The Bluebell Abbey Guide to Being British: Pubs and Pub Etiquette
Posted on September 19 2018
To understand Britain it is vital to understand the centre of its culture – the Public House. First introduced by the Romans, the British pub remains the beating heart of every town and village across the land - part meeting hall, part font of local gossip, part refugee camp for divorced, middle-aged men. However, to the people of Great Britain, the pub is far more than just a place to drink.
There are around 61,000 public houses in the United Kingdom; ranging from quiet country inns, to busy city locals, all offering the same welcoming familiarity – the smell of roasting food drifting from the kitchen, a music selection based exclusively on the work of Dire Straits, and lighting so dim if it got any lower the clientele would soon start knocking the paintings of peaceful British landscapes off the wall, or the brass horseshoes off its burnt wood beams. If you’re particularly lucky there might even be a welcoming beer garden - from an idyllic courtyard with sweeping country views, to an ageing picnic table wedged lopsidedly onto the kerb, all guaranteed to be packed come the first sign of sunshine.
Unlike the rest of Britain however, pubs do not rely on the queue as the foundation of national order, opting instead for a disorderly sprawl centred on the bar. From there it is up to the bartender to decide who has been waiting the longest, or perhaps who needs a drink the most - a system of judgement so unerringly accurate that it rarely provokes either dispute or discussion. However, even in quieter moments it can still take time to receive that longed for beverage, as it is also considered bad form for the landlord to pause in conversation in order to serve someone, and should you find the barkeep deep in discussion with another customer, ancient tradition insists that you simply wait patiently, return later, or join in.
It was in 1393 that British pubs took on a key part of their identity when King Richard II ordered all landlords to erect a sign outside to announce their presence. As the majority of the country was illiterate at the time, these signs came in the form of easily recognisable symbols - a sun, a moon, a lion or bell, or a combination that might make them stand out from the crowd, creating such familiar combinations as the Rose and Crown, Fox and Hounds, Red Lion, White Lion and Coach and Horses.
Likewise, the rooms within a pub also reveal much about British life and the history of its people. The public bar, for instance, was once a raucous, male-only space, carpeted with sawdust to soak up unwanted fluids, giving birth to the expression spit and sawdust. The Saloon meanwhile offered better seating, higher prices and carpets that didn’t descend from wood chippings, popular with the Middle Class and those happy to pay a little extra in order to avoid spittle coated footwear. Finally, there was the snug, an intimate and cosy space set just off the bar, complete with a smoked-glass hatch for discreet ordering, frequented by those who might make other drinkers feel uncomfortable - primarily women.
No matter their gender, origin or background, however, to the British the pub is indispensible - a place to relax, unwind and spend time with their family, or perhaps get as far away from their family as politely possible. Best of all, the British public house almost always gives you what you need. Those looking for solitude will usually find it, those looking for conversation rarely leave disappointed, and the welcome you get on arrival really does make you feel that everyone knows your name.
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