The oldest pubs in the UK have got some fascinating stories to tell…
It’s a big weekend for pubs in England; as I’m sure you need absolutely no reminding, they’re allowed to reopen on July 4 after the relaxing of lockdown restrictions. Such an moment calls for grandeur, for a sense of occasion that’ll make that first sip of beer unforgettable, and we’ve got just the inspiration for you. Having already peered through both the mists of time and the beer goggles to tell you about the oldest pubs in London, we’re now setting our sights a little further afield, with Secret London’s guide to the oldest pubs in the UK.
Murky records and varying definitions mean there’s no actual consensus on the crucial question: which is the oldest pub in the UK? However, they’ve all got a compelling case and a great story to tell, so you can pick your own champion. So, without further ado, read on and choose your fighter!
Please note: not all these pubs are reopening on July 4 – check their websites for an exact opening date.
1. Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, Nottingham
Dates claimed from 1189
Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem has made a bold gambit for the title of the UK’s oldest pub, by splashing the honour prominently over the pub’s exterior – however, there don’t appear to be any records to back this up. The pub is very much a part of the city, being built into the same rocks upon which Nottingham Castle stands, and the name indicates it was once perhaps a stop upon the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Inside, you’ll be able to sit and drink in caves that have been carved out of the rock, and peer at curiosities including a cursed ship which kills anyone who cleans it, and a chair which is said to increase one’s chances of becoming pregnant. Standard pub ornaments, really.
2. The Royal Standard of England, Beaconsfield
Dates claimed from c.1086
Amongst the backers believing this to be the oldest pub in the UK are us, who described it as such in our roundup of day trips from London. The truth is a little more complicated, with ghosts, kings, and highwaymen all playing a part (the full history is a riot, and can be found on the pub website). Still, the essentials are this: the pub was listed as an alehouse called The Ship Inn and was documented as such in the Domesday Book in 1086, is home to the ghost of a 12-year old Irish drummer boy from the Civil War, saw Charles I hide in a priest hole in the roof, and let Charles II entertain his mistresses there, possibly in exchange for the new, royal-approved name of The Royal Standard of England. Oh, and it’s also made an appearance in Hot Fuzz. I did tell you it was a riot!
3. The Old Ferry Boat Inn, St Ives
Dates claimed from 560
Confusingly, this is St Ives in Cambridgeshire, not the more famous one in Cornwall. That aside, The Old Ferry Boat Inn has a strong claim to be the oldest UK pub; alcohol has apparently been served on this site since the year 560. The foundations of the pub date back to 1400ish, but it’s got a mention in the Domesday Book too. Like The Royal Standard, it’s got a resident ghost: she’s called Juliet, and is said to be the spirit of a woman who committed suicide after being jilted by her lover in 1050. The pub was then, rather unkindly, built atop her grave – which is presumably why she’s still haunting it to this day.
4. The Porch House, Stow-on-the-Wold
Dates claimed from 947
A beautiful bucolic spot like the Cotswolds needs a beautiful pub to match, and in The Porch House, it’s got just that. As one of the oldest pubs in the UK, parts of the building have been carbon dated as far back as the year 947, but it doesn’t appear to have been used as a pub until the 1700s. Upmarket pub grub, including highly-regarded Sunday roasts, are part of the charm these days, and you’re well poised to strike out for the nearby gorgeous villages of Broadway and Bourton-on-the-Water after a restorative pint.
5. The Bingley Arms, Bardsey
Dates claimed from 953
A man named Samson Ellis was reportedly brewing beer on this spot in 953, and whilst today’s pints tend to come from more modern breweries, The Bingley Arms – found just north of Leeds – boasts a rich history. Once known as The Priest’s Inn, it lay upon a well-trodden route from Kirkstall Abbey to York, and has two priest holes that may have hidden Catholics during the 16th century. As is the case with many of the UK’s oldest pubs is reportedly home to three ghosts, including a ghost dog that I’m sure is still a Very Good Boy.
6. Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, St Albans
Dates claimed from 793
In the battle of the oldest pubs in the UK, this place has the Guinness Book of World Records on its side. That’s due to the grand claim that pub’s foundations were once part of the palace of Offa, king of the Mercians (of Offa’s Dyke fame), and reportedly built in 793. Since he’s not around to ask anymore, we rely on historical records, which indicate that the current building was constructed in the 11th century – what we do know is that the pub has had its name since at least 1872. Ye Old Fighting Cocks owes its unusual octagonal shape due to its previous life as a pigeon house, and claims that Oliver Cromwell once spent the night there.
7. Ye Olde Man & Scythe, Bolton
Dates claimed from 1251
Well, it’s definitely got the coolest name amongst our cadre of oldest pubs in the UK. Their Twitter bio proudly boasts that the first pint was served here in the 11th century, and its name is mentioned in a charter from 1251. However, what makes this place really fascinating is the ghost, said to be the spirit of James Stanley, Earl of Derby, who was executed outside the pub in 1651. What’s truly haunting is that ol’ Stanley has seemingly been captured on camera: you can view the genuinely creepy footage here. In a bizarre twist, Chinese artist Lu Pingyuan “stole” the ghost in a metal canister in 2016, as part of an art project in protest of British colonialism. Another sighting from 2018, however, indicates that Stanley has found his way back to the pub – which might actually be even more unsettling…
8. The Skirrid Mountain Inn, Abergavenny
Dates claimed from 1110.
