“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.
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.
(Lager actually costs £4.50 a pint.)
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.
POLL: Gentrification of pubs…
— Boak and Bailey (@BoakandBailey) November 25, 2019
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.