The Perfect Pub part 1 – Naming a Public House

The Perfect Pub 

1: Naming a Public House

The Draw:

As a child in the mid-1980s, I remember summers spent in the back of a car watching Cornwall go past the window. My father and his friend are keen birdwatchers and we’d shuttle from coast to RSPB reserve. There’s an image I’ve harboured for years from these outings – I’d see it pass from my low vantage point in the backseat: a hanging sign of a man pulling a bucket out of a well and floating in that bucket, a severed human head. The pub in question was The Bucket of Blood (B.o.B) – a St Austell pub near Hayle and it gave me the creeps. Though fascinated, I willed the car to keep moving on.

Googling the sign now the image is more restrained. An astonished man spills the contents of a bucket which are red. I sought to confirm my memory with Cornish residents and am thankful to beer writers Boak and Bailey as well as Rod Davis the pubs officer for the local branch of CAMRA. They don’t recall it. My father and sister seem to remember the severed head too when I prompt them. The power of suggestion?
There are two theories to the pub’s name: firstly, a local drew up a bucket from a well. It was filled with blood and he realised there was the body of a murdered man at the bottom (some accounts go further and suggest the victim worked for revenues & customs). 
The other version says it was simply that tin in the ground turned the water red and the name derives from that – it was even used to brew a dark beer. Oddly, these competing theories are posted on St Austell’s corporate website for the B.o.B and the B.o.B’s own website. I’m sceptical about the butchered body story as I think it reflects a template we like to impose on Cornwall: the county has been romanticised into a lawless hinterland more than any other part of Britain has. The locals become complicit in smuggling, the black market and ship wrecking. I can’t say the word cove without thinking of clandestine tunnels, the full moon and flint pistols. Daphne du Maurier has a lot to answer for. 

Whether or not my recollection is accurate, the title causes a buzz and immediately draws questions. These signs jut out from buildings or are stuck in the ground like beacons in time and space. Meanings and relevance are often lost and back-engineered but the character – the attitude endures. My child’s memory, however much I’ve embellished it, has stuck with me for decades. The perverse thing is I really want to go to that pub now. The repulsion has matured into attraction. 

History and Place:

The Great Northern, St Albans

On London Road in St Albans is a pub called The Great Northern. I can’t think about the pub without also thinking about the walk from St Albans to Hatfield. This is because the free house is situated just down the road from one of the access lanes to that walk and because it’s named after what that track was in a previous life: The Great Northern Railway. The main line linked London to York but it had many local offshoots. St Albans’ opened to commuters from 1865 to 1951. The line continued just for freight until 1969 and then the tracks were removed completely. The train’s trajectory, so to speak, still exists as the Alban Way and is a pleasure to both walkers and cyclists. It’s a long, straight, deeply sunk gangway mostly under tree cover. You can actually walk past the concrete and wooden remains of the station platforms which you encounter at around chest height. The original platform station for London Road is now a children’s nursery but the building is completely intact – one of the best preserved in the country.
There are quite a few pubs in England called The Great Northern for the same historic reason. It perfectly links up place with past.

To continue with St Albans as an example, the following pubs also link their titles to local history: The King Offa (now closed) is named after the 8th Century monarch who probably founded the original St Albans Abbey. The Chalk Drawers Arms is named after the workers who mined chalk from the surrounding hills. The Six Bells reflects an archaic bell mechanism in the nearby parish church. The Duke of Marlborough (now closed) takes its name from the owner of Holywell House which was located opposite the pub until 1827. The Garibaldi is named after freedom fighter Giuseppe Garibaldi who visited the city in 1864. Though they all forge historic links, I can’t attach any personal experiences to any of them in the same way. The Great Northern therefore has the biggest effect on me because of the long walks in summer. The more you remember the connection, the more the connection is embedded. 

What used to be part of the GNR – now the Alban Way

There is one more pub that links directly into its own past but also links beautifully to the next section: Ye Olde Fighting Cocks that used to be a cockfighting pit.

