Caught on the horns of a yard of ale

You’ve read the stories, I’m sure: you’ve probably got, as I have, a mental picture. The mailcoach rattles through the arch into the straw-strewn innyard, chickens flying out of the way, the outside passengers ducking to avoid losing their hats – or heads. The ostler and stable-boys, alerted by the sound of the guard’s horn as the coach came down the High Street, rush to unhitch the old, tired, sweat-spattered team of horses and lead them away, at the same time bringing out a fresh team. The red-faced landlord, in tan breeches, black waistcoat, white shirt and white apron, his hair tied back in a short ponytail by a black bow, hands up a yard-long glass brimful of ale to the overcoat-laden mailcoach driver, who has no time in his schedule even to get down from his box. In a swing perfected by daily practice, the driver drains the long glass without a spill, hands it back down to the cheery publican and, refreshed, whips up his new horses, who gallop off back out onto the highway, the passenger-laden coach bouncing behind them and 10 more miles of muddy, rutted road ahead before they can all rest at the next stop. If there’s not a painting of that scene on the oak-panelled walls of some pub dining room with 18th century pretentions somewhere in England, I’ll swallow the nearest tricorn hat.

It’s a great tale, repeated often, and I never dissected it until I read it again in the Oxford Companion to Beer, where it appears in the entry for “drinking customs”:

“The diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706) mentions a yard of ale being used to toast King James II but the vessel has more plebeian origins. It was designed to meet the needs of stagecoach drivers who were in a rush to get to their final destinations. At intermediate steps the drivers would be handed ale in a yard glass through an inn window, the glass being of sufficient length for the driver to take it without leaving his coach.”

Perhaps because this occurs just four paragraphs after a claim that King Edgar, a pre-Conquest king of England, tried to limit villages to only one alehouse each in an attempt to cut drunkenness, which is definitely a pile of Anglo-Saxon pants (the permanently established alehouse as a village institution was probably at least three centuries away when Edgar was on the throne, and there wasn’t the infrastructure in his time to enforce such a law anyway – and nor is there a single parchment scrap of evidence for such a decree), myths were at the front of my brain, which is why this time when I read about coach drivers and yards of ale I finally went: “?”

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