Return to the Fellowship, an important pub reborn

The Fellowship Inn at Bellingham, south east London, was the first pub to be built on a council estate and as such was a focal point of our research for 20th Century Pub, not least because it was a rare example of a pub of this vintage still trading – just barely hanging on – when we were writing the book. 

To briefly summarise the story, which is told in more detail in the book, prior to and immediately after World War I, pubs were still seen as part of a disreputable legacy of the slums that new home-builders were keen to leave behind.

When traditional neighbourhoods were cleared and populations rehoused, they were dispatched to estates that were free of licensed premises.

Unsurprisingly, the more enterprising breweries started to think about how they could clean up their offer to make it acceptable to local councils with a barely-contained prohibitionist streak.

London brewers Barclay Perkins were pioneers in this regard, having been working with the Trust Houses since 1916 and with Alexander Part, legendary licensee and sometime spy, in particular. This meant that it was easier for them to demonstrate that they had been operating on ‘improved’ public house principles for some time and so get a foot in the door at Bellingham.

The London County Council minutes record the plan as follows: 

“The building is designed to contain a large refreshment room, smoke room and lounge with ample seating accommodation as well as a spacious dining hall which could also be used as a recreation room and for social events and other meetings. There would also be a roof garden. No drinking bars would be provided…”

It was designed in glorious mock-Tudor style by Barclay Perkins’ in-house architect F.G.Newnham. On the opening day in 1924, Barclay Perkins reported that over a thousand meals were served. Again, check 20th Century Pub for more contemporary accounts of the life and colour of this and other big interwar estate pubs.

When we visited in 2016, a small part of the pub was still trading, though most of it was empty and and terrible disrepair. We were shown round by a representative of Phoenix Housing who led us through the abandoned ballroom and derelict upper floor workers’ quarters while she explained their plans for the future.

An old-fashioned pub bar.
The public bar at The Fellowship in 2016.

Its decline had in some ways been its saviour – much like the Ivy House in Nunhead, lots of original features remained because entire rooms had simply been closed off and ignored during the worst of the refurbishment era. In 20th Century Pub, we wrote: 

“It is hard to say whether Bellingham’s locals will take to a cinema-cafe-microbrewery-pub but it can scarcely be any less popular than the current offer – a dingy bar used regularly by only a handful of residents. It certainly seems likely that it will draw in the ever-increasing middle-class population of south London’s suburbs with baby strollers and a taste for craft beer with their Sunday roast. Either way, the building, and its remarkable architecture and history, will be preserved.”

It actually reopened three years on from our visit, in June 2019, operated by the Electric Star Group, and thus renamed The Fellowship & Star. The planned microbrewery, a relic of when Laine’s were slated to take it on, didn’t make the cut, but the cinema and everything else did.

Exterior of the Fellowship.

The welcoming front door.

We visited shortly after opening on a Sunday when it was fairly quiet but with a good number of reservations for lunch later in the afternoon. They had had a busy night before, too, as suggested by the dry pumps and confirmed by the staff behind the bar: “Well, we did have Don Letts here last night.”

We were really impressed with the transformation, or rather the comparative lack of it. While it definitely clean and contemporary the original wooden panelling was visible throughout, barely even retouched or varnished in some places.

A pub table and chairs.
Seats salvaged from the original cinema-theatre at The Fellowship.
Cinema Open
The new cinema makes use of the vast space available beyond the main pub.

What was formerly the central office, a fascinating feature of these sort of pubs where the manager could hide behind the counter, had been partly absorbed into the bar, but was still distinctly visible.

There was still a clear sense of different rooms – partitions and visual obstacles which give a sense that there’s always something else going on round the corner – a characteristic which can make an even fairly sparsely populated pub feel buzzy.

There was a great balance of illumination and shadow, too, thanks mostly to the natural light fighting its way through tall, thin original windows.

The public bar today.
The refurbished public bar in 2019.

We had a bit of a nose around the other parts of the building that were accessible and noted that other original features were still in place there, too.

Is it gentrified? Five Points Pale Ale was £4.20 a pint, which is at the lower end of prices in London, these days but rather underlines the point that almost any pub trading in London these days is by definition something of a luxury venue.

The staff were professional and down to earth rather than aloof or cool, though, and it looked like Guinness got as much action as the craft taps.

