THE medieval town of Ruthin has a turbulent past. But did you know that there are phrases in common use in the English language today that originate from one of the town’s gorier traditions?
As much as the thought of a public hanging might turn our stomachs today, back in the 18th century they were considered good, clean, family entertainment.
In Ruthin, the gallows stood in the medieval market square at the top of the hill that leads up from the town’s old gaol. The route between the two places back then is as short and direct as it is today.
However, Ruthin continued a tradition that was echoed in towns across the country. The condemned man was never taken directly. Instead, it was customary for the condemned man to be placed in a cart or wagon and be taken on a zig zag route throughout the entire town, stopping at every pub in the town on his way.
The journey would begin at the gaol and the condemned man would travel in this wagon with an entourage of guards, a chaplain, and the executioner himself. Every time they stopped, the condemned man and his guards would dismount, go in the pub, have a few drinks, and then stumble back out to move on to the next one.
The only people who could not join them were the two men who still had a job to do, namely the executioner and the chaplain. So, if you ever offer to buy someone a drink and they reply, ‘Not for me, thanks. I’m on the wagon,’ now you know the tradition they’re referencing. It’s these two abstaining souls who could not join in the revelry.
And that is not the full extent of language that is derived from this tradition.
On its journey, the wagon transporting the condemned man used to start and stop so often that the lunging motion of the horses’ jerking the wheels into rotation earned the nickname ‘the lurch’. So, when the executioner and chaplain remained on the cart, while everyone else went into a pub, they were ‘left in the lurch’.
There are even suggestions that the term ‘pub crawl’ refers to the pace of the cart moving along the streets. Meanwhile, having ‘one for the road’ is another, self-explanatory reference.
This and many other fascinating revelations like it come from a new book which has just been published by Candy Jar Books, called “Historic Pubs of Wales” by Welsh author and historian; Graham Loveluck-Edwards.
Graham said: “When it comes to history, the humble pub has always punched well above its weight. Some of these wonderful old buildings have been at the heart of some very significant history as well as colourful events and imaginative folklore down the centuries. Yet when it comes to reading about local history, as much as there is no end of books about castles, stately homes, churches, and cathedrals, there is precious little about our pubs. They are so often overlooked. And that is something I am keen to put right”
“I have always loved old pubs. I am one of those people who cannot pass by an old and decrepit-looking pub without popping in for a pint and asking the landlord, ‘What’s the story behind this place then?’ This book is the fruit of a good 30 years of such conversations.”
The book charts the amazing haul of history tied up in 89 historic pubs from right across Wales. Capturing the history, the stories, and the folklore. Nineteen of the 89 are pubs are in North Wales and they include the Morning Star in Ruthin (at the heart of the tradition we were just looking at), the Ty Mawr in Gwyddelwern, The King’s Head in Llanrhaeadr and the Guildhall in Denbigh.
Historic Pubs of Wales is available from the author’s website just click here.