The Somerville Club is almost invisible from the street, and like the TARDIS, seems magically bigger on the inside.
We first heard of The Somerville from Ray’s mate Mike. He’s lived round the corner for more than 40 years and only discovered the club last year, despite having walked past it thousands of times.
There is a shiny metal sign, about A5 size, a couple of metres back from the pavement. Otherwise, it looks like another suburban Victorian terrace, with recycling bins and a bike shed.
Perhaps discretion was part of the licensing conditions. St. Andrews is notable for having no pubs within its bounds. We’ve been told by local history types that there’s a covenant on the land, which was developed in the 19th century with row after row of villas and bay-fronted houses.
As far as we can tell, the club was founded in 1893 as the HQ of Horfield Liberal Association, but was being referred to as The Somerville Club by the 1920s.
We went on Friday 12 January to attend a pub quiz at the invitation of another pair of pals who live not so far away. They’d never been before either and, as one of them is from a club-going Northern family, were keen to investigate.
Getting in was the first challenge. As non-members you need to ring the bell and negotiate entry. We dithered around the door for a bit until a member arrived and welcomed us.
Inside there’s that familiar sense of nostalgia social clubs often deliver. From heavy carpet to solid institutional furniture it feels like a bubble trapped in time.
After a small reception there’s a large bar area and then, at the back, a rather serious-looking snooker room.
The bar is smart and brightly-lit – clubs often have “the big light” on, we’ve noticed.
In one corner there’s a DJ booth labelled ‘Somerville Club Disco’ and there are tables and chairs along one wall and scattered about the floor.
Here and there are memorials to members lost, with touching messages and memories. Notices are pasted on the walls: changes to the committee, upcoming events, letters from charities thanking the Club for donations, and so on.
When it comes to beer, clubs can be touch-and-go. They’re often keg only and the brands are often odd orphans such as Ansell’s or Whitbread. At the Somerville it was cask Bass in excellent condition, alongside the less exciting Dartmoor Jail Ale. But lots of people seemed to be drinking draught Carling or bottled Peroni.
What struck us as the evening went on was how relaxed it felt, and how like the platonic ideal of the community pub. People knew each other by name and whole families occupied their regular seats.
We weren’t stared at or made to feel at all unwelcome, even when, rudely, as non-members, we won the quiz. Our club-going Northern pal instantly knew the right etiquette and we put our winnings in the charity tin on the bar, earning approving nods.
It made us think we really ought to join our local club, the Board Mill Social Club, and put more effort into exploring these strange, secret venues scattered around the city.
For more on where to drink check out our guide to Bristol pubs updated for 2024.