Uninformed Comment

Road houses in the UK

Posted in Architecture, Grammar & usage, History by uninformedcomment on May 4, 2009

During a recent discussion in a group-in-which-I-am-active-but-shall-not-name-here, the subject of “roadhouses” cropped up, referring to a certain type of bar in the United States.   It occurred to me that the term “road house” has a different meaning in the UK, but I couldn’t find anything much online.  As so often happens, the more popular usage has eclipsed the other to a degree that makes finding information on the less popular definition quite difficult, not to mention tiresome.

No more, dear reader – here is a description, almost entirely from memory and without citation, of the UK version of the road house.

These are pubs – also called inns – which were built along the longer thoroughfares during the explosion in car ownership in the 1930s, and which catered to the new passing, driving trade.   There are thousands and thousands of them lining the A-roads of Britain, a large number of them no longer in business.

Their styling is fairly distinctive from other pubs or inns, usually having large exposed gables on the frontage – here’s a picture of a typical one:

It’s worthwhile remembering that car ownership in the 1920s and 1930s increased dramatically in the UK.  Hitherto, a car was beyond the dreams of all but the wealthy, but the fall in price of vehicles triggered a boom that was to scar the landscape with roads.  Suddenly, a car was within reach of the lower middle classes, giving them a new independence – and a new need for lunch and a pint on the way.  These “road houses” were built during that period, and, offered reasonably comfortable surroundings, short-stay accommodation, food and, of course, drinks.

Also remember that there was very little social stigma around drinking and driving in those days.  To be fair, at a time when traffic was still very light, and speeds necessarily low, it wasn’t anything like as dangerous a practice as it is now.

A lot of these inns are called “Halfway House”, being situated deliberately halfway between two towns I found that previous image by Googling “halfway house”); their modern-day lack of halfwayness is often an interesting symptom of post-war urban development.  I’ve spent too many hours in the past in one such, and it wasn’t immediately obvious where it was halfway to, until one of the regulars investigated public records and found that it had been named for being halfway to the centre of a village that was now entirely swallowed by the city.

Here’s another I’ve personally quaffed many a pint at, the wonderfully-named “Goodfellowship Inn” (variously punctuated):

The “mock-Tudor” half-timbered facades osf these pubs was by no means universal – most of them, in fact, were a more workaday red-brick finish no amount of white paint can beautify:

However, the design of road houses usually included the prominent gables shown in these pictures.  I’m not sure why that is, but it’s certainly a distinctive feature.

Normally, the public areas of road houses are divided into two – one basic section (“bar”) for the locals, as well as lorry drivers and other blue-collar travellers, and another more plush section (“lounge”) for car drivers and coach passengers, although this bar/lounge division is also common in pubs generally.  They often have two car parks for the same reason,  which is more distinctive – one can imagine the front area, say, being used for the cabriolets and coupés of private motorists, and the rear for commercial vehicles.

If memory serves – and it often doesn’t – road houses in their time had a reputation as destinations for couples seeking easy privacy with anonymity within reach of towns and cities, especially those couples not married, at least to each other.  Not that I’m old enough to remember this first hand, of course, but I’m pretty sure I Read It Somewhere, and sadly that’s about as near as this article will get to a cite.

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2 Responses

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  1. Greg Goss said, on May 31, 2009 at 2:45 am

    When my protege was visiting me in Toronto from the much younger western end of Canada, she came equipped with a list of haunted locations that she wanted to look at. One of these was a former Inn that had been converted to a museum. This was about halfway between where I lived and downtown Toronto. I had picked a place as close to downtown as I was willing to commute every day, but clearly considered myself to be living in Toronto.

    The Inn had been constructed a day’s travel from Toronto. People would sleep there and hire a ferry across the river to continue their journey the next morning. Halfway along a route that I intended to commute every day.

    I also found pictures of vacation cabins on Lake Ontario near where I lived. There were ferries from Toronto to this vacation idyll as recently as the fifties. This made my choice of “commutable” again look odd.

    Our generation is willing to live with a scale of distance that previous generations would find astonishing. As a younger person, I once headed off on a thousant Km trip for a weekend on a whim. I knew that the roads were dependable, that the highways were dependable, and that the plastic in my wallet would be accepted till I got around to pulling money from a bank machine to fund the rest of this weekend whim. The reason for the thousand Km trip? A friend was hosting a party, and had mentioned this in a posting to a mailing list that I still belonged to because I once lived in that city. Now that I’m a half-continent away, I’m still on the list because it costs nothing for the various in-group postings to find me.

    • uninformedcomment said, on May 31, 2009 at 12:25 pm

      A good point about our perception of distances. Even in the days of horseback travelling, unless one could afford a relay, one was limited to somewhat less than walking speed.

      I’ve always found that surprising – that once time for feeding, watering and rest are taken into account, horses are no faster than we are. I’m given to understand, for example, that mounted units in armies were allowed more time to get from A to B than their foot-slogging counterparts (the PBI, or “Poor Bloody Infantry”). There certainly was an advantage in becoming bipedal – we might not beat the beasts in the 3:30 at Newmarket, but for longer distances we’re the speedy ones.

      Kind of makes backache almost worth it, really.


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