By Bob and Sandy Nesoff
Age is relative. In the United States we revere as ancient structures and institutions that that reach over two or more centuries. Europeans laugh at that. Walk through the streets of Rome and you can still feel the hoofbeats of the Circus Maximus; in Paris the famed Notre Dame Cathedral has been inspiring awe for 849 years.
The United Kingdom doesn’t consider anything less than 500 years to be old. One of the oldest, if not the oldest pubs in the United States is the famed Fraunces Tavern on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan. It was the site of Washington’s farewell address and more recently, the site of a terror bombing. Built as a residence in 1719, it was sold in 1762 and converted into a tavern and stopping point for travelers coming by on horseback and coach.
Just outside of London two ancient watering holes, The Ostrich and The Green Man are still providing sustenance today, making Fraunces look as modern as McDonald’s. While that passes for nearly ancient in this country, Fraunces Tavern was born some 613 years after The Ostrich pub was built in 1106. England’s third oldest pub, situated minutes from Heathrow Airport on High Street, Colnbrook, Berkshire, is still serving up warm beer and overflowing platters of roasts 906 years after it opened its doors.
Colnbrook is a beautiful little village situated within hailing distance of the busy air hub and providing a respite for travelers wise enough to get away from hotel food and seek out local watering holes. Walk into the Ostrich and you’ll probably be the only outsider to venture in. The low ceiling gently absorbs the conversations and laughter of diners, virtually all locals, and sends the sound back in soft waves. Originally named “The Hospice,” it was eventually linguistically corrupted to its present identity. Built when Henry I (1065-1108) was on the throne, there is a dark side to the pub, one that has locals insisting it is haunted.
Now, to have a haunting you must first have some violent deaths. In the 17th century the inn was owned by a man named Jarman and his wife who had a sideline murdering their wealthy clientele. One bedroom had a trap door under a bed hinged to swing down.
They would place wealthy guests in that room, drop them into a vat of boiling liquid below and keep his belongings and purse. There is no evidence that unique boiled beef was ever served to other patrons.
Their sideline came to an end when they dispatched a wealthy clothier named Thomas Cole, but neglected to rein in his horse. When the horse was found wandering about the village, searchers found his body at a nearby brook; thus giving the village its name of Colnbrook (Cole in brook). Other notorious visitors to the pub included the famed highwayman Dick Turpin, who used it as a hideout. King John is also reputed to have stayed here on his way to Runnymeade to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. Today The Ostrich is a beautiful time capsule with open beams, low ceilings and crooked stairs, still serving typically British meals, but with a flair that belies the erroneous belief that food here is strictly rump and potatoes.
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About an hour away from The Ostrich, on Hinton Road in Hurst, the Village of Twyford, also in the Berkshires, is The Green Man Pub. Although contemporary when compared to The Ostrich, The Green Man, built in 1646, sits on a locally busy road: cars are guaranteed to pass by at the rate of at least three or four an hour.
This beautiful old structure was built from the beams of decommissioned ships from the nearby port of Portsmouth. The beams were originally cut from the great Windsor Forest, which at one time in the very distant past, encompassed the Hurst area. Using this as a yardstick, it is estimated that the beams in the oldest part of the pub are more than 1,000 years old.
The Green Man obtained its first liquor license in 1602, permitting it to sell ale. The pub was a waypoint for travelers from High Wycombe to Portsmouth. The Brakspears company took over the pub in 1646, purchasing a 1,000 year lease and began its brewing operations in 1779, some 133 years later.
Today The Green Man is operated by Philip Sanderson and his partner, Jack Moody, who also serves as the head chef. They have remained true to the history and panache of the original inn. While it has expanded over the years, it still has that old flavor with small sections and tables set in tightly near each other for a comfortable and intimate setting.
For more information on The Green Man, contact: www.thegreenman.uk.com
All of this atmosphere would be wasted without two things: good food and fellowship. Both of these abound at The Ostrich and The Green Man. Menu items range from seafood to delicately prepared continental dishes. Of course the old staples that kept many a British peasant fed and full, such as Sheppard’s Pie, are also available.
While most of the diners and drinkers at these pubs are locals, outsiders need not fear going in. They will remain strangers only for so long as it takes them to be seated and strike up a conversation with their neighbors at the next table. Neighborhood pubs abound throughout Britain and almost without exception, they are amongst the most welcoming places to visit. It is highly recommended that those visiting England for the first time, or the 50th, get out of the hotel, away from the city and stop into the first pub they come across.
for a listing of pubs and restaurants throughout the UK.
All you have to do is be friendly and outgoing and you’ll wonder how the Brits ever were tainted with the reputation of being staid and reserved. Britain’s local pubs, as the line on the television show noted, are truly places where everyone knows your name.