The Swan With Two Necks and the gentrification issue

“I’ve been called a cultural terrorist,” said Jamie Ashley, the new landlord of The Swan With Two Necks, seeming offended, amused and confused in equal measure.

In the past few months, he’s found himself at the centre of one of Bristol’s many small dramas of gentrification, as either a pioneer or an intruder depending on your point of view.

Until recently, The Swan With Two Necks was a rare thing – a working class backstreet pub on the edge of Bristol city centre.

St Jude’s will feel familiar to anybody who has ever visited Digbeth in Birmingham or Ancoats in Manchester – a timewarp of red brick industrial buildings, workshops, warehouses and yards, with social housing filling the gaps.

In recent decades, Bristol has lost much of this landscape as the city centre has expanded and developers have moved in. But this pocket, these few streets, feel like a precious if unpretty relic.

Swan With Two Necks interior.

This particular pub also had another distinction, however: permanent Draught Bass, served almost flat from a cask on the back bar, per Bristol tradition.

Then in August this year the landlady left, and the pub closed. Loyal locals were worried – would it be reopening under new management? Yes, they were reassured, it would, and they would still have somewhere to drink.

Meanwhile, those on the Bristol beer scene began to chatter about an exciting rumour: the landlord-manager of The Hillgrove Porter Stores, the aforementioned Jamie Ashley, was taking on The Swan With Two Necks and intended to bring it in to the 21st century with a range of local craft beer.

For many non-local, non-regulars, this felt like good news – a pub saved from closure and yet another addition to the city’s impressive collection of beer-focused venues.

It seemed like good news to local brewers, too, as Kelly Sidgwick of Good Chemistry (who also happens to drink in our local, The Drapers Arms) told us in an email:

We were really excited to hear that Jamie was taking on The Swan With Two Necks. It’s always great when pubs move to buying more of their beer locally – supporting local businesses who are employing people locally and putting money back into the local economy. Jamie’s a well-known local landlord who’s been running a Bristol institution of a pub for a decade, so we’re especially pleased to see him taking on his own place. We really hope the locals of the pub remain its locals and like the beer, because Jamie is buying really good, locally-brewed beer.

When we visited the pub shortly after its reopening, it was clear that all was not quite well, thanks to an A-board on the pavement outside with a message that felt like a falsely cheerful defensive reply to criticism received. It began “Hello lovely humans”, listed the pub’s many great qualities, made a point about the price/quality/value, and concluded “Why not pop in and see if this is true, or am I simply a…. windbag/filthy liar? You decide.”

Inside, we found the pub much the same, only a little tidier and cleaner. It still felt well-worn, cosy and brown, and the corners were still dark. What was most different was the bar: six hand-pumps, a row of keg taps and where the Bass used to be, a set of decks playing indie music from vinyl.

It wasn’t empty but wasn’t exactly busy either and the crowd was clearly both more middle class and a shade whiter than when we’d previously visited.

After our visit, we investigated further and found comments like the following from ‘Martyn-3114’ beneath an article at Bristol247 (lightly edited):

Been drinking in this pub for 20 plus years. Very sad what’s happened in the last week or so. A lot of regulars have lost their local, mainly because of the landlord’s new plans. Proper backstreet pub now becomes very overpriced – £4 cheapest bitter or £5.75 for lager. Good luck, you’ll need it.

On Facebook, responding to news of a Wiper & True tap takeover, Robin Fynn wrote, more bluntly (again, edited):

Heard of the pub with no beer? It’s now the pub with shit beer. He’s fucked our pub. Me and twenty regulars banned ourselves. Get the Bass back – you might get some customers then.

(We tried to get hold of both for further comment, without success.)

Intrigued, we got in touch with Ashley to arrange an interview which Ray ended up conducting over a pint on a quiet Monday night.

