The Selborne Arms in the early 1900s.

This is a series of articles in which I talk about how living in the UK really informed my gaming life. Particularly by giving me first-hand experience with a lot of the sort of stuff that pops up in games all the time. You know what I’m talking about: Castles, medieval towns, inns, and cathedrals. But not just the medieval stuff—also Roman forts and steam-age/Victorian stuff and sailing ships and lots of other peeks into the sort of places and lives that are part of the fictional worlds we inhabit.

OK, to start with, a disclaimer or two. By “live in” I mean “spend some time in.” But more than just a five-day visit—enough time to really see and experience a lot of what I’m going to talk about. Oh, and by “England,” I really mean Great Britain—England is not the same thing as Wales, Scotland, or even Northern Ireland, but they’re all part of the UK. Confused? See this post on the topic.

This isn’t a travel guide, per se—though a gamer visiting the UK could do worse than treating it as one. I’m skipping a lot of common tourist destinations and focusing on specific topics of gamer relevance. But almost every square inch of the UK has something cool to offer the gamer’s imagination.

Oh, one more thing before I (finally!) get to the point: I’m only going to cover places I’ve actually been. Indeed, unless otherwise noted, every photo you see in this series was taken onsite in a Ryan family visit. You get the benefit of my personal experience, but, sadly, it does mean there are great places I just didn’t get to in my four years there (like the entirety of Scotland).

In This Episode: The English Pub, by Way of The Selborne Arms

The tavern is one of the great staples of fantasy gaming. It’s where the characters meet. Where they speak to that mysterious stranger. Where they cut purses and goose wenches. The tavern is the medieval equivalent to the modern bar or roadhouse.

Or is it? Americans don’t really have a good context for understanding the English pub—and, hence, the medieval tavern. (Here in the States, even those bars that style themselves on pubs really aren’t, because the pub simply fills a different social role in the UK.) So we tend to cast our fantasy inns and taverns on the models we have at hand: bars, restaurants, roadhouses, and roadside motels. But spending a little time in an actual English pub (or three) can give you a different perspective.

The Selborne Arms in—wait for it!—Selborne, Hampshire. I used to drive past it every day on my way to and from work.

I’ve chosen the Selborne Arms as my example, because I’ve spent some time in it and it’s pretty typical. I could just as easily have chosen the Spread Eagle or the White Horse or the Hen and Chicken or any of a zillion others—like the drinking of tea, pubs are every bit as ubiquitous in England as stereotyping would lead one to believe. My apologies on the photos: I’ve pulled most of them off the net; I didn’t photograph many pubs. And there aren’t many interior shots, because you’re no more likely to photograph the interior of a pub in England than the interior of an Applebee’s here in the US.

What Is It?

The Selborne Arms is a village pub (short for “public house”) in, well, Selborne. Hampshire. Every village in the UK has a pub. Every. Single. One. Selborne is a medium-sized village and actually has two. (The town where I worked—Alton—has a population of 19,000 and 26 pubs. An American town of that size with 26 bars would have to be a college town—and a raucous one at that—or a real den of iniquity. But that’s a typical ratio in the UK.)

The English pub is inextricably linked to the village, and to understand it you have to understand that fact. Cast your mind back to the middle ages: The village was a manor, basically a big farm owned by the lord and tended by a couple hundred farmhands—his peasants. It was not an urban site, and it didn’t have a strip mall or fast food joint or general store or really any commercial enterprise at all. What commerce existed—like maybe a blacksmith or mill—was there simply to support the agricultural activity, and was licensed by the lord. You couldn’t just decide to open a shop unless you cut an extortionate deal with the lord, and even then it’s unlikely there’d be enough business to keep you going.

But the peasants needed something to do in their few off hours, and one activity not traditionally overseen by the lord was the brewing of ale. Nobody had the means or permission to set up a real brewery, but anybody could brew a few pots of ale in the corner of their cottage. So if you did so, when your ale was ready you’d spread the word and everyone would know they could come over to your house, buy a bucket of your ale, and hang out for the evening. For the few days or a week or however long it took for your ale to be all drunken (dranken?) up, yours was the “public house.”

When you ran out and someone else’s batch was ready, that house would become the public house, and that’s where everyone would spend their evenings. And after that, some other house. And so on. So in the high middle ages a village pub wasn’t an actual business establishment—it was just the home that happened to see that use at the time.

Over time, of course, that all changed. The feudal system waned and commerce became more important. Operating a public house full-time became a viable commercial operation, so you began to see what we think of as the pub. But the social nature of the village pub didn’t change. It never became the equivalent of the American bar, and here’s why:

A peasant’s cottage isn’t like an American home. It doesn’t have a large formal living room that nobody ever uses, or a family room that can seat all your friends and then some. It’s small, cramped, and utilitarian. (That’s still somewhat true in the modern age: England is a small, crowded country, filled with small, crowded homes.) There just isn’t room to hang out with your friends. Like Shawn of the Dead, when you want to hang out, you head for the Winchester. The pub is, in effect, the entire village’s living room.

American bars have regulars. The English village pub has, well, the villagers.

The Hawkley Inn in Hawkely, Hampshire. Yes, Hawkley really is that rural (my wife got hit by a tractor at the far end of that hedge), though the horses might not be a daily fixture. Nor their piss. You know what other commercial enterprises Hawkley hosts? Nada. None. Zip. A church, a village hall, a cricket field, the Hawkley Inn, and a few dozen homes. And a phone booth. The prototypical rural English village!

There’s one more noteworthy step to the evolution: The coach house. In the later middle ages and beyond, as travel become more common and regular trade and coach routes were established, the coach house came into existence. (Or, perhaps, gained a resurgence—the practice goes back to the Romans, who called such establishments tabernea—now the modern word “tavern.”) These inns were built on the public house model, but were optimized for larger numbers of guests and reliably served food and provided lodging (which pubs might or might not do) as well as offering stables and fodder for animals (unlikely in a village pub).

The Hen and Chicken, along the busy A31 highway near Alton. The A31 follows an ancient route from London to Winchester, and the H&C was built as a coach house in the 1700s. It's now an upscale eatery, but with a local pub constituency as well.

Well, as in my last installment, this one’s getting a little long. Think I’ll take a break here. Tomorrow I’ll pick up again, with a few thoughts on what’s cool about the English pub, and maybe a few more tidbits you didn’t know!

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