Unexpected pubs are the best pubs

This is probably the time to admit publicly that as well as doing #EveryPubinBristol, I have a related mission to visit Every Street in Bristol.

It’s a great way to really get to know our new(ish) home and discover unexpected delights such as an Edward VIII postbox, Roman road remains, suburban substations built to resemble 1930s detached houses, Victorian urinals, municipal murals – you get the idea.

I’d like to pretend it’s something to do with psychogeography and liminal spaces but it’s actually much more to do with my completist tendencies. Anyway, there you go. Confession made.

This is background to explain why, the day after our Filton jaunt, we went out for a walk aimed at ticking streets rather than pubs. Because we felt we’d done our duty the previous day, and because of general seasonal overindulgence, I thought it would be a good opportunity to head into an area I expected to be a pub desert – the 1930s hinterlands between Westbury-on-Trym (AKA ‘WOT’) and Stoke Park.

Experience, and all that research I did into early 20th century town planning and licensing for 20th Century Pub, tells us that these sorts of areas tend to have either no pubs at all, or very large ones at major junctions.

As per my plan, we went through the centre of Westbury-on-Trym, and turned up a large suburban avenue. I had literally just said to Ray, “One thing we won’t find out here will be any pubs,” when we rounded the corner and saw not one but two pub signs close together, blowing in the wind. At a glance, both appeared to be modest sized boozers advertising real ale among other things.

Prince of Wales.

We visited The Prince of Wales first, which had lovely George’s livery outside and inside, and reminded us of a backstreet London pub, perhaps in somewhere like Ealing.

There’s the outline of a two-bar layout arranged around a corner entrance, and although the partitions are long gone, it still felt cosy.

Two small bar areas with a reasonable number of customers make a place feel busy. It’s a Butcombe house, and the Butcombe bitter was nothing short of superb.

Excitingly (for us) there was also Timothy Taylor Landlord, in equally excellent condition. The beer was so good that we downloaded the CAMRA Good Beer Guide App to rate it.

We clinked glasses, delighted in the discovery and baffled as to why we hadn’t heard of this place. We would have stayed for more but there was another pub to visit, as well as some vague hope of getting back to ticking streets while the daylight lasted.

The Black Swan was perhaps cosier again –  more like a village pub, with two small, packed front rooms and a larger (empty) space out the back. The beer wasn’t as exciting but was decent enough and the general mix of people coming and going was fun.

While we were there, we had a look at the excellent National Library of Scotland geo-referenced map of the area to see if we could determine why there appeared to be a village inn in the middle of 1930s suburbia. Sure enough, we found that we were on a little island of an older settlement, unnamed as far as we could tell, and that the Black Swan was marked on the 1880 map.

We also pondered the contrast with these two pubs with those we’d visited the day before at Filton. It seemed a good illustration of the point that it is easier to retain and create atmosphere and a sense of community in smaller pubs.

That is, regardless of the relative economic fortunes of Filton vs Westbury-on-Trym, the two WOT  pubs had the advantage of smaller size and more sympathetic design and seemed better suited to 21st century preferences.

Pubs that can make it past their first hundred years are more likely to survive in the long term.

Filton in the Merrineum

Filton is and isn’t part of Bristol, out on a limb where the city fades into country via mile after mile of suburb, in the land of aircraft hangars and road junctions. It certainly isn’t famous for its pubs.

We’ve passed through many times, either on foot or on the bus, and noticed the shortage. Some, we guess, have disappeared, converted to other uses, like the George VI, built in the 1930s and now a DIY centre.

Others were never built, we suppose, perhaps because Rolls Royce, Bristol and other aerospace giants had their own on-site social clubs.

Nonetheless, with our duty to visit #EveryPubInBristol in mind, we set out in the bleak days between Christmas and New Year to explore as many as possible of those that do exist.

Air Balloon interior.

First, the most prominent and visible of them all, The Air Balloon, a Greene King pub on the big roundabout next to the Airbus site. It looks like a typical 1960s pub building – sparse and modern but with, as usual, a few bits of faux-Victorian detail glued on top.

Though hardly our kind of place – every bit of character there might have been has been buffed out by the corporate makeover – it had more buzz, better beer and warmer welcome than we expected.

In the absence of a local Wetherspoon, that’s the function it seems to perform, offering reasonably-priced fast food and space for large parties to dine and drink together. There was even a corner, in front of the TV, for a handful of older, harder drinkers to bash down pints and grumble at each other.

