bristol pubs

The Siren’s Calling, Portishead: nautical

The supposed best pub in Bristol for 2023 isn’t in Bristol, it’s in Portishead. And it is, indeed, very good.

We decided to visit The Siren’s Calling a few months ago when we saw a sign in The Merchants Arms in Hotwells which said something like: “The pub CAMRA says is the best in Bristol isn’t really in Bristol so actually, it’s us.”

We’d also heard of the pub because Ray’s dad’s band played there back in 2021 and Ray designed the poster.

Unfortunately, our previous experience of Portishead meant we had to work hard to find the enthusiasm for the schlep. Last time we went it rained and the buses were totally unreliable. Not Portishead’s fault but these impressions linger.

This time, we decided to walk from Bristol, and get the bus back. The frustrating thing being that long stretches of the path run alongside what looks like a perfectly serviceable railway line, which was closed in 1967.

At any rate, walking in unseasonal October sunshine, we arrived at Portishead Marina with a thirst. The atmosphere was that of a sunny seaside town, with people eating chips on the rocks and yachts in the lock.

The Siren’s Calling is in the ground floor of a new block of flats surrounded by coffee shops and a branch of Co-Op. It’s not a promising location, architecturally speaking.

But then The Cockleshell at Saltash makes something similar work, as do any number of German beer halls installed in grey post-war blocks.

What was promising at The Siren’s Calling was the atmosphere on the terrace outside. The pub was covered in delightfully tacky Oktoberfest décor and there were groups of people in Alpine hats drinking lager by the two-pint Maß.

The interior of the pub with big glass windows, long shared tables and a view of the crowded, sunny terrace.

Inside, we found a single large room scattered with tables and benches, all decked out with blue and white plastic tablecloths.

Despite our reservations about the style, we ordered Festbiers front the Dirndl-clad bar staff, both served in appropriate glassware, and found a corner.

It was quiet mid-afternoon but still had a decent atmosphere – peaceful rather than dead.

“We should come back in the winter,” said Jess. “I bet it’ll be like one of those bars on the Belgian coast.”

Everyone was drinking German beer in two-pint mugs, even a group of dainty older ladies in designer deck shoes.

There was also a party of cyclists in Lycra debating Fleetwood Mac; a pair of hefty lads with, apparently, hollow legs; and one or two serious drinkers hovering round the bar.

What struck us with round two was how reasonably priced it was. A bottle of Jever and a pint of Ayinger Hell came to less than £10. The split turned out to be £4.60 for the Helles and £5 for the Jever.

A chalkboard also advertised a hundred Belgian beers. Without a printed menu we couldn’t verify that but we certainly spotted all the beers we could think of wanting to drink in the fridges behind the bar.

“It’s a proper old skool beer list,” said Jess.

“Why doesn’t Bristol proper have a pub with a list like that?”

“With all those new flats going up, maybe it will get one at some point soon.”

The pub got busier and busier until there was a bona fide queue at the bar.

As the live band struck up at 4pm, with accordion and mandolin, we finished round three (Duvel and another pint of Ayinger Hell) and slipped out to walk, or wobble, towards the bus stop with the low sun in our eyes.


Wiper & True’s Bristol taproom is an urban oasis

Bristol brewery Wiper & True opened a huge new taproom on an industrial estate last summer. One year on, it’s become something of a green marvel.

It’s fairly near where we live but we haven’t been all that often because (a) we still prefer pubs; (b) though we have no particular objection to it, we don’t love W&T beer; and (c) this particular taproom was especially vast and sterile.

On Thursday evening this week, though, we happened to have dinner nearby and needed somewhere to continue the conversation.

“This is a weird place to have a taproom,” said one of our companions as we walked through the security gates near the Lawrence Hill roundabout and past the Royal Mail depot.

Perhaps we’ve got used to the idea but, yes, it is odd, when you think about it, that these dusty, deserted spaces have become the default destination for craft beer drinking. Plastic-wrapped pallets, shuttered factory units, seagulls squawking overhead… It’s a long way from the inns of merry old England.

The first sign that W&T is doing something interesting on this site, though, is the carbon capture tank on proud display on the approach to the brewery. It’s evidence of a commitment to sustainability that goes beyond lip service.

Then, rounding the corner to the entrance, we were stunned by the sight of the beer garden.

It used to be a ‘beer garden’ – a bare yard full of tables. It felt like having a pint in the car park of ASDA.

But now it is a Beer Garden, or at least heading well in that direction. Around the perimeter are tall plants providing a green shield. In the garden between tables, there are loaded beds and planters.

Grasses, shrubs and young trees soften edges, dampen sound and create depth.

This is now a pleasant place to be, like a park or botanical exhibition.

And, of course, it’s turned an expanse of concrete and asphalt back over to nature. In the urban heat island of East Bristol, this is a helpful intervention.

