As more people get vaccinated, they are beginning to think about travel again. But where to go? This summer, NPR’s international reporters explore captivating places that provide insights into the nations they cover. This is the first part of a series.
LONDON — One of the things I love most about living in England is pubs. There is nothing like sitting by a warm fire on a damp winter evening, drinking English ale with friends, or lounging on a wooden deck along the River Thames on a hot summer day, watching boats and kayaks pass by.
In England, where people are reserved compared to Americans, the pub counter, where you order your drinks and food, is one of the few places where it’s appropriate to strike up a conversation with a stranger.
Despite living here for a few years, I knew little of the history behind the pub. So, I recently laid out my own historical pub crawl across London, to learn about the origins of the quintessential British institution, how it evolved over time and the threats pubs now face.
I started at The Mayflower, which sits along the south bank of the Thames about a mile and a half downstream from Tower Bridge. I first got to know The Mayflower several years ago when I attended a Thanksgiving celebration there with fellow Americans. It was an appropriate venue. In 1620, the Mayflower, the ship, was moored just off shore and began its long voyage to what would become America. In honor of that trans-Atlantic connection, the pub flies a U.S. and British flag from either end of its deck.
Along the walls of the dimly lit pub today, you can see replicas of the notes some of the passengers left, bequeathing wages and jewelry to their loved ones if they failed to survive the journey. Behind the bar, manager Leigh Gillson keeps a guest book, signed by some of the passengers’ descendants who’ve visited.
“Back where it all began,” wrote Gardner Vydra, who moved from New York to London four years ago for a finance job and is a descendant of Mayflower passenger Isaac Allerton.
Private homes to public houses
To learn about the Mayflower and pubs in general, I invited George Dailey, author of one of the first books I bought when I arrived here, Great Pubs of London. Standing on the pub’s wooden deck as waves slapped against the pilings below, Dailey says the roots of the modern pub stretch back to the Middle Ages and the emergence of home brewing. The matron of the house brewed English ale. When families ended up with extra, they offered it to people in their communities, which evolved into the hospitality business. Dailey says the reason pubs have such a cozy, lived-in feel is because they began in people’s homes. Over time, pubs became the center of village life, catering to merchants, soldiers and pilgrims.
“Travelers would stop and ask for an ale and be drawn into the front room of one of these modest little homes with a log fire and were given an ale to drink and possibly some simple food,” Dailey says.
That food was very basic.
“I suppose you could describe it a bit like the food on the Mayflower,” Dailey says. “Salted pork and fish and meat.”
The precursor to the modern pub took various forms over the centuries, including taverns and inns, which were required by law to receive all travelers as long as they behaved reasonably and paid their bills.
Beginning in the 18th century, breweries began supplying more and more establishments and home-brewing dropped off. The word “pub,” short for public house, first came into use in the mid-19th century.
During Britain’s industrial era, pubs were a fixture of blue-collar life with factory and mine workers pouring into them after long shifts for a few pints before heading home. During the Swinging Sixties, some pubs dumped their Victorian decors and rebranded as theme venues — everything from Caribbean cocktail lounges to Wild West saloons — to attract young people.
The Eagle hatches gastropub
Then, in the early 1990s, came another iteration, the gastropub, which combined the beer selection and relaxed atmosphere of a pub with fine dining.
“It was revolutionary,” recalls Dailey, who says instead of bangers and mash, pubgoers could now enjoy French and Italian cooking with their ales. The venue credited with being the United Kingdom’s first gastropub is The Eagle, which opened in 1991 in London’s Farringdon district, about a 20-minute walk north of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
When I caught up with co-founder Michael Belben recently, he was preparing to reopen after months of pandemic lockdown. Belben told me the idea behind the gastropub, a word coined by a London food critic, was just a practical solution to a problem.
“We worked as restaurant managers,” said Belben, referring to his co-founder, chef David Eyre. “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.”
