A gap where the pubs should be

The sign of the George.

Our exploration of Bristol has been biased towards the north where we live so, in an effort to address that, we decided to take a bus as far south as possible and then walk back.

Or at least, that was the intention, but we were seduced by the sexy new Metro Bus M1 with its phone chargers and free wi-fi so ended up in Hengrove Park, which isn’t quite as far south as Bristol goes. It’s still terra very much incognita for us, though.

Preliminary research indicated we probably wouldn’t find much in the way of targets for #EveryPubInBristol.

We expected a lot of Sizzling Horse chain pubs in retail parks, then a bit of a gap before getting back into the much more heavily-pubbed areas of Bedminster and Totterdown.

We began at The Wessex Flyer, a Brewer’s Fayre attached to a Premier Inn, on the other side of Hengrove Park from the shiny new hospital and college. It pleasingly over-delivered, managing to feel more pub-like than The Bristol Concorde and with Proper Job on in decent condition.

Why did this one feel more like a pub?

Possibly because there was a partition for eating (‘Please wait to be seated’) which concentrated the drinkers in one corner. There were only a few punters in, watching the football mostly, but they were gathered together which made it feel more lively. The staff were also way more pleasant than they had any need to be – human beings who talked to us like human beings.

We then went for a long walk across the pub desert that is Knowle West.

Knowle West was built as a new corporation housing estate, predominantly in the 1930s, at the same time as similar developments in Southmead, Sea Mills and Lawrence Weston.

If you look at a map of Bristol you can spot similar developments with central broadways or squares surrounded by flattened crescents radiating outwards.

Unsurprisingly, the architecture is the same, too: spacious red brick semi-detached houses, one after the other, as far as the eye can see.

Some of the pubs were literally the same, too: The Friendship on the Knowle-Knowle-West boundary was built to exactly the same plan as The Welcome Inn in Southmead.

Friendship pub, Knowle
The Friendship, Knowle, scanned from One Hundred and Fifty Years of Brewing 1788-1938:Souvenir book of the The Bristol Brewery Georges & Co, Ltd.

The fates of the pubs were different though.

The Friendship is now a half-timbered Tesco, whereas the Welcome Inn trades on as The Bear and Rugged Staff, having taken the name of a famous city centre pub destroyed in the Blitz, serving staff from Southmead Hospital and folk from the estate.

There was also another 1930s pub built in Knowle West, The Venture Inn, in the middle of the estate and tendered by the local council. Unfortunately, it was demolished completely in 2006 to make way for flats.

Advert for the Venture Inn, Knowle West

The Venture Inn, Knowle West
The Venture Inn, Knowle West, same source

Both The Venture and The Friendship were enormous ‘improved’ pubs built by George’s to serve booze, yes, but also food and entertainment to around 27,000 people who had moved to Knowle West from slum areas in central Bristol.

There’s a lot more about the history of Bristol’s outer-rim estate pubs in The Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Public House in Bristol, an excellent research document produced by Fiona Fisher and Rebecca Preston for English Heritage in 2015.

We think Knowle West is now the biggest area of Bristol, in terms of both area and population, that is not served by a pub – and it’s not even as if there are any disused or unloved pub buildings left that an enterprising landlord or landlady could take on, Bellingham style. It felt pretty sad, really, as if the estate is missing a vital organ.

Wandering on, thoughtful and a bit forlorn, we headed for Knowle proper, which is a predominantly Victorian settlement alongside which Knowle West was built. Crossing Wells Road instantly takes you up several rungs on the social ladder, into the land of parlour pianos and Attention au chien signs.

In the backstreets of this Nice Neighbourhood sits The Knowle, a large, handsome Edwardian pub with great views across south Bristol. It’s run by the same people who operate The Greenbank at Easton, The Westbury Park Tavern (AKA The Kebab & Calculator) and The Grace, among others. The vibe is very much food and families but there were plenty of young people, older folk and couples, too.

We were amazed by how well the entry from Fred Pearce’s 1975 pub guide still works today, even down the Courage beer on the bar:

In the heart of middle class suburban Knowle. Both lounge and public bars are large and popular. Public has darts, pool table and juke box, big windows, formica and lino tiles. Lounge is all carpet, tables and chat.

Several hours in and several miles walked we’d only ticked two pubs so we picked up the pace a little by popping into Tigerbar Ltd on Wells Road. Formerly Charlie’s bar, this was… Well, a bit odd.

The offer was mostly tins (Guinness, Natch, John Smith’s) and inside it was part 1980s wine bar and part terrarium. However, we ran the numbers and it was definitely a pub.

The doorway of Tigerbar.

The locals were loud but friendly: “You’re a long way from home!” said a young lady sitting at the bar, but in the friendliest way possible.

Next to us a couple of older gentlemen (one elderly, one middle aged) tried their best to pretend this was a quiet normal local pub as they chatted about various medical issues.

Further down the Wells Road, heading back into town, stands the enormous George. Inside was fairly sparse and everything had been knocked through. There were only a few people in and it felt a bit like a church hall or social club. We described it as a ‘normal’ pub on Twitter – as in, people were chatting, watching the football and doing, you know, normal stuff.

As we were only a few minutes from The Oxford in Totterdown, we popped in for one. This is a backstreet Victorian boozer with an emphasis on music, a mixed crowd and usually a good range of ales. We’ve been a few times and like it.

We then got a bus, via a stop at Just Chips, to our final destination, the big #250: Bristol Fashion, AKA The Beefeater in the base of the Premier Inn at the Haymarket.

We’ve actually tried to drink here before but were chased out as they were trying to close. At 10:20 pm. Based on that, and hours spent waiting for buses outside, we formed a fairly strong impression that it would be dismal and… It was.

Still, it seemed fitting that this was our 250th pub as we featured it in 20th Century Pub.

Back in the seventies, it was a cool, nautically-themed pub with five bars. Today, it is very much the Food and Beverage outlet of a bigger operation and seems to be in a vicious cycle of not enough staff and not enough custom to maintain a wide drinks offer.

We didn’t intend our walk to be a living accompaniment to 20th Century Pub, but sometimes that’s just the way these things work out.

3 thoughts on “A gap where the pubs should be”

  1. How did she know you were a long way from home?

    Reminds me of the welcome I got once in Hartlepool. I was in town for a folk festival and thought I’d check out this unassuming boozer, which looked as if it would be solidly down-to-earth without actually being scary (i.e. carpets, wooden tables and bitter rather than lino, formica and Carling). As indeed it was. The place was full of old boys with pints of Strongarm, although none of theirs still had the Hartlepool Head that graced mine (which left the beer almost completely flat and gave it a dense, gravy-like texture). As I went to sit down, Old Boy #1 asked me, “Are you going to entertain us?”. I took a moment – I was wearing a rucksack at the time, and getting it off my back without spilling my pint or dislodging the head (which I swear was four inches high) was a bit of a performance – then explained that no, I wasn’t, I was in Hartlepool for the festival but I wasn’t a performer, well, that’s to say, I did perform a bit but, er… OB #2 chipped in: “You already are.”

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