Nottingham Pubs by Dave Mooney
The Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham advertises itself as the oldest public house in the country, although at least two other pubs in the city have convincing, rival claims. With this in mind, it is obvious that our drinking heritage goes back a long way. When I took up the mantle of writing a book on the subject, I don't think I quite realised how far.
On reflection, I now feel that the origin of the Nottingham pub can be dated to the early Triassic Period – approximately two hundred and fifty million years ago.
Bear with me!
As any schoolboy knows, at that time, all of the land masses of the world were collected together into one giant super-continent: Pangaea. The area that now forms the United Kingdom was far to the south of its current position and the place that we now call Nottingham was underwater. Over time, sand was deposited – sand which would later form the red sandstone on which the city is built.
Skip forward to the time of Snot – the hilariously named Saxon chieftain that gave his name to the city. The Saxons realised that the strong, yet soft, sandstone was perfect for hollowing out and making caves. They started digging holes to serve a multitude of purposes – homes, tanneries, and (most importantly from our point of view) maltings. Here, they could dry malt all year round, protected from the elements. According to the early Victorian antiquarian, James Orange; this gave the people of “Snottingham” a distinct, competitive advantage when it came to the beer trade.
This was not the only impact that the sandstone had on the history of the city's pubs. It also affected the way that they are physically structured. The aforementioned Trip to Jerusalem, and the adjacent Brewhouse Yard – which used to brew ale for Nottingham Castle – are both cut into the majestic “Castle Rock” on which the ancient fortress is built.
Elsewhere in the city, more recent pubs, such as The Hand in Heart, are built into man made tunnels. Even when pubs appear conventional on the surface, there is a good chance that there are caves underneath them – often several levels deep – which are used as beer cellars.
Little wonder that Nottingham has long been referred to as the “city of caves”. The full extent of its subterranean excavations has yet to be mapped.
With this natural competitive advantage, Nottingham inevitably became famed across the region, and beyond, for the quality of its ale. Look at this, the opening verse from a song found in the Seventeenth Century comedy play, A Jovial Crew:-
Let 'em boast of their beer,
With a Hay-down, down, and a down!
I'll sing in the praise of good Sack:
Old Sack, and old Sherry,
Will make your Heart merry,
Without e'er a Rag to our Back.
When singing in praise of his “good Sack” (fortified wine), it is Nottinghamshire beers that singer compares it to.
This is not the only time that the qualities of Nottingham ale have been celebrated in song. A century later, a naval officer, by the name of Gunthorpe, composed a paean to the tipple, after receiving a barrel of it as a gift from his brother – the landlord of a pub called The Punch Bowl, in Peck Lane. Gunthorpe had obviously received a classical education and the verses are packed with delightful, tongue twisting allusions to Greek myth. The chorus, by contrast, is perfect for a roaring sing-along and has assured its place as a minor folk standard:-
Nottingham Ale, me boys, Nottingham Ale,
No liquor of earth's like Nottingham Ale!
By the middle of the Nineteenth Century, three local brewing giants had emerged that were to dominate the Nottingham pub trade – Shipstone's, Home Ales, and Kimberley Ales. All three closed in the years surrounding the turn of the millennium, but they have left an indelible imprint on the culture of the city and the surrounding area. A local joke purports to be the shortest story in existence. At just four words long, it plays upon the enervating reputations of the local breweries: “Shipstones Mild; Home, Bitter!”
A song emerged in the Nottingham folk clubs of the 1970s, which has gone on to live a life of its own in the repertoires of numerous singers across the East Midlands. From what I can make out, the words were originally composed by a local man named “Wokko”. Again the subject is Nottingham ale, and – as with the four word joke – it talks about the less than beneficial effects of the local brew. Set to a rousing medley of patriotic tunes, the lyrics detail the various gastric and cranial problems brought on by drinking Shipstone's Bitter. The chorus mentions Ivor Thirst – the brewery's mascot:-
Rule Britannia and God bless Ivor Thirst,
We'll keep drinking Shipstones 'til we burst!
Following the collapse of the three local titans, a whole crop of new, smaller breweries have emerged – some of these, like Castle Rock, have gained national attention and are well on their way to becoming giants in their own right. With a long-term, nationwide downturn in the fortunes of the pub trade, Nottingham seems to be bucking the trend. Everywhere you look, a new micro-pub, bottle shop, gin bar or hipster, craft ale joint seems to be popping up. They tend to be very different in character to the traditional pubs that the city is famed for, but this is only the latest development in a local preoccupation with a very long history.
Dave Mooney's new book Nottingham Pubs is available for purchase now.