The Haunch of Venison is something of a Salisbury institution, dating back to at least the 15th century. It has a striking medieval half-timbered exterior and inside you will find fascinating features such as marble floor tiles from the cathedral, a rare horsebox bar known as the Ladies Snug, a pewter bar counter which is one of only six in the country and a wooden arch with spirit taps dating from 1909. Visitors arrive from across the globe to drink in its old world atmosphere: the uneven floors, wood panelled walls, low beams and huge stone fireplaces feel like taking a step back in time.
Local author, Ruby Vitorino, has written a book about the pub which was published in August 2022. She kindly agreed to write an article for Slow Travel about its fascinating history.
My book, ‘The Haunch of Venison, Salisbury. An A-Z History’, came about because I fell in love with the place on my very first visit to Salisbury, and realised that not very much had been written about its history. I wanted to find out, and started to research it - that was ten years ago now.
The Haunch of Venison is one of the places which tourists love to visit after Stonehenge and
Salisbury Cathedral. It really is like going back in time, and it’s a very friendly place where the locals will happily chat to visitors.
It seems that one of attractions of the Haunch of Venison is the story of the mummified hand found bricked up in the fireplace. A landlord of the pub before World War I wrote that it had been severed by a butcher’s cleaver, from a cheating card player. I discovered that the mummified hand was more likely to have been a ‘hand of glory’, cut from a hanged felon at the nearby execution site and walled up in the fire place to ward off witches who might try to come down the chimney. The hands of hanged men were said to have magical properties.
I visited the pub with a friend who is a trained medium because I wanted to see if she could pick up anything in the Haunch, and she sensed a young fellow with red hair and acne, near the place where the hand was found - amongst other things.
There were a lot of other ‘magical’ objects found hidden in the Haunch of Venison. The proper term is apotropaic. The old innkeepers seem to have been very superstitious, and very worried about witches!
Over the years spent researching the book, I spoke to many former members of staff, including those who had slept in the building, and I always asked them if they had seen any ghosts. I ended up with quite a collection of ghost stories! I found it very convincing, as I could see that the people were very genuine and truly believed that they had experienced something. They were clearly not making it up.
Some of the stories were curious - for example a former customer, who claimed to be psychic, was almost apologetic when he told me that the bar was haunted by a small dog. I had found out that in the 1920s, the landlords had several small dogs as ratters (the rats were attracted by the meat in Butchers Row), but I don’t know how that man would know that; it’s not common knowledge.
But it’s not just the macabre and the spooky which interest visitors. American tourists, especially, are fascinated by the story of General Eisenhower meeting with Churchill in the Haunch of Venison, to discuss D Day.
I found out that Churchill knew Salisbury well, and had most probably already enjoyed a drink or two in the Haunch before the war. He planned the D Day landings with Eisenhower at nearby Wilton House, and it is inconceivable that he wouldn’t have shown him Salisbury, with its famous cathedral, and offered him a drink at Salisbury’s quaintest pub -The Haunch of Venison. The pub has some small private bars, including a strange secret bar, which is rarely open to the public, as it is very small. It means that the Haunch would have been perfect, security wise.
There was an issue with security when two of JFK’s sisters visited the Haunch of Venison for lunch, in the 1970s. They had some burly ‘protection’ with them who were wearing guns and scaring the other customers. The then landlady, Kate Jakeman, insisted that they take the guns off, and put them in the safe. She was such a strong personality that the security guards obeyed!
The Kennedy sisters weren’t the only celebrities who have visited pub over the years, previous staff have had lots of anecdotes to tell…but you’ll have to read the book to find out more.
The book is available online from the Haunch of Venison website, as well as from the Rocketship bookshop and Fisherton Mill, Salisbury.
(Photo of Ruby © Salisbury Journal)