Pub Title Crimes:

An alternative name for the aforementioned pub could be The Old Misunderstanding. It would be spelt thus:

Ye Olde Mifunderftandinge

You might be aware that in older texts, the letter “s” is often represented as an “f” making the word succour much more fun to read out. If I were to read misunderstanding as mifunderftanding and say that that’s how they used to pronounce it, I’d obviously be wrong. Similarly, when we see “ye olde” and pronounce it “yee oldee”, we’re not pronouncing anything archaically either. In Tudor times, a letter that used to be in the English language – the thorn – got replaced by a “y” which looked similar in printing cap. Therefore when we see “ye olde”, it’s actually pronounced “the old” just like it is now. I’m much more irritated by this souvenir biscuit tin nostalgia than I should be. It seems to be a misconception that started on these shores too – we bastardised our own mother tongue into this ruff-collared tweeness!

Known locally as the fighters (not ye olde fighters)

Resetting the Trend:

I think it’s a shame that we don’t link our pubs to local or contemporary things as much as we should or used to. Occasionally thought is given, though. A bar in the middle of London’s financial district is called The Arbitrager. I’d never understood what the title meant (still not completely sure now) but it’s to do with making money from exploiting the differences in the buying and selling of commodity prices. It captures perfectly what makes the area around it tick. 

A few pubs changed their names to The Duchess of Cornwall following the last Royal wedding but it’s not imaginative enough. We need to be taking our cues from real life events that are out of the ordinary. Last year for example, the keys to The Carlton Tavern in Maida Vale were left with contractors so they could complete cosmetic work to the interior on behalf of the owner. The landlady returned to find the pub demolished! This caused a public outcry and Westminster City Council ordered it to be rebuilt. It just so happens that during the First World War, the pub was also demolished by a hand-dropped bomb from a German Gotha aircraft. Once rebuilt again, The Carlton Tavern should be renamed The Gotha and Wrecking Ball or The Bomb & Bulldozer and hopefully outlive them both.

To come back in my home town, the legend associated with Saint Alban is that when the Roman executioner cut Alban’s head off, the Roman’s eyeballs popped out of his head and landed in a bush while the saint’s head bounced down the hill. From this treasure trove of possibilities we could have An Eye for a Bush, The White Stick & Gladius, The Severed Saint, The Bouncing Bonce or The Eyeballs & Squirrel.

In 1832, the rector in charge of the church’s restoration funds, Mr Small, stole all the money in the account and legged it. It was at the time the largest bank fraud ever committed in England. Here we could go with The Rector’s Swag, The Clergyman’s Flight, Sod the Roof or The Empty Coffer.

Bag o’ Nails is reputedly a corruption on Bacchanals

In 1870, the architect Sir George Gilbert Scott saved the abbey’s tower from sudden and total collapse but was forced to direct the repairs from his sick bed: The Architect’s Bed, The Timbers in Haste, The Cracked Tower. You get the picture.

So let’s bring it into the present day. Last year in Fontmell Close, St Albans, a huge sinkhole opened up overnight and made national headlines. The surrounding properties had been built on ground that up till the First World War housed brick kilns and the raw material was mined from directly underneath them. The hole was eventually filled with concrete and bore holes were made around the site to try and gauge what’s actually underneath. I’m pleased to say that nobody was hurt. The pub titles here could be The Sink Hole, The Concrete Plug, The Brick Kiln’s Ghost or The All Fall Inn. From the point of view of one of the homeowners, The Motivated Seller.

In Britain we have developed a bizarre way of naming our pubs – free from any kind of restriction. This culture is completely unique and unregulated though susceptible to imitation and meme. Struggling to think what I can compare it to, the closest I can think of are the titles of novels. The name can be literally anything – descriptive, ambiguous or satirical. It can be a concrete noun (The Boot), a notion (The Load of Mischief), a saying (The Hung, Drawn and Quartered), a corruption (Bag o’ Nails from Bacchanals) or a comment (I am the Only Running Footman). Admittedly, the majority plump for the unimaginative: Royal Standard, Cross Keys, Red Lion, Queen’s/King’s/Duke’s Head, White Swan, Black Bull, Fleur de Lys, Rose & Crown, Victoria, Albert, Royal Oak, Globe, Fox, Crooked Billet et cetera. There might be an interesting tale behind pubs bearing those names, but it’s the oddities that stand out. If the illustration stops people in their tracks too like The Bucket of Blood, it becomes all the more potent.

More about what makes a perfect pub here

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