitate the packing of luggage on the coaches.
Among the famous inns with Dickensian memories may be mentioned the Bull at Rochester, with Mr. Pickwick's bedroom, the Old Leather Bottle at Cobham, the Angel at Bury St. Edmunds, the Great White Horse at Ipswich, the Hop Pole at Tewkes-bury, and the King's Head at Chigwell, which is the Maypole of "Barnaby Rudge."
It has been well said that "the history of our inns and taverns is the history of our towns and villages." To know one is to know the other, and it might also be said that a small history of England could be written from its inn signs. As a matter of fact, the origin of inn signboards takes us into the byways of literature, heraldry, navigation, art and industry. To make these beacons for the land travellers attractive and novel many strange devices have been laid under tribute. Some of the emblems adopted were homely, some quaint; some waggish, but most of them were meant to be straight to the point and easily recognized and remembered by the unlettered wayfarers as well as wealthy merchants and travellers.
It is generally considered that our ancestors adopted the signboard from the Romans. In the Eternal City certain streets, as in our own towns, derived their names from signs. The Bush, their favourite tavern sign, gave rise to our proverb, " Good wine needs no bush," and the numerous Bush inns throughout England may be identified with the Roman bush, of evergreens which was suspended over certain shops to indicate the sale of wine. Some of the Roman signs have come down to us from the ruins of Hercu-laneum and Pompeii. These were made of terra-cotta relievo, and let into the balconied fronts of their shops. Thus they have found a "goat"; a "mule" driving a mill, the sign of a baker; and a schoolmaster's sign, which shows some unhappy boy receiving a good birching.
Besides these signs the Lion, Pig, Chequers, Anchor and Ship were familiar symbols in the streets of Rome. In addition to the signs of Roman derivation we must consider, at a later period, the gradual appearance of the coats of arms, crests and badges of the great English families. In the Middle Ages the houses of the nobility, both in town and country, when the family was absent, were used as hostelries for travellers. The family arms always hung in front of the house, and the unlettered wayfarers, unacquainted with the mysteries of heraldry, seized upon the most conspicuous symbol in the arms as a name for the house. A lion gules or azure became a Red or Blue Lion which provided a welcome patch of colour eagerly looked for by the travel-stained wanderer. What is more natural, when the early innkeepers could not write, and the customers could not read, than that those who were keeping houses solely for the entertainment of all who passed should hang out red lions and green dragons as the best way to acquaint the public that they offered food and shelter.
Directly signboards were generally adopted, quaintness became one of the desiderata, and facetiousness another. Many quaint signs have survived in our towns and villages. In London we may still find the One Pound One in Bruton Place Mews; the Running Footman in Charles Street; and the Hole-in-the-Wall at Waterloo Station. The latter sign is of very ancient origin, and it is believed that it represents the hole made in the wall of the hermit's cell, through which he received food from the charitably inclined.
Signs of the Golden Cross are memorials of the time when the sign of the Cross was believed to be a protection from the Evil One. The protective cross was painted on doors and walls to preserve the house and its occupants. Such signs were detestable to the Puritans, who considered them idolatrous and full of foolish superstition, and it was owing to their agitation that the famous Golden Cross sign at Charing Cross was removed in 1643. The inn has outlived the ill-humour of the Puritans, and its sign is a familiar landmark in the Strand to-day.
Some country inn signs display the excellent craftsmanship of our village blacksmiths. There is a fine specimen of a Sussex wrought-iron sign at the Chequers inn, Steyning; a relic of the days when the great ironworks of England, now transferred to the coalfield districts, were situated in the Wealden forests of Sussex and Kent. The Three Horseshoes sign at Colchester is another artistic piece of local blacksmith's work, and the Three Horseshoes inn at Great Mongeham, near Deal, has a very curious sign, which unites the horseshoes and date (1735) in a swinging frame of hand-wrought iron.
The Chequers at Maresfield, in Sussex, is the only example of an inn bearing this name which is not associated with the old game of draughts or the "chequay field" of heraldry. In the case of this sign a carved bunch of berries, very similar to grapes, is suspended from the metal support. This fruit is the product of the service tree, and "chequer" is the Sussex dialect word for it.
