19 March 2015

Cheshire: pubs and their signs 5

‘Roll out the barrel we’ll have a barrel of fun.
Roll out the barrelwe’ve got the blues on the run.
Zing! Boom! Tarrarel! Ring out a song of good cheer.
Now’s the time to roll the barrel – for the gang’s all here.’

So, as Len Brown wrote in his 1940’s song lyrics, if the gang’s all here, let’s roll out the barrel on yet another pub signs blog.

The Fox and Barrel, Cotebrook
Luckily I came across local historian Tony Bostock’s most thorough account of this pub’s history when I was researching this fabulous sign from a traditional country pub in Cotebrook, a little hamlet just north of Tarporley on the A49.

Bostock writes that The Fox and Barrel:  

has been in existence as a public house since at least 1770, and as a property possibly a century before that. This public house was once owned by the Earl of Shrewsbury, then by Greenalls, and is now in private ownership.
Folk lore has it that the name derives from a tale that a former landlord let a fox which was being pursued by huntsmen escape to the cellar where it sat upon one of the barrels. It’s said that a heavy flat stone marked the opening into the cellar where the fox entered the premises. It seems that the name of this house first occurs in the early nineteenth century. A map of the area which formed an appendix to the Act of Parliament for the enclosing of parts of Delamere Forest, dated 1812, shows “The Fox and Barrel”. …
The name may go back further but how far is uncertain. It clearly alludes to foxhunting which as such did not begin in Cheshire until after 1762, the year after the Tarporley Hunt Club was founded.

From Joan P. Alcock's book Cheshire Inn Signs
The Stretton Fox, Stretton
Here’s another fox, though I think the name is pure invention. The pub’s own website notes: ‘Sat on the grounds of the old Sparke House, the architectural style of the building suggests that the Stretton Fox was built in the early 1900s’, but the Stretton village website reports that Spark Hall Farm house was built in 1846-47.

Though The Fox still has an excellent sign, the previous one was wonderfully unique. As you can see from the image here (taken from Joan P. Alcock's book Cheshire Inn Signs), it was painted in a cartoon style and showed a smirking fox, sitting upright alongside two very bright-eyed rabbits. The fox was attempting to disguise himself by wearing false rabbit ears, a bunny’s bobtail and two protruding front teeth. What a shame the new sign didn’t emulate the humour of the earlier one.

The Ring o’ Bells, Stretton
Ring o’ Bells is a relatively common name amongst English pubs – they are usually located close to churches and often frequented by bellringers – campanology must be thirsty work!

This particular Ring o’ Bells is nowhere near a church so it came as no surprise to discover that this is not the pub’s original name. Alcock notes that the pub was converted from a row of cottages in the 19th century [Joan P. Alcock, Cheshire Inn Signs, The History Press, Stroud, 2008, p.94] and the excellent Stretton community website reports that the pub was originally The Rose and Crown, then changed to The Crown Inn around 1851, before becoming The Ring o’ Bells at some later date. The website notes that 1845 tithe maps show Peter Nicholson of Thelwall Hall was landowner of a house licensed as a ‘Beer Shop and Garden’ on this site and gives details of landlords and occupants in subsequent census lists.

From Joan P. Alcock's book Cheshire Inn Signs
The Coachman, Hartford
As the pub’s name clearly suggests, The Coachman was once a coaching inn, one of the staging posts on the Chester Turnpike and a vital transfer point for passengers from Chester, Tarporley, Northwich and Knutsford who wanted to catch the train to London – Hartford Railway Station is directly across the road. The Coachman’s own website says the premises, which were built in the 1830s, have ‘stabling for 51 horses, a blacksmith’s shop, a harness room, a store room, a riding school, paddocks and 15 acres of land.’ 

The Grand Junction Railway, which opened on 4 July 1837 and ran for 82 miles from Birmingham to Warrington, was one of the earliest railway lines in Britain, and Hartford Station was one of the only ‘first-class’ stations along its route. Not surprisingly, The Coachman’searlier names reflected its proximity to the railway: it was originally the Hartford Station Inn, changed to the Railway Inn in 1891, became the Station Hotel in 1903 and then changed to its present name in 1971. Sadly, the previous pub sign, which showed a coachman driving a coach with four horses (see image at right), has been replaced with a boring, non-descript text-only version which reflects none of the pub’s colourful history. I do so wish pub owners would realise what an important part of local heritage their pub signs are.

The Old Broken Cross, Rudheath
I expected to discover a tale of Christianity spurned when I researched this pub name but, according to Joan P Alcock’s book Cheshire Inn Signs (The History Press, Stroud, 2008), The Old Broken Cross has no such history. She believes the building was originally two or three cottages and surmises that, because they are not lined up parallel to the neighbouring Trent and Mersey Canal, they predate the canal’s construction in 1777. The canny owner obviously saw the earning potential of a canal-side pub, serving as an alehouse to the watermen and providing stabling at the side of the pub for the canal horses, and so the pub was opened the same year as the canal.

The Old Broken Cross

The Swan Inn, Wybunbury
The Swan Inn is the one public house in this blog post that I can personally recommend, for its delightful ambience, its hearty and delicious fare, its friendly staff, and the piano in the ladies toilet. I kid you not! And the staff told me that, on nights when the pub starts to rock, the external door to the ladies gets left open and the piano gets played and a rousing sing-along is enjoyed by all. It sounds like great fun and I can just imagine the sore heads the next morning.

Dating from the 17th century but altered and extended in the early 19th and in the 20th centuries, The Swan is a traditional country pub. The depiction of a swan on a pub sign can be a heraldic device but, in Cheshire, the swan is usually an indication that the birds live, or once lived, in the local area.

Wybunbury is an interesting place to visit. Wybunbury Moss National Nature Reserve sits right behind the pub and makes for an interesting walk, and adjacent to the pub is the ‘Leaning Tower of Cheshire’, which, due to its unstable foundations, is all that now remains of the 15th-century Church of St Chad’s. From experience, I can tell you that a refreshment stop at The Swan makes the perfect end to an exploratory walk around the town!  


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