Like Dorian Gray’s painting in the attic, though, the gents toilets perhaps revealed the true soul of the place: foul-smelling, strewn with bloody tissues, battered and broken. All the Live, Love, Laugh decor in the world can’t compensate for that.

The Plough (exterior)

The Plough (sign)

A few doors up, there’s The Plough, which isn’t part of a chain and is certainly characterful. Low-lit to the point of gloominess, slightly tacky to the touch, with evidence of a governing force. In this case, we gathered from snatches of conversation behind the bar and the astonishing range of vodkas on offer, a Pole.

You know how sometimes you approach a pub and can tell everyone is thinking, “Hello, hello, what have we got here?” The Plough was like that. Not unfriendly, just… curious, or perhaps even sceptical.

The interesting looking cask Citra pale ale from Severn was off but their keg session IPA was on, and decent enough.

At the bar, middle-aged couples gathered to exchange notes on Christmas. A young woman fed the jukebox and lined up one 1990s rave tune after another. Pool balls clicked and smacked.

We sort of liked it. We’ll probably never go again.

Inside the Bristol Concorde. Bristol Concorde, exterior.

For completeness, and with great reservations, we decided we had to investigate The Bristol Concorde, a Brewery’s Fayre in the shopping centre. We hoped it wouldn’t count as a pub – that it would so obviously be an anonymous hotel bar that we could just skip it. But it has a unique name, a bar, cask ale… It passes the test.

It was bleak.

Like a waiting area, or furniture showroom, or old people’s home.

We wallowed in it, looking out over the bland backside of the Premier Inn as dusk fell, knowing that we’d be able to leave soon enough for what we suspected would be the most interesting of the lot.

Ratepayer's Arms (exterior)

Ratepayer's Arms (bar)

The Ratepayer’s Arms is a council-owned pub occupying a corner of the local recreation centre.

It’s an odd place. If you look towards the bar, it feels much like any other social club with plenty of charming clutter, pickled eggs, rolls and drinkers clustered round the bar. Look the other way, though, and it’s all blank walls and municipal fixtures and fittings.

Still, the welcome was notably warm, nobody paid us the slightest attention – just how we like it – and we enjoyed the buzz of local gossip and, inevitably, bitter criticism of the quality of Boeing aircraft these days.

“Fancy a crawl?” someone asked. “We could go up The Bristol Concorde after this one.”

Everybody laughed at this absurd suggestion.

There are lots of houses in the area and the pubs there are were certainly busy, which made us think the area could certainly support a micropub or two. In fact, we bet there’ll be one before the end of 2021.

News, nuggets and longreads 4 January 2020: BrewDog, boats, brewery cats

Here’s everything on the subject of beer that we picked up during the Christmas and New Year deadzone, from booze-free pubs to home-brewing.

First, there’s this story of BrewDog’s new non-alcoholic bar. Like almost every PR claim to be “the first ever”, the PR doesn’t hold up to scrutiny (here’s one example, here’s another, there are lots more) but it still seems significant to us: no- and low-alcohol beer really is having some sort of moment. Out in the real world, we’ve seen more of it being drunk, heard more people talking about it and, indeed, drunk a little bit more of it ourselves. This new surge seems to be driven by people who like beer rather than by people opposed to it on moral grounds, as has tended to be the case in the past.


Non alcoholic beer: 0,0

Related: the Pub Curmudgeon has an interesting angle on the years 2010-2019, reflecting on the limited progress made by the anti-alcohol lobby in legislative terms in that period. This is especially interesting because he’s tended to be among the most vocal in sounding the alarm about slippery slopes and the risk of a return to prohibition:

In fact, changes in social attitudes have been doing a lot of the anti-drink lobby’s work for them. Over the past ten years, there has been a gentle but significant fall in per-capita alcohol consumption, probably more than they would have hoped for in 2009, but largely without help from public policy. As I’ve said in the past, the moderate consumption of alcohol in social situations has increasingly been stigmatised, and the range of occasions on which people will consider an alcoholic drink has shrunk. Just look at all those pubs that no longer open at lunchtimes, or are virtually deserted when they do, and observe amongst a party of diners in a pub how many of the adults have a soft drink.


Dupont logo.