He’s a youthful, blonde-haired 46-year-old who bears a distinct resemblance to Bernard Sumner from New Order. While he spoke, he made a half-pint of beer last an hour and broke off frequently to change the record spinning on the back bar, flipping the discs between fingertips with the telltale skill of a vinyl obsessive.

Having worked behind bars and running pubs for years, he has a natural charm which, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to have washed with the old locals:

“Maybe I tried a bit hard, I don’t know…” he said while telling an anecdote about a run-in with a gruff drinker angry at the loss of Foster’s from the beer line-up, and those few words seem important.

It’s clear that he hoped the changes he has made would be accepted by at least some of the previous clientele, even as he was determined to stick to his fairly uncontroversial ambitions: to sell beer he liked, produced locally, at a commercially viable price.

“I asked the lady who was running it before I took over what I should keep on from the old product range,” he said. “She said, two things: Natch, and Bass.” He pulled a face. “Now, Natch was pretty high up the list of stuff I wanted to get rid of. And Bass… I’ve never been a huge fan but I thought of it was selling tons, sure, I’ll keep it. But it was two nines a week – about 140 pints.”

Though the way he describes it makes it sound a purely rational decision, it’s clear that some regular read it as something of a “Fuck you”. If you identify as a Bass Drinker, and were travelling miles by bus to get to it, that’s perhaps an understandable reaction.

The ditching of big-brand lagers was similarly controversial and Ashley’s attitude reveals the gulf between traditional attitudes and those of the modernisers. There is still lager on offer but it’s from Moor and Lost & Grounded. Though you might think these would appeal to Bristolian drinkers, there’s a weird loyalty to international brands brewed under licence, and these sometimes hazy, fruity, characterful beers bear little practical resemblance to Foster’s or Stella, despite the shared family tree.

Then there’s the question of price.

“A couple of people have accused me of charging London prices and I just think, have you actually been to London?” said Ashley with a laugh. “I’m just not charging 1960’s prices, that’s all. One old regular told me I needed ‘real drinkers’ in to make money but my view is that if I have a hard core of people drinking ten pints each a night, but I’m only making 10p on each pint, then that’s a lot of work for £10 profit. Whereas if I make 50p per pint, I can bring in £30 for the same effort. And that’s still not a lot of money.”

That sounds reasonable – of course it does – but if you’ve got a limited income, you might well interpret it as a passive-aggressive ‘Go away’. And if the previous management could sell lager at less than £3 a pint, why can’t the new lot? (Answer: the old lot couldn’t; the business wasn’t viable.)

Ashley says he’s faced anger and, at times, even aggression – fists banged on the counter, handshakes that turn into arm-wrestling matches. He’s stopped opening on Sunday lunchtimes because he felt vulnerable in the empty pub as one embittered ex after another popped in to growl at him, or deliver an angry lecture.

This story is part of a wider debate about gentrification in Bristol which, with faster trains and the arrival of TV production companies, can sometimes feel like a commuter satellite for London.

In 2018, posters appeared across the city with the slogan MAKE BRISTOL SHIT AGAIN – a protest against the bourgeois invasion of previously characterful, edgy neighbourhoods like St Paul’s.

Since our arrival in 2017 (yes, we know, we’re part of the problem) we’ve been paying particular attention to pubs and have noticed that those which close for good or get demolished tend to be in the areas least likely to gentrify. Lockleaze, the big council estate on a windswept hillside in north Bristol, no longer has any pubs after the closure of The Golden Bottle earlier this year.

But in neighbourhoods with attractive Victorian houses, within walking distance of the centre of the city, pubs seem to be transforming one after the other.

In St Pauls, The Star & Garter was closed and boarded up for a long time after the death of legendary landlord Dutty Ken. It reopened earlier this year with a hipsterish vibe and decor that feels like an homage to its past identity rather than a continuation of it. We liked it, and it’s surely better than conversion to flats, but it’s undeniably a symptom of gentrification.

