We only managed one round at The Dodo but it was enough to get a sense of its powerful personality.
The Dodo is a micropub in Hanwell, West London – a suburb beyond Ealing where various of our university contemporaries have ended up living.
People have been telling us to go to the Dodo for ages, every time we pass through West London. The time has never been right, though: either it was closed, or we had somewhere else to be.
On this occasion, we approached the Dodo at the end of a long walk, ready for a pint, just as the light was dying. Its fogged windows glowed an inviting yellow.
We entered and found ourselves at once in a crowd of weary well-to-do parents, their children carpeting the floor.
Squeezing our way to the bar, we had a moment to take in the décor. Pastel colours, bright light, handwritten signs, party balloons. (The Dodo has just turned six.)
Our first instinct was that it felt like a café rather than a pub.
One of the signs warned that children had to be gone by 7pm. Another, we noticed, told us to sit down and await “informal table service”.
Making our way to the back, we found a table reserved from 6pm. Grumbling quietly about the idea of reservations in a micropub, we took a seat.
Lucy Do, the proprietor, appeared moments later. Having followed her on social media for years, it felt like meeting a celebrity.
We watched with admiration as she whizzed up and down the length of the pub, from bar (front) to cellar (back), dodging precocious Archies and Annabelles, while carrying multiple pints, and taking orders for cans and glasses of wine on the way.
Yes, it is like a café, in the French or Belgian sense.
That is, an expression of an owner’s personality, calibrated over hundreds of hours of service to work for this particular crowd, and this particular guv’nor.
Warmly chaotic and sharply efficient at the same time.
This is what micropubs make possible: new ideas about what a pub can be, and which rules of the game it is obliged to follow.
Is the Dodo designed for us? Probably not. We increasingly lean toward trad trappings and dark corners.
But it doesn’t need us, because it’s already found the right people, who book out every table, and are known to each other by name.
And, anyway, the way you get more people to go to the pub is surely to have pubs for a broader range of people – not just pub bores.
The Victoria Inn was always a mystery: how long could it be before someone took on that handsome building and brought the pub back to life?
Unfortunately, it never happened, and now it’s a branch of upmarket sandwich shop Pret a Manger.
We walked past The Victoria , AKA The Queen Vic, every day for three years. It was at the end of our road, more or less, boarded up but intact. Ready to go when the call came.
When we wrote about micropubs for Beer Advocate we focused briefly on The Victoria, because it seemed to represent something:
It closed early in 2017 after a year of competition from the Draper’s. Did the micropub steal the “proper” pub’s customers and contribute to its death? The locals don’t think so. From talking to various fellow drinkers over the months, we’ve established that the Victoria was a fairly rough pub, struggling with public order issues. [Drapers Arms landlord] Garvan Hickey, for his part, expresses distress at the fate of the former neighbor: “I want pubs to do well. I’d like to see the Queen Vic open and trading as a pub again.” Not least, he admits, because he thinks a real run of pubs on that stretch of Gloucester Road might bring in yet more customers.
Pubs in old retail units – small, compact, with limited hours – seem viable today in a way that grand old pub buildings sometimes don’t, especially outside city centres.
And, finally, last year, Pret came into the frame.
Do you remember when Pret was sort of cool? When we both worked in central London in the noughties, it was where you went for a treat at lunch. The sandwiches were expensive but actually, obviously better than you’d get anywhere else.
There was a falafel sandwich dripping with ketchup. Another with crayfish.
The bread tasted fresh and the staff seemed happy to be working there.
In his 2015 autobiography How to Be a Man: (and Other Illusions) Guns N’ Roses bass player Duff McKagan wrote:
[My] favorite place is a chain called Pret A Manger. I know they have some shops in the States, but they started here, it’s where I discovered them, and they’ll always be a London destination for me. Pret has hot and cold wraps of all kinds (try the hot jalapeno chicken!), healthy sandwiches, great salads and soups, and strong espresso. This is always the first place I try to get to when I go to the UK… Cheap, fast, and kick-ass.
Actually, with hindsight, maybe this was a shark-jumping moment.
These days, over-extended and having struggled through COVID, the magic (oh, come off it, you can’t describe a packet sandwich as having ‘magic’!) has gone. And the staff certainly aren’t happy these days.
Seeing that branch on Gloucester Road, a grey corporate-branded blob where there used to be a bit of history, made us feel sad.
Neighbourhood pubs are already prime targets for developers and Tesco. Now they’ve got Pret, Subway and the rest to contend with, too. It doesn’t bode well.
But it certainly makes commercial sense, in an area full of work-from-home types who are more likely these days to want lunch in the suburbs than in town.
And in The Drapers Arms across the road, we noticed a folded Pret sandwich packet on one table, next to a pint of ale.
The Bulldog is the last of three inter-war pubs surviving on Filton Avenue and it’s under new management. So, finally, after more than five years in Bristol, we visited for a pint.
When we lived in Horfield we did a pretty good job of popping into all the local pubs, from The Foresters to The Beehive. But we never quite found the right moment for The Bulldog.
Let’s be completely honest: it had bad vibes.
For one thing, if your pub has an actual bulldog on a sign above the door, it’s a bit on the nose.
Signs and icons have meanings.
They’re designed to send signals. (Or dog whistles, if you like.)
And publicans can’t benefit from the signal being sent – a welcome message to a particular subset of customers – while also expecting everyone else to overlook it.
Beyond that, when we’d pass on bus or on foot, there wasn’t much to entice us in. It looked run down and the windows were frosted and blank.
When it was busy, on weekend evenings, the people in the crowd spilling around the entrance often looked as if they partied way harder than us.
