British Pub Evolution, From Pilgrims To Posh Cuisine, In A Crawl Across London The quintessential British institutions have changed over time and now face threats to their very existence.

Pair Your Pints With A Trip Through History On This British Pub Crawl Across London

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As vaccines continue to roll out, more people are thinking about traveling again. But where to go? Well, this summer, NPR's international reporters are exploring captivating places that explain a lot about the countries they cover. It's a travel series we're calling Wish You Were Here. Today, in a real hardship assignment, NPR's Frank Langfitt travels across London, searching for the soul of the British pub.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: I'm beginning my journey here on the south bank of the River Thames. I'm at The Mayflower pub. And that's because there's really a long and rich history right here. It's not just for British people, but Americans, too.

GEORGE DAILEY: So the Mayflower pulled up here at high tide. And 65 people with their possessions would have moved on board.

LANGFITT: This is George Dailey. He wrote one of the first books I bought when I moved here. It's called "Great Pubs Of London." And he's talking about the ship the Mayflower, which started its voyage to America from this spot in 1620. Over time, the names have changed. But a pub has stood here for more than four and a half centuries.

DAILEY: There's records showing in 1550 it was called The Ship, and it stayed as The Ship until when it became The Spread Eagle. And that carried right on through 'til 1957, when, in honor of the great voyage, they renamed it The Mayflower.

LANGFITT: We're looking out over the muddy Thames rolling by, and I ask George something that I've always been curious about.

Where did pubs come from?

DAILEY: Well, you have to go back to the very early days, and you have to understand a bit about beer...

LANGFITT: (Laughter).

DAILEY: ...Or ale. Brewing was a continuous thing in the Middle Ages. Ale was brewed by wives. Some had some surplus. And so they would offer it to people in their communities. It morphed into hospitality as we know it.

LANGFITT: And so - and it started off in homes. Is that why pubs still have such a homey feel to them?

DAILEY: That's very well-put. It goes right back to their origins - when they first started in a room in somebody's home, which was warm and cozy and welcoming.

LANGFITT: At the time, they were called ale houses. And they were the center of village life and catered to merchants, soldiers and pilgrims.

DAILEY: Travelers would stop in one of these little modest little homes with a log fire and were given an ale to drink and possibly some simple food.

LANGFITT: Pub is short for public house. And during Britain's industrial era, factory and mine workers would pour into pubs after long shifts. They'd maybe have a few pints and head home. And then, as now, the English are, frankly, pretty reserved, especially compared to Americans. And pubs provide this rare space where they can kind of be themselves. For instance, the pub counter - that's where you order drinks and food. It's one of the few places in the country where it's acceptable to strike up a conversation with a stranger. Now, pubs continued to evolve. And back in the '90s came this new kind. It was called the gastropub.

DAILEY: It was revolutionary. Instead of serving just bread and cheese and beer, they started to produce good continental dishes, very good food at very good value prices.

LANGFITT: And that wasn't true in the earlier years.

DAILEY: No, definitely not.

LANGFITT: What was the food like back then?

DAILEY: I suppose you could describe it a bit like the food on the Mayflower. It was salted pork and (laughter) fish and meat, and it was very, very basic.

LANGFITT: Do you know much about The Eagle, the one on Farringdon Road?

DAILEY: Very, very famous pub. They're very brave boys. They put good food in fairly ordinary surroundings, and people absolutely flocked to them.

LANGFITT: Can I get you to sign my book?

DAILEY: Of course I can. Yeah. OK, Frank, a pleasure to meet you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUS ENGINE STARTING)

LANGFITT: I'm on the upper deck of a double-decker bus crossing the river. And at about another five minutes north, we're going to hit The Eagle, which is Britain's first gastropub, which is basically a pub with restaurant-quality food. These days, they're common all over the U.K. and elsewhere. But it all started back in 1991 with a guy named Michael Belben.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...To Kings Cross.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUS HISSING)

MICHAEL BELBEN: Hi.

LANGFITT: Hi, Michael. How are you?

