Pubs are an important and cherished part of our culture here in the UK. They not only serve as a place to get a refreshing pint or a hot meal, but as a meeting place for people from all walks of life.
The earliest incarnation of the pub is said to have been introduced in Britain when the Romans invaded nearly 2,000 years ago. Over the centuries, the places that people would go to eat, drink, socialise, and maybe even stay the night, changed and evolved. And by the late 15th and early 16th centuries, taverns, inns, and alehouses collectively became known as public houses (or ‘pubs’).
Because pubs have been part of our culture for so long, and some of the individual establishments have been around for centuries, they’re often steeped in interesting stories and history.
With this in mind, we’ve teamed up with Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) to bring you 12 historic pubs to visit across the UK. CAMRA works to promote and preserve traditional pub culture, including the production and availability of real ales and the benefits of responsible drinking.
1. Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, St Albans
There are a handful of pubs across England that claim to be the country’s oldest, and the Ye Olde Fighting Cocks is one of them. Located in the county of Hertfordshire along the River Ver and a stone’s throw away from St Albans Cathedral, this cosy pub is said to date back to the 8th Century.
Originally used as a pigeon house, this historic watering hole has an unusual octagonal shape and it’s said that there are tunnels stretching from the beer cellar all the way to the cathedral. Many also claim that Oliver Cromwell stayed there one night during the Civil War.
So why not go and visit the ancient Roman city of St Albans? When you’ve finished wandering the halls of the cathedral or strolling around the Verulamium museum, the Ye Olde Fighting Cocks is a great place to stop for a pint.
2. McHugh’s Bar, Belfast
If you’re ever in the city of Belfast, and you’re looking for a traditional pub that’s steeped in history, then McHugh’s is worth a visit.
Located on Queen’s Square in the heart of the city. McHugh’s is not only one of the oldest pubs in Northern Ireland, but it’s housed in the oldest surviving building in Belfast – having been built in 1711.
Inside, you’ll find a selection of expertly-poured local ales and traditional food. And despite the various refurbishments, McHugh’s still maintains its ancient Georgian atmosphere, which is bolstered by the art and historical artefacts that adorn the walls.
McHugh’s is a must-visit for any history lover that finds themselves in Belfast.
3. The Mayflower, London
In the district of Rotherhithe in South-East London, there’s a quaint little pub that overlooks the Thames. From the pub’s charming decking, you can not only watch the boats passing along the river, but you can also spy the original mooring place of the famous Mayflower ship.
Captained by Christopher Jones, the Mayflower famously transported 102 passengers across the Atlantic to America in 1620. This group – later to become known as the Pilgrims – established the first permanent non-native settlement in North America: the New England colony.
Jones, in an effort to evade the steep taxes that were enforced further up the river, moored his ship outside the later-named Mayflower pub.
Nowadays, the pub’s ancient decor will transport you back to the 17th century and the various nautical artefacts that adorn the walls will be a treat for any history buff. Plus, they always have a great range of ales. So if you’re there, why not try their house beer ‘Scurvy’? We promise it tastes better than it sounds.
4. The Skirrid Mountain Inn, Abergavenny
Deep in the rolling terrain of The Brecon Beacons, just a short drive north of the town of Abergavenny, stands The Skirrid Mountain Inn. Said to be the oldest public house in Wales, a visit to the Skirrid Inn is worthwhile for anyone with an interest in spooky myths and legends.
Although the building itself was constructed in the mid-late 1600s, its history allegedly goes even further back – as early as 1110, according to the landlord. In its early days, so the story goes, it was used as a courtroom, where thieves and murderers were tried and, if found guilty, hung from the beam above the staircase.
Today, a hangman’s noose dangles from this beam and, on occasion, the spirits of those that died there are said to appear. Every night at The Skirrid Mountain Inn, to appease the Devil and malignant spirits, the bartender pours out a cup of ale and leaves it on the doorstep.
5. The Turk’s Head, Penzance
As one of the oldest pubs in Cornwall, The Turk’s Head in Penzance claims to have been established in 1233.
When South Cornwall became a hotspot for pirates and smugglers during the 16th century, it’s said to have been mostly patronised by those that lived outside of the law. If you visit The Turk’s Head nowadays, you can still see a tunnel that leads from the pub to the harbour that was used by smugglers to move contraband.
There’s a lot to see for any history enthusiast in Penzance. So whether you’ve just returned from a day trip to St Michael’s Mount or a show at the Minack Theatre, you’ll surely enjoy a pint or a meal in this ancient pub with an interesting and unique story the round off the day.
6. The Globe Inn, Dumfries
The Globe Inn in Dumfries is the perfect place for any lover of literature to stop for a pint. Although it first opened its doors in 1610, The Globe Inn is most famous for being a regular stopping place of the famous poet Robert Burns who both lodged and drank there while he lived in Dumfriesshire.