Children are welcome, as long as carefully written ground rules are followed, and football was being shown in a couple of parts of the pub – surely a signal of sorts.

In some ways, it’s sad to see the old pub, and the culture it represented, disappear. On the other hand, the pub was originally designed to serve people of different classes, drinkers and non-drinkers, eaters and boozers, children and families… So it’s really just returned to its true purpose.

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.

Running the numbers: is it a pub?

One of the most frequently asked questions about #EveryPubInBristol is how we define a pub. This is hard to answer beyond ‘We know one when we see one’.

But we thought we might try to be a bit more scientific and come up with a scoring system.

As a starting point, we took CAMRA’s guidelines, most recently updated in May 2019:

The licensed premises must:

[1] be open to and welcome the general public without requiring membership or residency and without charging for admission (a);

[2] serve at least one draught beer or cider (b);

[3] allow drinking without requiring food to be consumed, and have at least one indoor area not laid out for meals; and

[4] allow customers to buy drinks at a bar (c) without relying on table service.’

[a] except when entertainment is provided on limited occasions, when an entry charge may apply.

[b] includes cask or keg beer or cider. References to ‘cider’ should be read as ‘cider and perry’.

[c] includes service from a hatch or specific service point.

This offers a helpful baseline, effectively weeding out clubs, dedicated music venues and restaurants.

However, under this definition, something which we would instinctively call a cafe would comfortably fit and, indeed, venues of this type do make it into the Good Beer Guide from time to time.

Bristol is particularly blessed with cafes that are open until well into the evening, serving draught beer, including real ale, so it’s not outrageous but, still… They’re not pubs.

We sourced some more ideas on Twitter (months ago – this really has taken a long time to digest) and then constructed a spreadsheet for scoring.

It includes things like carpet, whether there are tablecloths, the history of the building, whether it’s part of a chain, and so on, amounting to 24 criteria in total.

Next, we tested it by feeding in a few pubs we know are definitely pubs, a handful of establishments that definitely aren’t, and everything in between.

What we’ve ended up with is a scoring system that offers four outcomes:

  • Not a pub | 19 or less
  • Possibly a pub | 20 to 39
  • Probably a pub | 40 to 59
  • Definitely a pub | 60 or more

A maximum score of 100 is possible.

For #EveryPubInBristol, we’re ticking definitelys and probablys, but won’t go out of our way for possiblys.

It’s important to note that the scores are not about the quality of a pub, or intended as criticisms of places that aren’t pubs – it’s fine to be a bar. It’s just an attempt to evaluate the essence of pubbiness.

In particular, we’re trying to work out what typical pubs have that typical cafes don’t, such as fruit machines, a mixture of standing and sitting, and so on.

And we’re doing this for our own benefit, primarily – do we need to trek to the far end of the opposite corner to visit this place, or can we get away without the hour-long bus ride?

We should also point out that we have only designed this with the English pub in mind, and our weightings may not be right for pubs elsewhere in the UK, let alone pub-type establishments in the rest of the world.

We, like CAMRA, have a fairly low bar for entry: somewhere serving draught beer in pints from a counter is already across the ‘possibly a pub’ mark (unless it has traditional cafe opening hours, for example), and cask ale and the right name or decor will tip it into the ‘probably’ zone.

When we shared a version of this post with our Patreon subscribers last week, there was a gentle challenge on carpet. That’s a good example of a marginal indicator of pubbiness to which we’ve given low weighting in the scoring system. On its own, carpet probably won’t rule out most pubs, or tip non-pubs over the line.

However, we’re sure there are further tweaks that can be made.

So, with that in mind, have a play with this Google Docs spreadsheet and let us know how well it works with pubs in your town.

You’ll have to make a copy (Sign in to Google > File > Make a copy) but then you’ll be free to play around as much as you like, adding or removing criteria, or changing the weighting to your liking.

Try to break the scoring system — find a place you know is a pub that our scoring system doesn’t rank, or a place that definitely isn’t a pub (a curry house with cask ale, a cafe) that does.

If you don’t have a Google account or don’t want to use a spreadsheet, here’s a text version so you can tot it up however you prefer.