The Sussex Pad, near Old Shoreham bridge, is reminiscent of the old smuggling days. The inn was a famous rendezvous for smugglers, and "pads" were small pack-horses much employed in carrying the contraband across the Downland tracks.
An affectation of some remote inns is the perpetually burning peat fire, which dates from the time when wayfarers might require it by day or night for cooking and drying clothes. At the Warren House at Merripit Hill, Dartmoor, the great hearth-fire has riot been dowsed for a hundred years, and a similar claim is made for the fire at the Chequers at Slapstones, near Osmotherly, in Yorkshire.
The Three Crowns at Chagford, on Dartmoor, is a well-known fly-fishers' hostelry. Charles Kingsley wrote, "Here I am at Chagford, in a beautiful old mullioned and gabled Perpendicular inn."
At Moretonhampstead on the Moor the sign of the Three Rabbits once existed. It is a curious thing that the device of three rabbits with their ears so placed as to form a triangle occurs in the interior carvings of three moorland churches-Chagford, Tavistock and Widdecombe.
The Woolpack and Fleece were, of course, the signs of inns patronised by merchants and workers who were engaged in the wool trade and sheep shearing. The Woolpack near Brookland, on Romney Marsh, is a noted house for shepherds, and was a notorious haunt for wool-smugglers.
The Golden Fleece at South Weald, in Essex, is another dignified old inn which has its associations with the wool trade. In the skin market at Bermondsey is a curious little inn called the Fleece, which has been a rendezvous for curriers and wool dealers for over a century. The Simon the Tanner, in Long Lane, Bermondsey, is notable both for its age and the unique sign. The house is, of course, a rendezvous for tanners and leather-dressers, and the sign makes allusion to the tanner of Jaffa (Joppa) of whom we read in the Acts of the Apostles.
On the Great North Road, as you go from Norman Cross to Stamford, you come to the river Nene. On the south side of the river is the village of Stibbing-ton, and on the north is that of Wansford. The famous, many-arched, Wansford Bridge spans the river between them. On the Stibbington river bank stands a Tudor house which was once a famous coaching inn. It was formerly called the Haycock, and derived its name from a curious incident: the river overflowed its banks and carried away a haycock with a man upon it.
Few towns can equal Chester for its old and picturesque inns. One example is the ancient Yacht inn, a gabled hostelry opposite to the great quadrangle where the cheese fairs are held every month. There it was that Dean Swift stayed on his road to Dublin, and he invited the dignitaries of the cathedral to have supper with him, but they declined, so he wrote with a diamond ring on a pane of glass in the window:
Mouldy without-rotten within,
and this inscription remained for many years.
The exterior of the Ship hotel on the Brighton, sea front is that of a pleasant Georgian plastered house which suggests a familiar type of coaching inn. It was that once; and indeed is still a modern coaching inn. However, the Ship belongs to the days before coaching history, for it was built shortly after Charles II escaped from Shoreham to the Continent in 1651.
The Black Lion Brewery at Brighton once included the Black Lion inn in its structure. Few people know that this is the oldest building in the town, and that its original founder was burnt at the stake for his resistance to Popery. Derrick Carver, brewer and martyr, fled from Flanders to Brighton to escape persecution on account of his religion, and after having founded the Brighton brewery he was burnt in one of his own barrels at Lewes in 1555. He used as his trade device the black lion of Flanders, and to-day that sign is still retained in the form of a weathercock over the front of his old brewery.
It seems almost incredible that the citizens of London allowed such an historic landmark as the old Tabard Inn to be demolished only about fifty years ago. It was a building which should have been regarded with a reverence second only to that in which is held the house at Stratford-on-Avon where Shakespeare was born. A modern public house now stands on the site of the old Tabard in Talbot Yard, Borough, and only the sign showing the sleeveless coat of the herald remains.
Passing from White Hart Yard (the site of the inn of that name), a few yards farther on George Yard is reached, and here the pilgrim's heart will be cheered by the sight of London's only galleried inn. At the George one finds the Dickensian genius loci in a most undoubted and satisfying manner. Here Chapter X of Pickwick Papers becomes a reality. Here is the "double tier of bed-room galleries, with old clumsy balustrades" and "the double row of bells to correspond, sheltered from the weather by a little sloping roof, hung over the door leading to the coffee-room," just as Dickens has described them in the adventures of Pickwick.
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