In St Anne’s, The Langton Court Hotel has been reinvented as The Langton. Formerly a down-to-earth, barebones local where people played darts and drank lager and Natch, it has been smartened up and now has what we can only describe as a mildly aspirational menu – risotto and falafel burgers.

People we know who live nearby are delighted to have somewhere to go for a pint after years without and, as it happens, The Langton does still sells Natch and mainstream draught brands. Nonetheless, it feels like a fundamentally different place, with a fundamentally different crowd.

We asked our Twitter followers whether they thought gentrification of pubs was a problem.

The replies were interesting.

Tania said: “I guess may depend on each individual case; near me are 3 pubs I would never go in because they have a rep for unpleasant violent regulars (and landlord in one case) & don’t serve anything at all I would like to drink… So I tend to think of my area as ‘having no pubs at all’. If just one of those places became ‘gentrified’ it would create a new community hub where I could actually hang out and get to know people in my neighbourhood.”

“It’s a societal issue and pubs are often the ‘canary’ tell-tale sign that your rent’s about to go up” said Peter McKerry.

And Nathaniel Southwood made a point about brands that chimed with us: “I’d never say it’s a big problem but I think every pub should stock say a beer and spirit from a brand that’s recognisable to the general public as to not scare away less adventurous drinkers.”

In our view, the problem isn’t with individual reborn pubs, or the motives of those behind those rebirths – it’s to do with balance in a given town, city or neighbourhood.

A decade or so ago, Bristol had lots of earthy, ‘normal’ pubs. Pubs that felt welcoming to younger people and women, with craft beer and contemporary decor, were relatively rare. You had to know where to go and perhaps be prepared to make a journey.

Nowadays, they feel like the norm and it’s drinkers who prefer a more traditional, unpretentious atmosphere who have to schlep or catch the bus.

As it happens, though, there is another pub near The Swan With Two Necks – perhaps a three-minute walk – that remains stubbornly authentic and which also happens to sell Draught Bass.

The Crown Tavern has frosted windows behind which the curtains are usually drawn. There’s generally a smoker or two in the doorway and the clientele tends to the elderly. Inside, it’s sparse and run-down.

When the Bass is £1.50 a pint, half the punters are drinking lager from cans, and with talk of the neighbourhood becoming a ‘quarter’, how long can this last?

And it’s not just the culture that feels as if its days are numbered: the back room has a leaky roof and a floor covered in newspapers.

If you want to see it while you can, we’d suggest making part of a crawl: Elmer’s, The Crown, The Swan With Two Necks, the Volunteer and The Phoenix make a good run.

Not only are there pubs on that list that we suspect would welcome the custom but also you’ll get a snapshot of where Bristol’s pub culture is at in 2019.

This post, which took us several days to research and write up, was made feasible by the support of Patreon subscribers like Joe Gorecki and Chris Gooch. If you’d like more of this kind of thing, do consider signing up, or maybe just buy us a Ko-Fi.

So that was cider season 2019

Time passes so quickly – it feels like we’ve only just declared October to be our month of cider and yet here we are at the end.

Did we do quite as much cidery stuff as we’d hoped we might? Not really, but we did:

Here’s a rundown of what we drank, where, and some of the (limited) conclusions we reached.

We kicked everything off with a visit to the Cider Press on Gloucester Road – an easy one because we pass it on the way home from work.

We ordered two dry ciders from (we think) Rich’s and Heck’s. So dry were they judged to be, in fact, that we were made to taste them before ordering by a barman obviously used to having to deal with put out customers.

Cider at the Cider Press.

After all the fuss, we found them not exactly sweet, but not what we’d think of as dry either.

This might be because, insofar as we know cider at all, our tastebuds have been calibrated by Mr Wilkins’s dry, which can tend to feel like putting cotton wool on the tongue.

But we also suspect that The Orchard, the splendid backstreet ciderhouse on Spike Island, would be selling these as medium, or medium-dry, or at least not making a fuss about it.

So first lesson: dry is contextual and to some degree in the eye of the vendor. (See also: hoppy.)

