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The "Museum Pubs" of London

The country inns of Britain have a character of their own, each differing from the rest and yet inheriting a "clubbable" sort of cosiness as old as Chaucer.*

* (Chaucer-Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340-1400), an English poet and the first great figure in the English literary history.)

London's public houses (or "pubs") are sometimes more anonymous, with fewer regular customers and a shorter tradition. But not all, and not always. And the latest development in their long and richly variegated history is the "museum pub", an innovation which has brought colour and character to five houses, all the property of the old-established London brewers, Whitbread & Co. Each is newly decorated, furnished, and stocked with prints, pictures and photographs, with models, heraldic blazons, and show-cases of exhibits, to illustrate a special theme peculiar to its history, its name, or its geographical position.

The newest museum pub is The Railway Tavern, Liverpool Street, in the bustling heart of the City,* hard by Liverpool Street Station (the terminus for the port of Harwich and the Continent, as well as for commuters** who live north-east of London), Broad Street Station (another busy terminus), and a couple of stations on the underground railway. So, properly enough, the businessman snatching an evening pint of beer, a whisky-and-soda or a glass of wine before returning to his home in the suburbs - or the more far-flung traveller from abroad, making possibly his first acquaintance with London stout, a slice of York ham or Scotch beef - finds plenty to interest him before he continues on his journey. Here are vari-coloured crests and coats-of-arms that once emblazoned the locomotives of such ancient and leisurely lines as the Rhymney Railway or the Somerset and Dorset Joint, the South Eastern and Chatham or the Belfast and County Down - a couple of dozen of them, that all puffed and chuffed and had their separate beings before being swallowed up, directly and indirectly, into the monolithic British Railways.

* (the City - that part of London, very small in area ("the square mile"), which in olden days had walls round it and is now the banking and commercial centre of Britain.)

** (commuters - (here) people who live near London'and travel daily to London to work.)

Here is a vast working model of a hundred-mile-an-hour monster locomotive - a machine to take a schoolboy's breath away; here a Currier and Ives* print of an American railway depot of the eighteen-seventies, and a coloured French engraving of a railway of the time of Louis Philippe,** and here a Victorian handbill forbidding engine drivers to smoke or to "skylark" - enchanting word! - on some forgotten company's platforms.

* (Currier and Ives - a U. S. firm of lithographers, founded in 1839 by Nathaniel Currier, later joined by James Merrit Ives; the subjects of Currier and Ives prints were scenes of American life, manners and history.)

** (Louis Philippe - French King, reigned 1830-1848.)

Many a model-railway club has already made pilgrimages to The-Railway Tavern, just as cricketers frequent The Yorker, in Piccadilly, and oarsmen The Coach and Eight,* up river, at Putney.

* (The Coach and Eight - the term, originally used to describe a coach (carriage) and horses, in this case refers to the coach (trainer) and eight oarsmen of a rowing-boat.)

Piccadilly is in London's elegant and urbane West End, and here The Yorker (named after the ball that in cricket is pitched well up at the batsman's stumps) is not only a public house and restaurant but a museum devoted to the ritual game of the English - an urbane and elegant pursuit that has lent itself to handsome prints and paintings and to nostalgic sights of Lancashire vs Yorkshire or Oxford vs Cambridge or England vs Australia battles of long ago - many of them pictured here.

Mention of contests between Oxford and Cambridge is a reminder of The Coach and Eight, at Putney, the riverside suburb that is the starting point of the historic four-and-a-half mile Oxford vs Cambridge Boat Race from Putney to Mortlake. No doubt the pub's name once referred to a stage coach and its team of horses, but now it is meant to celebrate the trainer and his crew of equally hard-pressed oarsmen. Here, in bar and restaurant, are relics from prows to rudders of such famous craft as the Cambridge boat that deadheated* with Oxford in 1877; oars and pictures of oarsmen. A museum - and yet a living and a lively museum - for at the bar the oarsmen of today celebrate feats of oarsmanship, or recall in the restaurant historic struggles that were waged on water.

* (to deadbeat - to come to the finish at precisely the same moment.)

In the same way, The Printer's Devil, in Fetter Lane, off Fleet Street among the printing works and the great newspaper offices, is frequented by journalists (men and women), printers and compositors, to say nothing of the lawyers and their clerks from the Law Courts* and the ancient Inns of Court** nearby. Upstairs one dines beneath gaily coloured prints - Gould's*** birds, or nineteenth-century sporting scenes, and wickedly fin de siecle**** Beardsley***** drawings - all examples of the art of printing.

* (the Law Court - see the Royal Courts of Justice, note.)

** (Inns of Court - the four English legal societies (Lincoln's Inn, Inner Temple, Middle Temple, Gray's Inn), originated in the 13th century when the clergy ceased to practise in the Law Courts, and their place was taken by lay professors and students of law. The Inns provide lectures and examine candidates for admission to the bar. The Temple dates back to about 1130; Gray's Inn is known to have existed as a school of law in the 14th century; Lincoln's Inn moved to its present site between 1412 and 1422, the building dating back to the early 13th century.)

*** (Gould - Nathaniel Gould (1857-1919), an English novelist and traveller.)

**** (fin de siecle - (Fr.) end of century; characteristic of the end of the 19th century.)

***** (Beardsley - Aubrey Vincent Beardsley (1872-1898), a British artist.)

In the bar are exhibits of type, photographs of presses, and cases of historic early books.

This is perhaps the most unusual of all the museum pubs, but it may be that for many people The Nag's Head in Covent Garden, close to the famous fruit, flower and vegetable market and London's two most renowned theatres (the Royal Opera House* and the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane**) is the most enchanting.

* (the Royal Opera House - more familiarly known as the Covent Garden Theatre, the principal home of grand opera and ballet in London; the present building (1856-1858, architect - Edward M. Barry) is the third on the site and has seats for about 2,000.)

** (the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane - the official name for the Drury Lane Theatre, one of the largest (3,000 seats) in London, long noted for spectacular drama and pantomime, but now better known for musical comedy. The theatre, the fourth on this site, was built in 1809-1812 by Benjamin Wyatt.)

The Nag's Head is a house that (because of the law's tenderness towards the market man, who may wash the chill of dawn out of his throat as early as five o'clock in the morning) has the longest licensing hours of any pub in England. The food is traditionally British, as at the other houses I have mentioned. Here one can eat roast beef in a room decorated with designs for opera and ballet sets and costumes, while downstairs, where playbills plaster the columns of the bar, many a man has lifted an innocent pint of bitter, his only drink of the day, under a Victorian poster proclaiming "The Road to Ruin!"

Here, of an evening, one may see at the bar, at one and the same time, a bowler-hatted businessman, having a sandwich between leaving his office and dropping in at "The Drury" (the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane) to see a lavish new musical; a ballet-dancer, slaking a thirst acquired at rehearsal on the stage of the Royal Opera House; and a market man from one of the warehouses, whose colleagues will be unloading Brussels sprouts and broccoli, carrots and chrysanthemums, before the morrow's dawn has broken.

(Le Lingue del Mondo)

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