As more and more people are being vaccinated, they are thinking about traveling again. But where? This summer, NPR’s international reporters are exploring fascinating locations that provide insight into the nations they cover. This is the first in a series.
LONDON – One of the things I love most about living in England is pubs. There’s nothing quite like sitting by a warm fire on a damp winter evening, sipping English Ale with friends, or lounging on a wooden deck along the Thames on a hot summer’s day and watching boats and kayaks go by.
In England, where people are reluctant compared to Americans, the bar counter for ordering drinks and food is one of the few places where it is appropriate to have a conversation with a stranger.
Although I lived here for a few years, I knew little about the history of the pub. So I recently created my own historic London pub crawl, to learn more about the origins of the typically British institution, how it has evolved over time and the threats pubs face today.
I started at The Mayflower, which is on the south bank of the Thames about a mile and a half downstream from Tower Bridge. I first met The Mayflower a few years ago when I was attending a Thanksgiving celebration with fellow Americans there. It was a suitable place. In 1620, the Mayflower, the ship, was moored just offshore and began her long voyage to what would later be America. In honor of this transatlantic connection, the pub flies a US and a British flag at either end of its deck.
On the walls of the dimly lit pub today you can see replicas of the notes left by some of the passengers who bequeathed wages and jewelry to their loved ones if they did not survive the trip. Behind the bar, manager Leigh Gillson keeps a guest book signed by some of the descendants of the passengers they visited.
“Back when it all began,” wrote Gardner Vydra, who moved from New York to London four years ago for a financial job and is a descendant of Mayflower passenger Isaac Allerton.
Private houses to public houses
To learn more about the Mayflower and pubs in general, I invited George Dailey, the author of one of the first books I bought when I first got here, Great Pubs of London. Standing on the pub’s wooden deck as the waves crashed against the stakes, Dailey says the roots of the modern pub stretch back to the Middle Ages and the dawn of home brewing. The superior of the house brewed English ale. When families ended up getting a little more, they offered it to the people in their communities who evolved into the hospitality industry. Dailey says pubs have such a cozy, inhabited vibe because they started in people’s homes. Over time, pubs became the center of village life and catered for traders, soldiers and pilgrims.
“The travelers stopped and asked for an ale and were dragged into the front room of one of those humble little houses with a log fire and got an ale to drink and possibly some simple food,” says Dailey.
This meal was very simple.
“I suppose you could describe it a bit like the food on the Mayflower,” says Dailey. “Salted Pork and Fish and Meat.”
The forerunner of the modern pub took various forms over the centuries, including taverns and inns, which were required by law to accept all travelers as long as they behaved sensibly and paid their bills.
From the 18th century onwards, breweries supplied more and more companies and home brewing declined. The word “pub”, short for tavern, was first used in the mid-19th century.
During the British industrial age, pubs were a staple of working life, with factory and mine workers flocking for a few pints after long shifts before heading home. During the swinging sixties, some pubs gave up their Victorian decors and were renamed themed eateries – everything from Caribbean cocktail lounges to Wild West saloons – to attract young people.
The eagle hatches gastropub
Then, in the early 1990s, there was another iteration, the gastropub, which combined beer selection and the relaxed atmosphere of a pub with fine dining.
“That was revolutionary,” remembers Dailey, who says that instead of crackers and porridge, the pub-goers could now enjoy French and Italian cuisine with ale. Considered the UK’s first gastropub, the venue is The Eagle, which opened in 1991 in the Farringdon district of London, about a 20-minute walk north of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
When I recently met with co-founder Michael Belben, he was preparing to reopen after months of lockdown from the pandemic. Belben told me that the idea behind the gastropub, a word coined by a London food critic, was just a practical solution to a problem.
“We worked as a restaurant manager,” said Belben, referring to his co-founder, chef David Eyre. “We liked restaurants, but we couldn’t afford to eat in places we liked because restaurants were very exclusive and expensive.”
