Hostelry where time stands still

THEY don’t do history by halves at the Royal Standard of England.

There aren’t too many British pubs boasting a 2,000-word explanation on the menu of their historic origins – but then there aren’t too many hostelries as old or as atmospheric as this Forty Green favourite.

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“Bring the dog, come for a walk, bring the children” says the owner in a welcome video on the pub’s website and “welcome pilgrim” is the message to those lured into the Beaconsfield countryside by the promise of good food in quintessentially English surroundings.

The pub claims to be the oldest freehouse in England, but although that’s a pretty contested title, few pubs have done as much work on researching their history as the RSOE.

Curved walls, low beams, twinkling candles and an eclectic collection of helmets, weapons and other period paraphernalia hint at the pub’s long and intriguing past and an extensive menu of crispy whitebait, huge battered fish and much-vaunted Sunday roasts draws a large regular following and a good cross-section of excellent reviews.

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Like all busy and large establishments, it’s not possible to keep everyone happy and the long process of extending the historic alehouse has generated some testy comments in recent months about the surroundings looking like a building site.

But the extension is open for business now and they’ve done a pretty impressive job of recreating something of the same sense of history to be found in the other rooms.

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Certainly on our visit the young staff were cheerful, chatty and helpful. On previous visits the food has been outstanding – by 8pm at night on a busy Sunday evening it wasn’t perhaps as remarkable as usual.

But of more than 1100 reviews on TripAdvisor, 83% thought the food very good or excellent, so it looks as if standards are maintained pretty well, even if prices aren’t exactly cheap, with the popular Sunday roasts costing £16.95, desserts at £6 and starters like pate, whitebait and garlic prawns ranging from £6 to £8.

Forty Green is a small hamlet surrounded by ancient beech woodlands and quiet country lanes and the pub provides the starting point for a couple of invigorating rambles of between half a mile and two miles for those wanting to work up an appetite before they eat – or work off the calories afterwards.

It was a sleepy backwater until the coming of the railway to Beaconsfield in 1906 and home to only about 20 households in the mid-19th century, mostly employed in agriculture or lace-making.

The location of the inn is no longer on a major thoroughfare, yet in the early days it was an important trade route for transporting bricks and tiles from Penn and Tylers Green down to the River Thames at Hedsor Wharf and from there by barge to London.

Cattle were moved along the drovers’ roads to markets in Beaconsfield and High Wycombe and hospitality was also given to the medieval courts on their way to deer hunts in Knotty Green and Penn.

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The pub’s menus regale visitors with a history lesson about Roman Britain, Iron Age hill forts and the 1400-year-old brick and tile kiln industry in the area. Drinkers with sufficient time on their hands are invited to recall the last Viking raids, when longboats travelling up the River Thames to Hedsor Wharf.

Then it’s on to the Norman conquest, Domesday Book (1086) and droving days, when the Ship Inn, as it was then called, was a lodging house for royalty travelling to Windsor and Woodstock Palace.

From Tudor travellers to highwaymen and kings, the pub claims to have been hosting visitors and sitting at the heart of local life across the centuries…gaining its current name after Charles II’s restoration to the throne in 1663, the only inn in the country bestowed the honour of the full title, allegedly in recognition of the loyalty and support given to the Royalists by the landlord (or possibly as a reward for the king being able to meet his mistresses in rooms above the inn).

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How large a pinch of salt to take with these tales is a moot point, but the 900-year-old hostelry is sufficiently atmospheric not to really grudge any exaggerations to the stories of  cavaliers and roundheads, highwaymen and ghostly hauntings.

Could that drum beating the car park really be that of a 12-year-old drummer boy brutally slaughtered by the Roundhead soldiers? At the end of the day it maybe really matter too much whether Charles II actually hid in the roof or a shadowy figure disappearing through the wall is actually that of an unknown traveller crushed outside the inn by a speeding coach and four in 1788.

Immortalised in Midsomer Murders, The Theory of Everything and, perhaps most memorably in Hot Fuzz, this is a placed haunted by history, and it’s certainly not hard to imagine those figures from past centuries enjoying a cooling pint inside its hallowed walls.

