Sign language
Country Life UK|October 28, 2020
The Pope’s Head, The Naked Boy, The Leg & Star: illustrated signs have been swinging tipsily outside Britain’s pubs for centuries, wooing customers, annoying Parliament and occasionally landing on pedestrians, says Felicity Day
Felicity Day

BOLD and bright, swaying gently in the wind high above our heads, illustrated inn signs are as ubiquitous as they are often unnoticed. Part navigational aid, part advertising billboard and part street art, they’ve been guiding drinkers to the pub door in our towns and villages for centuries, a vital ingredient of the traditional British local.

Strange to think, then, that these pictorial placards weren’t always unique to the inn trade: as 18th-century street scenes show, they once hung from every kind of shop, coffee house and tavern, jostling with one another for space and sometimes stretching right across the road.

By then, they were considered a public nuisance. Growing ever bigger as proprietors tried to outdo their neighbours, hanging signboards not only made narrow streets dark and stuffy, they creaked eerily day and night and had a frightening tendency to detach from their brackets and crash to the floor, killing unsuspecting pedestrians.

The City of London banned them in 1762, a move swiftly followed by numerous other London boroughs. Yet the owners of taverns seem to have defied the ban with impunity. As shopkeepers turned to fascias displaying a written name, the illustrated sign carried on swinging tipsily on the side of Britain’s pubs.

Perhaps the publicans’ stubborn devotion to it was a natural consequence of the old law that had, in the time of Richard II, compelled ale-sellers to display one (many chose Richard’s personal emblem, the white hart, which accounts for its popularity today). When a landlord’s licence was revoked, his sign was unceremoniously removed, creating a symbolic, and seemingly lasting, bond between the proprietor and the placard that proclaimed his right to trade.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM COUNTRY LIFE UKView All

The lands that time forgot

Britain is full of hidden treasures, from haunted forests to flower-filled meadows, secret stone circles and saintly volcanoes. Annunciata Elwes tours 50 lesser-known treasures of this country to tick off in 2021

10+ mins read
Country Life UK
January 06, 2021

The sweet taste of success

We’ve all done it: eased the lid from the golden tin, only for a cloud of powdered sugar to erupt over the car. Amazingly, A. L. Simpkin’s sweets have now been our faithful travel companions for 100 years, reports Julie Harding

4 mins read
Country Life UK
January 06, 2021

When Gounod met Georgina

When, 150 years ago, the French composer encountered the voluptuous singing teacher, sparks flew and London and Paris were agog. Henrietta Bredin recounts the tale of their short-lived, but tumultuous relationship

5 mins read
Country Life UK
January 06, 2021

Three cheers for British spuds

FOR a few years now, most of the potatoes I’ve grown have been nutty, early, French salad potatoes.

4 mins read
Country Life UK
January 06, 2021

Looking forward, looking back

In the first of a new monthly series, Amy Jeffs reflects on the medieval pastime of January: feasting with family and friends

2 mins read
Country Life UK
January 06, 2021

Don't try this at home

The five-day office week is a thing of the past. Emma Hughes rounds up the best places to work from, beyond the kitchen table

3 mins read
Country Life UK
January 06, 2021

Given the green light

A new-found love for space, quiet and Nature is driving growth in the prime countryside market

7 mins read
Country Life UK
January 06, 2021

A charming anomaly - Rosebery House, Midlothian The home of Lord Dalmeny

A late-Georgian shooting lodge became the favoured retreat of the Victorian Prime Minister, Lord Rosebery. It escaped ambitious remodelling at his hands and has recently been the object of sympathetic restoration, as John Martin Robinson reports

8 mins read
Country Life UK
January 06, 2021

A blisteringly good border - Aston Pottery, Oxfordshire

Every single one of the 5,000 plants in this 200ft-long annual bed has been sown and raised from seed. Val Bourne discovers the secrets behind this astonishing achievement

5 mins read
Country Life UK
January 06, 2021

You'll Never Walk Alone

Grafham Water is alive with human and avian company

3 mins read
Country Life UK
January 06, 2021
RELATED STORIES

LONDON TEA PARTY

HOW JOE BONAMASSA DECAMPED TO ABBEY ROAD STUDIOS WITH BERNIE MARSDEN AND FORMER CREAM LYRICIST PETE BROWN TO WRITE AND RECORD ROYAL TEA, AN ALBUM THAT’S BURSTING WITH THAT BRITISH BLUES BOOM

7 mins read
Guitar World
January 2021

UBER GETS 18-MONTH LONDON LICENSE AFTER WINNING COURT APPEAL

Uber can keep operating in London for another year and a half after winning its appeal of a decision by the British capital’s transit regulator not to renew its license.

2 mins read
AppleMagazine
AppleMagazine #466

DEPP'S NEW FLICK ANOTHER DUD!

He’s no longer a sure thing at the box office, sources dished

1 min read
National Enquirer
September 07, 2020

GOLDEN ANNIVERSARY GOODNESS

The Lake Havasu Gem & Mineral Society (LHGMS) is one of those fortunate clubs across the country that recently passed the 50-year threshold of servicing its local rockhounding, lapidary, gem and jewelry-loving community. It takes a lot of dedication and commitment by a lot of members and energetic and visionary leadership over many years, to ensure the continuing success of a gem and mineral society.

8 mins read
Rock&Gem Magazine
September 2020

Harry& Meghan: AT WAR WITH THE QUEEN

WITH PRINCE HARRY BY HER SIDE, MEGHAN MARKLE GOES PUBLIC WITH HER GRIEVANCES AGAINST THE WINDSORS, SETTING THE STAGE FOR A BATTLE ROYAL.

2 mins read
Star
July 27, 2020

In the Realm of Legends

Nestled along the rugged western coast of Great Britain, Wales is a country unlike any other

6 mins read
Business Traveler
July/August 2020

TOP GUN

An exclusive Q&A with world number one golfer and Omega brand ambassador Rory McIlroy

7 mins read
Maxim
July - August 2020

JESSICA RIMONDI MOMENTS

Images of everyday life

3 mins read
Art Market
Issue #47 May 2020

The Pencil: Thinking and Technique

James Gurney shares six ways to use the pencil and six ways to think about it

4 mins read
International Artist
April - May 2020

Royals IN CRISIS

AS THE CORONAVIRUS LOCKDOWN EXPANDS — AND DRIVES THE HOUSE OF WINDSOR FAR APART — THE FIRM IS FEELING THE PRESSURE.

4 mins read
Star
April 20, 2020