Revisiting The Death of the Naval Pub
Holiday time, i.e. minimal opportunity to think about blogging, but in any case, I thought it was high time I re-posted one of the most popular posts ever on this site – I can’t quite believe I first published this here almost five years ago! The content stands up pretty well, I think, although alas, that’s not necessarily true of all the pubs mentioned…the most tragic case is that of the iconic Lord Nelson in Burnham Thorpe, mentioned below, which closed a couple of years ago and which is currently on the market. (Beer loving naval history enthusiasts with £350,000 to spare, your time has come.) On the other side of the coin, though, not all refurbishments are bad news for a pub’s heritage. In a previous life, when I lived and worked in Bedford, one of my favourite pubs in the town was The Ship – or rather, the St Cuthbert’s Street Ship, as it’s known, because, unlikely though it might seem in a town so far from the sea, Bedford actually has two pubs called The Ship. With low beams, tiny rooms and quirky corners, the Ship ticked pretty well all my boxes for a pub, so my heart sank when I saw it had been refurbished. Fortunately, though, most of its character has been retained, and better still, they’ve added several pictures of the last HMS Bedford, a cruiser which was wrecked on the Korean coast in 1910, thus allowing it to qualify as a ‘naval pub’ under my entirely objective and scientific criteria, set out below. So, pub owners and landlords, you know what you need to do – put up a picture or two of an old warship, and you’re guaranteed free publicity in this blog.
MPs, newspaper columnists and bloggers galore have sounded off on the subject of the reasons for the decline of the British pub. No doubt sociologists aplenty have written, or are writing, weighty doctoral theses on the subject. Even I had my two penn’orth a few years back, in my old blog . (And if you really have too much time on your hands and want to read my thoughts, they’re here and here – although it’s interesting that in the four years or so since I wrote those posts, binge drinking itself, and the violence fuelled by it, have gone into a steep decline in their turn.) But as far as I’m aware – and I’d be delighted if somebody out there proves me wrong – nobody has yet explored the demise of an important, but sorely neglected, sub-species of the British pub: the good, old-fashioned, naval boozer.
First, a definition or two – just what is a ‘naval pub’? For the purposes of this post, I’ll cast the net widely. Obviously, there are the pubs that are, or were, frequented by large numbers of serving sailors. The problem with this category, of course, is that there simply aren’t ‘large numbers of serving sailors’ any more, and if one believes what one reads (and even the navy’s own publicity), many of the current crop are more likely to be listening to their iPods or reading The Guardian‘s fashion pages while sipping cappuccinos than throwing eight pints down their necks in the Admiral Napier. As a result, many of the countless pubs that catered to naval personnel in the dockyard towns have fallen by the wayside. A classic example is the decline of the once-notorious Union Street in Plymouth, which I knew a little in the 1980s, long after its heyday, while following the closure of the dockyard in 1984, Chatham lost such evocative naval names as the Boatswain and Call, the Lord Duncan, and the Shipwrights Arms.
The second category consists of pubs with genuine roots in naval history. Perhaps the classic example of this genre would be the Lord Nelson at Burnham Thorpe in Norfolk: the pub where Nelson himself drank (indeed, it now markets itself as ‘Nelson’s local’), in his own home village, and the first one in Britain to be renamed after him following his death. But there are plenty of other pubs with Nelson connections, such as the Royal Hotel in Deal, where he stayed with Emma Hamilton, and the Lord Nelson at Milford Haven, where in 1802 he delivered a speech extolling the virtues of the great Welsh natural harbour. (2019 update – I’d never actually been for a drink in this Lord Nelson, but remedied that last year. Crassly, it contains hardly any references to its namesake and its heritage.) Another great pub steeped in naval history is the Trafalgar Tavern in Greenwich, right next to the Old Royal Naval College (or as it’s better known these days, ‘that place that turns up in pretty much every blockbuster movie’). But since the navy moved out of the college, the pub seems to have become a bit neglectful of its naval heritage; and perhaps the surest sign of its decline is that on one recent occasion when I went in there, another of the customers was Graham Norton.
