A Pub-Sign Safari

No matter where you are in Britain, you probably aren’t far from a pub. Okay, there are wilderness areas and mountaintops with no place to get a drink, but most people do live within a convenient distance of a public house. After writing about pubs recently (you can click here to read that post), I went on a little pub-sign photo-safari, and this post is the result.

Just between my house and my gym, a trip of 3.3 miles I make five—okay, three—okay, at least two times a week, I pass 9 pubs; that’s one pub every third of a mile. The names reflect four animals and one each of insect, trade, royal title, heraldic emblem, and war. Starting at the gym in Aldershot and working my way back into Surrey, here are the pub signs I pass along the way:

The first pub, the Crimea, has an unusual name, possibly a name unique in the UK (at least, I haven’t heard of any others and neither has Google). During the Crimean war, a new military base established just outside what had been the little village of Aldershot, population 875, drew not only the regiments themselves but traders to cater to the new population, turning Aldershot into a town of 16,000 in no time. The layout of the town shows the military influence, with more than the usual number of streets, roundabouts, and buildings named for members of the royal family, or for famous generals or field marshals. You won’t find the names Ordnance Roundabout and NAAFI Roundabout anyplace else, either. (The NAAFI is the organization that runs shops and recreation facilities for the armed forces—pronounced “naffy”.)

Once you know that Aldershot is very much a military town, calling the pub the Crimea makes a bit more sense. The sign displays, on a background of soldiers silhouetted on the battlefield, the medal awarded to Crimean veterans, which shows a Roman soldier with sword and shield being crowned with laurel by a winged Victory. (Well, that’s the back of the medal, actually. The front only shows Queen Victoria.)

Not all the pubs in Aldershot have a military air; the next one is the Beehive, with a sign showing a beehive in the pastel flowers of a cottage garden—very peaceful. And after the Beehive comes the Golden Lion, and then the Red Lion.

I don’t know the politics of the customers of these pubs, but from the earliest days of heraldry, a gold lion on a red background stood for England, and a red lion on a golden background stood for Scotland. Given the ties between the two countries and the tensions ditto, having symbols so closely related and at the same time completely opposite makes a sort of sense. These symbols , set out almost 800 years ago, remain intact in these pubs’ signs; that they’re used on pubs within sight of each other might suggest that the customers in that neighborhood divide along political lines, but I doubt it. You don’t get a whole lot of Scottish nationalists down here on the Surrey-Hampshire border.

And people who’ve grown up around pub signs don’t seem to think much about them. I phoned some of the pubs to find out more about their signs, and only one could answer straightforwardly; most not only didn’t know, they clearly thought I must be some kind of eccentric if I cared. The staff at the Prince of Wales fell into the latter category when I asked which Prince of Wales was on their sign.

Any number of people throughout history have held that title, only a few of whom were actually Welsh, since England conquered Wales pretty early on. Legend has it that in 1301, to pacify the recently conquered Welsh, King Edward I promised that, while he would be dictating who would rule them as the next Prince of Wales, he would select someone born in Wales, someone who couldn’t even speak English. That sounded good until he brought out his infant son—born in Wales and too young to speak any language at all.

Since then, the reigning monarch’s Heir Apparent has normally used the title. An Heir Apparent is an heir who unquestionably will be the next monarch according to the rules succession; if the heir to the throne could theoretically be thrown out of that position—say by the birth of a son to a monarch who has no sons, because a new male baby would jump past any daughters or nephews and go right to the front of the queue—then you have a Heir Presumptive rather than an Heir Apparent.

So the Prince of Wales on the pub sign could be any number of individuals from any of several centuries. I can tell you though that the tunic he’s shown wearing over his armor shows a design pretty close to the correct arms for the current Prince of Wales. But while it’s not unusual to see the current Prince of Wales on horseback, you’d normally find him in polo clothes, not armor/armour.

The next pub on the route, the Greyhound, is part of a chain, the Embers Inns. Chain pubs have a reputation for having a bland homogeneity, little personality of their own. A chain is a brand, a company that owns multiple pubs, often buying up local pubs and keeping their names—so the pub will still operate as the Greyhound, the Swan, or what have you, but no longer be an independent business.

That’s why this Greyhound has a disappointing sign, nothing to do with greyhounds, though the name still appears on the side of the building itself.

The next pub uses a sign related not to the name of the pub, but to the brewery where it gets the beer. It’s not a chain pub, but a tied house: a pub that has a contract with one brewery to serve only that brewery’s products and no other. It’s an independent business, but one that has made an exclusive contract with its supplier. That’s as opposed to a free house, which is an independent business that can serve any beer the landlord wants to serve.

That’s why the sign of this next pub, the Bricklayers Arms, shows a golden rooster: that rooster is the logo of the Courage brewery. Makes a change from lions, but it’s still disappointing to see a standard sign rather than something unique to that particular pub.

I’d always assumed that the many pubs throughout Britain with names such as the Bricklayers Arms, Thatchers Arms, Weavers Arms, Anglers Arms and so on (generally written without apostrophes so please don’t write in to remind me I’ve left them out) were named as a bit of a joke on the even more numerous pubs named for armigerous families (families who have their own coats of arms). Just googling for pubs in the Guildford area you’ll find the Holroyd Arms, Drummond Arms, Onslow Arms, Grantly Arms, and Sanford Arms. But it’s possible that pubs with names reflecting trades could be referring to the arms of their guilds. That might work for Bricklayers, Thatchers, or Weavers, but not for the Anglers; Angling, in American English, is just plain fishing.

