bristol pubs

Graffiti and ale: 3 alternative pubs in East Bristol

I’m a bit of a hippy and I like hippy pubs. There – I’ve said it. It’s just a shame Ray doesn’t.

He posted recently about a session in the pub with his dad, including his commentary about the feel of the pub:

We’re going to take Jess sometime, and play euchre, though I doubt she’ll feel quite as at home as Mum and Dad, or as me. It’s the kind of pub I grew up in, and around, and doesn’t have a hint of London about it… But then there are pubs Jess likes where I don’t feel completely at ease, which I believe she’s going to write about soon.

While Ray was on his session, I was drinking in three pubs which are more to my taste than Ray’s.

The occasion was the CAMRA Bristol and District Ladies (BAD Ladies) pub crawl around St Werburghs.

St Werburghs is a fascinating area of Bristol, cut off geographically from the rest of the city by a combination of cliffs, motorways and allotments. 

It’s been known for many years as a haven for alternative lifestyles and includes a self-built cooperative housing estate and a city farm.

The crawl took us to three of the four pubs in St Werburghs: The Farm, The Miners’s Arms and The Duke of York. All of them have hippy vibes of varying degrees and make me feel nostalgic for my early drinking days – while leaving Ray a little on edge. He’s such a clean boy!

The Farm has an enormous beer garden and several of my drinking companions told me it was more of a family pub than an alternative one these days, especially on Sundays.

Last time Ray and I visited someone was trying to persuade the bar staff to give them the beer slops from the drip trays, allegedly to keep slugs off their plants in their allotment.

On this occasion it was the First Beer Garden Day Of The Year and my heart sank at the apparent chaos in front of the bar. Veteran pub goers and infrequent flyers went two different ways: the veterans crowding every inch of spare bar, the infrequents forming a queue out of the door. 

Which goes to show that looks can be deceiving, as the extremely hard working and friendly staff seemed supernaturally capable of working out which order to serve people in. Bravo.

There were three ale hand pumps, although one was in the process of being changed.

A line up of hand pumps on a pub bar: New Bristol Brewery The Joy of Sesh, New Bristol Brewery Bitter, something else from the same brewery, and Wye Valley Butty Bach.

The Miners’ Arms does not have an enormous beer garden but there is a square of grass round the back which the punters pour onto when the weather is nice.

It’s a typical backstreet corner pub on the outside, and inside it’s no-frills from about table level down, with lots of former pump clips around the walls and bar.

It’s a Dawkins pub and now Dawkins isn’t brewing seems to have gone over to New Bristol Brewing, with NBB on three of the four hand pumps.

We got put off coming here a few years back due to a few too many roaming dogs on long strings. But I didn’t spot any on this occasion and, in fact, there is now a sign saying that dogs and babies are welcome “as long as they behave like civilised adults”.

A skittle alley with red velvet draped on its walls and black and red paint on the walls.

We missed most of The Duke of York the first time we visited. We featured it (and The Farm) in a gallery post on Bristol’s painted pubs, written fairly shortly after moving here.

The high level of decoration continues on the inside with an enormous quantity of arty greebling which could be at home in a Brussels bar.

We noted during our first visit that it was cosy and vaguely hippyish, and didn’t go again –not because it’s bad but because there are lots of similar places in East Bristol and, as previously mentioned, this is not necessarily Ray’s cup of tea.

What we hadn’t noticed on our first visit is that there is a whole separate drinking area round the back.

In fact, it is one of the few pubs in Bristol that still has a working skittle alley – and several different groups actually played skittles during my recent visit.

There’s also a sizeable beer garden and another space upstairs including a pool table and dartboard.

What struck me about the crowd is that there were quite a few younger people who had come in to play games as much as drink.

For those that do like to drink, there were four ales on, all in great condition.

What is the quality of hippyness these pubs share that Ray struggles with?

The pervasive smell of weed, perhaps – which just reminds me of Walthamstow and Leytonstone c.1995. And I’d rather have that than the overwhelming stink of scented candles and bleach.

There’s also the layer of worn-in grot that goes beyond ‘character’. I barely notice it but it makes Ray squirm.

On balance, it’s probably quite nice that there are pubs he likes and I don’t, and vice versa. Because, contrary to what you might have heard, we remain distinct and separate human beings.

Beer history bristol pubs

Pubs and breweries in Bristol Archives

After almost seven years in this city, we finally made it to the Bristol Archives in January 2024, to see what they had on pubs and beer.

When we were researching 20th Century Pub in particular we visited archives in a number of cities, looking in particular for information about the construction of pubs and social housing in the interwar and post war periods. 

Sometimes, we’d also stumble across other interesting titbits, particularly in brewery minutes.

Once, Jess even found an ancestor of hers mentioned in the board minutes of Barclay Perkins, although the story wasn’t particularly relevant to the book.

We knew from some pre-visit enquiries that the Bristol Archives does not hold brewery records for Georges (Courage) or any of its predecessor breweries.