Belben started serving more continental and Mediterranean dishes, a reminder of the kind of food the English enjoy on vacation, as they call it. The first menu included olive pie and pasta with grilled vegetables, parma ham with braised chicory and parmesan, and poached Venetian sausages with garlic pulp.
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“People were very excited,” recalls Belben. “It was very, very popular. We never imagined it would be so busy.”
Thousands of gastropubs have sprung up over the years, including some places I love to visit like the Anchor and Hope near London’s Waterloo Station and the Red Lion, a lovely riverside pub in Shepperton, not far from where I live in the capital city outskirts, in the county of Surrey.
The Eagle serves great food amid the eccentric, homely atmosphere that has been part of pub DNA for centuries. At the Eagle, that includes mismatched plates, many of which are chipped, and old rickety school chairs that Belben bought for about $ 3 a piece, with worn tables scattered around a wide open room with huge windows. The Eagle has an open kitchen behind the bar, where Chef Ed Mottershaw rattles the ingredients of one of the pub’s staples: Bife Ana. It’s a “rump steak sandwich, marinated in onions and garlic and chilli, black pepper, red wine, parsley, garlic, olive oil, served in a soft white bun with a little lettuce,” says Mottershaw, before roasting one for me on the grill .
When I bite into the sandwich, which costs around $ 20 (London prices and a weak dollar), it’s tender, spicy, and huge.
The eagle has lasted for more than three decades. Others London pubs like the Mayflower are older than the United States. But over the years, thousands of pubs have closed, in some cases because rising property prices make the land more valuable as living space.
Carlton Tavern toppled and rebuilt
This phenomenon led to the last stop on my trip: the Carlton Tavern, about 3 km north of Hyde Park. The Carlton is the answer to this riddle: which London pub is a hundred years old and also the newest?
The pandemic temporarily closed the UK’s 40,000+ pubs for months, but the Carlton closed years earlier after real estate developers illegally demolished it to build luxury housing.
Polly Robertson, a local businesswoman who has been going to the Carlton for decades, walked by one day in 2015 and saw heavy machinery hurtling into the walls of the pub. She spotted the developers across the street and asked them what they were doing. Little did the developers know Robertson was a pub patron, so they told her what they thought of the facility.
“They thought it was just a place for drunkards,” says Robertson.
The developers may have got away with it and just paid a $ 7,000 fine. Before that, however, Robertson and other local activists had alerted the government group then known as English Heritage, which is committed to the preservation of historic buildings. Before the builders sent in heavy machinery, the conservationists took hundreds of photos of the pub and planned to recommend it for protection. After it was destroyed, Robertson and other community activists took the developers to court. A judge ruled that they had to rebuild The Carlton brick by brick.
Today the Carlton looks like no other pub in London. With its red brick facade, slate roof, glazed wall tiles and beveled glass, it is a flawless replica of the 100-year-old original. When the Carlton finally reopened It was full in April when activists and neighbors came to celebrate.
“It’s incredible. I keep pinching myself,” said Maureen Pepper, a Carlton schoolteacher. She says the builders never understood the role Carlton played in the neighborhood, where people came to celebrate milestones, including baptisms, funerals, wake, and first communion.
“It’s the heart of the community,” says Pepper. “You have to stand up against people who don’t value your collective wealth.”
Rob Smyth, who works for an IT company, had his first beer at the Carlton as a teenager and was delighted to reopen the pub six years after it was destroyed.
“It’s not just the booze, it’s the camaraderie and the fun,” says Smyth, watching the people drink and chat at the picnic tables in the Carlton’s cobblestone courtyard.
“People are happy,” he adds, “and the British are not always happy, but here in the pub we are.”
NPR London producer Jessica Beck contributed to this story.
Travel advice: Pubs are open across London and the US and UK governments started reopening travel between the two countries in June. From Friday, the journey from America to England is still not easy. You’ll need to take a coronavirus test first, book and pay for two more tests to take after you arrive, and fill out a passenger locator form. Once in the country, visitors must be quarantined for 10 days.