For menus, prices, opening times and other information, see the pub’s website.

Pub talk: what’s in a name?

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NAME GAME: The Red Lion in Chenies, Buckinghamshire PICTURE: Cathy Price

PUB names intrigue, bemuse and fascinate us – and across the centuries, there must have been a million rambling conversations over a pint or two about the particular origins or meaning of a hostelry’s moniker.

Of course, some names are clear enough references to animals, plants and sports or local landowners, occupations or geographical landmarks. Some are more generic mentions of smugglers or highwaymen, ships, steam engines or other modes of transport.

Others contain references that are perhaps a little more cryptic, especially if the myths, legends, historic events and literary works are no longer as familiar as they once were.

Our knowledge of heraldry may not be sufficient to immediately recognise royal connections, for example, even though royal names feature high on the list of the most popular choices, often demonstrating the landlord’s loyalty to the crown – whether genuine or otherwise – and particularly following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

Coats of arms came into general use by feudal lords and knights in armour to distinguish themselves in battle in the 12th century, although the Romans used similar insignia to identify military units.

Originally granted to individuals, they were made hereditary in England by Richard I (Richard the Lionheart) who, after his crusades in the Holy Land, is credited with introducing the “three lions” design of the Royal Arms of England which also forms the basis of several emblems of English national sports teams.

By the 13th century arms had spread from their initial battlefield use to become an emblem for families in the higher social classes across Europe, inherited from one generation to the next.

The use of arms spread to the clergy, to towns, cities and universities, trades, guilds and subsequently commercial companies. Every noble family had its own coat of arms and inns on their lands were often named after them, particularly encouraged in the 14th century when Edward III attempted to rebrand the monarchy after his father’s disastrous reign.

That explains the ubiquitous Queen’s Arms and King’s Arms, perhaps – along with the Crown, and the Queen’s and King’s Heads. But what about the Royal Oak, the White Hart and that dazzling array of lions – red, black, white and golden?

The Royal Oak refers to the oak tree in Shropshire where King Charles II hid to escape Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads following the Battle of Worcester in 1651. The king told Samuel Pepys in 1680 how, when he was hiding in the tree, a parliamentarian soldier passed directly below it, and the story became popular after the restoration, lending the name to hundreds of pubs.

Even more popular is the Red Lion, often considered symbolic of the archetypal English pub and probably deriving from multiple origins. As Martyn Cornell argues convincingly in his Zythophile blog, the most likely source is the fact that the symbol features in the arms or crests of more than 150 local landowners the length and breadth of England.

Traditionally the red lion is also linked with James VI, having featured in the royal arms of Scotland from the 12th century and being incorporated into the coat of arms adopted by James in 1603 when he became king of Scotland, England, France and Ireland.

Another historical contender is John of Gaunt, one of the most powerful men in 14th century England and effectively founder of the House of Lancaster, but Cornell poses the valid question of why a man so profoundly disliked during his lifetime should have been commemorated so widely.

Cornell’s argument stands up to scrutiny well, particularly in places like Chenies in Buckinghamshire, where the local landowner and lord of the manor was the Duke of Bedford, whose coat of arms incorporates a triumphant red lion. And the names of the village’s two pubs? Yes, the Bedford Arms and the Red Lion (pictured above).

Even the ubiquitous Red Lion is in ongoing decline, however. The problem was highlighted in 2015 when personal trainer Cathy Price from Preston completed the task of visiting all 656 British pubs called The Red Lion – to find that in the years since her challenge began in 2011, some 90 Red Lions had closed.

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Another of the top 10 British pub names is the White Hart, the personal badge of the Plantagenet king Richard II (1377-1399), which takes its name from the archaic word for a mature white stag, often depicted with a chain and golden collar or crown round its neck.

Other “royal” names commemorate different times in our history – including William and Mary or The King and Queen in honour of William III and Mary II, who ruled from 1689, and the Rising Sun, often associated as the heraldic symbol of Edward III (1312-1377), though in rural areas the name may simply reflect the new day’s dawning.