There were some bits and pieces relating to Smiles brewery, which will add to our incomplete but growing history.

We also enjoyed looking at huge rolled-up plans for post-war council estates indicating the locations of pubs, and there’s perhaps a story to be told sometime about the pubs that were planned but didn’t get built.

It looks as if there was a fourth pub planned for Southmead, for example, but we don’t know anything more about it at this stage.

Possibly the most colourful material we found were various police and licensing records.

There’s a lot there and the organisation of the material is a little confusing. This is not the Archive’s fault but a result of the police divisions in Bristol seeming to switch about and alter their systems of recordkeeping every five minutes.

Even so, we found lots of interesting nuggets around investigating licence complaints, including quite a few records of the police dropping in, just in case.

When were you last in a pub when a constable turned up on his rounds?

We were also reminded that the police also took notice if you were not open during your licensed hours, recording instances of pubs being slow to open in the morning:

“Sergeant Edward Midwinter… reports that at 11:10 am 22nd December 1913, he observed that the Pilgrim [public house] New Thomas Street, Saint Philips, was closed for the sale of intoxicating liquor.”

What we’re not clear on is why.

Nothing we’ve read so far suggests that pubs could get in trouble for being late to open. Generally, the emphasis is on them staying open after they’re meant to be shut, or opening earlier than their permitted hours.

Paul Jennings’s article ‘Policing Public Houses in Victorian England’ from 2013 is a good piece on this.

From our brief glance over the Bristol records, though, we got a faint impression that being late to open was perhaps an indicator of a generally unruly house.

Why might they be late to open? Perhaps because they’d been late to close the night before.

Anyway, we’d be all for the police keeping notes on pubs that fail to open when their Google profile says they will. Throw the book at ‘em! (Because this is the internet: we are obviously joking.)

Most frustrating was confirmation that the Courage records do exist but were withdrawn from the Archive in the 1990s. We contacted the person who withdrew them (their contact details are in the catalogue) and they confirmed that these papers are in “deep storage” and inaccessible to researchers.

We feel pleased that we finally made it to the archive and found it very friendly and helpful, and might make a return visit sometime with more focus.

We’ve got copies of 20th Century Pub for sale at £12 including UK postage and packing. And you get a free Pierre van Klomp zine with each one, too. Email us to sort out payment, inscriptions, and so on.

bristol pubs

New ways of drinking: the board game cafe

Chance & Counters isn’t a pub, or even a bar. It’s a board game cafe. And on Friday night, it was remarkably busy.

There are five branches across the UK, in Cardiff, Birmingham, Leeds and Bristol, where there are two.

It was founded here in 2016 after a successful Kickstarter campaign, and the original branch is at the bottom of Christmas Steps in town.

The cafe we visited is the larger, newer branch on Gloucester Road.

It had previously struck us as something of a cursed location, with one business after another launching, struggling and crashing in these same premises.

Perhaps it was too big for most concepts, looking empty even with 20 people dining.

Maybe launching a pork-themed restaurant wasn’t a great idea at the exact moment one of Britain’s most hippified cities fully embraced the plant-based food revolution.

Or maybe it was just in no-man’s land, beyond the main run of hospitality venues around The Arches, where the charity shops start.

But then, last year, we walked past Chance & Counters on a weekend evening and paused to gawp in astonishment.

It was not only busy but positively jumping, with a crowd of hip young things spilling onto the street, flirting and sharing cigarettes as they compared notes on gameplay and tactics.

Are board games… are they cool now?

Since then, we’d been looking for an excuse to visit.

Friday night at Chance & Counters

We don’t mind the odd board game ourselves, but Ray’s brother is a positive enthusiast.

He is also teetotal and often has to endure pubs where there is nothing much for him, and where the atmosphere sends him to sleep.

So, when we met for dinner on Friday, we proposed a detour.

Over games of Tsuro and Sushi Go! we got the opportunity to watch a new type of ‘third place’ in action.

What’s different? Well, for one thing, you pay just to be there. It costs £2 per person, per hour. That gets you use of a table and access to the extensive library of games in the centre of the cafe.

It’s waiter service only. They greet you at the door, clock you into the system, and point you to a QR code on the table for the menu. Then, after a while, they return to take your order.

Ray had Lost & Grounded Helles (draught) and Jess went for non-alcoholic Bristol Beer Factory Clear Head.

Ray’s brother (teetotal) and partner (driving) both had hot chocolate.

Also on offer were wine, spirits, cider, shots, fancy milkshakes, fancy milkshakes with booze, soft drinks, smoothies, floats, mocktails, teas and coffees.

Most groups, as far as we could tell, had a mix of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.

After a while, it did start to feel, if not like a pub, then at least like a Proper Night Out. The hubbub and liveliness of the crowd saw to that.

There were large groups of eight or ten stretched along banqueting tables; couples on first dates (we think); less nervous couples playing card games over glasses of wine; and lads knocking back pints while getting increasingly competitive.