When we asked around, locals tended to say that they’d either never dream of drinking there, or that they’d tried and been made to feel unwelcome. Not threatened, as such, but frozen out.
Then there were online reviews which painted a pretty bleak picture, including our favourite pub review of all time:
An interesting pub
Pubs exist in four dimensions and The Bulldog has been with us for a long time.
When it opened in 1938, it was one of three pubs on Filton Avenue, the others being:
The Fellowship, George’s, 1929, now a branch of Tesco
The George VI, Bristol United Breweries, 1938, now a DIY store
All were built to serve expanding out-of-town communities built around the growing aerospace industry.
The Bulldog was originally called The Bristol Bulldog, after a fighter aeroplane built nearby, and its opening was newsworthy:
The Bristol Bulldog, Filton Avenue, Horfield, the latest and most modern house of the Bristol Brewery, Georges and Co., Ltd., was formally opened, yesterday, in the presence of a distinguished company of citizens… Features of this latest Georges enterprise are:—
Lounge and smoking room panelled in solid oak, public bar laid with rubber flooring, off-sales’ department with separate entrance, spacious club room on first floor, also with separate entrance; skittles alley with regulation camber, ample accommodation for car parking, central heating, and pressure system of supply to ensure beers being in the best possible condition. The house was designed by Mr W. T. Cockram, head surveyor to the company, and built by Messrs C. A. Hayes and Son, of St. Thomas Street.
The landlord was a former police superintendent, J.A. Price – a choice perhaps made to reassure licensing magistrates that this would be an orderly house.
Then there was the war, of course, and this kind of huge, multi-room pub went out of fashion. The Bulldog seems to have trolled along for decades, serving the local community.
But perhaps an incident in 1959 when three brothers stomped a 17-stone police constable into the pavement outside the pub gives a flavour of what the neighbourhood might have been like, utopian dreams aside.
A new regime
We made pretty poor progress on our plan to visit #EveryPubInBristol during 2022 and have decided to pick up the pace in 2023. And it was bothering us that we hadn’t ‘done’ The Bulldog.
So, we decided to make a day of it, with the promise of The Drapers Arms for afters.
Since moving out of the area, we’d heard some encouraging things from friends. Well, mildly encouraging: “It’s fine, actually. We’ve been a couple of times recently. It’s fine.”
Checking in on those online reviews, we noticed a definite positive trend:
“Nice open fire friendly locals managers really trying to make the pub work… Best of luck!”
“The pub has always had a bad reputation and never wanted to come here but today I thought I would give it a go and I must say everyone made me feel welcome, staff and the new management, Aaron and Donna!! Would highly recommend giving it a go. Will definitely come back!! Thanks all.”
And took special notices of this response from the owner…
“[We] are working hard to change the reputation we had in the past & can say getting there. New Manager Aaron & Donna are doing their best to attract good crowd & make The BullDog a customer friendly Pub. Looking forward to your visit again, Many Thanks.”
It’s amazing what a difference this kind of public statement can make.
It acknowledges that the pub might have been unwelcoming before; promises that steps have been taken; and tells us who is responsible for fixing it.
Like a lot of pubs with a reputation for being “rough”, The Bulldog’s main problem today would seem to be the very structure of the place.
Over the decades, walls have been removed, interior decoration stripped back, leaving the new management very little to work with when it comes to creating atmosphere.
It was, however, clean and bright, and the welcome we got at the bar was cheerful.
All the best seats in the house, around the bar, were taken by locals and regulars, most of whom were either watching the football on huge TVs or chatting quietly.
We drank Guinness in a corner, trying to spot any remaining scraps of George’s original design – some wood panels around the outer walls, perhaps? – and listening to the sound of pool balls snicking into each other.
It’s exactly this kind of old fashioned working class pub that is in the greatest danger. It’s never likely to be hugely profitable; and it’s had its problems. Why not turn it into a supermarket, or flats?
But it’s also offering something you can’t get for miles around – reasonably priced beer without frills, in an atmosphere that for many people is the very definition of comfortable. Where they can really feel at home.
We hope the (slight) reinvention of the pub works. We hope it can find new regulars and a way to thrive. We hope it sticks around.
That corner of Kingsland Road and Days Road in the Dings, Bristol, simply feels as if it ought to have a pub.
Instead, it has the skeletal remains of one.
Just the ground floor, now, breeze-blocked and whitewashed, buddleia sprouting from its brickwork.
You don’t have to look far to find pictures of The George Inn, as it was, looking relatively intact.
Flickr users Neil Hobbs and ‘Myk’ photographed it in 2007 and 2008 respectively, with upper floors and even some remains of the roof.
It only ceased trading in the 1990s, as far as we can tell. It doesn’t take long for an unoccupied, unloved building to start tumbling and tearing.
Go back further, to 1979, when Chris Petit was in Bristol filming his cult black-and-white British road movie Radio On and you can see it intact, in situ, surrounded by factories and gasholders.
In 1975, local pub guide authors Fred Pearce and David Wilson described it like this:
12 whiskys on display, also peach brandy, very good miniatures range – and the beer’s good as well. Old wooden benches, flowers on the bar, one main bar with two small intimate side rooms, piped music, very friendly staff behind the bar, man comes round in white coat selling cockles and mussels.
Look at historic maps on the Know Your Place website and there’s even more context.
When Bristol Council surveyed the city in the 1950s it recorded The George by name.
Across the road, where the Moor Brewery is now, was a general store and a ‘motor depot’.
The George shared its own block with a hardware store and a barbershop.
A little further along the road was a fish and chip shop, a grocer and post office.
This was a place where people lived.
On that map, though, the description of number 88 Kingsland road offers a glimpse of things to come: it says, simply, ‘Ruinous’.