05 January 2016

Ye Olde Fighting Cocks pub - did it survive?

Pubs were once the social centre of many British (and Australian) communities. When spouse and I lived in Britain, we were paid so poorly by the National Health that we could not afford to go to restaurants or on cruises. The local pub became the meeting place of all our colleagues, for a drink or two after work to be sure, but mainly for socialising, being entertained and keeping warm.

All that has changed. In 2014 The Guardian wrote that the rate at which British pubs are closing down has accelerated to 31 a week. Closures are being blamed on factors such as high taxes on beer, competition from supermarkets selling cheap alcohol and changing demographics in cities where some migrant communities won’t tolerate alcohol in their midst. And there is something else. According to most 20-Somethings, the pub has not kept pace with social change! Once the heart of the local community, young people would rather be working their technological devices at home, drinking beer in front of the tv or computer.

And sometimes there was a very local economic catastrophe. Twenty-five years ago, the Marston's pub chain operated twelve pubs in Kidderminster, the home of the carpet trade. After the carpet trade disappeared, there were only three pubs left standing.

Pubs have been built and demolished in the past, of course. There were 99,000 pubs in 1905 but just 77,500 by 1935, as a result of a series of government policies including deliberate suppression, restrictive opening hours, stringent regulations and higher taxes. The industry saw a temporary recovery after the Second World War. By 1969, there were 75,000 pubs in the UK, a number that fell gradually to 69,000 by 1980, then rather tragically slipping to 60,000 in 2002 and 48,000 in 2013.

In the past breweries used to own most pubs and used them to sell their own products. Today’s PubCos are a significant reason for the demise of the industry. The 1989 Monopolies and Mergers Commission ruling, that the old, vertically-integrated system was anti-competitive turned out to be a great mistake. Now campaigners are calling for an urgent change in the law to make it harder for pubs to be demolished or converted to ugly modern convenience shops.

I have looked at British pubs in this blog before, including the Red Lion Hotel on the River Thames; three Dickens-related pubs in Broadstairs; and The Falcon, Clapham Junction and Turk's Head, Middlesex. But now I want to focus on a special pub. When spouse and I lived in St Albans in Herts, we loved Ye Olde Fighting Cocks. This pub originally sat on land that had been the site of an early Saxon royal palace and monastery, founded in 793 AD. St Albans Cathedral and grounds were close by and there were tunnels stretching from the beer cellar beneath the pub to the Cathedral, apparently frequented by monks. Could that have been correct - boozed up clerics?

Front entrance

One of the timbered rooms

Part of the beer garden

The main structure we see today is free-standing and has an octagonal appearance. It has been added to over the years but the original timber-framed structure is clearly visible. The pub was moved to its present site after the dissolution of the Abbey in 1539. The location is perfect - at the end of Abbey Mill Lane beside the River Ver, just outside Verulamium Park.

If the octagonal half-timbered structure appears to be strangely shaped, it was because the building was once a medieval dovecote. What is the evidence? Pleadings in a legal case filed in 1622 state that Thomas Preston “…bought an old pigeon house and pulled the same down and erected it...and afterwards put up a chimney and made thereof a tenement which is now called the Round House.” However, the precise date when the building was re-erected is not certain, a safer conclusion being that it was sometime between 1600 and 1622.

It is reputed that Oliver Cromwell slept at the inn at some stage during the Civil War of 1642-1651. Needless to say this was before he became Lord Protector. Perhaps its 17th century references account for the half timber exterior, while the inter­ior displays low ceilings, atmospheric lighting, fireplaces & dark timber panelling

Cock fighting was a national sport in Hertfordshire (and elsewhere) for 600 years from the reign of Henry II to the reigns of all the Georgian kings. So it is believed that the pub’s small Cock Pit was brought from the Abbey and then the original name was changed to Ye Olde Fighting Cocks. When cock fighting as a sport was banned in 1849, the pub name was changed to something more respectable and the cock-reference was only reinstated later (in 1872). If the stories are true, cock fighting took place right IN the main bar in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras.

The pub still has a beer garden which in summer, I can assure you, is lovely. Apparently Chief Inspector Morse thought so too when he and Detective Sergeant Lewis discussed a case over a drink at the Ye Olde Fighting Cocks pub in 1990. Having been back in Australia for a long time by then, I was very excited to see "our local pub" on television so unexpectedly. 

**

The Talbot in Knightwick

The UK's best sporting pub has just been voted for and The Talbot in Knightwick Worc won. The Talbot Arms was a traditional coaching inn that started in c1450 on the banks of a river. Old fashioned and unspoilt, it is famous for its own pigs, a kitchen garden, game freshly served, a monthly farmer's market, a beer festival and hunters' breakfasts. I don't like shooting, but I do understand when the locals say they could absolutely not survive without their pub.






16 comments:

The Lost Pubs Project said...

Help our community project to archive these lost pubs before they are forgotten for ever. If you know of a pub which has closed at any time in the past, please submit it, together with any anecdotes, historical information or photographs that you might have. Pubs do re-open from time to time, so if you see one on the site that is open please let us know.

The pubs that have closed are listed by county, then town, then name of pub and finally date of closing.

Mandy Southgate said...

I definitely afte with you about the devastating effect of monopoly laws on pubs. It's a shame. My dad and I used to visit a town and systematically work our way through the AA Good Pub Guide until we'd seen the best there was to see. We spent years catching up like that.