It felt effortlessly and refreshingly inclusive, with space for all sorts of people, from evidently shy to extravagantly alternative.

We agreed we’d go again. Certainly if we’re hanging out with Ray’s brother, but perhaps even on our own, as a change from the norm.

Poor old pubs

Sitting in a couple of more traditional pubs on Saturday, we were struck by the contrast.

In both there were only a handful of older drinkers staring, sullen, at TVs bolted to the walls, and nobody seemed to be having much fun at all.

We wondered how these struggling publicans might feel about the option to charge people just for being there, at £2 an hour, as they sip their cider.

bristol opinion

Our top 5 Bristol pints

What are the top five reliable pints in your town or city? That is, beers you always know you’ll find in specific pubs.

That question comes via Ross Cummins who set out his favourite five pints in Manchester in an excellent post on his blog earlier this week:

This is not a definitive list of best beers in Manchester, or best beers by Manchester breweries, this is a list of MY favourite pints, that I can get in Manchester.

This sparked some interesting follow ups on BlueSky where people pondered what a similar list for London might look like, for example.

And of course, it made a natural topic of conversation for us during one of our recent pub sessions: what would be our equivalent of this list for Bristol?

We found it hard because relatively few Bristol pubs that we like consistently have on the same beers.

The ale-focused pubs have a laudable variety of guest beers, but that means you rarely find any of the same stuff two visits in a row.

And lots of our favourite Bristol breweries also change their range regularly, so even in taprooms or tied pubs you might not be guaranteed to find a particular favourite beer.

In our selection, therefore, we have hedged our bets a little and sometimes suggested alternative beers.

We’ve also tried to balance what we actually really enjoy drinking versus what we would recommend to a visitor to Bristol, who maybe wants to try something local, and new to them.

Then we decided not to overthink it too much. It’s just a blog post! If you disagree, write your own.

So anyway, with all of Ross’s caveats and a few of our own, here is our list.

The exterior of a grand Edwardian pub with ornate gables, painted grey.
The Langton.

1. Butcombe Bitter at the Langton

The Langton for us, anyway, as it’s walkable from our house, but maybe at The Ostrich for out-of-towners.

We like Butcombe Bitter a lot when it’s good, and it’s reliably good these days. It’s also available in quite a few decent Bristol pubs.

It’s the closest thing we’ve got to a traditional brown bitter from an old family brewery.

Although Butcombe is only 40-odd years old, it was founded by a former Courage employee with the explicit intention of brewing Courage-style beer.

The most regular place that we drink it is probably The Langton but it’s quite schlep out of town and not a particularly remarkable pub. It just happens to be close to us.

And its Butcombe is almost always in great condition.

The Lost & Grounded taproom with bare tables, bunting, and an illuminated sign that reads COLD LAGER.
Lost & Grounded.

2. Keller Pils at Lost & Grounded

We visit this taproom more often than any other, and it’s partly because we like the range and styles of beer and partly due to proximity.

It was hard for us to pick a particular beer because our actual favourites do rotate.

Also, if we’re honest, we don’t always find they taste the same from week to week. So we’re going for Keller Pils for now.

A pumpclip for Oakham Citra beer.

3. Oakham Citra at the Old Duke

The Old Duke is a music-focused pub on the King Street Run in the centre of town.

Oakham Citra is hoppy catnip for us.

We always enjoy it, and it appears to be a regular beer here, together with its tamer pale-n-hoppy cousin Adnams Ghost Ship.

A pint of golden amber beer in a straight pint glass in a pub garden.
Young’s Ordinary at The Highbury Vaults.

4. Young’s Bitter at the Highbury Vaults

The Highbury Vaults has a well-deserved reputation for good ale, and for extreme proper-pub cosiness.

It also has a pleasant, shady garden for the summer.

We tend to switch between Young’s London Original (AKA Young’s Bitter, AKA Ordinary) and St. Austell Proper Job when we’re there.

We usually try both and settle on whichever is in the best condition. But they’re both reliably very good and often excellent.

A big gold ornament of a dog with a cluttered pub bar back behind.
The Swan With Two Necks.

5. Elmoor (Moor) at the Swan with Two Necks

Both the beer and the pub have become favourites of ours.

The beer is billed as a ‘Belgian pale ale’ and tastes a bit like something Brasserie de la Senne would produce.

It’s refreshing, bitter, still just about sessionable at 5.5%, if you take it easy.

This was tough

There were so many things we almost included, but couldn’t quite justify.

For example, we also wanted to include Bass. It’s still very much present in a surprising number of Bristol pubs – but not in any pubs we visit regularly.

That means we can make recommendations for places to try but have to stop short of a full endorsement for any one pub.

For a fuller view of what to drink and where, check out our Bristol pub guide which we’ve just updated for 2024.


New to us: The Somerville Club, St. Andrews, Bristol

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.

Wooden boards listing life members of the Somerville Club next to a set of caricatures of famous snooker players, including Jimmy White and Steve Davis.
The snooker room at The Somerville Club.

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.