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Drink your fill of the rich and fascinating history of Highgate's pubs

PUBLISHED: 17:00 15 January 2013 | UPDATED: 18:51 15 January 2013

The Gate House in Highgate, circa 1900. Picture: Michael Hammerson

The Gate House in Highgate, circa 1900. Picture: Michael Hammerson

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Highgate has always been known as a place to enjoy a pint. Senior reporter Tara Brady and City University MA student Alina Polianskaya delve into the past of the village's popular watering holes and find some interesting tales along the way.

The Spaniards Inn, circa 1900. Picture: Michael HammersonThe Spaniards Inn, circa 1900. Picture: Michael Hammerson

Had it not been for the landlord of a Highgate pub, history might have been very different.

In 1837, not long after her coronation, a young Queen Victoria was riding down Highgate West Hill in a carriage when the horses suddenly bolted.

The out-of-control coach was seen racing down the steep hill by the landlord of the Fox and Crown, which opened in Highgate West Hill in 1704, who rushed out and managed to stop the carriage.

“Had he not been there, Victoria may have been killed and there would have been no Victorian era,” pointed out Michael Hammerson, of the Highgate Society.

The Swearing of the Horns in Highgate, circa 1770. The custom was nvented in the 18th century by local publicans to increase trade from travellers. Picture: Michael HammersonThe Swearing of the Horns in Highgate, circa 1770. The custom was nvented in the 18th century by local publicans to increase trade from travellers. Picture: Michael Hammerson

“His reward was to be allowed to display the royal coat of arms which is now on display at the Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution. The pub itself was demolished in 1895.”

This is just one of the many historic tales associated with public houses and inns in Highgate. And N6 has its fair share of them.

A brewery is known to have stood on the site of The Angel Inn, in Highgate High Street, by the end of the 15th century and the first pub in the village is thought to have been The Swan, as recorded in 1480.

But the village is probably best known for its strange drinking custom known as the Swearing of the Horns.

The Angel Inn in Highgate High Street, circa 1920. Picture: Michael HammersonThe Angel Inn in Highgate High Street, circa 1920. Picture: Michael Hammerson

Invented in the 18th century by local publicans to increase trade from travellers, it became popular with parties who would descend on the area for the special ceremony.

“Initiates were obliged to swear an oath promising, among other things, not to drink small beer when they can get strong,” said Mr Hammerson.

“Not to kiss the maid when they can kiss the mistress, unless they like the maid better, and so on.

“Once initiated, you were a Freeman of Highgate. It was all good fun, and probably resulted in Highgate being the hangover capital of London.

“The ceremony is still carried out in The Wrestlers, which has a set of ‘horns’ – in fact, a pair of deer antlers.”

Highgate’s great number of watering holes could be down to its location.

It was the stopping point for sheep and cattle drovers bringing their stock from the north London meat markets.

In about 1780, around 80 stage-coaches a day stopped off at The Red Lion, at number 90 North Road, which closed in 1900.

But Highgate’s tollgate during the 18th and 19th centuries was the main focus of village life.

The Gatehouse, at the top of Highgate Hill, started as a toll collector’s office with accommodation which was later transformed into a tavern.

“Just before it was remodelled in mock Tudor style there had been a tollgate controlling entry to the main road,” said Mr Hammerson. “The inn is not recorded before 1634 but may be earlier.

“The tollgate closed in the 1870s when road tolls were phased out, but the pub derives its name from serving as the toll gate since the Middle Ages.”

In 1902, The Red Lion and Sun, in North Road, had changed hands 26 times during the previous 30 years – a sign that pubs weren’t making money in the 19th and 20th centuries.

“From what I have found out in the past, the Red Lion was a traditional pub name and upstairs was the sun room,” explained Heath Ball, landlord of The Red Lion and Sun.

“The ladies would go upstairs to take tea and the guys would be downstairs in the pub drinking beer. That’s where the name The Red Lion and Sun comes from.”

And with every good pub comes its very own ghost story.

“We saw an elderly gentleman with braces and a shirt walking down the hallway once,” said Mr Ball. “Like an old boy, he had a 1920s look about him. Yeah it was pretty creepy.”

Meanwhile, one of Highgate’s best known pubs is The Flask, in Highgate West Hill.

The gastropub is a listed building dating from 1663. Its name comes from it having sold flasks to fill up from Hampstead Spring.

Known for its good food but also its interesting beer and wine list, The Flask is popular in the summers for its barbecues. But it too has its fair share of tales.

“A Spanish lady hung herself in the cellar, which is now part of the customer seating area,” said Glyn Morgan, manager of The Flask.

“She apparently was in love with the publican and he was having none of it, so she hung herself.

“There have also been sightings of a guy in a cavalier costume through the main bar, disappearing into a wall.”

Asked if he has ever seen anything, Mr Morgan said: “No, I haven’t, but we have had quite a few doors lock themselves, and strange things like that.

“William Hogarth sketched two guys having a fight in here once. They were smashing each other with tankards and he sketched it.

“And along with probably every other pub around here, apparently highwayman Dick Turpin hid here.”

Just up the road, The Wrestlers, in North Road, was established in 1547, which suggests that it is Highgate’s oldest pub still in business.

Asked why it is called The Wrestlers, James Phillips, assistant manager, said: “Basically, it is one of the highest points around, so people used to meet here to settle their petty differences with a fight. A good old sort of fisticuffs.

“I have read a couple of articles dating back to the Victorian times that describe The Wrestlers as a place to be if you are already drunk, but would like to be more drunk.”

The Wrestlers still carries out the Swearing of the Horns ceremony and held one in September.

“The long and short of it is, if you come to Highgate and you want to be accepted as a son or daughter of Highgate, you would come and swear on the horns.

“You would kiss the big stag horns that were held by the proprietor, buy a round of drinks for everybody in the pub and then you would be a child of Highgate.”

Highgate’s rich history of pubs means they have always remained a focus of community life.

“Every time we lose an old pub, a major piece of local history is lost,” said Mr Hammerson.

“Historic pub names ought to be protected. It’s illogical that the building itself can be listed but the name, which could be much older, can be changed.

“Place names are part of the historic environment to which people are most exposed. They hear hundreds every day, yet have no idea from where they derived.

“A greater effort to inform people about place names will really enhance their understanding of local history.”

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