Friday, January 17, 2020

Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

Blink and you miss it

A few years ago I made my first visit to Bury St Edmunds and, keen to see the cathedral and various other architectural monuments, I missed this pub, although I was aware that it was there. That is not totally surprising because it is one of the candidates for the title of Britain’s smallest public house. I blinked, as they say, and I missed it.

When I was writing my book Irreplaceable for Historic England in 2018, I was reminded, doing the entry for the Nottingham pub called Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, that there are several pubs that claim to be the oldest in the country. Ye Olde Trip is one. I live not far from another of them – it’s in Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire. There are others, all with advocates who point to traditions, stories, apparent allusions, architectural details, and even genuine historical documents in support of their pub’s great age.

Dates can be slippery and hard to prove. With dimensions, surely, you’d think you were on safer ground. But it’s not as simple as it seems. The Nutshell’s claim seemed secure – it measures just 15 feet by 7, it’s palpably there, in the middle of town where it has been for 150 years, and it was ratified by the Guinness Book of Records. But in 2017 the John Lewis store in London’s Oxford Street opened a pub in a shed in its rooftop garden, and the shed measures just 6 x 8 feet. Then there’s Platform 3, next to the station in Claygate, that boasts standing room for three customers. Cleethorpes’s Signal Box Inn, likewise railway themed, looks scarcely larger. And there’s the Old Kent Market, which, at 11 feet x 6 feet 6 inches, is given the accolade in a more recent edition of the Guinness Book.

Few things in architecture are cut and dried. But The Nutshell is charming, small, stuffed with an eccentric collection of historical objects and memorabilia, and ready to serve local ales. A bit of English eccentricity that deserves a raised glass any time between and now and closing.


Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

Being a very small pub isn't very good if you want it to make a living for you: I popped into The Trip to Jerusalem, Nottingham, long enough to note its sandstone cave ceiling, but it was full, and nowhere to sit, so I popped out again. A customer lost! Bury St Edmunds recommended as a destination: as in the book 'Suffolk Summer' written by the US serviceman John Appleby during WWII, lots of antiquities within cycling distance. Are you going to show the station -or have you done it already? - four tall towers, Italianate, in pale brick. Round-towered churches at Risby and Little Saxham quite close by.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Yes, it's true that small pubs lose customers, although I spent many a lunchtime long ago patronising the Lamb and Flag in Covent Garden, London. This was a small pub that did very well because a large proportion of its clientelle was happy to drink outside. So in the office a cry would go up at around one o'clock, 'Does anyone want to go and stand outside the Lamb and Flag?' and off we went. Of course this only worked when the weather was good.