There are still some amazing pubs in Britain but definitely not many really great pubs in London.

Hels said...

Lost Pubs Project

thank you for the exhaustive work done, documenting the thousands and thousands of lost pubs. I looked up the names of lost pubs for St Albans Herts and found over 40 in just this one town :( It seems as if quite a number of them closed in the late 1960s-early 1970s, so pub closure is not only a very recent phenomenon.

Hels said...

Mandy

The other reason often given for the decline was the new smoking law regarding indoor facilities. Scotland introduced the smokefree law in March 2006, England, Northern Ireland and Wales all in mid 2007. Now I personally am allergic to cigarettes, so I am totally in favour of all legislation supporting clean, healthy indoor environments. But if half the population smokes, I wonder if they voted with their feet and deserted pubs.

What a tragedy that would have been.

Mandy Southgate said...

Absolutely, you could see the effect of the smoking ban immediately but the pub decline had started long before that. The price of beer in pubs was rising dramatically - they had to know the bubble would burst but the rise of gastropubs was equally harmful. Soulless, plastic places where you could get cheap beer.

Andrew said...

I grew to really like and appreciate English pubs during our second visit to England when I discovered they were not all cramped places as I had experienced during our first visit, although I now have a couple of favourite London pubs that are not terribly spacious. They have terrific outdoor spaces and are such great value for meals. However, I have puzzled at how they can remain profitable given the generally modest prices they charge, and clearly they are not remaining profitable.

Hels said...

Mandy

*nod* soulless, plastic places are exactly what people do NOT want :( Back in the early 1970s, I would have said I wanted "social life, being entertained and keeping warm". Now I would add "a historical and attractive atmosphere".

Hels said...

Andrew

I too have great memories of socialising in British pubs, but I must admit the issue of remaining profitable or not never occurred to me. I think I assumed historic pub architecture was there to protect the nation's cultural heritage and to give workers a place to relax and socialise after work.

That said, I worked in Bendigo for a few years and truly loved the 19th century pub architecture and atmosphere all around the old gold field cities. After this post, I must wonder if those pubs have also been sold off (as blocks of flats or perhaps converted into fast food joints).

the foto fanatic said...

Then there is the resultant problem: what to do with the vacated building?

As you have discussed, Hels, some of these structures are several centuries old.

What happens to them when pub life ceases?

I would hope that, rather than being replaced by something glass and steel, they are adapted to another use.

Hels said...

Good question, foto fanatic

Were historically important pieces of pub architecture adapted to new uses or did the closed buildings become so neglected and tragic that the owners sold them off to any buyer?

I looked up a few pubs I knew. The ordinary-looking Prince Of Wales in Kentish Town was closed in 2010 and has re-emerged intact as a block of flats. The lovely-looking Black Bull in Whitechapel closed in 2007 and was converted intact to restaurant. The 1920 Carlton Tavern in Kilburn was demolished in 2015. As was The Alchemist in Battersea, built in 1854 and recently demolished.

CarolineLD said...

Lovely - I must go back to St Albans, it's years since my last visit, and this pub is one to add to the itinerary.

One of the big problems in London has been the closure of successful, profitable pubs because their premises are worth more to the landowner for residential development than as business premises. It is in part a consequence of legislation which forced many breweries (who had a vested interest in keeping pubs open) to sell most of their 'tied' pubs. Rather than being owned by the landlords instead, many fell into the hands of large companies who see them as a property portfolio. The other issue, of course, is London's crazy housing market.

Hels said...

Caroline

I am not a big beer drinker, but the pub was the centre of our social life after work for the few years we lived in Britain. Even now, years later, it still breaks my heart that beloved local pubs are being flogged by large companies for their real estate potential.

St Albans appealed to me enormously. Ancient history, medieval architecture, importance as a transport link in the 18th century, industrial development in the 19th century etc

Hels said...

Another of our drinking spots in St Albans was the White Hart Inn, a half-timbered Tudor building where the exterior has been largely preserved. I didn't remember this pub until I saw it on tv tonight, then I was REALLY excited. Perfect timing!

Apparently in 1577 there were 55 victualling houses in little St Albans, divided into 27 Inns, 26 alehouses and 2 Taverns (where wine was sold). Amazing.

Discover Britain said...

Oxford has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to historic pubs. Particularly notable is the Eagle and Child (1684) where CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien founded the discussion group, The Inklings. The Turf is a partly medieval/partly 17th century tavern located off Broad St and accessed through a pleasingly narrow ancient alleyway. The King's Arms (1607) is a favourite student haunt nearby.

Dreaming Spires
Discover Britain Magazine
Feb/March 2016

pub is the hub said...

The White Horse at Upton in the Norfolk Broads was the only pub in this small isolated rural village of 700 residents when it was threatened with closure in 2012. The villagers rallied round and set-up a community Interest Company (CIC). Instantly £120,000 worth of shares for the pub were snapped up by the locals with additional help from Prince Charles’ Countryside Fund, Broadland Community Grants and Broadland Community Renewables.

Since then the pub has undergone a complete refurbishment and The White Horse is now a thriving pub and restaurant with a family friendly garden and a marquee to enable outdoor functions. Significant pubs can be saved!

Hels said...

pub is the hub

I love that story. The social heart of a rural village was on the brink of closing, for ever, when it was rescued and refurbished through Prince Charles' funds, financial re-organisation and significant volunteer work by local citizens. It just strikes me as a mammoth amount of work to save but one important pub.