The following day we refreshed ourselves mid-ramble with a pint of a cider we didn’t expect to like but felt obliged to try. Thatcher’s Haze must be one of the top selling ciders in Bristol and certainly seems to be the go-to for our respective work colleagues. And you know what? We didn’t hate it.

If you think of it as a kind of soft, sweet fizzy pop, then it’s no trouble at all to drink.

The Dark Horse

The main destination of our walk that day was The Dark Horse in St George’s. It’s a fairly normal pub catering to a blend of locals (students, hipsters, hippies, hardened boozers) which we’d noticed on a previous visit has a wall of boxed cider, as well as a few on draught.

Here we hit upon the first ciders that we can actually say we really enjoyed. One was from Iford and described as medium-dry; the other was a dry cider from Tricky. The Iford in particular was like a delicious freshly-pressed apple juice with just a hint of funk and acid.

Heading back into town, we stopped off at the newly gentrified Swan with Two Necks (more on this later) where there was another Iford, Somerset Sahara – a joke about its supposed extreme dryness. Again, it was excellent, so we felt as if we’d achieved one of our aims for the month: finding a producer we could rely on and look out for on otherwise overwhelming cider lists.

After we Tweeted something along these lines,, Oliver Holtaway recommended Honey’s Midford. We happened to see a bottle of the Medium Dry in one of our local bottle shops a few days later and took ‘ee on.

Up to this point in our experiment, we hadn’t really seen any point of sale blurb about the ciders we were drinking (and indeed often struggled to work out the name or manufacturer of specific ciders from the available information) but this came with some detailed liner notes.

It was described as ‘unfiltered craft cider’, our first encounter with the C-word in the world of cider. It was ever so slightly fizzy. We really liked this, enjoying the full and complex apple foretaste, balanced with enough farmyard grit to make it feel like scrumpy. Will saying we appreciated the carbonation get us thrown out of cider club? Well, we did.

We had to fit in a visit to The Orchard where we had cooked up this daft plan and scheduled a proper Sunday sesh.

Jess began with Janet’s Jungle Juice, which is an award-winning medium-dry cider made round the corner from Ray’s parents. It’s been her default choice at The Orchard for a while so it was interesting to taste it properly with a little more contextual information. It really is a journey in the glass: it smells, and at first tastes, like a toffee apple, morphs into easy-drinking juice, then swings in with an acid kick at the end. The trick is to sip it as a gulp seems inevitably to produce a coughing fit. The Double IPA of the cider world?

Iford’s Windfall – great name – was described as medium but still tasted sweet to us, and… Look, that’s all we’ve got. It was perhaps a bit bland, or maybe subtle, and, evidently, our cider palates still need work.

We also drank a dry cider, Porter’s Perfection, that was indeed completely without residual sweetness but at the same time completely lacking sourness.

This triggered a realisation: we had been making the shortcut association of dryness with sourness which of course isn’t necessarily the case. Just as in beer, you can have a sour cider that is also sugary, and a dry cider that is super clean.

Ashridge was a disappointment. We think we’ve enjoyed this in the past but on this occasion it managed to be the worst of all cider worlds, lacking apple character while also being petrol-fume harsh. It reminded us, unfortunately, of homemade fruit wine with too much white cane sugar in the mix.

We finished on a couple of very dangerous options.

Rocky Road was described as medium but, again, tasted pretty sweet to us, with no harshness whatsoever – just like drinking apple juice, with the lethal punchline of a barely evident 6% ABV.

Red Hen, meanwhile, was a subtle medium-dry affair which made us understand cider as apple wine – it had the crisp finish of a Riesling.

The session taught us something else which is that it is very difficult to objectively taste cider as part of a session as the previous cider really does impact on how you perceive the next one. The same applies to beer, of course, but it felt especially pronounced here, perhaps because there are relatively few variables – no hop varieties to contend with, for example.