BELBEN: Busy.

LANGFITT: So what are you recommending today? What have you got?

BELBEN: We're famous for our steak sandwich.

LANGFITT: Behind the bar there's this open kitchen. And the chef - his name's Ed Mottershaw.

ED MOTTERSHAW: The steak sandwich here, which we call a Bife Ana - it's a rump steak sandwich marinated in onions and garlic and chili, black pepper...

LANGFITT: I knew Michael was going to be busy at lunchtime, so I stopped by a bit earlier to find out how he and his business partner came up with this concept.

BELBEN: We liked restaurants, but we couldn't really afford to eat in the sort of places that we liked because restaurants were very exclusive and expensive.

LANGFITT: What was the reaction to this mix of a classic London pub, but with really - you know, much more sophisticated food?

BELBEN: People were really excited about it. We never dreamed that it would be as busy as it was.

(SOUNDBITE OF PUB AMBIENCE)

LANGFITT: Our beef sandwiches are now arriving. Oh, my gosh. They're huge. That is a lot of beef. All right.

(SOUNDBITE OF SANDWICH CRUNCHING)

LANGFITT: Oh, wow - very soft and very spicy, nice beef sandwich.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN WHIRRING)

LANGFITT: I'm on the tube now, and I'm heading to the last stop of our pub journey. It's the Carlton Tavern. And I want to go to the Carlton because I think it really shows what a pub can mean to a community and why pubs are at such great risk these days. Now, the Carlton is also the answer to this riddle. What London pub is a century old and also the city's newest? The Carlton shut down about six years ago under pretty wild circumstances.

POLLY ROBERTSON: The bulldozers were knocking things down - furniture, the TV, the piano.

LANGFITT: This is Polly Robertson, and she's been coming to the Carlton for decades. In 2014, real estate developers bought the pub to turn it into luxury apartments. Because of the high real estate prices here, pubs are often much more valuable as housing. And that's one reason why thousands of pubs have disappeared in the U.K. in the past decade. The developers ordered workers to tear down the Carlton, even though it was historically protected. As heavy machinery ripped into the building, Polly spotted the developers across the street.

ROBERTSON: So I walked over to them, and I said, what the hell is going on? They didn't realize I was part of the community. Unfortunately for them, they voiced exactly what they thought of our community.

LANGFITT: What did they say?

ROBERTSON: Their thought was that it was just a place for drunks.

LANGFITT: With the pub in ruins, Polly and the other community activists - they took the developers to court.

LANGFITT: The outcome of the hearing was the building had to be rebuilt brick by brick.

LANGFITT: Today, the Carlton looks remarkable. There's this red brick facade, slate roof, beveled glass...

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING ON TILE)

LANGFITT: ...And glazed wall tiles. They were able to rebuild the Carlton as a near-perfect replica of the original. When the pub reopened for the first time in April, supporters turned out to celebrate.

MAUREEN PEPPER: It's unbelievable. I keep pinching myself.

LANGFITT: This is Maureen Pepper. She says the developers - they never understood the role a pub like the Carlton can play in a neighborhood.

PEPPER: It's the heart of the community because it's been used so many times for important milestone celebrations, like baptisms, funerals, wakes, first communions. You have to stand up to people who don't appreciate your community assets.

LANGFITT: Pubs are also a cozy, laid-back place to share a pint and chat for people who are neither laid-back nor chatty by nature. Rob Smyth first drank here as a teenager.

ROB SMYTH: It's not just the alcohol. It's the camaraderie and the fun, and people are happy. And us Brits aren't always happy. But here in the pubs, we are.

LANGFITT: Pubs are one of the things that makes Britain Britain. COVID forced them to close for many months, making people probably appreciate them even more. In a poll last year, people said what they missed most during lockdown was seeing family; in second place, restaurants and, as the Brits like to say, going down the pub. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, the Carlton Tavern, London.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE JAM SONG, "MUSIC FOR THE LAST COUPLE")

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Cheers, Frank. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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