My third and final category would be pubs with naval names. In the dockyard towns, there’s a considerable overlap with the first category; in Portsmouth until quite recently, for instance, Jack Tar could stagger from the Ship Anson to the Ship Leopard to the Keppel’s Head to the Victory, and then round the corner to the Royal George and the Invincible, all of which were within roughly a 300 yard radius of each other, immediately outside the dockyard gate. There used to be quite a few more in the same vicinity, and the principal street name, The Hard, inadvertently gave a pretty good pointer toward the sort of behaviour to be expected in the area on a Saturday night. But the naval name used to be a common feature of towns throughout the country. My own home town, Llanelli, was a port, but it had hardly any direct connections with the navy. Even so, at one time it had a Britannia Hotel, a Lord Nelson, a British Tar, a Trafalgar Inn and a Neptune Inn, as well as many more pubs with ‘maritime’ names, like the Ship, the Sailors Home, the Steam Packet, the Sloop Aground and The Three Mariners. Pubs called the Lord Nelson were everywhere; until relatively recently, there was even one in Stourport-in-Severn, far inland, which is where my Worcestershire ancestors hailed from. But one of my favourite examples of the naval name popping up in unexpected places is the Torbay at Ffairfach in Carmarthenshire. Ffairfach is a suburb of Llandeilo and is a long way inland, but its pub seems to have been named after an eighteenth century Torbay – perhaps an early landlord had served on her? – and to this day, the pub sign is a remarkably creditable painting of the ship. (2019 update – no longer, alas. The splendid pub sign weathered terribly, and I believe has been replaced by something far blander.)
The problems with the pubs bearing naval names are that, firstly, there are far fewer of them than there were, and with each one that closes, an entire point of contact between a community and Britain’s naval history disappears. But even in those that survive, the naval connection is often downplayed or ignored entirely: pictures of old ships do not necessarily sit well with wannabe Jamie Olivers trying to create rural gastropub heaven (or, in the humble opinion of the present blogger, hell). Worse, I know pubs where good old solid British oak beams and bars have been painted white ‘to give a friendlier/warmer/more feminine feel’ (most disastrously at my village local, although that doesn’t have a naval name or connection – 2019 update: thankfully, the next refurbishment got rid of much of the white!). A case in point was the Old Custom House in Portsmouth, one of the few old buildings to survive within the ghastly Gunwharf Quays complex that was erected on the site of the old HMS Vernon training establishment. When the pub first opened, in 2001, it had a large number of pictures and other memorabilia of Vernon, but most of that was discarded at the first refurbishment only a few years later. On the other hand, a few ‘pubcos’ have a rather better record, notably the much-maligned Wetherspoons, which does at least provide display boards and photographs which explain the heritage behind a pub’s name. For instance, they’ve named a pub in Newport the John Wallace Linton after the locally-born submariner and VC winner, while one of their outlets in Potters Bar rejoices in the name of the Admiral Byng (who lived at nearby Wrotham Park), although I’ve yet to investigate the amount of information about the ill-fated admiral on display within. But these are just a few isolated examples, and I’d suggest that they in no way compensate for the vast amount of naval pub heritage that we’ve lost. As I suggested above, every closure, every stripping out of ships’ badges or pictures that no longer fit with the desired ‘corporate image’, reduces the visibility of the navy and of naval history in public perception. There are many other causes of the ‘sea blindness’ that many believe to be afflicting modern Britain, but this is surely one of them.
Let’s not end on a negative and depressing note, though. Which are my favourite ‘naval pubs’, in any of the above categories, I hear you cry? (And even if you don’t, I’m going to tell you anyway.) Well, there are plenty. Honourable mentions to the minute snug bar in the Admiral MacBride on the Barbican in Plymouth, very much an old stamping ground during my time down west, and to the Lord Nelson at Southwold; back in the day, that mention would have gone to the nearby Solebay Inn, until the otherwise splendid Adnams Brewery wrecked it with a ghastly refurbishment. But pretty much at the top of my tree would have to be the Ship and Shovell, adjacent to Charing Cross station in London. (And no, Tripadvisor, it’s not spelt ‘Shovel’. 0 stars for you.) Not only is this the only pub in London in two halves, one on each side of an alley; not only is it full of naval history pictures and memorabilia, which makes it a real rarity in London; not only does it serve splendid beer; but it’s actually one of the very few pubs anywhere that commemorates a seventeenth century naval hero, i.e. ‘one of the blokes in my books’.
But my award for ‘best naval pub in Britain’ would have to go to the Pembroke in Portsmouth. It’s not in such an obvious and prominent location as the aforementioned pubs on the Hard, or the Still and West a few hundred yards away at the harbour mouth (which was once very nearly rammed by Britain’s last battleship), but it’s fairly adjacent to the Royal Garrison Church where King Charles II married Catherine of Braganza, its walls are adorned with the ships’ badges of current and past warships, and most days, you’ll come across a veteran or two propping up the bar, spinning yarns to anyone who’ll listen. But if anyone has alternative candidates for the title, I’d love to hear about them – and, of course, I’d then have to undertake the onerous task of personally researching all of the premises in question. This blogging’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.
2019 update – this offer still stands!