For Craft Beer & Brewing Drew Beechum has given an account of his attempts to clone a cult Belgian beer, Dupont Avec les Bons Voeux:

I replaced my Saaz and Styrian Goldings with hops that I knew were in better shape in our markets. (It’s tempting to use region-appropriate ingredients, but if they’re not high-quality, skip them.) I simplified my water additions to a small dose of gypsum to punch the hops forward a bit. And the yeast … here, I got complicated… Over the years, from various sources, I’ve learned that Dupont has a few cultures living in the brew. Despite our desire for single manageable organisms, you can’t get there with just a single strain of yeast. (This is a good tip for a number of complex Belgian beers—mix strains!)

 


Exterior of the Vine Inn.

For CAMRA’s What’s Brewing newspaper, but reproduced here on his website, Roger Protz has a report into the health of Black Country breweries and, more particularly, their famous milds:

The only sadness visiting the two breweries is the dramatic decline of their Mild ales. Batham’s brews 8,000 barrels a year and only 2 per cent of that production is now Mild. Holden’s is slightly bigger, brewing 10,000 barrels a year, and Jonathan says he brews Mild only once every three weeks… Tim Batham says bluntly: “Mild is dying because the people who drink it are dying. But we’ll continue with it as long as people drink it.” Jonathan Holden offers a tad more optimism as sales of his bottled Mild are selling well.


Toulouse
SOURCE: Henrique Ferreira via Unsplash.

From the recently revived Booze, Beats and Bites blog, Nathaniel Southwood gives an account of an English pub in, of all places, Toulouse in the south of France:

There were a couple of tables out the front of the pub, with old chaps standing around chain smoking cigarettes, slowly drinking their dark amber coloured beer and occasionally engaging each other in conversation, nodding at all those who enter the pub as if they owned the place. Had it not been for the fact that they were speaking French, they could have been anywhere in the UK… Walking into the pub, I felt like I was in my local; the pub itself has a carpet, which is unlike Europe, it has low tables and stools with fixed seating on the back wall.


The Edwin Fox
SOURCE: Zythophile/Edwin Fox Society.

Martyn Cornell has found something amazing: “the Edwin Fox, last remaining wooden sailing ship to have carried India Pale Ale from London to the thirsty east”. You can read the full story at Zythophile:

In her three decades as a working ship, the Edwin Fox carried an enormous variety of cargoes and passengers: troops to the Baltic during one of the side-campaigns of the Crimea War, supplies and ammunition to Balaclava, wounded soldiers back home, rice for Hong Kong and South Africa, coolies from China to the plantations of Cuba, coals to the Coromandel coast, convicts for Australia, cotton, sugar, more troops to and from India, emigrant families to New Zealand, as well as beer… Her transport of IPA from London to India, according to modern commentators who prefer the thrill of a good story to the labour of checking its veracity, brought the Edwin Fox the nickname “the booze barge”.


German soldiers with beer.
German soldiers distributing beer in 1914. (Flanders Fields Museum)

Here’s a story by Christopher Barnes we’ve featured before but it deserves another surfacing. It’s a wonderful account of the fate of European breweries during World War I originally published at the now defunct All About Beer which, Mr Barnes reveals, never paid him for his hard work. He’s now revived the piece at his own website, I Think About Beer:

Before the war, there were more than 6,000 breweries spread across Belgium and France, with the majority of the French breweries located along the northern border with Belgium and Germany. World War I profoundly changed the face of brewing in Western Europe. Germany-backed Austria-Hungary’s desire to punish the Serbs for the assassination drew Russia and France into the war to defend the Serbs. Germany’s strategy involved a lightning-quick strike through neutral Belgium into northern France to capture Paris. Unfortunately for the Germans, the French and English halted their advance and created a brutal four-year stalemate that encamped millions of soldiers from both sides directly through the heart of Belgian and French brewing country.


Finally, there’s this from Twitter:

For more reading, check out Alan McLeod’s Thursday round-up.

News, nuggets and longreads 14 December 2019: Vintage ale, Christmas beer, winter walks

Here’s everything on beer and pubs that struck us as worth bookmarking in this past week, from pub numbers to Christmas traditions.

First, a rather pleasing news story: for the first time in a decade, the total number of pubs in the UK has risen rather than falling, according to figures from the Office of National Statistics:

The UK ended March 2019 with 39,135 pubs, 320 more than a year earlier, according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS). It is the first net increase since 2010… The rise marked a dramatic turnaround compared with the previous nine years, during which the UK pub network declined by an average of 732 each year, comparable data showed… While the ONS figures showed an increase, industry trade body the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) warned that its own statistics, which capture a higher number of pubs, showed a turning point was yet to be reached.

