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Historic Hotels in Britain

Remains of Roman Inn at Richborough

The following is a brief history of hotels in Britain. Where possible we have included facilities for you to book rooms in the hotels mentioned.


In Roman Britain inns and lodgings were provided along roads and in main towns for officials on state business. The remains of a Roman inn can be seen at the fort of Vindolanda near Haltwhistle in Northumbria. At Richborough in Kent the remains of a "mansio" can still be seen. This was an inn serving travellers coming into Britannia through Richborough. Richborough in Roman times was a major port, and the mansio served much the same purpose as a hotel near Heathrow today.

Inns fell into disuse after the Romans left in 410AD. People did not travel, except on pilgrimages, so it was for this kind of traveller that occasional spartan accommodation was provided. Abbeys sometimes had a hospice at a market town, at a place of pilgrimage, or at key points along the road or river routes that pilgrims might take. Examples include, the New Inn in Gloucester (booking facilities available) and the George and Pilgrim at Glastonbury. In 1180 the Eastbridge Hospital was founded in Canterbury High Street to provide accommodation for pilgrims flocking to the shine of Thomas Becket who was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. The Eastbridge Hospital survives and can be visited. The monasteries also offered free bread and ale. This service is still provided at the hospital of St Cross in Winchester.




Trip to Jerusalem

Private inns also began to grow up along pilgrimage routes. England's oldest private inn is the Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham, which dates from the early twelfth century. The Trip to Jerusalem, which sits below Nottingham Castle, was established in 1189, the year that Richard the Lionheart came to the throne. Richard was immediately keen to go crusading in the Holy Land, and men that answered his call for help gathered at Nottingham Castle, one of Richard's favoured strongholds. These knights and men at arms would often seek accommodation and refreshment at the Trip to Jerusalem. In Middle English the word "trip" referred to a resting place rather than a journey. It's a nice irony that the place of rest should also be named after what is now a journey. The Trip To Jerusalem today is a well known Nottingham pub.










The George, Southwark

Other early private inns which survive include the George at Norton St Philip in Somerset (1397), the Spread Eagle at Midhurst in West Sussex (1430), and the early 16th century Mermaid at Rye in Kent. Sadly the Tabard Inn at Southwark, the starting point for the pilgrimage in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, no longer exists, having been demolished in the nineteenth century. There is a commemorative plaque in Borough High Street at the place where the Tabard once stood. The George which stood near the Tabard, and was built to a similar design, does survive, and is still a working pub and restaurant, owned by the National Trust.

Between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries inns developed into coaching inns, which could be found in all main towns. They can be recognised today by a characteristic set of large doors to one side. Some still have inscriptions dating from their coaching days. Examples include the George in Dorchester on Thames, the White Horse in Chichester, the George at Southwark, and the George at Stamford in Lincolnshire. At the George Stamford there is still a gallows sign across the road, which served as a warning to highwaymen who made their living robbing passing coaches. Entering the George you will notice a door on the left marked "London", and a door on the right marked "York". These were waiting rooms for travellers waiting for their coaches, which changed horses at the George. Outside the towns inns were found at points along roads, or at crossroads. Some are very remote, serving as resting places for travellers, packmen or drovers of livestock. The Jamaica Inn (1750) on Bodmin Moor is an example.




Brown's Hotel

In the nineteenth century, provision of food, drink and rest, previously the sole province of inns, was largely divided between businesses that became known as hotels, pubs and restaurants. Hotels as we think of them today were established during the Napoleonic wars, providing accommodation for officers on leave. They were generally run by French refugees. Into the nineteenth century pubs were at their peak of popularity, their architecture becoming distinctive, with ornate fronts, and interiors of polished wood, brass and mirrors. Hotels, meanwhile, were growing in size, and the great railway hotels such as St Pancreas, Victoria, Charing Cross, and the Great Eastern at Liverpool Street, are monuments of Victorian architecture.

Hotels are a reflection of the industrial society in which they grew up. Generally speaking coaching inns tended to offer a fairly uniform standard of accommodation. The industrial age encouraged demand for goods and services through the power of aspiration. The hotel business joined with many industries in developing a system of gradations of product, a ladder of quality which people could climb. This happened early in the hotel business, where people could translate their social aspirations into better rooms. Brown's came first, created by James Brown, former valet to Lord Byron in 1837. Then towards the end of the nineteenth century Cesar Ritz established his hotels appealing to wealthy customers. He made his hotels "ritzy", with plenty of decoration and expensive service to show off his clients money.

Gradations of hotel product were based on the quality of the room, and also on "facilities". These facilities in themselves are very revealing of the history of hotels. From the seventeenth century well-to-do visitors would visit spa towns for supposed health giving benefits of local waters. Later, expanding on the same idea, people would visit seaside resorts. The accommodation provided in these resorts treated guests as recuperating patients. Hotels today, in most of the facilities they offer, continue in this tradition. Fluffy dressing gowns are still often provided for the hotel guest to walk about in, as if they are patients in the old spa towns. Wearing their slippers and dressings gowns, guests then go to the hotel pool or fitness suite to enjoy their "cure".






A further typical service of an aspirational modern hotel is the provision of a lavish breakfast, the basic form of which dates back to "country house weekends" made popular by Edward VII early in the twentieth century. He would entertain guests at his country residence at Sandringham in north Norfolk. In the following description of breakfast at Sandringham we see the forerunner of a modern hotel breakfast:

"At Sandringham guests were expected to come down for breakfast between nine and ten o'clock. This was served at small tables, an innovative departure from the 'long board'... Breakfast was a substantial meal; on the side board spirit lamps kept hot huge silver dishes of porridge, eggs, bacon, deviled kidneys, finian haddock, kedegree. Another sideboard held a variety of cold meats, pressed beef, ham, tongue and game. China and Indian tea, coffee and chocolate, bread rolls, toast, scones and muffins, jams and preserves and fresh fruit were all laid ready." (Bentley-Cranch Edward VII Image of Era P 78).

The country house weekend also saw the provision of various activities for the day, usually shooting, horse riding or ice skating in winter. Once again the sporting activities laid on by some hotels today mirror Edward VII's country house weekends.

Today hotels offer a strange mixture of monastic lodging, spa accommodation, and country house weekend. In many ways the first modern hotels were Sandringham, and that other favourite of the country house set Polesden Lacey. Today, even those of us on a fairly limited budget can have a country house weekend and a rest cure.






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