The Oldest Pub in England? Probably not, but the Haunch of Venison is definitely the oldest in Salisbury, and the most unique pub that I have ever visited. From the ‘ladies box” up front with its own door; to the pewter bar and severed hand on display, this place certainly has character and history. When I visited, it was practically empty, and I had the bartender’s undivided attention. Fortunately he didn’t mind that I tried to pry all of the secrets of the pub out of him before they started to get busy. However, he wouldn’t let us go in any of the secret doors, see the hidden bar accessible only through and underground staircase, or look into the tunnel that leads to the church. Those mysteries were going to stay firmly in the realm of imagination and folklore.
The Haunch of Venison is located in Salisbury, England, not too from Salisbury Cathedral. In fact there is trapdoor in the floor behind the bar that supposedly leads to an underground tunnel that goes all the way to the church. This pub wasn’t always a pub, and it has been through many incarnations over the past 800 years or so. Official records of the building to back to 1320, when it was used as a craftsman’s house. After that the house was supposedly turned into a brothel, hence that’s where the underground tunnel to the church comes into use. When the floor was changed in Salisbury Cathedral, the tiles were used in the floor of the pub and upstairs restaurant. Unfortunately I didn’t get a photo of the black and white checkered tiles lining the floor of the bar. They were dirty and worn with age, and rattled with every step. If only that floor could talk!
The pub also houses, or used to house, a mummified hand. The hand was found in the fireplace when the building was being remodeled and placed in a display case upstairs. Someone put a two century old deck of cards in the hand and it was on display for quite a while. The hand supposedly came from a cheating card player and his spirit still roams the pub. The bartender told us of more than one instance where he was closing up late and a weird noise spooked him, or stairs would mysteriously creak for no reason. He told me of his dislike for closing up the place late and being the only one there. Maybe he was making it up to entertain the tourists, but I saw sincerity in his face when he told the story. I know I wouldn’t want to be the only one in an eight-hundred year old building at 2am! the original mummified hand is no longer on display. It was stolen in 2010 and replaced with a replica.
The “horsebox” in the front of the pub has walls to separate it from the rest of the bar, and it has its own door. This was a place where ladies could come to drink without being bothered. This tiny room is also called a “ladies box” and the “ladies snug” and dates to a time when pubs were for men only. Several sources state that Churchill and Eisenhower used to come to the Haunch of Venison and drink while planning the D-Day invasions, but I could find no proof of this meeting. Maybe it’s true, or maybe it’s just a part of local lore.
If you ever visit Stonehenge and want to spend the night in Salisbury, then the Haunch of Venison is a must-see. You can find some great photos and a more detailed history of the pub on the Campaign for Real Ale website. There is also an interesting article about the oldest pubs in England on CNN, but for some reason, they didn’t even mention the Haunch of Venison. It may not be the oldest, but it quite possibly holds title of “coolest.” This place has given me the idea of going on a pub tour the next time I travel, or even doing a pub tour here in the US. I could start with one of my favorites, The Old Talbott Tavern in Bardstown Kentucky, which was visited by Abraham Lincoln, Edgar Allen Poe, and Jesse James just to name a few.
The Haunch of Venison is not just a tourist trap. Their food and drink are genuinely delicious. I ended up having several ciders, a mug of carrot soup, and a roll filled with brie and cranberry. Nothing could have been better after touring Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral on a windy freezing day. I could have stayed at the pub all night, but we had to get up early for a long drive to London the next morning. So even though I had to leave it was not goodbye, because one day I will return to the Haunch of Venison.
This is one of the coolest things I have ever seen. Seriously.
Thanks! I thought so too.
Reblogged this on Ancientfoods and commented:
Oldest pub… Had to post this!
Reblogged this on http://www.seanmunger.com and commented:
This sounds like one of the coolest places in the world. Literally. An English pub in a medieval building, filled with history, mystery and even ghosts…Jaunting Jen got this one spot-on! I hope you enjoy her article as much as I did.
I’m Wiltshire born and bred and had never been to, let alone heard of, this pub. I’ll be making the thirty odd mile trip soon though. If you haven’t already been I’d also recommend Avebury stone circle. The site is older and larger than Stonehenge and is within a stone’s throw of Silbury Hill and the West Kennet Long Barrow. Well worth a visit if you have the opportunity.
I haven’t been to Avebury Aaron, but I do want to see it. I’m glad my story inspired you to want to visit!
Went to this pub today and took my parents and two young children. They all enjoyed visiting this place. It was very interesting and just a little spooky. Will visit it next time we go to Salisbury. The children found the severed hand and ghost stories fascinating!
A hidden gem!
The hand has been replaced with a replica several times, The original is reported to be in the Salisbury Museum. If my memory serves me correctly Ken Lailey, who produced local theatrical props, produced the previous one in the 1980’s. His was at least convincing, its forerunner looked like someone had filled a rubber glove with plaster of paris. The story goes that the original was a hand from someone who cheated at cards who paid the price and did not likely ever cheat again (difficult, though not impossible to play with one hand) I think the tunnel myth is unlikely. Why would one want a tunnel to the church ? it is a twenty second walk away, besides because of the high water table most of the cellars in Salisbury are not much deeper that four feet deep from road level hence the ground floor is often raised to provide sufficient cellar headroom, as it is in the Haunch. Many Inns of Salisbury claim to have been hostelries for masons and others working on the Cathedral but many were not build then, although could be ‘the site of’.The oldest part of the Haunch is mid-fifteenth century, however in the seventeenth century it housed a shoemaker so was then not an inn. It was an inn by the early eighteenth century, at lease by 1741. (unfortunately no time for references).
Interesting history, thanks for your comments!
Thanks for the fascinating information!
Hi, Jen. My sons and I spent several days in Salisbury earlier this month. We ate and drank at The Haunch of Venison. The coolest pub–make that the coolest place–I’ve ever been. We had a wonderful time. The food and craft beer were beyond delicious. Your analysis is spot on.