As ever, it’s worth remembering that there are pubs, and there are pubs – it still seems that suburban backstreet pubs are more at risk than big ones in city centres and on high streets, and that certain neighbourhoods are at greater risk of becoming publess.

Continue reading “News, nuggets and longreads 14 December 2019: Vintage ale, Christmas beer, winter walks”

The sensible Miss Orme and the life of the barmaid, 1892

In 1892, Eliza Orme undertook a painstaking investigation into the working lives of barmaids, producing a report which takes us back to the pubs of the past with incredible vividness.

Eliza Orme was an interesting woman. She was the first woman in England to get a degree in law, in 1888, as Dr Leslie Howsam, who has studied Orme’s life, explains here:

[She] was 39 years old and already unofficially ‘practicing’ law out of an office in London’s Chancery Lane where she and a colleague prepared the paperwork for property transactions, patent registrations, wills, settlements, and mortgages. ‘I “devilled” for about a dozen conveyancing counsel who kept me busily employed on drafts they wanted done in a hurry, and for twenty-five years I found it both an interesting and profitable employment’, Orme recalled in a 1901 interview. This support-level work was the only legal employment open to women, who were not permitted either to be called to the bar or join the Law Society. It was only a small part, however, of Eliza Orme’s reputation as a public figure.

An early feminist, Miss Orme was a firm believer in allowing women to work in whichever industries they chose and was a member of the Society for the Promotion of the Employment of Women.

Through this, she ended up as Senior Lady Assistant Commissioner to the Royal Commission on Labour, overseeing a small team of Lady Assistant Commissioners.

Portrait photo.
Eliza Orme c.1900.

After the Commission decided at a meeting in March 1892 to undertake research into the working lives of women, Orme dispatched her team around the country, from Bristol to the Western Isles, to investigate various industries such as textile mills, chocolate factories and stocking making.

Continue reading “The sensible Miss Orme and the life of the barmaid, 1892”

A big night out in London, 1858

The 1858 book The Night Side of London by James Ewing Ritchie offers an overview of places of entertainment in the capital, from music halls to proto-nightclubs. Most were built around pubs and all seem to have been permanently soaked with booze.

Ostensibly, this is a moralising tract: alcohol ruins lives, Ritchie argues, and nobody out at night is on the path to righteousness.

At the same time, like Mondo Cane and other ‘documentary’ films of the 1960s, its disapproving tone is at odds with the titillating nature of the content. In fact, it almost amounts to a guidebook for visitors seeking London’s naughtiest neighbourhoods.

It’s probably also worth saying at this point that in places, it’s an uncomfortable read: Ritchie is blatantly anti-Semitic, blaming Jewish people for everything from running sweat-shops to pimping to clip-joints. And just in case there’s any doubt, he even throws in a few references to the innate superiority of the ‘Anglo-Saxon race’. This seems to be at the root of his objective to alcohol, in fact – that it is weakening the mighty master race, and so on and so forth. Anyway…

The single most interesting thread is its perfect capturing of the moment when pubs and music halls began to branch apart from their common roots.

There’s an extended description of Canterbury Hall, for example, which grew out of the Canterbury Tavern on the Upper Marsh, built on the site of the old skittle alley, and is generally reckoned to have been the first purpose built music hall.

Canterbury Hall interior.
The interior of the Canterbury Hall.

It sat in a neighbourhood otherwise dominated by railway lines and “monster gin-palaces, with unlimited plate-glass and gas… full of ragged children, hideous old woman, and drunken men”. The Canterbury Music Hall, though still boozy, the author reluctantly admits, was relatively more sober than the alternatives:

