bristol cider

The Cider Box, Bristol

It’s taken us a while to get to the Cider Box, despite walking past it most days.

That’s partly because it’s only open on Friday evenings and Saturdays and partly, if we’re honest, because cider tends to be very much a second choice for us.

But it’s probably our closest active licenced premises and can look quite inviting on a warm evening.

It’s in a railway arch on Silverthorne Lane, next to a mechanic, opposite one of a number of abandoned Victorian industrial buildings.

It’s a short distance from a number of East Bristol tap rooms but in the wrong direction.

The area is going to be the focus of a new industrial heritage conservation area so no doubt in five to ten years, these arches will be full of similar businesses. At the moment, though, it’s pretty quiet, with grey stone walls overlooking a no-through road that’s unfortunately popular with fly tippers.

Most people are on tables outside whenever we’ve been past and on the night of our visit it was no different. Inside, it feels cosier than the average tap room, possibly because of the posters, memorabilia and bubbling bartop carboys that proclaim a real love of cider.

Handwashing advice using the lyrics of 'I Am a Zyder Drinker' by the Wurzels.
Remember this gag from 2020?

In general, the place feels more Bristolian and a little funkier than most of the local craft beer taprooms which, let’s face it, could often be in any other UK or world city.

The music was a mix of Hip Hop Don’t Stop and Abba (this was the day the new album came out) and people with a range of accents, from West Country to Welsh, burst into occasional song.

Beer is available – Lost and Grounded Keller Pils – but this place is really about cider in all its forms.

Some come from the tap, brisk and bright, very much designed to chug without too much reflection. Some are of the bag-in-a-box variety. There is even a ‘Cider Royale’ section of the menu, featuring 750ml sharing bottles.

We kicked off with some kind of own-brand option (from a tap, rather than a bag in the box) which got us firmly in the zone – sweet and faintly rural, not dry enough for our taste, but a good warm up for the taste buds.

Our next two came from Totterdown producers Ganley & Naish. One was advertised as a single variety cider but we’re not sure which variety; it was dry and oaky (and added a great extra note to the own-brand leftovers that Jess was nursing).

Mourning Drop is described on their website as a ‘single orchard’ cider, which seems to mean a bunch of apple varieties. This one was weird – woody, almost fungal.

With just three rounds, we were delivered a reminder of the variety of cider out there to enjoy. Or, at least, to experience.

Every now and then, a bat sliced through the air above our heads, and at one point what looked like a thousand seagulls, illuminated from below by streetlights, scattered across the sky indigo sky. Everyone stared upward and pointed in cider-addled delight.

A vandalised phone box.
When you’ve had a few ciders, you stop to take photos like this.

To finish, we chose a bottle from the fancy bottle section and, boy, did that blow our minds. Pilton One Juice is the result of a project in which five separate makers produce their own cider from the same juice. It was utterly, smile-inducingly delightful. Simultaneously sweet, full-bodied and dry, every mouthful highlighted some new, intense, wonderful flavour.

Perhaps we do love cider after all.

We swayed off home under the railway bridges as Chiquitita echoed off the walls of the old timber yard, chatting excitedly about apples, and very much looking forward to our next visit.

bristol pubs

A new love affair interrupted

Last weekend we drank Belgian beer in Bristol’s most convincingly Belgian pub, The Portcullis in Clifton and, finally, felt as if things might be getting back on track.

It took us a couple of visits to this pub over the years before it really clicked. Unfortunately, the click happened in February 2020, and you know the punchline to that gag.

Last summer, when pubs reopened, we didn’t even consider The Portcullis. It’s compact and cosy – not qualities much in demand in recent times – and, anyway, we were generally sticking close to home for our rare pub trips.

Earlier this month, though, we sat down together and drew up a hit list of pubs we wanted to visit now that we’re both double-jabbed. Perhaps because what we’re really craving is a trip to Belgium, The Portcullis ended up near the top of the list.

That visit last February was a highlight of an admittedly highlight-light year and we had a distinct sense of unfinished business.

We walked to Clifton from Barton Hill, via Hotwells, wondering what we’d find. Would it be rammed and sweaty? Would there be tables all over the street? Plastic screens everywhere?

It was, thankfully, exactly as we’d left it, with the welcome tweak of a permanently open front door and a constant gentle breeze. We took stools on the shelf by the door – exactly where we sat last time we came in – and ordered at the bar. It felt thrillingly normal.

We hardly stopped smiling through that first round (Poperinge’s Hommelbier and Tripel Karmeliet, served in the correct glassware) as cautious, good-natured pub life went on around us.

Three men watched football on an iPad propped against the wall at the end of their table. An elderly regular was greeted with low-key delight as he made his return after months away. A student tried to order a pint of Leffe and was firmly told it comes by the half. The landlady trapped a wasp under a beer glass with a beermat and took it out into the street – four times. 

We carried ourselves out, trapped under a beer haze, after several happy hours.

bristol pubs

The beginning of the end: back at The Drapers

On Saturday we did something we’ve been dreaming about for months – we sat at our favourite table at The Drapers Arms and drank a few pints.

Like a lot of things these days, it was somehow both highly emotional and completely normal. Our brains couldn’t quite cope: did we do this a week or so ago, or is it a brand new experience?

The pub has changed. Vince, one of the founding landlords, has moved on to pursue his own pub project. We guess that explains why some of the familiar pictures and nick-nacks have disappeared, the gaps filled with new-old items of greebling.