After our enlightening visit to the CoriTap, we made a pitstop at a nearby bar where we tried Orchard Pig – the Camden Hells of cider? You wouldn’t know from the branding that it’s owned by the same people who produce Magners and, to be fair, it is a very different, more enjoyable drink – fizzy, sweet, with an accessible ABV, but definitely still a touch funky.

The Apple

Finally, last night, we made it to The Apple, a cider bar on a boat that we’ve visited several times before between us.

It seemed right to circle back to the cidermakers we started with: Rich’s (medium) and Kingston Black from Heck’s (medium-dry). Rich’s, the standard cider of family gatherings in Ray’s childhood, tasted quite sugary and fairly straightforward, with almost a touch of Tizer about it. The Heck’s seemed too sweet for the designation and had something dusty and cork-like about it.

The very last cider of cider season was Taunton Dry (‘clear-dry’ as the menu had it) which was Champagne-pale, relatively weak at 4% ABV. This one really confused us: definitely sweet but also, somehow, dry. Let’s try this again: it tasted sweet but felt dry. Or started sweet and finished dry. Or… Ah, who knows. It also seemed a bit watery as in literally watered down. Still, a wisp of countryside character gave it a bit of added appeal.

So, all in all we achieved what we set out to do – we revisited Bristol pubs known for their cider offer identified some makers that we like and would look out for in future, Iford in particular being a name that crops up all over the place.

We’ve learned that the traditional dry-medium-sweet descriptors aren’t really that helpful indicators for us in deciding whether we’re going to like a cider or not. What we want to know is how intense the apple flavour might be and how much acid to expect.

Has this month turned us into cider drinkers? Probably not. While we have much more appreciation for the variety that is out there, and will definitely continue to have the occasional cider session, it’s difficult to conceive of us choosing cider when beer is available. We find it hard to session on and hard work rather than refreshing.

Shame we didn’t get round to visiting The Long Bar or having those cans of Natch, though.

Cider Season 2019: The Coronation Tap

The Coronation Tap in Clifton is something special: it calls itself a ciderhouse rather than a pub and is famous for Exhibition, its 8.4% house cider.

Also called the Cori or the Cori Tap, it’s best known as a student hangout and every time we’ve been, we’ve felt like decrepit intruders. A 24-year-old acquaintance told us recently that they used to go all the time but felt they’d outgrown it.

Which is odd, in some ways, because it’s so… brown. Dark and old-fashioned. The place it most reminds us of is The Old Ale House in Truro and it’s supposedly been trading since at least the early 19th century.

And when you hear that young people like cider, you picture something fizzy or fruit-flavoured, not halves of fairly flat, faintly funky, scrumpyish stuff.

Oh, yes: Exhibition is not served in pints. That’s why on a recent visit we saw a young Scot stop another drinker in their tracks. With a look of sheer panic on his face he asked, “Why is everybody here drinking halves!?”

Outside the Coronation Tap.

What savvy students do, of course, having shuffled their way through the wall to the bar, is order two halves at a time, buying a round in which the other party is themselves.

We’re only a few weeks into paying cider the slightest bit of attention but we reckon we get Exhibition: it’s strong but one-dimensional, all sweetness, with the kind of apple flavour you get in pasteurised supermarket apple juice. Which is not to say it’s bad – it’s easy to knock back, offers a sugar rush to counteract the booze downer, and doesn’t demand a lot of attention.

Perfect, in other words, for teenagers trying to get loaded on a big night out.

The Cori definitely has an air of naughtiness as if chaos is only ever a moment away. Waves of shouted song break out. People stumble. Drinks spill. Lanky lads, only months out of their school blazers, stalk about in groups of seven or eight, both nervous and excited. There is frequent, loud, wild laughter.

“When I lived nearby in about 1979,” someone in The Drapers told us, “it was famous for its lock-ins. The landlord would leave the upstairs toilet light on so locals would know to knock on the door.”

It still feels like the kind of place where that might happen.