The Wheatsheaf pub in Southwell, which has recently lost its inn sign. Picture credit: John Morrison / Alamy Stock Photo

Inn decline

There is an iconoclastic assault on the British pub — we need a campaign for real inn signs

Artillery Row

The rot began a few years ago with the loss of a public poem. The Hearty Goodfellow pub in Southwell, Nottinghamshire had for long had inscribed on its sidewall some verses that began “I am a Hearty Goodfellow” and went onto describe how the aforesaid jolly chap liked to enjoy a pint with a lass on his lap, or words to that effect. 

They are now so sadly effaced that they are lost to history, memory and even Google. When I mention their eradication to locals they look vague, or shrug – “refinement culture” is as good at wiping out the truth of the past as any totalitarian regime. Or better, as it operates without blood or tears. 

Presumably this erasure heralded the arrival of liberal puritan norms even in this corner of Nottinghamshire, that is remote and unknown by token of being just off the main old throughfares of the Great North Road, the Fosseway and the River Trent, and not now signposted from any of them. Despite the heroic efforts of past Cavaliers along the strategic fault line which is the Trent valley, the Roundheads have now won, though they no longer protect family values, even though their Ranter wing is also out of fashion and favour. 

Real inn-signs matter every bit as much as real ale

More recently they have consolidated their victory. For twenty years now my morning spirits on my way to my favourite café hangout with the other grumpy old men of the town had been cheered by the sight of a Lawrentian farmer, on the sign of The Wheatsheaf tavern: pipe in mouth, bale over shoulder, while a glint in his eye suggested that he might just have tumbled a posh beauty on a harvest afternoon. But suddenly he had vanished (where, I must discover) to be replaced by a corporate chain logo depicting a minuscule and innocuously literal wheatsheaf, offending noone and beckoning or inviting noone inside either. 

The farmer has now gone the way of the Admiral: one of many Admiral Rodneys up and down England, but now he is no longer here depicted, just prosaically named. The Saracen’s Head as both depiction or name still survives, but only after local resistance to no doubt Lib Dem attempts to extirpate this memory of the Crusades and King Richard, on the very edge of Robin Hood country. (Reversion to its older name, The King’s Head, might not have gone down well under our new reign, since it was the very place where the first King Charles spent his last night of freedom before being handed over to the Scots army at nearby Upton.) 

Meanwhile, down on the Trent itself, The ancient Bromley Arms at Fiskerton has for quite long since become the pretentious The Bromley, with its name and coat of arms no longer emblazoned on a nautical cross-bar over the tow-path. In an English latter-day revolution, the aristocracy do not lose their heads, but are more effectively extirpated by embourgeoisement. 

So why is no one protesting? Real inn-signs matter every bit as much as real ale and we have seen in that case how old reality can return and win the day. Tradition can have a future and the tradition of English (mainly) inn-signs is something unique. 

They were originally put up in the Twelfth Century to aid those who could not read, but still today they record visually our history: medieval kings totemised as hart and boar, an older popery (The Crossed Keys), the truce after the wars of the Roses (The Rose and Crown), the arrival of an insistent Scottish King on the English Throne (The Red Lion) and later the emergence of industry (The Railway) and of mass sport (The Cricketers). 

The names may still survive but the pictures are more vivid and somehow mysteriously enigmatic – indicating a cult of ale that is our English Bacchic or Dionysiac, always in cheerful collaboration and tension with the Christian cult of more restful and less rowdy wine, so often proximate. Then there are all those far stranger names and their less obvious accompanying images – The Case is Altered, The Gate Hangs Well, I am the Running Footman, The Bucket of Blood, The Moon Under Water. 

The only proper name for this is iconoclasm

This is not just our history, it is also our mystique – what we keep hidden under the pretence to foreigners that we are reserved, stoic, polite, understated and ironic etc. It won’t really do for them to see what happen in woodland copses on moonlit nights, or the ritual goings-on at obscure festivals and fairings. And it is also a dispersed treasury of vernacular art – now apparently consigned, without protest, to lumber-rooms or even the bonfire. 

The only proper name for this is iconoclasm, a continued outworking of the Calvinism that we had fondly imagined to have exiled to the other side of the Atlantic. For once images of God and of the God-Man (the very heart of Christianity, and the secret subject of every inn-sign, that is really always about mediation) are disallowed, then any and every depiction soon comes under suspicion. 

Does it caricature, does it offend some group or other, is it too much in favour of monarchy and boisterousness? Well one can only hope so, but of course that must condemn such things to dust and desuetude. Not, of course, that whig watering-places and their insignia are faring any better: an older liberality and constitutionalism is as subject to suspicion as all the rest of the gloriously ancient. 

What lies behind this and what can we do? The answer to the first question is perhaps a kind of rage against significance. How else to explain the criminal felling of the Sycamore at Sycamore Gap on Hadrian’s wall – itself like a kind of outdoor living inn-sign, cheering walkers on their way? Only non-mimetic writing and seemingly innocuous naming will not upset – anything aristocratically overweening or artisanly relaxing, moonily sublime or cheeringly grotesque cannot be permitted. Otherwise, we would need road-signs everywhere to warn us of what we were about to see, like the warnings which now have to precede every drama on TV – as if we were all potentially frightened horses. 

As to the second question, what to do? Well no new pubs (if that ever happens again) should be named The Frightened Horse. But it would be nice if there were many newly named Sycamore Gap or even some were called The Felled Sycamore (with pictures) to warn customers that they should respect both nature and meaning, on gloomier Friday nights in the early Autumn. 

But above all someone need to found CAMPRIS – a campaign for the preservation of real inn-signs. The example of CAMRA shows that this could succeed. It could be a vital part of a needed endeavour to save and renew old England, along with its churches, parishes and (old and genuine) counties. It would also belong to a wider effort to banish refinement to parlour-rooms by no rivers or greens, where noone (save a few Lib Dems and atheist teetotallers) could possibly want to sit and idle away an evening or even the livelong day.

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