A well-lighted entrance attached to a public-house indicates that we have reached our destination. We proceed up a few stairs, along a passage lined with handsome engravings, to a bar, where we pay sixpence if we take a seat in the body of the hall, and nine- pence if we do the lobby and ascend into the balcony.We make our way leisurely along the floor of the building, which is really a very handsome hall, well lighted, and capable of holding fifteen hundred persons; the balcony extends round the room in the form of a horse shoe. At the opposite end to which we enter is the platform, on which is placed a grand piano and a harmonium, on which the performers play in the intervals when the professional singers have left the stage… Let us look round us; evidently the majority present are respectable mechanics, or small tradesmen with their wives and daughters and sweethearts there. Now and then you see a midshipman, or a few fast clerks and warehousemen, who confidentially inform each other that there is “no end of talent here,” and that Miss “is a doosed fine gal;” and here, as elsewhere, we see a few of the class of unfortunates, whose staring eyes would fain extort an admiration which their persons do not justify. Every one is smoking, and every one has a glass before him; but the class that come here are economical, and chiefly confine themselves to pipes and porter. The presence of the ladies has also a beneficial effect…

The book concludes with a detailed portrait of The Eagle Tavern, famous for its pleasure gardens, and another nascent music hall, where people sat “eating questionable sausage rolls, and indulging in bottled beer”.

For more on the birth of the music hall, read Lee Jackson’s excellent book Palaces of Pleasure, published earlier this year.

The roughest pubs in London get looked at, too – those on Ratcliffe Highway, which ran out of London through the East End to Limehouse. We are told that this notoriously dangerous stretch of road smelled worse than Cologne, or even Bristol. (Cheeky bastard.) Here, sailors would go wild spending their earnings from the last voyage, lured into clip joints by prostitutes who would drink water while the sailors downed gin.

One victim, James Hall, spent a month staying at a pub on Clive Street run by a Mr Glover, where he burned through £30 by drinking:

20 pints of rum… 20 quarts of beer… 8 glasses of rum… 5 pints of rum, 5 gills of rum, and 15 quarts of ale… 2 glasses of gin, and 2 gills of brandy… 15 pints of rum, and 28 gills of rum… 4 quarts, half a gallon, and 22 gills of beer…

…and so on.

Another interesting observation, in a chapter on ‘Discussion clubs’, is that pubs in crowded markets have always resorted to novelty and spectacle to draw in custom:

It is the condition of a public-house that it must do a good business some way or other. Mr Hinton, who has just got his license for Highbury Barn, says the dining apartment fell off and he was obliged to institute Soirees Dansantes. Sometimes the publican gets a female dressed up in a Bloomer costume; sometimes he has for his barman a giant, or a dwarf, or an Albino, or a Kaffir chief — actually as an attraction to decent people to go and drink their pot of beer.

Discussion clubs were one such entertainment:

Now, in the same manner the publicans provide a weekly discussion meeting for that part of the public that loves to hear itself speak. There is one at the Belvidere, Pentonville ; another at the Horns, Kennington. Fleet-street is much favoured. There are the Temple Forum, the Cogers’ Hall, and another large room in Shoe Lane. These are [free but] you are expected to sit and drink all night. The most celebrated one is that which meets not far from the Temple, presided over by the editor of a Sunday paper, and assisted by several reporters connected with the daily journals.

It’s hard to imagine live debating being much of a draw these days but back then, before television panel shows and daily news programmes, it might have seemed fun.

Doctor Johnson’s Tavern, which we think is The Old Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street, gets a pen portrait, too:

[There] are about fifty or sixty gentlemen, chiefly young ones, present… They are all very plain-looking people, from the neighbouring shops, or from the warehouses in Cheapside. Just by me are three pale heavy-looking young men, whose intellects seem to me dead, except so far as a low cunning indicates a sharpness where money is concerned. One of them is stupidly beery. Their great object is to get him to drink more, notwithstanding his repeated assurances, uttered, however, in a very husky tone, that he must go back to “Islin’ton” tonight. A lady at one end of the room, with a very handsome blue satin dress and a very powerful voice, is screaming out something about ‘Lovely Spring’ but this little party is evidently indifferent to the charms of the song. Just beyond me is a gent with a short pipe and a very stiff collar. I watch him for an hour, and whether he is enjoying himself intensely, or whether he is enduring an indescribable amount of inward agony, I cannot tell.

That last line is fairly typical of the author: even if a bloke looks to be having fun, he must be inwardly tortured.