The next pub down the road towards home is the Dover Arms, whose insignia comes from the arms of the borough of Dover. How this design came to be on a pub sign within walking distance of my house is a question, since Dover is 100 miles away. I had trouble figuring out the design, but eventually tracked it down to the arms of the borough of Dover, which show St Martin using his sword to divide his cloak so he can share it with a poor man. The cloak is in green, and looks suspiciously like an enormous bottle, which could be a subtle attempt to get you inside for refreshment.

Unfortunately, the web site designers for the borough of Dover relied on a spell checker, not an editor, and so their site claims the borough’s arms show St Martin using his sword to divide his clock to share it with a poor man. File under “why everybody needs editors”, please.

The final pub on my safari is the Lion Brewery, which may once have brewed its own beer for all I know, but now serves the produce of other breweries. Some locals call it the Black Lion, though there’s no lion on the sign, and the word black doesn’t appear, but is only implied. Neighbors warned us when we moved in that it’s not the kind of pub you could take your mother to, but I have been in a couple of times and found the locals to be friendly. The publican there does a lot of work for charity, including hosting an annual one-day music festival in the recreation ground next door. That festival is close enough to us and loud enough that we honor their charitable efforts by making sure we’ve got something to do that will keep us away from home all day on festival days.

Now that the Nightingale, which was a mere 400 feet from our house, has closed, my safari ends with the Lion. Or almost ends there, because I have an update about the Good Intent (click here for earlier post). Belatedly, I realized that the sign is an example of the English love of a good pun, which I’ve mentioned before. The sign shows Cromwell praying at the entrance to his tent. I’m sure some of you are ahead of me here, but there’s the pun: Good-in-Tent.

But I’m frittering away my time on pub signs when there’s an election in less than a month. In the next couple of weeks I’ll be writing about the British election process—very different from the American one!—assuming I stay out of pubs in the meantime. I hope you’ll come back to read about it.



Filed under Food, History

10 responses to “A Pub-Sign Safari

  1. Anthony

    Hi. An enjoyable and fun read! Cheers.

    • Glad you liked it! Too late, I thought I should have made it a series — one or two pubs a day. I may do more of this these sorts of posts, if people like them. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Eleane Tweedly

    Happy memories, Mary Ellen, thank you! I had no idea your current house was so close to the Nightingale, though. So you are now pretty close to where we lived if my memory serves me right. The nightingale was on the main toad, facing the rec, wasn’t it? We were in Harpers Road (again no apostrophe & heaven knows who the harpers were!) down the right hand side of it. Our cottages faced the gate into the rec.

    There was actually an SNP club in Aldershot in my days there, by the way.

    I wonder if the Black Lion has anything to do with the black panther this is reputedly seen in the Guildford/Aldershot area every so often & has been for a long time?

    Isn’t the Dover Arms beside the station in Ash? I was trying to remember whether the Greyhound & Bricklayers were, too?

    Don’t know about recently, but it certainly used to be, if Prince Charles was in Polo kit, he was far more likely to be lying on the ground than ON his polo pony!

    • Wow — had no idea about the SNP presence here. (That’s the Scottish National Party, for those who haven’t encountered it.) So maybe having the Golden Lion almost across the street from the Red Lion really does have political significance.

      And I had no idea you lived so close to here. I know that was probably 25 years ago, but still — that’s almost literally just around the corner from us.

      The station is about 2/3rds of a mile from us, and the Dover Arms is about halfway between.

  3. YAY! More pub signs!

    Sue and I were just raving about your blog two days ago, M.E., and I was mentioning that my favorite was the one on pub signs and that I hoped you’d do more of the same.

    Can’t believe how colorful and historic life is there, compared to Land of Too Many Golden Arches.

    MORE, Mary Ellen, MORE! 🙂


  4. Fascinating. Who knew? What I also find fascinating is the apparent carelessness of the monarchy in leaving their body parts scattered around the country in public houses – I’ve lost count of the number of times I have come across the Kings arms, the Kings head, the Kings legs (I might have made that one up, but you get the picture :-)) – subsititute King with Queen and you get more body parts.

    Safari, lion – nice one! Was this truly primarily a pub-sign safari or an excuse for a pub crawl (another fine English tradition)?

  5. What an entertaining entry! For several years we had The Tied House in Alameda California. Until I went there, I assumed it was Tide House (it was next to the water) and didn’t understand the significance of the spelling of the name. However, I don’t think the owners understood it either, because it was actually an active brewery. It made great beer but couldn’t make it financially, which was a loss for Alameda.

    • There was a Tied House microbrewery (or brewpub or whatever it called itself) in Palo Alto for some years, as well. Possibly run by the same people? Google seems to think it’s in Mountain View, and used to be in San Jose. I’m confused.

      I guess a pub completely owned by the brewery is a sort of special case of having an exclusive deal with the supplier! I don’t know of any pubs here owned by the breweries. The Guinness brewery in Dublin has a pub-type outlet on the premises.

      There’s a small local brewery a couple of villages away from here that I’ve never visited. Clearly I need to do some research and report back.

  6. Pingback: I’ll Have 2 1st-Class Stamps, Half a Dozen Pearl Buttons, a Fishing License, and a Mortgage, Please « M E Foley's Anglo-American Experience Blog

  7. Pingback: Wood Pub Sign | An American Brewmaster

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