Is it part of a chain?
Some or complete chain branding; name of chain prominently displayed on signage. Pubcos and breweries are not chains for this purpose.
If yes, -5 points

Tablecloths
On some or all tables
If yes, -5 points

Cakes on the bar
If yes, -5 points

Primary purpose of establishment is something else
E.g. hotel, bowling alley, music club
If yes, -5 points

Closed at least one day a week
If yes, -5 points

Bar and bar service
Or service hatch
If yes, +10 points

Mixture of standing and seating
If yes, +10 points

Traditional pub name
Assessor’s judgement
If yes, +5 points

In a historical pub building
If yes, +5 points

Has one or more guv’nors
I.e. someone who owns it or manages it closely – you know their names
If yes, +10 points

Has locals/regulars
Regular customers who know each other only via the pub
If yes, +10 points

Carpet
Partial or throughout
If yes, +2 points

Mixed furniture
I.e. chairs don’t all match
If yes, +4 points

Bric-a-brac
If yes, +4 points

Beermats
If yes, +5 points

At least one of Dartboard, pool table or fruit machine
If yes, +5 points

Pre-packaged snacks
Crisps, nuts, pork scratchings, Scampi Fries, or similar; not cakes
If yes, +5 points

Draught beer
If yes, +5 points

Cask ale
If yes, +10 points

Serves pints
If yes, +10 points

Eating compulsory
If yes, immediate disqualification

Need to be a member to enter
If yes, immediate disqualification

No alcoholic drinks
If yes, immediate disqualification

Six new-to-us Bristol pubs in one day

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 Windmill

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.

The Rising Sun

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.

The Brunel

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.

The Victoria Park

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.

Supplementing the 2020 Good Beer Guide: some Bristol tips

It’s new CAMRA Good Beer Guide season and across the land can be heard the familiar cries of “I can’t believe X is/isn’t in!”

Most people who are into beer know that the Good Beer Guide is not the be all and end all – it doesn’t claim to be.

It’s an assessment on the quality and consistency of cask beer, so pubs without cask beer will not get in, no matter how stunning the keg selection.

Selection processes vary from district to district, as we understand it, but the Bristol branch has clearly documented processes which seem to be about as thorough and democratic as is possible to be, but obviously will still favour pubs that are popular with active CAMRA members.

We’re not really sociable enough to contribute to this sort of thing so of course we don’t get to complain if we don’t like the entries. And actually, in Bristol, there isn’t much to grumble about from our perspective.

(Unlike in Penzance where to our eternal bafflement The Cornish Crown got in year after year, sometimes as the only entry; it’s fine but we could think of three or four consistently better cask ale pubs in town.)

In the two and a bit years we’ve been here, the Bristol selections have generally been a good representation of quality beer and also reflected a range of different pubs and other drinking establishments to suit all tastes.

There are a couple whose inclusion we might question based on our visits but the main issue is the omission of some particular favourite pubs, probably down to the space allocated to some degree.

With that in mind, we’d like to suggest a couple of supplementary entries for 2020.

The Highbury Vaults
This is a veteran GBG entry but not included this year. It has a multi-room layout, including a snug and a toy train, and can’t help but be cosy. The garden, or yard rather, has an oddly good atmosphere. There are Young’s beers, including Winter Warmer in season, and a selection of bottles. It has good old-fashioned pub snacks (pork pies, baps) as well as homely homemade food.

The Good Measure
We assume this didn’t make the GBG as it only opened in December 2018. The team at Good Chemistry are behind this so their beers obviously feature but also several guests, usually from the north, which makes a refreshing change in Bristol. Timothy Taylor Landlord is often on, for example. There are keg beers, too. We particularly love the contemporary yet classic feel of the interior.

The Canteen (AKA Hamilton House)
This was in the guide in 2019 but isn’t anymore. It’s not really a pub, more a community cafe with an emphasis on all things local, which is perhaps why it’s not in our main Bristol pub guide, but regularly has four or five cask ales from Bristol Beer Factory, New Bristol and others. Being round the corner from Jess’s most recent job, it’s also somewhere she got to know well and found the beer to be in consistently good condition.

In coming up with the above list, we’ve kept to GBG criteria and haven’t included keg bars, cider houses and so on.

We’ve also left out a couple of pubs we really like but we haven’t visited enough to judge the consistency of the ale – maybe we’ll suggest them for 2021.

For more on our overall recommendations see our Bristol pub guide and also our analysis of our visits in the first two years of living here.

It would be interesting to read similar supplementary guides to other cities and regions from other bloggers. How well does the GBG represent your town, city or region?