When we celebrate pubs, we inevitably bring up the fact that a decent boozer is far more than just a drinking shop (even though there’s nothing wrong with that).
The pub has something that coffee shops, cafés or even bars can never quite mirror. Pubs are community centres that bring people together irrespective of their backgrounds. They are places of entertainment, family gatherings, celebration, amateur sports, charity fundraisers and meetings of everyone from knitting groups to trades unions and political parties.
The pub is a unique institution. But in the research for my last book, I discovered that even the most multi-faceted pub is a mere shadow of its forerunner, the mighty coaching inn, was in its prime.
For most of history, rather than the singular pub we had various quite distinct types of establishment, which were licensed differently. The most direct ancestor of the traditional community boozer was the alehouse, which did what it said on the tin, serving ale to people just as the bakery next door served bread.
The tavern was a more upmarket establishment, serving wine as well as beer/ale and probably food too, and was the favoured drinking place of politicians and men of letters such as Samuel Pepys.
And then there was the inn.
Serving drink in an inn was almost a byproduct of its main function: that of providing hospitality to weary travellers. Sure, beer or ale was an important part of this hospitality, but it wasn’t the main part: horses needed to be stabled and cared for, and beds provided for their riders. Chances are that if you visit any of the various surviving old inns that still pepper Britain, the place will proudly announce itself as a ‘medieval coaching inn.’ But this is a misnomer: the inn was a popular medieval fixture, but coaches didn’t arrive until centuries later.
No one knows exactly how old inns are. The conventional history is that they emerged around the 12th century, because this is as far back as both archaeological evidence and written record will take us.
All except one very important written record, that is. There was no room at the ‘inn’ in the Nativity because the inn was a familiar concept when the bible was translated into English – the actual Hebrew word translates more closely as ‘guestroom.’ The Judean establishment that turned Mary and Joseph away may have been very similar or quite different from the medieval English inn, but it performed the same function. But the Middle Ages saw the concept of the inn take shape, in a way that was to remain remarkably resilient for centuries.
The main reasons for travelling in medieval England were commercial and religious. The latter would often be catered for by monasteries, but as the popularity of religious pilgrimages grew – a sort of Middle Ages equivalent of the Easyjet citybreak – so did commercial inns.
Wherever there’s a surviving example of a medieval inn, there’s either a cathedral or an ancient marketplace nearby, or a day or two’s travel by horseback up the road.
Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales begins in a Southwark inn. The pilgrims enjoyed food and wine before bedding down in a communal dormitory, making the straw comfortable with their cloaks as best they could. Later, commercial travellers needed somewhere safe to store samples and money, and separate, lockable rooms became more common.
Despite what the Romans did for us, even Britain’s main roads often resembled a car park entrance at Glastonbury, and were impassable for large parts of the year. Transport was only possible with packhorse trains.
Later, as the roads improved slightly, huge, fat-wheeled goods wagons would lumber along key roads between towns and ports. Gradually, before the arrival of the railways or even canals, the British economy was built along these crude trading routes, and the flickering flame of the Industrial Revolution grew. Inns were the nodes of this network, keeping the entire economy running.
Accommodation, food, drink and stabling were essential enough. The people who provided them therefore became respected and trustworthy figures in society.
This in turn led travellers to rely on the innkeeper even more. Inns would provide warehousing for goods. They took on the role of bankers for merchants who were worried about carrying large amounts of cash on lawless roads. The innkeeper became a booking agent for shipping goods, a facilitator of useful introductions, and in a much broader sense, just someone you could trust. Seventeenth and 18th century newspaper classified ads placed by people who have lost their pocketbooks or found a stray horse invariably gave an innkeeper as the point of contact.
As the Turnpike Trusts began improving Britain’s roads from the late 17th century onwards, it became possible to travel relatively easy and quickly by coach. The ‘slow coach’ would stop regularly to rest the horses and take on refreshments, while the ‘flying’ coach operated a forerunner of the Formula One pit stop: pulling into inns only for as long as it took to change the horses for a fresh set and get back on the road.
Inns grew in number, spaced along roads according to how far a team of horses could go without being rested or changed. And the inns grew in size, adding coaching sheds as well as stables, and more accommodation for the greater number of travellers. With more guests, enterprising innkeepers staged a varied programme of entertainments including plays, musical recitals, bare-knuckle fights, cockfights and bear baiting.
Before the arrival in the 19th century of municipal buildings such as town halls and libraries (many of which were financed by philanthropic brewers) inns were the only places that had rooms large enough for public meetings. They hosted everything from auctions and dances to inquests and political rallies. Innkeepers were so influential by this point that many went on to become MPs or mayors of their communities.
The end came – rapidly – with the arrival of the railways. Coaches simply weren’t needed any more, and so neither were the coaching inns. The biggest and best reinvented themselves as hotels. Others shrank, becoming the pubs we know today.
In its prime, the great coaching inn was the ultimate example of how the simple provision of hospitality and good cheer could become the centre of a sprawling community network. An inn like the George in Southwark contained warehouses, offices, showrooms, shops and private dwellings within it. It was like a pub on steroids.
We’ll never see its like again. But the story of inns like the George remains a powerful totem of how vital the pub remains within our society.
Article is from Issue 27 of Beers of the World Magazine