As well as music halls, clubs and pubs, there were also boxing pubs

We enter, we will say, Bang Up’s hostelry, about ten on a Thursday evening ; there is Bang Up at the bar, with his ton of flesh and broken nose. Many people think it worthwhile to go and spend one or two shillings at Bang Up’s bar, merely that they may have the pleasure of seeing him, and consider him cheap at the money… [We] find ourselves in a very ordinary room, with very extraordinary people in it. First, there are the portraits — imprimis Bang Up, looking grosser and more animal than ever. Secondly, Mrs Bang Up, the exact counterpart of her bosom’s lord; then a tribe of Bang Ups junior, of all sizes and sexes, attract our astonished eyes. Then — for the room is a complete Walhalla — we have portraits of sporting heroes innumerable, with villainous foreheads, all “vacant of our glorious gains,” heavy eyes, thick bull necks…

…and 600 or so pubs with billiards rooms attached to pubs, as well as standalone billiard rooms with their own bars.

The most interesting bit of the whole book, given our recent pondering on gentrification and the research we did into the rise of the ‘improved public house’ for 20th Century Pub, is a chapter on the ‘Respectable public house’, which is…

…situated in one of the leading thoroughfares, and is decorated in an exceedingly handsome manner. The furniture is all new and beautifully polished, the seats are generally exquisitely soft and covered with crimson velvet, the walls are ornamented with pictures and pier- glasses, and the ceiling is adorned in a manner costly and rare… Time was when men were partial to the sanded floor, the plain furniture, the homely style of such places as Dolly’s, the London Coffee-house, or the Cock, to which Tennyson has lent the glory of his name. Now the love of show is cultivated to an alarming extent. “Let us be genteel or die,” said Mrs Nickleby, and her spirit surrounds us everywhere. Hence the splendour of the drinking-rooms of the metropolis, and the studied deportment of the waiters, and the subdued awe with which Young Norvals fresh from the Grampian Hills and their fathers’ flocks tread the costly carpets or sprawl their long legs beneath glittering mahogany.

This, from the 1850s, could almost be a description of a genteel London pub of today – one of those posh Fuller’s joints, maybe. The clientele according to Ritchie’s account was bank directors, railway officials and City boys. This type of pub, he says, was their equivalent of the working class beerhouse or gin shop and, of course, is sure to spell doom for them and their impressive careers in the long run.

The single most effective portrait of an individual pub is of one frequented by costermongers, “in a very low neighbourhood, not far from a gigantic brewery, where you could not walk a yard scarcely without coming to a public house”. Costermongers were street traders who wandered around selling cheap food and were famous for their ‘backslang’, such as ‘top of reeb’ for ‘pot of beer’. Here’s the scene:

Just look at the people in this public-house. A more drunken, dissipated, wretched lot you never saw. There are one or two little tables in front of the bar and benches, and on these benches are the most wretched men and women possible to imagine. They are drinking gin and smoking, and all have the appearance of confirmed sots. They are shoemakers in the neighbourhood, and these women with them are their wives… The landlord is in the chair, and a professional man presides at the piano. As to the songs, they are partly professional and partly by volunteers. I cannot say much for their character… [As] the pots of heavy and the quarterns of juniper are freely quaffed, and the world and its cares are forgotten… the company becomes hourly more noisy and hilarious…

Our edits above remove a lot of judgemental asides. Let’s be clear – the author does not approve of this kind of thing at all. It’s just the truth can’t help shining through: these people had hard lives and found happiness and companionship in the pub.

There are also a few stray beer-related nuggets and facts scattered throughout the text:

  • London consumed 43,200,000 gallons of porter and ale each year.
  • In London, “according to Sir R. Mayne”, there were 3,613 beer shops, 5,279 public houses, 13 wine rooms.
  • People were accompanying oysters with pale ale – not stout.

And, finally, there’s this piece of temperance-flavoured philosophy:

The truth is, men have often reserved the outpourings of their mind for the social glass, and have fallen into the natural mistake of believing that it was the glass, and not the opportunity and the action of mind upon mind, that elicited a certain amount of joyous fun.

In other words, it’s the socialising that makes you merry, not the booze. And, temperance propaganda aside, there might be something in that.

You can find the full text of The Night Side of London via the Hathi Trust and no doubt elsewhere, too.

The gin palace vs. the pub, 1836

In 1836, somebody calling themselves ‘Observer’ put out a treatise in six parts comparing gin shops, or gin palaces, with pubs.

We’d never come across it until it popped up in a search for something else via the Hathi Trust website. What particularly caught our attention were the illustrations, reproduced below.

