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Britain's oldest pub -- who deserves the crown?
You want to find the most ancient inn in Britain? It's tougher than you might think
The British love a good argument over a pint, and what could be a better topic than which pub deserves to be called the nation’s oldest?
It’s a touchy subject -- there’s possibly no more cherished symbol of Britain than a snug pub with a fire crackling in the corner.
And if it’s ancient, well, that’s really the froth on the ale.
There are several contenders for the crown of Britain’s oldest inn.
The problem is how to judge them.
“Do you take the age of a given pub from when the current building was built or when the earliest reference to it dates from?” asks Pub writer and historian Pete Brown in his book “Shakespeare’s Local.”
Or do you just order another round?
Each of these very venerable British inns has a claim to being the oldest.
Visiting all of them could be fun but -- word of advice -- buy the locals a pint before you start examining the evidence.
Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, Nottingham
Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem claims to be not only Nottingham’s but in fact England’s earliest surviving inn -- dating from 1189.
“An excavation in the 1970s suggested the caves below the pub belonged to the castle’s brewhouse, [built as long ago] as the 12th century,” says Karl Gibson, the pub’s manager.
That would make Ye Olde Trip a watering hole, of sorts, at the time of the Crusades and Richard the Lionheart.
This compact inn’s remarkable setting -- it’s partly carved out of the cliff directly below the remains of Nottingham castle’s original foundations -- stirs the imagination.
On weekdays, patrons can play the traditional old pub game of Ring the Bull, when you throw a bull’s nose ring on to a hook.
Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, Brewhouse Yard, Nottingham; +44 115 947 3171
Nearby: Nottingham Castle, with museum and cave tours; Sherwood Forest.
Old Ferry Boat, Holywell, St Ives
This riverside thatched-roofed hostelry in rural Cambridgeshire claims to be England’s oldest pub -- it certainly looks the part.
An inn supposedly stood on the site as long ago as 560, but the evidence is about as substantial as the Old Ferry Boat’s supernatural inhabitant -- the pub is said to receive an annual visit from the ghost of a lovelorn teenage girl who hanged herself and was buried in unconsecrated ground beneath the inn floor.
A more reliable foundation date of 1400 relates to the current premises.
Old Ferry Boat, Holywell, St Ives, Cambridgeshire; +44 1480 463 22
Nearby: City of Cambridge PIC; Cambridgeshire Fenlands PIC.
The Bingley Arms, Leeds
Follow a monk, historically speaking, and you’ll find somewhere to drink.
Some date the origin of the Bingley Arms to as long ago as 953.
Known then as The Priests Inn, it first served as a rest house for monks staggering -- sorry, traveling -- between abbeys in Leeds and York.
Clergymen had it tougher a few centuries later -- the 16th century holes found in the pub’s chimney were used to conceal Catholic priests on the run from Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries campaign.
Today pub-goers can enjoy a good pint of ale by the fireplace, instead of hiding up it.
Bingley Arms Church Lane, Bardsey, Leeds; +44 1937 572 462
Porch House, Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire
The newest of the oldest pubs in a sense, the refurbished Porch House only opened in its current guise in September of this year.
However, the pub has had several incarnations (or should that be inn-carnations) over the centuries.
“Parts of the Porch House building are said to date to AD947.
“It’s also been a family home and a hospice over the years.
“It almost became a workhouse too, but nothing came of the plans in the 1700s.”
Porch House, Digbeth Street, Stow-on-the-Wold; +44 1451 870 048
Nearby: The heart of the Cotswolds.
Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, St Albans
This hostelry traces its origins as far back as 793 -- the property having had numerous incarnations since then.
Part of the present pub is a striking freestanding octagonal dovecote, built in the 11th century before being moved to its current location in 1539.
Once again, inventive monks with alcohol on their minds feature heavily in the story, with tunnels connecting the beer cellar and St Albans Cathedral.
The name, however, only came into being in the 19th century, when cock-fighting was a regular pastime.
However the evidence stacks up, any inn that can boast Oliver Cromwell as a past guest surely deserves its place in any olde pub chronicles.
Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, 16 Abbey Mill Lane, St.Albans; +44 1727 869 152
The Skirrid Mountain Inn, near Abergavenny, Wales
Reputed to be the oldest continuously running pub in Wales, evidence suggests there was an inn on the site as far back as the era of the 11th-century Norman Conquest.
Many people who could verify that claim were no doubt put to the sword, but what is certain is the pub’s reputation for its spirits -- of both varieties.
Regarding the supernatural sort, the pub’s first floor was once used as a courtroom, with hangings carried out from an oak beam above the staircase.
Over the years a number of paranormal activities have been investigated -- including sightings of the ghost of the “Hanging Judge.”
Some blame those on the other in-house spirits, though.
Skirrid Mountain Inn, Llanvihangel, Crucorney, Monmouthshire; +44 1873 890 258
Nearby: Brecon Beacons National Park.
The Sheep Heid Inn, Edinburgh
“There’s been a pub on this site since 1360, which makes it the oldest established public house in Scotland,” says the Sheep Heid Inn’s self-styled cultural attaché -- aka manager -- Simon Walton.
It may be officially in the big city of Edinburgh, but the Sheep Heid is definitely a village pub.
It’s the focal point of Duddingston, which “still exists as a community of 72 properties on the east side of Holyrood Park -- the Queen’s back garden,” Walton says.
The oldest surviving authentic bar skittles board in Scotland adds to its venerable reputation.
Sheep Heid Inn, 43-45 The Causeway, Edinburgh; +44 131 6617974
George Inn, Southwark
If Britain’s oldest pubs are slugging it out, surely some impressive London contenders are due in the ring.
In fact, pubs in the British capital tend to be comparative young’uns.
There’s a good reason for that -- the Great Fire, which burned much of the city to the ground in 1666.
The George Inn’s locations south of the river protected it from that inferno but it still ended up being incinerated 10 years later.
The rebuilt property stands today as London’s last remaining galleried coaching inn.
Call in for a beer here and you’ll be joining an illustrious list of prior patrons; Charles Dickens is said to have supped here in the 19th century, which led to the George getting a mention in "Little Dorrit."
George Inn, 5-77 Borough High St, London; +44 207 407 2056
Like the best pub arguments, the solution to which is Britain's oldest pub is about as transparent as a pint of stout.
Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem -- having been continuously a “pub” for a very long time -- has perhaps the strongest claim but let us know if you’ve stumbled across even older inns.