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Check Out The Checkers of Chequers
After reading Esmerelda’s very interesting posts on Public Houses and Inn signs at this post and also here I went crawling through my attic and dug out some of my notes from those ill-remembered lectures, delivered to me in far off and almost forgotten (yes, and halcyon) times, which I mentioned in the comments to her post here.
It seems, from that which I noted as a callow youngster paying but scant attention to a minor part of my degree course, that the chequerboard design of alternating differently coloured squares is ultimately, way back in the dim and distant past of our evolving civilisation, based on a natural flavouring for beer!
Now, bear with me here and forgive my natural loquacity - which is probably due to my natural penchant for consumption of the product of the brewer’s skills, anyway.
It seems, at least according to my badly written notes and poor memory, that archaeologists have determined that beer, before the discovery of hops, was often flavoured with the fruits of the of the wild Service tree (Sorbus torminalis, syn. Torminalis clusii). That particular rowan tree is native all across Europe, North Africa and across Asia Minor as far as as the Elburz Mountains and it’s interesting to note that true beer is not found in the archaeological record east of the Elburz range. The fruits of the wild Service tree taste a little like dates and are still collected from the few surviving trees in the hedgerows of Britain and preserved in honey and eaten at New Year in some country villages. It’s not every year that the fruits will ripen in Britain because Sorbus torminalis requires a hot summer and a long, warm autumn for the fruits to ripen and then blett to edibility, but global warming means that this is now happening in most years and frequent periods of climatic optimum means that regular ripening happened often enough in our past for the memory to be preserved from one generation to the next. However, beer was usually flavoured with underripe and slightly astringent fruits and, anyway, the bletted fruits produced a very short lived brew that was drunk young and was reviled by most as the old women’s drink.
Now what, I hear you all ask, has that got to do with ‘chequers’ and Esme’s interesting, and thirst provoking, disquisitions on Pub signs and her splendid photographs of a reviving artisanal artform? Well, stay with me for just a moment or two whilst I pour myself another foaming tankard of the brew that cheers from the jug, the little brown jug, which the boot boy has just replenished for me from the pub (‘The Swan in Happiness’, if you must know – too, too precious) on the corner of our lane and the High Street.
The bark of the Sorbus torminalis peels away in a roughly chequerboard pattern – the grey bark peels away in rough squares to reveal the dark brown layers underneath – but, and much more importantly, the ripe fruit has lenticel markings which look much like a chequered pattern and the fruits, in English and to this very day, are known as ‘chequers’. English is by no means the only Indic language to preserve this source, most do, and beer, specifically small beer (as a method of rendering water safe to drink using the sterilising properties of alcohol), is historically important. The chequerboard pattern on Inn signs indicated that there was sufficient alcohol in the water such as to render it safe to drink and that sign, that indication, dates from the day and age when the alcohol, the beer, was flavoured with the berries of the wild Service tree – the chequered berry – and that dates back so far into prehistory as to be almost astounding.
One can only guess at the meanings that our very ancient ancestors, lacking any understanding of chemistry or biology, might have ascribed to drunken insights and at how the chequerboard pattern of Dark and Light squares became embroiled in, and entangled with, our religious beliefs but that that pattern did become so mixed up with our beliefs and lives on, today, in so many ways, is undeniable. That Esme finds it hither and yon on so many of her carefully photographed Inn signs is proof, if proof is needed, of just how ancient much of our culture actually is. Esmerelda’s photographs prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that an ancient belief, perhaps an alchemical superstition, lives on into our modern world, albeit unrecognised and in a different way.
Oh, and let me be honest here, sometimes art is just art. Sometimes an Inn sign is just an Inn sign. Sometimes there is no ancient meaning. There is a pub that I know of called the “Queen in Arms”. It’s the hangout of several chess clubs and its sign is a chequerboard painted by the landlord, in all innocence, just two years ago. He doesn’t know that he is the heritor of a proud, millennia-old tradition – why should he? But he is!
By the way, Esme, does the Bosom’s Inn in St. Lawrence Lane still exist? Despite all the time I’ve spent in London I’ve never thought to check up on that! That was one of the great City Inns assigned to Charles Vs suite, when he came over to visit Henry VIII in 1522. At the sign of "St. Lawrence Bosoms" twenty beds and stabling for sixty horses were ordered.
That strange old bit about the trained horse and Bankes which was written under the pen names of "John Dando, the wierdrawer of Hadley, and Harrie Runt, head ostler of Besomes Inne," probably refers to the same Inn, but the horse in question mustn’t be confused with the spartina grazing Bankers living on the islands of North Carolina's Outer Banks.
But this brief entry into the affray is ‘Loves Labours Wonne’ and all I mean to do is shew how Esme’s lovely collection of photographs of ancient Inn signs demonstrate yet another example of our deep and ancient culture and what we could lose if the vile conformity of Islamic belief were to gain the upper hand in our countries.
Now, whose round is it? Thanks! Mine’s a pint of the best. Dash it, make it a half-and-half with a flesh and blood on the side. May as well be hanged for a lamb as led to the slaughter!