Pubs are a cornerstone of English life. Most English people go to them and many are regulars at their “local.” Because of this, pubs are a great way to meet and learn about the English. Even if you don’t drink, go ahead and order a juice and soak up the atmosphere. I’ve been to pubs in London and Oxford that are four hundred years old! Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in London and The Turf in Oxford are two of my favorites.
While much has been written about English reserve, this doesn’t seem to apply to pubs. Generally people seated or standing at the bar are open to conversation with strangers, in fact they may be seeking it, while those tucked away in a corner table either alone or in groups aren’t looking to make new friends.
Pubs have their own rules and etiquette. There are no queues, unlike everywhere else in England, but the barmen are adept at remembering who’s first. When you walk in, catch the barman’s eye and he or she will be with you shortly. When ordering, don’t forget to say “please.” Politeness is de rigueur in all aspects of English society, but to barmen especially. If the folks behind the counter aren’t swamped, feel free to ask for advice about what beer you should try. I highly recommend the rich, flavorful real ales.
Tipping is not required but is appreciated, and one nice tradition is tipping your barman with a drink. Once you’ve been served and given the amount, you can ask, “And one for yourself?” at which point he or she will add on a pint or half pint (usually a half) to your bill. If they’re busy they might not get to your drink immediately, but once they do they’ll be sure to thank you again. If they’ve been given too many pints already, or have a stern manager, they might politely refuse. Don’t take it personally, they may work at a pub but they’re still required to be sober!It used to be the law that all pubs had to close at 11 p.m., a rule dating from the First World War when Parliament worried about the hazards of having hungover workers at munitions factories. Just before 11, the barman would ring a bell and shout “last orders!” The law remained in place until 2005, when pubs were allowed to apply for permits to stay open longer. The permit is a pain to get and is not always granted. Sometimes pubs are refused as it would disturb the neighborhood. The closest pub to the Prime Minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street didn’t get a late license for this reason, even though Tony Blair was the one to push the law through. The tabloids had fun with that one! Even if your pub closes at 11, you might experience a “lock in,” in which the pub closes and nobody is allowed in. Those already there can stay in and keep on drinking. I’ve generally seen lock ins only at local pubs where the barman knows most of the customers.
Even though everybody’s drinking, most pubs are friendly and orderly places. There are some rough establishments, however, so you should beware. It’s usually pretty obvious which ones are bad by the shoddy look of the place and the large number of snaggle-toothed guys wearing hooded sweatshirts, the current fashion for lowlifes in England. Avoid these places. Some English people get drunk only to fight, and their sort of pubs serve crap beer anyway.
So get out there and try a few good pubs. you’re sure to have a fun time.
Do you have a favorite pub? Is pub etiquette different in Scotland and Ireland? (I’ve never been to Ireland, and the closest I got to Scotland was seeing it from Hadrian’s Wall) Drop us a line in the comments section.