The river for the first half mile is abominably dirty, and for some distance above that is not to be called clean. In addition to the water being so dirty, very unsavoury odours assail your nostrils, at intervals, for the first mile as you pass through the parish of St. Philip’s. After the first mile or so you come into the fresh air of the country. The water here is beautifully clear, and if the weather is fine everything is very enjoyable. At one bend of the river a railway passes very near it, and to strengthen the banks it has been found necessary to build some arches which are now covered with ivy, which gives them a very romantic and pleasing appearance — quite unlike the matter-of-fact appearance of an ordinary railway embankment. After this the river is of the most pleasing description. A short distance above the ivy-covered arches is a landing for boats called Beese’s Tea Gardens. The Tea Gardens are three and a half miles from Bristol, so it is just a suitable distance there and back for an afternoon. It is quite easy to go up this length any half holiday after call over, and to be back by lock up.
Beese’s Tea Gardens opened on the banks of the Avon in 1846 as a partner business to the Conham Ferry.
Nowadays, under the name Beese’s Riverside Bar, there’s as much beer, cider and wine drunk as tea, and little evidence of Victorian heritage in the fixtures and fittings, but, still, it’s an incredible survivor.
We first came across it last summer on an evening walk, hearing the chiming of glassware and song of conversation from the wrong side of the water. From a distance it looked and sounded like a German beer garden. We didn’t stop then but made a note to come back.
Last Saturday, we approached from Broomhill, cutting from a council estate into a sloping park where teenagers flirted on the climbing frame next to a basketball court. A short walk down a wooded path brought us to a gate that might have been transplanted from Bavaria.
Down further, all the way down to sea level, we found tables scattered across a lawn and huge, old trees polished smooth by a century of clambering children.
It’s almost magical, except it’s also very British: the self-service bar feels as if it ought to be at a Butlin’s holiday camp and the service was abrupt to the point of aggression. (Though it warmed up later as the lunchtime rush passed.)
We drank Veltins, served in chunky German handled glassware for the first round, albeit with a stingy head of foam, and sat on a table in the shade.
“I used to think it was for old ladies, the Tea Gardens,” said an older woman to her friend, “but it’s nice, innit? It’s a laugh. And you can smoke, too. It’s treat to have a proper fag.”
There’s something classless about the place, and a sense that it exists outside reality, like Brigadoon. We noted Americans, Spaniards, Poles, Romanians, hippies, hipsters, families from the estate up the hill, and plummy tote-bag toters with extravagantly named free-range children, and yet no tension beyond occasional passive-aggression in pursuit of the prime seats.
It’s so peaceful that a boat passing registers as a major event, drawing people to the water’s edge to watch. We saw ferries, rowers, and even a swimmer at one point. (We worry for them; we’ve heard that swimming here tends to make you sick.)
The trees and the dancing of light through the leaves are what makes it feel like a German beer garden – a sense of being outside but sheltered, enfolded in green.
Getting the ferry across the water (£1 for a 45 second journey, but it beats paddling) was the perfect way to finish – a return to the real world in a puff of diesel fumes.
Beese’s Riverside Bar is open Friday 12:00–11:00 pm, Saturday 12:00–11:00 pm, Sunday 12:00–7:00 pm throughout the summer season.