If you visit the Globe Inn today, you can enjoy a pint and some exceptional grub made from locally-sourced ingredients. Plus, you can also take a tour of the upstairs bedroom and see where Burns stayed and penned many of his famous poems.
In this room, you can read verses of poetry etched onto the glass windows by Burns himself, and you can even sit in his chair. Just remember to recite at least one line of his work when you do, otherwise, by tradition, you owe everyone in the pub a drink!
7. Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, Nottingham
In the shadow of Nottingham Castle, stands the Ye Olde Trip Jerusalem, or ‘The Trip’, as locals call it. The Trip is another pub that claims to be the oldest in England, allegedly established in 1189 AD, the same year Richard the Lionheart ascended to the throne.
During the Third Crusade, it’s said that knights often stopped off here on their way to Jerusalem, and this is how this charming pub got its name. There are also many locals who claim that The Trip was a regular drinking spot for the legendary outlaw Robin Hood.
If you visit this historic watering hole today, you’ll find a great selection of local beer and traditional pub food. You can also take a tour of the cellar; a sandstone cave that features a condemned gaol cell used by the residents of Nottingham Castle.
8. The Crypt Bar in the Llanthony Priory Hotel, Llanthony
A short drive from the English border, nestled in a lush green valley in the Black Mountains, stands the ruins of a 12th Century Augustinian priory. Abandoned by the monks who built it centuries ago, the priory currently enjoys a second life as the Llanthony Priory Hotel.
After a hike through the dramatic scenery that surrounds it or a stroll around the ruined arches of the priory itself, head over to the hotel’s Crypt Bar. Here, you can enjoy wonderful food and real ales under the vaulted ceilings of what used to be one of the priory’s cellars.
9. The White Hart Inn, Edinburgh
Probably the oldest pub in the Scottish capital, parts of The White Hart Inn date all the way back to the early 16th century. However, this watering hole, located on the Grassmarket under the imposing presence of Edinburgh Castle, is probably best known for its infamous customers and spectral appearances.
In 1828, The White Hart Inn was said to have been frequented by William Burke and William Hare: the infamous Scottish bodysnatchers. As the tale goes, Burke and Hare would use the White Hart Inn as a hunting ground, before luring their prey back to their lodgings, murdering them, and selling their bodies to be used in the medical field.
The White Hart Inn also claims to be the most haunted pub in Edinburgh, with many customers reporting that they’ve seen ghostly figures wandering between the tables.
10. The Philharmonic Dining Rooms, Liverpool
Purpose-built as a pub at the turn of the 19th Century, The Philharmonic Dining Rooms (or ‘The Phil, as it’s known to locals) is the youngest pub on our list.
Now a Grade 1 listed building, it’s a grand and flamboyant establishment. With its extraordinary mosaics and cathedral-like opulence, a visit to The Phil will take you on a time-travelling journey all the way back to the Victorian era.
Located in the heart of Liverpool and serving a great selection of real ales and traditional pub grub, The Phil once counted the Beatles among their regulars. Paul McCartney even returned in 2018 to play a surprise set for the patrons.
11. The George Inn, London
Up until the 19th century, before the invention of cars and trains, the most common way to travel long distances in Britain was by stagecoach. Because these journeys were often long, sometimes lasting several days, people would have to stop off along the way to let their horses rest.
The best places for weary travellers to stay the night were at coaching inns; which served food and drinks, and provided lodgings and stables. As fewer and fewer people began to travel by stagecoach, these inns became more and more sparse. In fact, The George Inn in Southwark is actually the last surviving galleried coaching inn in London.
Charles Dickens was a regular visitor in the 19th Century, and you can see mentions of this London establishment in both his novels Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend. A copy of his life insurance policy can even be found framed on the wall.
The George Inn undoubtedly has an important part in London’s history.
12. The Eagle, Cambridge
This famous pub is a must-visit for any history buff that finds themselves in Cambridge. Located a short walk away from King’s College, The Eagle is a great place to stop and rest your legs after a day of seeing the many historic sights that the city has to offer.
During the Second World War, The Eagle came to be a regular haunt for allied airmen – and it became a tradition to scrawl your name, squadron number, and various other words and images onto the ceiling of the bar. Although this mural of sorts was once covered up, it was then uncovered in the 1990s and can be seen today.
It was also in this humble pub that James Watson and Francis Crick, who worked at Cambridge University at the time, announced that they had discovered the structure of DNA.
Whether you’re a history lover, a regular pub-goer, or both, we hope you’ve enjoyed our list of 12 historic pubs to visit across the UK.
As (hopefully) our list has shown, pubs are more than a place to get a drink and a meal. By going to the pub, whether you’re a drinker or not, we’re participating in an ancient tradition that has been – and will continue to be – an important part of our culture here in the United Kingdom.
What’s your favourite pub? Does it have a story behind it? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.