Belben began serving more Continental and Mediterranean dishes, a reminder of the types of food English people enjoy on holiday, as they call it. The first menu included olive pâté and pasta with grilled vegetables, Parma ham with braised chicory and Parmesan, and poached Venetian sausages with garlic mash.
“People were really excited about it,” Belben recalled. “It was very, very popular. We never dreamed that it would be as busy as it was.”
Over the years, thousands of gastropubs emerged, including some places I like to go, such as the Anchor and Hope, near London’s Waterloo station, and the Red Lion, a lovely riverside pub in Shepperton, not far from where I live on the capital’s outskirts, in county Surrey.
The Eagle serves good food amid the eccentric, homeyness that has been part of the pub DNA going back centuries. At The Eagle, this includes mismatched plates, many of them chipped, and old rickety school chairs that Belben bought for about $3 each, spread out with worn tables in a wide-open room with huge windows. The Eagle has an open kitchen behind the bar where chef Ed Mottershaw rattles off the ingredients of one of the pub’s staples: the Bife Ana. It’s a “rump steak sandwich marinated in onions and garlic and chili, black pepper, red wine, parsley, garlic, olive oil, served in a soft white bun with some lettuce,” Mottershaw says, before frying one up for me on the grill.
When I bite into the sandwich, which costs about $20 (London prices and a weak dollar), it’s tender, spicy and huge.
The Eagle has endured for more than three decades. Other London pubs, like the Mayflower, are older than the United States. But over the years, thousands of pubs have closed in part because rising real estate prices make the sites more valuable as housing.
Carlton Tavern toppled and rebuilt
That phenomenon led to the final stop on my journey: the Carlton Tavern, about 2 miles north of Hyde Park. The Carlton is the answer to this riddle: Which London pub is a century old and also its newest?
The pandemic temporarily shut down the U.K.’s more than 40,000 pubs for months, but the Carlton closed down years earlier after real estate developers illegally demolished it to build luxury apartments.
Polly Robertson, a local businesswoman who’s been going to the Carlton for decades, was walking past one day in 2015 and saw heavy machinery tearing into the pub’s walls. She spotted the developers across the street and asked them what they were doing. The developers didn’t realize Robertson was a pub patron and told her what they thought of the establishment.
“They thought it was just a place for drunks,” Robertson says.
The developers might have gotten away with it and just paid a $7,000 fine. But, earlier, Robertson and other local activists had alerted what was then known as English Heritage, a government group that helps preserve historical buildings. Before the developers sent in heavy machinery, the preservationists took hundreds of photos of the pub and planned to recommend it for protection. After it was destroyed, Robertson and fellow community activists took the developers to court. A judge ruled they had to rebuild The Carlton brick by brick.
Today, the Carlton looks like no other pub in London. With its red-brick facade, slate roof, glazed wall tiles and beveled glass, it’s a pristine replica of the 100-year-old original. When the Carlton finally reopened in April, it was packed as activists and neighbors turned out to celebrate.
“It’s unbelievable. I keep pinching myself,” said Maureen Pepper, a teacher who is one of the Carlton’s supporters. She says the developers never understood the role the Carlton played in the neighborhood, where people came to celebrate milestones, including baptisms, funerals, wakes and first communions.
“It’s the heart of the community,” Pepper says. “You have to stand up to people who don’t appreciate your community assets.”
Rob Smyth, who works for an IT firm, had his first pint at the Carlton as a teenager and was delighted to help reopen the pub six years after it was destroyed.
“It’s not just the alcohol, it’s the camaraderie and the fun,” says Smyth, surveying people drinking and chatting at the picnic tables spread out across the Carlton’s cobblestone courtyard.
“People are happy,” he adds, “and the Brits aren’t always happy, but here in the pub we are.”
NPR London producer Jessica Beck contributed to this story.
Travel note: Pubs are open across London, and the U.S. and U.K. governments began working in June to reopen travel between the two countries. As of Friday, traveling from America to England is still not easy. You must first take a coronavirus test, book and pay for two more tests to take after you arrive and complete a passenger locator form. Once in the country, visitors are required to quarantine for 10 days.