Old Ship Inn
The Old Ship Inn was originally built as a mid 17th century house and reputedly converted into a coaching inn in 1785. The building has retained a wealth of charm and character; one of the most notable features is the mass of old ships timbers from which the business derives its name.
No surprise then that over the centuries it has been patronised by everyone from Royalty, in the form of King Charles II through to the more recently famous, having been a favourite haunt of Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh who regularly dined in the heavily beamed Hayloft Restaurant.
Echoes from the past 300 years are indelibly stamped throughout this fabulous building and it is all the better for it. The feeling of undisturbed age and history are tangible and enhanced by features such as the original coaching inn archway, elaborate dog-leg staircase, fireplace with an early oak and Jacobean mantel framing a painting of Charles II and various period paraphernalia found hidden in the basement cellars including original Cromwellian swords and pikes. The Jewel in the Crown however is the original wrought iron sign that still hangs over the entrance arch and is attributed as the work of Kingston Avery, 1703 – 1763, a local blacksmith and clock maker. At circa 300 years old it is arguably the oldest original hotel sign in the UK featuring a network of ornate scrolling, spirals and flowers, topped by a crown and sailing ship. The sailing ship was the family emblem of Johnannes de Mere who founded a chantry in the local parish church in the 14 th century.
What is now locally known as the “Old Lady of Mere”, The Old Ship Inn was once a very substantial 7 bay private house owned by MP Sir John Coventry, a well known and respected Royalist, 1636 – 1682, whose political career ended in tatters following his expulsion from The House Of Commons in 1670 (and the origin of the term “sent to Coventry”)
House of Commons records show that this expulsion followed an unfortunate “jest” made by Sir John in a formal chamber gathering where he implied that King Charles II preferred the company of male actors and “lithe young powdered men” to that of more suitable female company.
Sir Thomas Sandy, an officer of the Kings Guards, with the knowledge and support of the Duke of Monmouth and, some say, the King himself, accosted Sir John on the way from an ale house to his London house in Suffolk Street and cut his nose to the bone as a reminder to “keep quiet council and still tongue”. This act of revenge was received by all on both sides of the house with outrage and a resultant act of Parliament was instantly passed to prevent “malicious wounding and maiming by personal mutilation” an act known as “The Coventry Act” and which stood in English law for a further 158 years!
More Local History
In 1253 the manor of Mere belonged to the Earl of Cornwall, Richard the younger brother of Henry III. He obtained permission to build a castle on a hill (Castle Hill) in his manor of Mere, and to fortify that castle. He was allowed to utilise timber from Blackmore Forest and the castle was built in Chilmark stone and roofed with lead. It covered the whole of the top of the hill, was rectangular, 400 feet long by 100 feet deep, and had six towers, a chapel, a deep well and a dungeon. The castle was built fairly quickly in anticipation of the troubled period that pitted the barons against the king and in 1300 it needed extensive repairs after the north tower fell down. Today you can see the flattened area where it once stood, topped by a flagpole and Union Jack.
Four years after the Great Fire of London, Mere had its own great fire in 1670. A total of 54 houses were destroyed and the losses were estimated at £6,700. It is likely that many of the houses lost were medieval ones and so much of Mere now dates from the late 17th century and later, other than those built of the original Chilmark stone.