The introductory paragraph to the first issue suggests to us that it might have been a propaganda tool of brewers keen to bolster the image of beer as a healthy, moderate alternative to spirits:

A Succinct Historical Narrative of the Gin-shop; its Commencement, rapid Increase, its Collapse and System, with the inherent Evils, special Influences, deceptive Allurements, and demoralizing Nature of its Workings, carefully dissected, analyzed, and Comparisons drawn, proving the System to be worse than an intolerable Nuisance; while the Public-house System is shown to be both highly Useful and Necessary.

In fact, later on, the author grumbles that the Morning Advertiser (which, don’t forget, is an ancient institution) refused to run an advert for his series of pamphlets because it was so strident in defence of publicans and might offend gin-palace operators.

Continue reading “The gin palace vs. the pub, 1836”

The Swan With Two Necks and the gentrification issue

“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.

Swan With Two Necks interior.

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.

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.

The Dog & Bell, Deptford: a defiant survivor

Is the Dog & Bell in Deptford, South East London, a hold-out against gentrification, a symptom of it, or, somehow, a bit of both?

We’ve known Deptford on and off for twenty years, since the days when it was all concrete creek, boarded-up buildings and pigeon roosts.

So resolutely down-to-earth was it that we sometimes wondered if it might be the one area of London that would never go hip.

How naive we were.

The turn started while we were away living in Cornwall. We noted from afar the arrival of the Antic Pub Group which took over a former Job Centre and turned it into a pub called, with stunning insensitivity, The Job Centre. If you were trying to come up with a symbol of the worst instincts of urban gentrifiers you might think this too ripe.

We were also intrigued when Des de Moor’s excellent guide to London pubs included a place in Deptford. We took note of its name, The Dog & Bell, thinking we might like to visit sometime if we found ourselves down that way.

It took a few years, though, as we kept finding ourselves either distracted by the established pleasures of Greenwich or drawn further out to places like Bellingham, for research purposes.

On our most recent trip, though, we actually stayed in Deptford, and made a visit to the D&B a priority.

Here’s what we were expecting, for some reason, having not double checked the entry in Des’s book: a high street pub with lots of keg beer where we’d feel old and a bit uncool.

In fact, it’s on a back street, on the wrong side of the big A-road that connects Rotherhithe with Greenwich. We wandered through piles of leathery leaves under orange street lights thinking, “Really? This way?” The neighbourhood doesn’t feel gentrified, just… Normal. A touch seedy,  perhaps, but not rough. Like lots of suburban London.

Our first sight of the pub all but took our breath away. It looks a bit too perfect – not corporate or contrived, fire engine red, with painted windows casting warm, broken light onto the blank, bland brick of the block opposite.

On this occasion, the temporary mural had a Cornish theme reflecting a recent beer festival and we felt momentary confusion at seeing One And All alongside renderings of cliffside mine workings.

Stepping through the door, glasses fogged and faces dewy, we were surprised to find London and Irish accents dominating among the mostly white-haired clientele.

You know how people want London pubs to be? All earthy chat and laughter, but without any of the challenging content that too often comes with it? Lively, but good-hearted? Well, this seemed to be that dream.

An Irishman in a three-piece tweed suit demonstrated his line dancing moves as a country and western song played. Someone asked the woman behind the bar if she was still a compulsive knitter: “I’ve seen you walking down the street doing it, haven’t I, eh?” There was heated debate about the likely winner of an upcoming pickle-making competition and a jar of something spicy was passed around for testing: “Bloody hell, I can’t breathe!”

Then there’s the beer list. Apart from apparently better-than-usual Guinness, cask ale and boxed cider, there’s also an extensive range of reasonably priced Belgian beers in bottles.

Belgian beer doesn’t feel faddy or trendy in the way a wall of craft beer fridges can. It also felt, somehow, completely appropriate to the setting, perhaps because a characterful brown pub with dark corners in London has a lot in common with a characterful brown cafe with dark corners in Brussels.

If it isn’t obvious, we were rather smitten, and struggled to leave. We can imagine staying in Deptford again purely on the strength of this interesting, authentic, fascinating pub.

Thinking about it later, though, we realised what felt odd about the place: it somehow reminded us of those insistently quirky pubs in Mayfair and Belgravia.

Now, Deptford is still Deptford, the odd splash of Farrow & Ball paint aside, so why should that be?

Perhaps because, as with those Up Town pubs, its survival feels so pointed – defiant, defensive, a last grab at something that’s slipping away as commodity flats replace factories and chi-chi coffee shops displace caffs.

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.