Britain’s Best Real Heritage Pubs
Wet your whistle with CAMRA’s guide to historic British pub interiors
When I first received the Campaign for Real Ale’s full colour guide to British pub interiors of ‘national significance’, I did what most people would do and flicked through to find out which was closest to me. I found the Salisbury, an imposing four-storey Victorian pile in Haringay, one of a number of ‘grand pubs’ which were erected around 1900. The architect was John Cathles Hill, who also built Queens in Crouch End to a similar style, both with subtle Art Nouveau decorative features.
Further leafing through the guide brings me from the pubs I know (some like Olde Cheshire Cheese in the City are all-out tourist attractions) to those I need to visit; the George in Southwark is England’s only Grade I listed pub, one of only two remaining galleried inns in England and a relic of the borough’s time as a major terminus for the coaching trade between London and the south.
The guide works its way through 270 pubs deemed by CAMRA to have maintained their historical interiors – just a fraction of the UK’s estimated 50,000 pubs. Repeated gutting and refitting means most have lost their original features, while many a pub offers a recently installed pastiche of historical alehouse interior that could as well have been flat-packed and re-erected anywhere else.
While we all carry an idea of the ‘traditional pub’ in our minds, it is interesting to see how drinking houses change regionally. Liverpool’s prosperity as second city of the British Empire at the end of the 19th century coincided with the golden age of pub building in the UK, and the guide singles out the Philharmonic and Vines as two of the three grandest pubs in the UK (the third is Crown Bar in Belfast). The Philharmonic also wins the guide’s accolade for finest pub loos, thanks to mosaic floors and urinals made of imitation Veronese marble. Over in Birmingham, many pubs are characterised by being built from red brick and terracotta, while in Scotland and Northern Ireland, pubs tend to be less grand, but a more pronounced culture of spirit drinking means many historic pubs have spirit casks at the bar. Scotland is also home to many Art Deco interiors in its inter-war pubs; Steps Bar and the Portland Arms in Glasgow are two striking examples.
Interspersed among the entries are short articles exploring the features of our drinking houses which make them the unique establishments they are, such as tile work and stained glass windows, while another chapter explains why, on the way to fetch another drink, you may notice faded signs indicating a ‘saloon’ or ‘news room’ (as well as a public bar or ‘vault’ which were no-frills rooms where working men could have a cheap pint, many pubs had more lush rooms, often carpeted and with table service, where the well-to-do could enjoy a drink at marked-up prices).
CAMRA’s guide is full of interesting details and anecdotes, and readers’ enthusiasm to visit the establishments it showcases is piqued by a (slightly irresponsible?!) log book at the back. The only criticism is that, apart from icons indicating which pubs serve real ale, no information is given on the quality of tipple one might encounter as you work your way through the book. And as CAMRA would agree, nothing can take your mind off these wonderful pub interiors as much as the taste of foul beer.
Britain’s Best Real Heritage Pubs – Pub Interiors of Outstanding Historic Interest
CAMRA, 2013, 290 pages, paperback, £9.99