In the last two years, I’ve seen a lot of drawings of bees trying to play guitars. They’ve been on posters, on chalkboards, on signs and on flyers but I’ve yet to see a bee that’s succeeding. The guitar is designed for a two-armed human, and a guitarist generally requires the standard-human arrangement of shoulders and elbows. The honeybee lacks these things. And even when the arm arrangement can be satisfactorily depicted with a few lucky pen-strokes, the rear legs are used for standing, and there’s always a leftover set, the pair waggling awkwardly in the middle.
But every musical event at a pub called The Beehive inevitably has a poster, and this poster invariably contains an attempt at drawing a bee playing guitar.
In the past two years, I’ve been to twenty-one pubs named The Beehive, to one called The Beekeeper, one called The Bee’s Mouth and two called The Honeycomb. It started when I met my brother for a drink after work one evening. We met at The Beehive in Walworth, and (after chatting about my first summer of beekeeping), we began to wonder how many other pubs called The Beehive there were in the city. My brother knew of at least three others, plus a Hive Bar and a club night called Buzz. With the help of our phones we found at least another ten.
Later that evening I began to wonder. How many bee-named pubs in the UK? I googled until the early hours, and drew up a list. There were sixty-six called The Beehive or The Beehive Inn, and eleven called The Honey Bee, The Bumble Bee, or The Bee. There were few Honeycombs and Honeypots, and a scattering of others: The Bee’s Mouth in Brighton, The Bee’s Knees in Leicester, The Bees in the Wall in Cambridgeshire. There were also some marginal ones – The Smoker at Daventry was particularly iffy. And I had to concede that The Grand National was probably named after a horserace, and not a particularly swanky hive. I could have boosted the count significantly by including the various Queen’s Arms, but they didn’t seem quite bee-ey enough. If I’d found The Queen’s Sting or The Queen’s Characteristically Elongated Pygidium it would have counted, but arms, I thought, were not enough.
In total there were between ninety-five and a hundred. Some of the information was quite old. I was sure that a handful would be have been closed or renamed, but perhaps new ones would have opened to take their places.
I can’t remember exactly when I decided to visit them all. It definitely felt like I had time – the real bees in my garden were hunkering down for the winter, so there was not much to do at the hive. The weather was too cold and the days too short for outside adventures. Perhaps the journeys would teach me something about the bees? Perhaps I’d meet other bee-enthusiasts on the way? And my work was sending me all around the country, so it seemed a good way to pass the evenings.
On weeknights, when my colleagues left the office and headed back for lonely evenings in budget hotel rooms, I’d jump on a bus to a forsaken suburban transport hub, then catch another bus to somewhere near The Beehive. A walk in the dark, the welcome sight of an illuminated skep on a swinging sign, and then half-a-pint of the most local ale. Then walking cold miles back through cat-haunted streets, to catch another bus or train, back to a lonely Travelodge evening, with another tick on the list and a hollow sense of achievement.
At first, I attempted to rank the pubs, trying to find (as it were) the Top Bar. I wanted to compare and contrast, to review them. I started a spreadsheet with marks out of ten for atmosphere, for value, for range of drinks. But, I quickly discovered, no pub is at its best at 6pm on a November Tuesday, and none scored particularly highly. I did record how much bee-stuff they had, in the column I’d entitled ‘Memora-bee-lia’.
Many scored highly on this. The Beehive in Staines had a brilliantly-surreal rubber-duck-bee balanced on a clock in the corner. The one in Tottenham had a glowing neon bee on the wall, and a giant model-bee crawling across the wall above the spirits-shelf. A few others had bee-toys hanging behind the bar – a wooden puppet-bee on a spring, suspended from the clapper of the last-orders bell. Some of the older pubs had stained glass windows : an art-deco bee in the window of the Swindon Beehive and a stylised skep in The Beehive at White Waltham. The largest was the huge golden skep on the roof of The Beehive at Brentford, a pub I’d walked past many times in the days before the bees, but never noticed.
The Beehive near Clapham Junction was the most bee-themed. On a large shelf above the door was a full-sized hive. Beside it was a smoker, a pair of old beekeeping gloves, and assorted other familiar tools. Its walls were decorated with framed prints from old bee-books, and sketches of Winnie the Pooh staring longingly at a treetop bee-nest. I was one of two customers, “my grandfather used to keep bees” said the other, “I’d keep them myself if I had the space for it”. We talked about urban beekeeping, and about ghosts.
Some pubs had only a cursory acknowledgement of their names. The Beekeeper in Beeston (on the outskirts of Nottingham) had only a vaguely hexagonal pattern on the carpet and an atmosphere of despair. However, its disappointing lack of bee-ishness was made up for with the fortunate discovery of Sioban Coppinger‘s wonderful “Beeston Seat” sculpture in the town centre – a concrete beekeeper keeping benevolent watch over his concrete hive.
My first few pub-visits had been unsuccessful. After conceiving the idea in The Beehive near Elephant and Castle, I tried the two nearest ones. One had recently been renamed The Spit and Sawdust, the other had closed down, permanently. The next day, I was in Marylebone, and my map showed two within a stone’s-throw of the station. The Homer Street Beehive was closed – with boarding at the front, and green netting covering the upper floors. The Crawford Street Beehive was also closed for renovation following a fire, boarded-up and blocked off. Both had signboards showing beehives, but I could not call either visit a success.
But even when there was no pub I enjoyed the journey. I found myself on evening buses, trams and trains crowded with commuters, but there was something different about my journey. Despite the crowdedness, it didn’t have the same sickening crush of a commuter journey. For everybody else it was a journey they’d made a hundred times before, for me it was something new, something playful and purposeful.
