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To sportsmen the world over, active and passive, the experience of doing or viewing is incomplete without a more or less instant replay. Nowhere, perhaps, has civilization loosened more tongues more agreeably than in Britain, where pubs, pints and olde spoils are coeternal. On these pages appear some of the most famous inns, even more renowned as rehashing clubs than watering places. The sport varies from county to county, just as the pub does. It may be a half-timbered inn set in a quiet corner of the countryside near a trout stream, or some early Victorian pub in London with frosted-glass windows and ornamental tiles, like the Noble Art in Hampstead, where the customers rub elbows with 'Enery Cooper, the former British heavyweight champion. Or it could be a soccer pub in the grimy north of England, all done up in Naugahyde and plastic aspidistras, where the locals drink hitter and talk with violent partisanship about the big pro clubs. One such is the Footballers Arms in Burnley, in its own way as essential to sporting palaver as Wembley itself. Whatever the locale, beyond Tudor beams or Victorian marble counters, the true sporting pub must possess a friendly group of regulars with similar sporting interests and a hit of a thirst.
Inns have been in the habit of advertising themselves with painted signboards for 2,000 years or so, and signs like the falcon and the Cock Inn provide a glimpse of a vanishing sporting life. Falconry is the oldest and most aristocratic of all sports of the field, cockfighting among the most barbarous; the kings of England enjoyed and practiced both. Though often suppressed, cockfighting was tremendously popular for many centuries, and a few old inns still have cockpits (paved with sheep's knucklebones to give the birds a nonskid foothold). Today cockfighting is illegal, but even now it is practiced on the sly.
Before settling down to a quiet life of beer and skittles, British pubs sponsored a number of other violent pastimes, among them bearbaiting, bullbaiting and the dog and duck-pond—all of which were advertised on the inn signboards.
At the Dog and Duck, the 18th-century innkeeper would let loose a duck, its wings pinioned, on a large pond. One by one the customers' dogs were unleashed. A considerable splashing followed. The duck dived, the dogs barked, the customers yelled and stamped and bets flew.
Since, as is well known, the British will bet on anything, gambling in one form or another is still focused on the local inn. Darts and shove ha'penny have replaced the blood and feathers of the 18th century, but the really serious gambling is on the horse. The Jockey Club was born in an inn, and all over Britain there are famous racing pubs. The broad main street of Epsom is lined with them. At the Amato, whose sign pictures the Derby winner of 1838, someone chalks up the name of the presumed winner on the night before the big race. In the past 25 years this message has been right live times, proving nothing much except that a horse can run away with your money anywhere—even in a British racing pub with the best possible vibrations.
Birds of the air and beasts of the turf share billing with the cricketer. In this instance the team is from Meopham, in the county of Kent, and makes its headquarters at an inn overlooking the cricket pitch. After a match the flanneled men change grounds and the inn has its innings.
Beer and sports have been mixing it up in Britain since the Romans first moved in. In those days cockfights were held on the premises of the Cock Inn. Most cockpits disappeared long ago, but the hunt still forgathers at the Fox and Hounds and supporters of the soccer team thrash out the finer points in the bar parlour of the Footballers Arms. The Air Balloon, which started out in the 16th century as the Anne Boleyn, is another cricket hangout, while the Kingsholm caters to rugger thirsts, the Noble Art invites debate on pugs and such and, at the Sportsman, one good shot may well quaff another.
The art of signpainting flourishes at the Whitbread Studio in Cheltenham. Simplicity remains the keynote of this traditional craft. Business is brisk because there is a certain unplanned obsolescence. Even modern vinyl paints and varnishes cannot completely protect a painted board from the English climate.