Pub Culture by Nicole Trilivas
I must credit my dear friend Annie for inciting a travel trend among our group of friends. During our study abroad in the winter of 2005 in London, Annie and I found ourselves perpetually playing tour guide to our friends who all managed to visit at separate times. Ever awestruck by Big Ben, hitting the major sights over and over again retained its thrill especially when Annie came up with the brilliant pattern of “see a sight- get a pint.” With the overabundance of pubs in London, a cozy pub bench was never far from the Tower of London, the Tate Modern museum, or the London Eye. Many a frosty London mornings I found myself skittering across Tower Bridge, and posing for pictures with friends along the way with the backdrop of the gray river Thames.
Cut to an hour (and two pints) later: there we are again on the bridge, this time not so icy, and instead in linked arms skipping along the bridge while singing “London Bridge’s Falling Down.” It was the perfect routine for both the tourist and the tour guide because pubs are at much a trademark of London as the Union Jack flag, fish ‘n chips, or The Spice Girls.
You cannot be a part of London and not be a part of pub culture. Even if you don’t drink, pubs are the prime place to observe true British life. Don’t be shocked even to see children running around the pub- unlike in a bar, this isn’t considered odd or inappropriate; however, if you see any of these children nursing a pint that is considered unusual. After work, “happy hour” to Americans, is the best time to go; pubs will be packed with business people in jovial spirits drowning the stress of the day.
Pubs, short for “public houses,” usually brandish a vivid, wood-carved sign that goes back to the days when illiteracy was widespread, and illustrations were used instead to portray names. The names, usually quizzical and interesting, also date back to that period. Earliest pubs often had religions names [“The Lamb,” “Cross Keys” (St. Peter’s emblem)], but pub names can also refer to the landowner’s family shields (“The Wilton Arms,” “Founders Arms”). Royal Namesakes are also popular (“The Crown,” “The Prince of Wales”).
A crisp, cold cider is a nice alternative to beer; popular brands in London are “Strongbow” and “Magners.” All cider and beer are served in pints or half-pints (you’ll look more like a true Londoner if you opt for the pint). Hard liquor is also served, but don’t expect any heavy-handed bar tenders here: shots are measured out, and you can tell in taste and effect. Tipping isn’t compulsory, and most pints range from three to four pounds depending on where you are.
Pints are also sold in cans in convenience stores for only one pound. Unlike in America, there are no laws about public drinking so on Friday and Saturday nights the Tube doubles as a bar, and a chance for cheap pre-gamming. Annie and I also came up with a drinking pattern for the tube involving the zones, which go up in number as you go further from the center of London. According to our rule, the number of pints you bring matches the zone number. So for example, if we were going out in zone two, we’d bring two pints (this rule was promptly abandoned once we started to frequent zone five).
There’s a current debate going on in London whether or not to allow pubs to stay open later. Currently they close at 11, which on weekdays is perfect timing to get a good nights rest for work the next day, but it kills the party on the weekends.
Besides frothy beverages, pubs also serve basic food or “pub grub.” Menus are sometimes available, but often you can find a list of typical pub food posted on a chalkboard. Dinning in London has come a long way from its stereotyped blandness; however, pub grub presents itself as an affordable and traditional option. Translating a pub menu sometimes requires further clarification from the local bar tender. For example, “bangers and mash” (sausages and mash potatoes, in a brown gravy) isn’t exactly easily decipherable.
Although normal pub entertainment is the belligerent guy who got “pissed” (drunk) too fast, some pubs offer live entertainment that you can usually find listed in “Time Out London” magazine.
There’s a popular activity for students in London involving the Tube’s Circle Line (the yellow line, that loops central London). The infamous Circle Line Pub-Crawl requires each participate to get out at each of the circle line’s 27 stops, and have a half pint or a shot at a nearby pub. Student Unions of local universities usually organize the outing. Although this is good way to see many pubs, by the fifth or sixth pub you probably won’t be “seeing” much of anything, and there’s a good chance of ending up with alcohol poisoning. Instead, may I suggest the simple routine of see a sight then have a pint? It’s both enjoyable and enriching, and when else can you write off a day of drinking as a cultural activity?