We look forward to seeing it develop in years to come. Because, like free range animals, nothing pleases us more than drinking beer under the shelter of trees.

bristol pubs

The lost pubs of Bristol’s central ghost town

One of Bristol’s weirdest features is its central ghost town where, on inter-war maps, seven pubs were marked.

The ghost town in question is otherwise known as Castle Park and it was once the core of the central shopping district.

It was badly damaged during World War II and the decision was made after the war to clear it rather than rebuild.

Now, it’s a pleasant (if sometimes spicy) green space containing the bombed ruins of two churches and some hints of the old street patterns.

A map showing modern day Castle Park with the old streets roughly marked and the locations of the seven pubs.
BASE MAP SOURCE: Open Street Map.

Let’s start our pub crawl on Bristol Bridge, heading into town along High Street, and pause to think about The Posada, AKA The Posada Wine Vaults.

It stood exactly where you can now find a weird little concrete obelisk with a door, leading down to tunnels beneath the park.

The edge of Castle Park with concrete buildings and street furniture.
The obelisk (left), the old Norwich Union building (1962) and the remains of St Mary-le-Port Church.

It was a 19th century building, erected when the road was widened in the 1860s, we think. In 1877 it was known as The Posada Espanola.

It survived a massive bombing of central Bristol in November 1940 before being finished off in another raid in 1941.

Next, let’s turn left onto Mary-le-Port Street. Except it’s not there any more, so we can’t, really, but we can cut through the park to look at the ruins of St Mary-le-Port Church hidden behind the brutalist Lloyds Bank and modernist Norwich Union building.

A tatty path through the park with a church tower in the distance.
Looking along Mary-le-Port to St Peter’s Church.

Then follow the path that tracks the old street pattern towards the site of The Raven. C.F. Deming, author of Old Inns of Bristol, published in 1943, reckoned The Raven dated back to the 17th century and was “mentioned in 1643”.

Interviewed for an oral history project in 2005 Dorothy Bullimore and Emily ‘Emmy’ Taylor recalled drinking there:

Dorothy: They used to have pigs’ feet up Hodders on a Saturday night and there was a little pub next door to it and after you’d finish shopping you’d sit in there with all your carrier bags at your feet. We used to go in the pub with my husband’s brother- he worked for Hodders, the butchers. 

Emmy: It was a tiny little pub in Mary Le Port Street.

It had already gone when Old Inns of Bristol was published, destroyed by bombing.

Old buildings overhanging a narrow shopping street.
Mary-le-Port in the 1930s via Know Your Place Bristol. An entrance to The Swan Hotel is to the right.

A little further along we find the site of The Swan, just about where the diagonal path down the river meets the terrace in front of the ruin of St Peter’s Church.

Deming calls The Swan “one of Bristol’s most picturesque buildings” but adds:

Like many other notable Houses, The Swan had been neglected for many years, and its decayed timbers had fallen into such a sad state that, in conjunction with other circumstances and in spite of many requests to retain the building, its preservation was found to be impossible.

The Swan was demolished in 1936, after someone bought the whole corner site for redevelopment. The building that replaced The Swan was then so badly damaged by bombing that it had to be pulled down.

A stone structure in the park.
The site of The Bank Hotel. The path to the right roughly marks the line of the rear of the building.

Rounding the corner of Mary-le-Port onto what was Dolphin Street we next find the site of The Bank Hotel, on the waterside. There used to be two urinals here, hanging over the river, which we guess were for customers of the pub.

An 1884 guidebook says this pub got its name because it was built on the site of a branch of the Bank of England which was opened there in 1827, but later moved.

Now let’s walk back along what would have been Dolphin Street to Newgate – that is, across the park to the junction with Union Street where the falafel stand is now.

Newgate was originally Narrow Wine Street and about here stood The George Inn.

The Galleries Shopping Centre beyond a line of trees and hedges.
From the site of The George looking across Newgate (Narrow Wine Street) to The Galleries Shopping Centre.

The George Inn was certainly old and there was a brewery on the premises in the 1810s.

A Popular History of Bristol (not a hugely reliable source) dates it to the 17th century and suggests it was named in reference to St George, rather than any monarch of that name.

By the 1930s it was one of six Fussell’s pubs in Bristol.

In 1940 a 24-year-old soldier, Corporal Ernest Newman, robbed the landlord of The George at gunpoint, before being chased and captured by police. That’s an interesting glimpse into what Bristol was like during wartime.

A scrappy corner of the park with fences and paths.
The site of The Cat & Wheel near an exit from the park.

At this point, follow the path back to the ruin of St Peter’s Church and go through the water garden. At the end of the garden a path curves down. Near the bottom is where Little Peter Street used to run and where two pubs stood side by side.

The Cat & Wheel and The Bear & Rugged Staff were both 17th century pubs but the former was rebuilt in the early 20th century.

An Edwardian pub with signs advertising George's Pale Ales.
The Cat & Wheel. SOURCE: Know Your Place.

Both, amazingly, survived the Blitz and were trading until the late 1960s. They were demolished in 1969 as part of the creation of Castle Park.