The barman did the rounds watering the hanging baskets and pot plants and Jess said, “They’re new.”

“Oh, that’s all Zee’s doing,” he replied. Zee worked behind the bar for years and seemed like the manager even before she was. Which she now is.

During last year’s sort-of opening up, The Drapers operated with chunky partitions between tables and the long central leaning post removed. Now, the partitions are gone and a new, slimmer central island has been installed. We wonder if people will look at the screw holes in the wall and ceiling in years to come and remember why they’re there.

We’d been there for perhaps five minutes when a regular we recognised arrived. Across the floor, we chatted, comparing notes on the beer and reminiscing about holidays in Germany and Belgium.

Two middle-aged men came in.

“Daft question but I don’t suppose you’ve got any gluten free beer, have you?”

Above his mask, the barman’s eyes popped.

“I’ve got two!”

He did, and all.

We managed four rounds before we had to start thinking about heading home. Last time we drank there, we lived around the corner. Now it’s an hour-long walk. We didn’t want to leave, though – God, no.

Our suspicion is that this thing we’re all living through won’t end on some universally acknowledged Freedom Day. There won’t be a big bang, just a gradual fizzle out. One small, everyday event after another, we’ll eventually find ourselves living a life that feels somewhat normal. For us, this was a big step.

20th Century Pub bristol pubs

20th Century pubs in 21st Century Bristol

We recently gave a talk to the 20th Century Society about 20th century pubs in Bristol. This blog post is taken from the material that we used.

We hardly mention any Bristol pubs in 20th Century Pub, although this wasn’t for lack of trying. In many ways, what happened in Bristol is typical of the general story of pubs in the 20th Century, including the fact that not many survive and those that do have lost most of their period features.

Not many pubs were built at all at the start of the century, full stop. After a large increase in the number of beer houses in the mid-nineteenth century there was something of a backlash against pubs. Magistrates, encouraged by the temperance movement, began to make it harder to get licences, and if you wanted to build a pub in a newly expanded area of the city there was often an expectation that you should give up a licence or three in the city centre.

The excellent Historic England publication The Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Public House in Bristol by Rebecca Preston and Fiona Fisher, from 2015, provides a helpful summary of how things played out here:

Bristol magistrates received 42 applications to create new licences in the period 1886 to 1896 but none was granted… The pattern of licence reduction continued in Bristol after 1900. At the beginning of the twentieth century the city had 471 alehouses, 567 ‘on’ beerhouses and 240 ‘off’ beerhouses. Two refreshment houses held wine licences and 87 grocers were licensed, a total net decrease of 18 licences on the previous year.74 In 1911, the city had 421 alehouses, 443 ‘on’ beerhouses, 231 ‘off’ beerhouses and one refreshment house with a wine licence. Seventy-four grocers were licensed and 26 chemists. There was a net decrease of 21 licences in that year.75 In the ten years from 1904 to 1914 there was a total reduction of 184 licences of all types across the city.

A Victorian-Edwardian pub.
The Cambridge Arms, Redland, by Edward Gabriel, 1900.

However, Bristol does have a couple of what we call ‘smart’ proto-improved pubs – that is, built in the Edwardian period to serve new areas and new clienteles. The Cambridge Arms (Redland) and The Langton Court (St Annes/Brislington) are both examples of something which is neither a Victorian gin palace nor a back street boozer. They’re solid, respectable and modern. Both evoke images of ‘the old inn’ while also fitting in with the Victorian and Edwardian suburban homes that surround them.


Please save the Rhubarb Tavern

The Rhubarb Tavern in Barton Hill, Bristol, would be our local if it was open, and we’d love to see someone take it on.

We visited a couple of years back and if you Google the Rhubarb, we’re usually near or at the top of the search results, alongside Burston Cook who are trying to sell the leasehold.

Though we thought we had written something pretty positive, and other people tell us they liked the piece, it occurs to us now that it might make the pub and location sound a little less appealing than is necessarily fair.

With our lofty Google position in mind, we’re writing this post to see if we can encourage potential buyers to give it some thought.

It was originally a farmhouse and some of that structure remains, with a later frontage. There are also some fixtures from a demolished 17th century manor house that once stood nearby.

There’s no doubt it’s in a pretty bad state and will need a lot of work – but it’s also got a lot of potential. For a start, there are currently no other pubs in Barton Hill. That’s a lot of households that aren’t currently being served. Including ours.

A snap through the window of The Rhubarb in its present state.

A short walk into St Philips, though, and there are taprooms galore and the Cider Box has also recently opened 100 metres down the road. So the Rhubarb could fit quite well into a weekend crawl as well as being the only place to drink on a wet Wednesday night. 

The area immediately to the west has been designated a conservation area, in view of the large amount of surviving Victorian industrial architecture. This means that there is a stated intent to keep development of this area in harmony with what’s already there; in practice this could mean more taprooms and breweries. The Rhubarb could find itself on the end of Bristol’s Beer Boomerang™.

The property itself has a lot going for it.

It’s big enough, and has enough distinct sections, to support, say, showing the football in one part while leaving another free for quiet drinking.

There is a beer garden.

There appear to be quite substantial living quarters above.

And that exterior – what a beauty!

It’s the kind of pub you can imagine people saying in a few year’s time: “Can you believe this used to be a bit of a wreck and that nobody used to come here?” Think of the Marble Arch in Manchester by way of comparison.

We’re certainly not the only people with an interest in seeing it do well. There is also a campaign underway set up to save the pub by getting it listed and local CAMRA are all over it.