Pub signboards have been a feature of the English landscape for centuries but, being exposed to both the elements and changing fashions (and the lifetime of the pub), each board tends to have a fairly short life. Several years ago, noticing some familiar old signs had been replaced, I began a photographic ‘archive’. I then became intrigued about what or who they depicted. The signs described here are mostly from South Cambridgeshire, because that’s where I live.
I like this sign, a lot of thought has gone into it. Which is unusual for Green King.
As I’m sure everyone can recognise, it is made up of elements of William Hogarth’s Beer Street (the slightly less-famous companion to Gin Lane). That in itself is enough to endear it to me, but there’s more to find in the detail.
In the original, although hard to make out, the sign-painter is putting the finishing touches to a sign for an alehouse or tavern called ‘Health to the Barley Mow’, a detail that is preserved in this sign:
However, the picture on the sign is different. In the original, we can just make out a circle of happy farm labourers dancing around a hayrick at the end of a successful harvest, with another ‘reveller’ (as they call them in newspapers these days) standing atop it.
Here we have a rider, who looks to be masked like a highwayman, taking a drink from a stirrup cup from an attending servant.
I presume this is a reference to Dick Turpin: we’re not far from Huntingdon, where he certainly did hang out for a while, and the old Great North Road, scene of his mythical ride from London to York. A number of old inns nearby claim that he used to frequent them, but I can’t find any reference to a claim on the part of this one. It is reputed to be haunted, but not by Turpin.
Some other points in passing. There are two versions of the original print, and the second is the better known. In it, the burley blacksmith is raising in his left hand a haunch of good British mutton or ham. I prefer the first version, in which he is ejecting a scrawny Frenchman! Here he’s just holding a rolled-up piece of paper, for no obvious reason.
The Union Flag flying from the church (St Martin-in-theFields) is the post-1801 version, with the Cross of St Patrick included. Beer Street was published in 1751, and Hogarth died in 1764, so this is a slight anachronism. But that's a very minor quibble in what is otherwise a very captivating and thoughtful signboard.
Sadly, in October 2011 this most excellent of signs was replaced by this corporate blandness.