Britain’s historic pubs have centuries of stories to tell about numerous eminent historical figures who have wined, dined and even danced around their tables. Whilst there are a number of pubs that compete for the title ‘the oldest in the country’, evidence around when the site was first licensed or when the building was constructed causes continual confusion around any one specific venue proving this claim.
Many in Britain though can claim to be at least 1,000 years old so here are 9 of the most historically significant pubs that are perfect for downing a pint whilst discovering some of Britain’s most famous people and places.
Established in 1550, and the oldest pub in London to be set by the Thames, The Mayflower is just dripping in history.
Set in the London homeport of Rotherhithe, the pub is located at the original mooring point of The Pilgrim Fathers’ Mayflower ship which, under the command of Captain Christopher Jones, set sail from the site in July 1620 to begin its epic journey to America.
The pub today still has some of the ship’s original timbers incorporated into its structure and anyone visiting who can claim direct descent from one of the Pilgrim fathers is welcome to sign the ‘Descendants Book’. Even if you can’t sign the book you can still enjoy the amazing riverside views from its terrace whilst inside offers wooden pews, a cosy fire and a lively, authentic atmosphere.
The Royal Standard of England is a traditional pub in Beaconsfield with a rich history. Over its 800-year history, it has served everyone from royalty to highwaymen.
Although the first official mention of the pub appears in 1213, the site is said to have been previously used an alehouse from Saxon times where beer was brewed.
During the 17th century, the pub became a popular meeting place for various groups of royalists, and one story claims that Charles II granted the pub permission to change its name from The Ship to the far grander Royal Standard of England in thanks for the venue allowing his father, Charles I, to hide from danger in its roof space.
One of the oldest pubs in London, the Spaniards Inn dates back to 1585 and is legendary for having hosted some of the world’s most famous literary names. Byron, Keats, and Dickens have all lurked around the dark wooden panelled dining room of the Hampstead-set tavern and literature fans will be kept busy exploring its truly heavy hitting history.
Not only was it immortalized in Charles Dickens’ ‘The Pickwick Papers’, it makes an appearance in Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula‘, whilst its humble garden is said to the be where John Keats sat and penned ‘Ode to a Nightingale’.
Founded in 1147, the second oldest pub in Wales is located in the historic village of Llangynwyd, which is built on a medieval commote.
In addition to being the oldest pub in South Wales, it claims to be the third oldest restaurant in the world. The basis of this historical claim lies with the building’s ‘cwtch’ (a Welsh word that has several meanings, but in this context refers to a storage space or large cupboard), which dates back to the 12th century. The cwtch is now refurbished but still boasts some original features, such as flagstone floors and wooden beams.
The pub still retains historical elements, including a thatched roof, and is a popular wedding venue.
Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem is a pub in Nottingham, England, which is one of several pubs claiming to be the oldest in England. Built into the rocks underneath Nottingham Castle, it was originally the castle’s brewhouse which dates from the medieval period.
The pub’s name derives from King Richard the Lionheart and his men gathering there before journeying to Jerusalem in 1189 AD. It was also said to be a local hideout for the legendary outlaw, Robin Hood.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of the pub is its rear rooms which are effectively small caves, carved out of the sandstone rock that sits underneath Nottingham Castle.
There are not many pubs in London that can claim to have served pints to pirates and princesses whilst hosting onsite wrestling matches and the occasional live hanging. The Prospect of Whitby is the exception.
Once known as The Devils Tavern, and dating back to 1520, this riverside watering hole was a popular hang out for a clientele of decidedly dubious quality. Smugglers, pirates, cutthroats, and robbers would lurk around this Dockland set tavern, trading everything from contraband to dead bodies.
A bohemian guest list ranging from Charles Dickens to Frank Sinatra to Princess Margaret has walked across its original stone floor. Today drinkers can enjoy the novelty of sipping a gin and tonic whilst gazing out at the replica gallows, which harks back to when the location was known as Execution Dock, a popular hanging place for troublesome pirates.
Since the middle of the 18th century, the Ten Bells has played a pivotal role in London’s illustrious history. Its real place in London history came through its unfortunate connection to one the most notorious crime stories in all of English history: that of the serial killer known as Jack the Ripper.
Ripper victims Mary Kelly and Annie Chapman were said to be frequent customers of the pub, with Chapman said to be leaving the Bells around 5am one morning, just moments before she was murdered a few streets away in the autumn of 1888. Equally, Mary Kelly, who worked as a sex worker at the time, was often seen standing directly at the entrance door, waiting to pick up potential customers.
A walk through the same doors today will still take you back in time. The pub’s interior is decorated floor to ceiling in original Victorian tiling.
Although its current building dates from 1720, a pub has been on this same site in London’s Limehouse district since 1583. The area of Limehouse was first settled as one of the few healthy areas of dry land among the riverside marshes, and by Queen Elizabeth I‘s time it was at the centre of world trade.
It first started serving local dockworkers and sailors of the Limehouse Basin shipping industry and claims to have served explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, who set sail from this point on this third voyage to the New World.
The neighbourhood became a popular haunt of writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle who used the local seedy atmosphere and characters as a setting for a Sherlock Holmes story.
Charles Dickens also used the local area for creative inspiration and included the pub in the opening chapter of his novel ‘Our Mutual Friend’. Visitors today can get cosy in the Dickens Snug area, where the author is said to have danced on the tables.
The Sheep Heid is the oldest surviving public house in Scotland and one of the oldest restaurants in the world. Set in the village district of Duddingston in Edinburgh, it dates to 1360 when King James VI and his mother Mary Queen of Scots are said to have been patrons.
The local village is located in what is now the city centre, near the royal residence of Holyrood Palace. King James VI of Scotland was a frequent visitor to the pub, as was his mother Mary Queen of Scots, and so fond was he of the venue that in 1580 he presented a gift to the landlord of a snuff box featuring a ram’s head, which may also have inspired the pub’s name.
Other famous patrons during the pub’s history have included the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, the poet Robert Burns, and Bonnie Prince Charlie, who often visited when his army was encamped for many weeks at Duddingston prior to the Battle of Prestonpans. In 2016, Queen Elizabeth II made a surprise visit for lunch after a day spent at a local racetrack.
The pub is home to Scotland’s oldest surviving bowling alley, also known as playing ‘skittles’, which was built in 1880 and the alley is still in use today and guests can rent an authentic set of 19th century skittles.