Our #EveryPubInBristol mission had begun to stagnate a little with hardly any new ticks in weeks. Then, the Saturday before last, we managed six new pubs in one go. As ever, this concerted attack was eye-opening.
We started at The Assembly in Bedminster, a huge pub with the football on at ear-bursting volume and a sense that it was drowsing, just waiting for Saturday night to kick off. The kind of place where the woodwork has teeth-marks. Jess’s half of Doom Bar came in a dainty stem glass, though, and didn’t taste bad.
The contrast between this and the next pub, up Windmill Hill on the other side of the railway line, was powerful. The Windmill feels like the kind of place you might find in a middle class outer London suburb, all scrubbed wood, burgers and jazz. The couple on the table next to us seemed to be on holiday in Bristol and had apparently come out of their way to get to this particular pub – is it in a foreign travel guide, maybe? It’s for sale, we hear, which might explain the faintly gloomy mood. Overall, we liked it, even if it did seem to be looking at us down its nose, just a touch.
At the top of the hill, The Rising Sun appealed to us immediately: a Victorian orphan alongside a modernist tower block, windswept by default, it brought to mind the Cumberland at Byker. Inside, we found a lampshade pub with plush seating and kitsch details. Bluegrass music played on the stereo and the young publican told us he was a musician. Bohemian might be a good word for this pub and we can imagine detouring to get to it again.
Things went downhill after this, literally, as we tottered down a tatty alleyway between terraced houses to The Brunel, AKA The Engineers Arms – a huge pub extended or rebuilt in the 1920s, despite its supposed 1897 founding date. It’s a Greene King joint so you can probably picture it with 80% accuracy if you’ve ever been in another anywhere else in the country. But we liked the cheerful staff, the stained glass windows and the remains of the old multi-room structure: the real drinkers were in what was obviously the Public. It’s not our kind of place but there was certainly a buzz.
Next stop was The Victoria Park, a somewhat famous gastropub in 1990s style, with Michelin stickers and more. We didn’t expect to like it but the hillside beer garden and Edwardian exterior were hard to resist, and inside we had no trouble finding a corner to drink in. The other customers were mostly exhausted parents rocking pushchairs or bouncing babies on their chests. This one, we thought, would fit an upmarket resort in Devon or Cornwall, and the beer was mostly Devonian, as it happened.
The Star & Dove on the edge of Victoria Park has a fascinating story. Ray’s been before, with his brother, when it was a full-on gastropub with slow-cooked pork belly and so on. That venture folded, though, and in the space of a year or two, it’s reverted to being a normal, down-to-earth drinking pub with somewhat harsh lighting and the downstairs dining room locked. The internet seems generally confused about whether it is still trading (it definitely is) and whether it still has food at all – sometimes, we think? Still, not often you encounter de-gentrification these days.
There’s something about this particular approach, every pub, that really makes sense of the scene as a whole and how things fit together. Posh pubs are uphill, less fancy ones at the bottom; chains are sometimes where the action is; and there’s almost no pub that’s not OK for at least one round on a Saturday afternoon.