The Bear & Rugged Staff then donated its name to The Welcome Inn, an interwar pub at Southmead.

This was the final stage in the clearance of the area, which the city planners had decided to do as far back as 1943.

Shopkeepers and local wanted to restore the shopping district to how it had been but the planners were keen to do away with what had been a mess of narrow streets.

Some people are still annoyed about this decision today.

And that’s the end of the tour. If you want to continue hanging out in Bristol’s pre-war shopping district, fire up one of these two sites to layer old maps with new ones:

And if all that walking around pubs that aren’t there has you feeling thirsty check out our guide to the best pubs in Bristol, updated for 2023.

This has been an interesting exercise and has given us a partial answer to our question about why Bristol doesn’t have a central pub equivalent to Whitelocks in Leeds. It would probably have been one of those described above, if they’d survived.

Main image adapted from ‘Ruins of the Church of St. Mary-le-Port with St. Peter’s in the background’ by Beryl Thornborough for Bristol Siren Nights, 1943.

bristol pubs

Notable pubs: The Palace Hotel, Bristol’s Victorian wonder

The Palace Hotel is a grand, beautiful pub – perhaps Bristol’s only true gin palace. It is also closed and invisible in the cityscape.

Anytime you walk from the city centre to the east via Old Market, you pass it. Or, rather, it towers over you.

At ground level, covered in graffiti and posters, you might not notice at all.

Glance up, though, and you’ll be struck by its scale, and it’s Parisian style – or maybe it’s Bruxellois? It’s certainly continental.

And too fancy, really, for a block of kebab shops and taxi offices. Yes, hold on: why is it there?

The Palace Hotel at full height, with three floors and a loft, with clock.
The Palace viewed from Midland Road.

This neighborhood has changed a lot since the pub was built in 1869. Back then, before the Blitz and slum clearances, Old Market had breweries, sugar refineries and tanneries, along with street traders.

bristol pubs

Why isn’t The Kings Head in Bristol our answer to Whitelocks?

Great as the relaunched Kings Head might be, it’s not that must-visit symbol of the city. Nowhere in Bristol is.

What do we mean when we talk about this kind of pub?

We wrote about what we called the Universally Recommended Timeless Institution Pub in 2021 after a trip to Leeds:

You need a bit of food to soak up the booze but it shouldn’t be a food place. It might not even really be a beer place. It’s a meeting place. A bolthole. Get away from shopping, take the weight off your feet, escape the weather, whether it’s too hot or too cold…

When this post resurfaced recently in a Twitter conversation about pubs, The Kings Head came up as a Bristol nomination.

In fact, it was nominated by Kelly from Good Chemistry, the brewery which has taken the pub on.

We replied, diplomatically, that this was an interesting thought.

And it is almost right:

  • historic interior
  • universally recommended
  • broad beer range

So, why doesn’t it feel like The One?

For starters, it’s too small. Delightfully small. Incredibly cute, you might say. But with 30 people in, it’s full.

Secondly, no pies. No fish and chips. No bangers and mash. Though we did once see a man take delivery of a pizza called The Beast.

We don’t mind the absence of food, and many would find it an asset. But it does mean you can’t really send out-of-towners there for a lunchtime sesh.

Oh, yes, and it doesn’t open until 4pm from Monday to Tuesday, and at 2pm on Sunday. Again, very sensible in business terms, but not necessarily tourist-friendly.

Finally, there’s the location: what is that bit of town? Victoria Street is handy for the central station but has no real identity of its own.

Between the Blitz ruins of Temple Church and the wall of post-war office blocks, it’s not a place you hang out.

Now, if The Kings Head was in Broadmead, or Corn Street, or by the harbourside… But Bristol’s post war planning left the city without a distinct centre, and Broadmead is utterly publess.

To summarise, then – and here’s the bit you can quote, Kelly! – The Kings Head is one of the finest pubs in Bristol.

Its interior is gorgeous and has only been enhanced by typically tasteful, minimal tweaks by Good Chemistry.

We’d advise anyone visiting Bristol to make the 10-minute walk from town and at least try to get in.

We’ve had no trouble snagging a seat at the bar on our last couple of visits and have found it hard to leave, with beers like Fyne Ales Jarl on offer.

It ain’t Whitelocks, but it’s bloody good.

Well, what about…?

  • The Highbury Vaults – a wonderful pub that ticks most of the boxes but is too far out of town, up a bloody great hill.
  • The Llandoger Trow – great beer, not cosy, strangely lacking atmosphere, totally lacking pies.
  • The Swan With Two Necks – we love it but it’s on an industrial estate and has one big room, and is pieless.
  • The Commercial Rooms (Wetherspoon) – not built as a pub, tatty rather than historic these days.
  • The Old Fish Market – not built as a pub, too corporate, rugby lads and business boys.

We do have our eye on a candidate, though, which we’re hoping to visit tonight for a reappraisal. An update will follow.

For more advice on where to drink check out our Bristol pub guide updated for 2023.