A few days after the unsuccessful Marylebone visits, I was back in London, and found The Beehive in Hoxton. It’s a city pub: lager, pool tables, and a garden which, on summer evenings, would be a glorious place to sit and watch the traffic. Other than the skep on menu, there were no other bees. Beside the pool table, men disagreed over the correct arrangement of reds and yellows in the triangle. I got the sense that it wasn’t the first time they’d had this argument, and nor would it be the last.
“I’m visiting all the pubs named after bees,” I explained to the bartender, the thought still formulating in my mind as I spoke it.
“How many have you been to?” she asked.
“Well,” I paused, embarrassed in the moment, “only really one actually, but I’ve been to four that were closed.”
I realised I’d have to visit a few more before I started trying to explain – to visit some others to give me something to talk about.
The next weekend I took a Saturday-morning train to Maidenhead, and walked from there to The Beehive at White Waltham. On the outskirts of town a graffitted wall showed a fairy-queen holding a bee. It felt like a good omen – pointing the way.
The pub was delightfully bee-themed. Old pub sign-boards were built into the wall outside, and in the interior bars, stained-glass windows depicted stylised skeps. The pub felt friendly – mainly filled with lunchtime diners: I had a quick pint and headed off to eat my picnic lunch on the village green. In the pub garden one of the signboards had a stanza of verse on it:
“Inside this hive, we are alive
Our liquor’s worth your money
If you are dry, step in and try
The flavour of our honey.”
As I’ve travelled I have been amassing an archive of blurry photographs. Through the winter I had mainly seen pubs in the dark – the pub signs were too well-lit for my phone-camera to capture, and the text too dark. Seven beehives, ten beehives, fifteen beehives. The number grew.
The majority used skeps on their signs, the old-fashioned straw dome which is perhaps the default depiction of the hive. Via Twitter, beekeeper Andrew Hubbard suggested that urban pubs mainly used wooden hives, and rural ones showed skeps, a pattern he’d noticed in the pubs around Liverpool. I started to keep note, although many used a mixture – a skep on the swinging-sign and a box-hive on the menu or vice versa. And the beehive painted on The Beehive in Droylsden was a new type – a tapering tower of boxes, like a cross between a WBC hive and a Mayan pyramid – a pretty shape, but probably designed by an artist rather than someone with practical beekeeping experience.
Andrew sent me an extract from Eva Crane‘s book The Archaeology of Beekeeping, in which she devotes a page to Beehive pubs. Crane noted that in 1864 there were nine Beehives recorded in a list of London pubs. When she was writing (in the early 1980s), the number had grown to 45 in London, and she found an additional 82 in England (and six across Scotland, Wales and Ireland). I recognised some of the locations on her list, but many (including the Beehives in Abingdon and Oxford) have long since disappeared.
It seems a good name. A nineteenth century publican, looking for a recognisable object easy to hang above his door, could no-doubt find an old skep and hoist it. And a beehive, as Peter Marren writes in Bugs Britannica, is ‘a perfect metaphor for a pub – convivial buzzing allied to sweet and boozy delights’.
I visited mostly after work, but made some weekend trips. There are four near Heathrow Airport: friendly Beehives at Staines, Englefield Green and Bedfont, and a grim Honeycombe near Hounslow. I visited all on a January Saturday: an early start, the airport-coach from Oxford, a cold hike alongside the George VI reservoir, and a half-pint at each pub. On the coach home, surrounded by tourists returning from foreign holidays, I wondered what the point was. I wasn’t achieving anything with the journeys, wasn’t learning anything about bees, and (although I was gaining extensive experience of bitter-cold bus-stops) the whole thing felt entirely futile.
As I stared through my reflection into the darkness beyond the coach window, my phone buzzed with a message from my housemate, visiting friends North Wales: “Look what I’ve found!” and a photograph of a The Beehive somewhere near Snowdonia. It looked cosy.
I wondered if I had to visit them all, or whether I could delegate the difficult ones. But I had devised my own arbitrary rules, and felt compelled to follow them : visit the pub, take a photo of the sign. There was no time limit, but I realised it was an adventure that could take years, fitting into the gaps, like propolis between the frames of real life.
I’d hoped to engage in bee-themed conversations along the way, but the early-evening customers were not there to chat, and after a day at work, I did not have the energy to ignite conversations. I’d also overestimated the interest in bees. In Oxford, my local pub is called The Marsh Harrier, but I’ve got nothing to say about birds of prey. The next most local is The Isis, but I suspect that few drinkers there would want to engage in casual discussions of Egyptian Goddesses or terrorist organisations. Similarly, I should not expect the patrons of any Beehive to have any specific interest in bees.
If I had more time, I would arrange to meet local beekeepers and enthusiasts, but being governed by the vagaries of bus-timetables and work means that planned meetings were impractical – these visits were moments squeezed into the gaps, and not things that could be scheduled or planned.
Two winters gone, and I’ve visited most of the easy ones. I’ve crossed off all those within a day-trip of Oxford, and most of those near where I’ve worked. I’m hoping to find excuses to go further north, perhaps to the cluster in the Peak District, or the two in Scotland. As another spring approaches, and I see that the garden bees have survived to see the crocuses flower, I set aside the Bee Pubs notebook, and awake again from the strange away-from-home hibernation in which I have existed while the bees slept.
to be continued…
(Sporadic updates can be found by following @bee_pubs on Twitter)