As the only Welsh spot on this list, we feel pretty secure bestowing the title of the oldest pub in Wales upon The Skirrid Mountain Inn. Congratulations! The pub gets its name from nearby mountain The Skirrid, and claims both to have inspired Shakespeare and been the rallying point for Owain Glyndŵr’s troops during his war against the English. A licensed inn has apparently stood on this spot since 1110, but the current building dates from the 17th century. The old oak beam above the bar is rumoured to have been used to hang those who participated in the Monmouth Rebellion against James II. It also wins bonus points for the bitchin’ sign.
9. The George Inn, Norton St Philip
Dates claimed from 1397.
Strangely enough, our next pub also saw use as an execution site in the aftermath of the Monmouth Rebellion, with twelve people executed on the village common. As The George Inn has seemingly had a license to serve alcohol since 1397, perhaps the prospect of a nice frothy pint after a long day of executing proved too enticing to pass up… Nowadays, the historic charm, excellent food menu, and cosy rooms make it a firm favourite with locals.
10. The Clachan Inn, Drymen
Dates claimed from 1734
Onto a pair of pubs competing for the title of the oldest pub in Scotland now, and first up, it’s The Clachan Inn. Found just north of Glasgow, the pub was licensed in 1734, which makes it one of the longest running licenses in the UK. The woman who got the pub its license, a Mistress Gow, was said to be the sister of legendary outlaw Rob Roy, and this claim has been widely accepted as making The Clachan Inn the oldest in Scotland. Unless, of course, it’s actually…
11. The Sheep Heid Inn, Edinburgh
Dates claimed from 1360
Two key dates would give The Sheep Heid Inn the edge over The Clachan. 1360 is the year in which an inn reportedly opened on this spot, which would make this the oldest surviving public house in Scotland. The oldest record of the name “Sheep Heid Inn” comes in 1710, which you’ll note would still be old enough to supersede its competitor. Whatever the case, this one is a firm favourite with royals: Mary Queen of Scots was a known visitor, James I presented the landlord with a snuff box as a token of his appreciation, and in 2016, Elizabeth II dropped by for a visit. Perhaps they heard word of the pub’s skittles alley?
12. The Highway Inn, Burford
Dates claimed from 1480
Another Cotswold beauty, the Burford Inn has been welcoming guests for over 500 years, and they’ve poured a lot of pints in that time. Settle in beside one of the pub’s roaring fireplaces (they’re lit every day between October and April) and you can’t help but feel transported back in time. An onsite restaurant with hearty British fare and some comfortable rooms make it an enticing option for an overnight stay, too.
13. The Bell Inn, Nottingham
Dates claimed from 1437
Records show that The Bell Inn dates all the way back to 1437, but, not content with almost 600 years of history, the proprietors tell of a brewery on the site as far back as the 12th century. Until the 16th century, The Bell Inn was a friary guesthouse, but when Henry VIII took a break from feasting and procreating to dissolve the monasteries, it became an alehouse for us heathens. More modern developments (not dictated by royal decree) have seen a gin bar installed upstairs, as another of the UK’s oldest pubs rolls with the times.
14. Adam & Eve, Norwich
Dates claimed from 1249
The first customers of the Adam & Eve alehouse were said to be workmen building nearby Norwich Cathedral, and records indicate that a tavern may have stood on this site since 1249, when it may have been a brewhouse operated by Benedictine monks. The pub may look beautiful from the outside, but it’s hidden a few macabre secrets in its time; in the 1970s, the remains of a monk were found during cellar excavations, and his ghost reportedly still haunts the pub today. Worth running the risk of an encounter for flowers like these though!
15. Ye Olde Salutation Inn, Nottingham
Dates claimed to 1240
There’s just something about Nottingham and the UK’s oldest pubs, isn’t there? Ye Olde Salutation Inn is the third city boozer laying claim to the mantle of the oldest pub in the country, and they’ve got a fairly strong claim. The original name of Ye Olde Salutation Inn – ‘Angel Gabriel Saluting the Blessed Virgin Mary’ proved a bit of a mouthful, and after a brief spell as The Soldier and Citizen under Cromwell, it took the current name. Caves beneath the building are thought to have been from a 9th century Saxon farm, and whilst it’s definitely a pub for the history buffs, there’s another group you’ll often find frequenting it. The ‘Sal’ is actually one of Nottingham’s best live music venues, with a strong focus on metal and rock. Whatever would Cromwell say?
Planning a getaway to the oldest pubs in the UK? You can explore some of them on our favourite UK city breaks!
Also published on Medium.