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June 28, 2023

Destination: Cotswolds


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A Guide to British Pub Etiquette

What could be more British than a good old pub? The village pub is the neighbourhood’s living room, treated as a second home, where locals unwind and ‘put the world to rights’ over a nice cold beer.

British pubs have been at the heart of village life for centuries. And this is certainly true of Cotswold pubs. There were once so many that in the year 965 King Edgar decreed there should be no more than one alehouse per village!

With around 45,000 pubs in Britain, pubs often are the centre of the community and a central part of British culture. As the Passport to the Pub says “If you haven’t been to a pub, you haven’t seen Britain.”

The Catherine Wheel Bibury
A traditional pub exterior in the Cotswolds. This is the Catherine Wheel in the very popular village of Bibury. Image: Ben Arthur

8 Common questions about British pubs

So how do you ‘do’ a British pub? Here’s the Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association’s 1996 publication, Passport to the Pub:

“Experienced native pub-goers obey the unspoken rules, but without being conscious of doing so. Regulars will mutter and grumble when an uninitiated tourist commits a breach of pub etiquette, but may well be unable to tell him exactly what rule he has broken.”

No fear! Read the next 8 points and become familiar with the sometimes peculiar intricacies of frequenting a good old British pub.

1. How do I order a drink in a British pub?

One thing many visitors get wrong upon entering a pub is sitting down at a table immediately. Unfortunately, you’ll find yourself thirsty if you do this as pubs do not wait on tables for drinks. You’ll need to head to the bar!

Sign outside the Prince of Burford
The Prince of Burford in, you guessed it, Burford! Image: Ben Arthur

2. What drink should I order at a British pub?

If you’re after something local – take a look at what the pub regulars are drinking – usually it’ll be a local ale, cider or even a perry (that’s a pear cider – a drink common in Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire).

Although it’s becoming less common than it once was, many pubs in Britain are owned by a local brewing establishment. This link between the brewery and the pub guarantees the sale of the local tipple.

It’s worth mentioning here that as you are entering the village living room, you are under no obligation to order anything alcoholic.  Asking for a coffee or a Coke will not bat any eyelids!

The bar at The Lamb Inn, Burford
A traditional pub bar in the Cotswolds. Image: Cotswold Inns

3. What’s in an English beer?

You may also go thirsty and not get what you expect if you simply order a ‘beer’! Outside of Britain a ‘beer’ refers to a ‘lager’, but here ‘beer’ is an umbrella term that can include lagers (light beer), ales (dark beer), bitters (light ale), stouts (very dark beer), pale ales, IPAs, wheat beers… there’s lots!

With thousands of micro and local breweries, many pubs have an incredible amount of choice! You’re welcome to ask to try a couple of different ‘tasters’ before choosing you’re pint. Again, our recommendation would be to try something local!

Pint of beer in front of a fire.
English ale should be served cold but not ice cold. Great at any time of the year. Image: Dan Barett, Unsplash

4. What measurement is a pint?

Once you’ve chosen you’ll be served you’re drink as a pint. At just over half a litre this can seem a lot, be prepared! You can of course ask for a half instead.

5. What Does a “Free House” Mean?

The sign ‘Free House’ hanging outside a pub however, does not mean that the beer is free! Instead it means that the establishment is not partnered with one brewery and can serve and sell beers from anywhere and everywhere.

The Lamb Inn, Burford
The Lamb Inn in Burford. Image: Cotswold Inns

6. Why do pubs have strange names?

Pubs have to be clearly signed as licensed sellers of alcohol, even today, so that historically inspectors who could check the quality of their ale. William Shakespeare’s father was actually an ale inspector, among his many other jobs! This is why we have so many brilliant pub names.

The Red Lion is the most common of all pub names. Thought to be from when James VI of Scotland became James I of England and insisted that public buildings display the Scottish royal coat of arms – the ‘Lion Rampant’.

Many have Royal links, with ‘The Crown’ and ‘The King’s Arms’ being popular also. Historic events too come into play. The Mayflower in Plymouth, takes its name from the ship that started its journey from London’s docks in 1620, taking the first English pilgrims to America.

The Snooty Fox pub frontage in Tetbury, Cotswolds
The Snooty Fox in Tetbury was 'The White Hart' until the 1970s until the then owner had a run-in with the local fox hunt. He renamed the pub and barred members of the hunt. Image: Tea Smart

7. What are the rules about tipping in UK pubs?

British tipping culture is somewhat different to America. Pub etiquette dictates that its not expected of you to tip the bartender, though you may spot tips jar to throw a few coins in.

One way to tip if you are getting a round in (buying a round of drinks for your table) is to say ‘and one for yourself’, to buy the barmaid or barman a drink! In restaurants it’s slightly different, you can tip 10-15% if the service is good.

Some restaurants add this on automatically as a service charge so it’s always worth checking.

The Hare and Hounds, Tetbury, Cotswolds
Come summer, pubs usually extend seating into their outside space. Image: Ben Arthur

8. What time do British pubs shut?

It can vary from establishment to establishment – most will be closed by 11pm. If the conversation (and drink) is flowing you’ll have to listen up to someone shouting ‘Last Orders!’ this means you’ve got the chance to sneak one more drink in before closing time.

We hope this helps explain a bit about pub etiquette. For more ideas on including a visit to a Great British pub as part of your visit check out our favourite Cotswolds pub walks.

On all of our tours across the Cotswolds, Devon, Cornwall, the Lake District and Northumberland, we aim to stop for coffee, cake, lunch, drinks or dinner in beautiful local pubs, each with its own great atmosphere and great selection of local ales. Cheers!

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Cotswold Tours

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