Impressions of the Pubs of Southampton

We were only in Southampton for a couple of days, we didn’t go to every single pub, or even every single good pub, but it was enough to get a feel, we think.

The city centre feels more like Dortmund than, say, Bristol – Blitzed, and thoroughly, but then opened up to let sea air blow through, and to show off big skies. It is owned by chains: Yates, Wetherspoon, Flaming Grill, and so on. There wasn’t even a really outlandish booze bunker for us to get excited about, just plain retail units with branded fronts and printed signs, JPEG artefacts and all.

Belgium & Blues intrigued us, though, and turned out to be just what you might expect: a speakeasyish basement bar specialising in Belgian beer, but with well-chosen cask ale and British keg, too. It’s not cheap (how could it be?) but, with Bitterballen and Blokjes on the menu, it was fun.

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The Juniper Berry.

With our (small, informal) pub historian hats on, our attention was grabbed by a run of pubs along Bugle Street, a back route following the line of the old city walls. The Juniper Berry, for example, is obviously an inter-war pub in tidy mock Tudor, though we can’t work out which brewery built it or in exactly which year. It’s Trip Advisor reviews are forbidding and a prominent sign warning that shoplifters aren’t welcome sends an unintended signal.

On Friday night we found the function room pulsating with coloured lights and heavy music, but the main bar more sedate, though still lively. Around the counter, older men debating and berating; In the corners, middle-aged couples sharing bottles of wine; in the centre, a family with cartoons on tablets and colouring books; and around the pool table, burly lads playing semi-serious pool with one eye on Sky Sports.

We admired the original fixtures and fittings, and the properly pubby atmosphere, though the beer was nothing special, and felt headaches coming on as a result of (by our count) four separate sources of music in different styles, with conflicting rhythms.

Titanic pub.

Around the corner, there was the Titanic, formerly the Queen (per etched windows) but formerly lots of other things, too, according to WhatPub. A handsome Edwardian building, this place was deserted when we entered, with the Rocky Horror Picture Show on TV and a pile of tools on one end of the bar.

One by one, though, regulars turned up, middle-aged but Bohemian, clustering around the bar to talk about haggis, a recent police incident of ambiguous detail, and a question in the last pub quiz: “Long, hard, with ‘come’ in the middle? See, the minute he says, ‘Don’t think of anything rude’, it’s impossible to get that idea out of your head, isn’t it?”

The beer was bad but who cares?

The Duke of Wellington, deeply historic and authentically wonky, was too busy to drink in, but we enjoyed our few moments steamed-up among the crowd as a drummer tuned his snare and pints of Wadworth 6X were hoisted over our heads.

Dancing Man Brewery

The Dancing Man brewery, at the end of the road overlooking the ferry port, occupies a building with even denser history – the old city wool house, built in the 14th century, and later used to house Napoleonic prisoners of war. It also feels as if belongs in some German city, perhaps Nuremberg, and eschews the minimal and industrial in favour of old stone, heavy wood and dark corners.

Young couples on dates, old couples on dates, middle-aged groups in expensive leather jackets, and parties of what we guessed were graduates students, milled and leaned and huddled over hazy IPAs and pints of San Miguel. There were bouncers on the door but it didn’t feel like they were necessary that night.

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Beyond the Altstadt and the ring road (so German) we explored Shirley, which reminded us of Fishponds in Bristol, or perhaps Seven Sisters in London. Which is to say, in need of a lick of paint, but sharp with grit.


Our first stop was craft beer bar Overdraft which seemed a million miles from the sister branch in upmarket Winchester, and rather cut adrift in LIDL-land. The cask ale wasn’t up to much, sadly, but Camden Ink on keg was satisfying and the food was excellent – soft tacos and crisp squid scattered with half a garden.

Waterloo Arms.

Off the main run, into the suburban streets with their schools and churches, we had more luck. The Waterloo Arms is a Hop Back pub and looks, feels and even smells just like the Sultan in London SW19. That is, plain but not austere, clean but not sterile, ‘proper’. A kid in a Batman costume was overseeing the meat raffle; darts went thump, thump, thump; and when a family left, the elderly lady next to us tutted: “Didn’t even take their glasses back, look.”

Wellington Arms.

Down the road, the Wellington had a similar thing going on, as well as a line-up of classic ales from Landlord to Sussex Best. Who told people to paint pubs grey? It’s meant to look contemporary, we think, but feels like drinking on a battleship. It says a lot that about the Wellington’s atmosphere that, grey paint aside, it vibrated with Big Pub Energy.

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Overall, this is a city with every type of pub, and lots of good ones, which we found without much effort. ONS tells us there are 100 pubs which, though down 70 on 2001, suggests there are a few more to discover yet, not least an intriguing looking micropub that was shut when we passed, and others recommended to us on Twitter.

8 replies on “Impressions of the Pubs of Southampton”

An interesting pub scene in Southampton,a lot of good pubs but the best ones are well spread apart, so a lot of walking or bus work required.

A bit of digging found that the Juniper Berry had been built by Strong’s of Romsey. I suspected it would be either them or Brickwoods. It has had a rather “interesting” history:

“The pub gained a full licence in 1933 following Salisbury Arms in French Street surrendering its Licence, it acquired an infamous reputation with its drag acts in one bar and ladies of the night in the other. To try and combat this it changed its name in 1986 to the Castle Tavern which did not quite achieve the required outcome so in 1993 it changed names again to the Bosun’s Chair.”

Juniper Berry is actually the original name, although it sounds rather like a modern gastropub affectation. Do you think it has sufficient original interior features to be considered for the Regional listings of the National Inventory?

I’ve often thought that The Juniper Berry may well be eligible for the National Inventory. As a pub it’s always been a bit ‘lively’. My Dad grew up next door and as a child thought that fighting in the street was a normal occurrence. The Duke of Wellington was his local.

We’d guess (but it is just a guess) that the wood panelling is all original and, quite unusually, all the windows — metal frames, with leading. I’d be surprised if it’s not already on the radar of Geoff Brandwood et al, though.

As far as I’m aware the Juniper Berry interior has not had any major changes in my drinking (from Feb 1982 legally) lifetime. It certainly must be in with a shout for regional listing.

The Wellington was great under the previous landlord. When the current landlord took it over it got a much needed refurb which made it look a bit less tatty but without changing the atmosphere. Initially the beer quality was as good or even better than when Bob was in charge but then went downhill as the landlord spent less time there and his staff, it seems, didn’t know how to keep beer well. As a result I haven’t been in for a while, but I should really try it again.

The nearby Freemantle Arms is worth a visit, a proper back street pub with a limited selection of beer but well kept (don’t confuse it with the similarly named Freemantle, which is keg only I think though I’ve never been in to check).

I guess the intriguing looking micropub was the Witches Brew? Definitely worth a visit. Generally a good selection of beers, always well kept, and the kind of place where it’s hard not to get in a conversation.

I second Ben’s recommendation of the Guide Dog.

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