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English pubs: not just beer and peanuts

There was a time when the best you could hope for from an English pub was a decent pint, a bag of peanuts and maybe a game of darts. But we're well into the twenty-first century now, and pubs have taken on new roles: from community centre to theatre to fine restaurants, the pub has come into its own.

The Apartment, Newcastle Enlarge

The pub is a microcosm of British society 

The Royal Oak Enlarge

The pub garden is the perfect place to enjoy a traditional beer 

It may be hard to imagine Prince Charles knocking back a pint, but it was His Royal Highness who inspired the Pub is the Hub  initiative whose aim is to put the country pub back at the heart of rural life by doubling up as post office, village shop, youth centre, community allotment and more.

But it's not just the village pub that's reinventing itself. The Cock Tavern, for example, in Kilburn High Road, where a licensed public house has stood on the same spot since the fifteenth century, has recently added a theatre above the pub itself. The varied repertoire has had good reviews, with their production of La Boheme – returning in December 2010 – being named critic's choice by several national newspapers.

British cuisine has a bad reputation abroad, and even at home “pub grub” has long been the theme for jokes and dubious anecdotes. In the last decade, though, a small gourmet revolution has taken place and the concept of the gastropub has evolved, showing that some publicans take their kitchen duties very seriously. The shower of Michelin stars that grace some of the premises venturing beyond the traditional Sunday carvery shows they are very much on the right track. The Stagg Inn, Titley, Herefordshire, was the first to receive one of these coveted awards in 2001, and it has been followed by a long and impressive list of other accolades.

Unsurprisingly, a number of famous chefs have also taken an interest in this expanding business. Heston Blumenthal, whose Fat Duck has been named best restaurant in the UK three years running, now also owns The Hinds Head and The Crown, both also in the Berkshire village of Bray. The two ancient hostelries serve traditional British seasonal dishes and the Hinds Head menu also includes some recipes inspired by Blumenthal's work with food historians. The controversial TV chef Gordon Ramsay has two London restaurants, The Narrow alongside the Thames at Limehouse, and The Warrington in Maida Vale.

Not all pub activities take place inside though, as plenty of bucolic country pubs organise mini breaks, hiking trails and other more active pursuits. In contrast, some of the chic urban establishments set in the bustle of the big cities are perfect for people watching and for getting a glimpse of the latest trends. There's a type of hybrid pub, too, which is very popular with urbanites and which bring a taste of the countryside into the city. These tend to be friendly, serve specialist beers and have gardens for summer barbecues and cheery fireplaces for winter days. The Spaniards Inn in Hampstead and The Cambridge Blue in Cambridge are just two such places.

Despite their reinvention in the twenty-first century, pubs remain a microcosm of British society, and one of the best ways for a visitor to explore any new location. Down the local, you can discover the history, legends and traditions of a place; in The Well House in Exeter, for example, bones on display in the basement are said to belong to a priest and a nun who fell in love and died by throwing themselves down the well in Cathedral Yard, while Ye Olde Mitre Tavern in Clerkenwell, one of the capital's oldest pubs, was a known hideout for jewel thieves operating in the London district of Hatton Garden. There's a world of intrigue and legend to be discovered in the pubs of England, as well as good beer, good food and good company.

Further information:
English Tourism

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