Dead pubs versus peaceful pubs: what is ‘atmosphere’?

It’s not just about people: something about the way pubs are laid out, or decorated, can give them life even when they’re quiet.

We’ve got an interesting case study here in Bristol in The Llandoger Trow and The Old Duke, which are directly opposite each other on King Street.

We quite often find ourselves bobbing between the two pubs on the same day and the contrast is remarkable.

The Llandoger Trow has an excellent selection of beer. There’s usually a range of quality out-of-town cask ales, interesting keg beers, and an extensive line-up of German and Czech lager.

The building is interesting, too, being a historic building with lots of corners and partitioned rooms.

And yet… It often feels cold, gloomy, and lacking in atmosphere. Is it the white-painted walls? The hard surfaces?

When you speak, it feels as if your words are echoing around the whole building.

It’s better than it ever was as the neon-lit bar attached to a Premier Inn, but it’s still not right.

Then, across the road, there’s The Old Duke.

It’s really just a big cube. There’s an open floor for dancing or standing crowds and chairs and tables round the outside.

The walls and ceiling are painted dark, covered with posters advertising long-past jazz and blues gigs, with a layer of nicotine (or nicotine-effect) on top of that.

Even with only a handful of customers, it somehow seems to buzz, and to feel intimate.

You can see and hear the other customers, in the abstract, but you never feel as if you’re eavesdropping, or staring.

We noticed the same dynamic when we visited The Pembury Tavern in Hackney last weekend, which positively crackled despite being (a) huge and (b) having only about eight customers.

Compare this to, er, The Pembury Tavern a few years ago. We used to love the old BitCoin hippy Morris Dancing version of the ‘Pembo’ but it could sometimes be bleak.

So, OK, just do whatever they’d done in The Pembury and The Old Duke to The Llandoger Trow, right?

We’re just not sure what that would be, exactly. Darker walls and more greebling might help but, really, it feels like a spiritual thing. (Man.)

When we asked our Patreon supporters about this one of them, Peter A, said of The Pembury:

I had the same experience there back in June and wonder if it is also the sense that something will be going on there later that very day, even if it is quiet now. There is a buzzy atmosphere just waiting to be unleashed.

We like this theory, which might also apply to The Old Duke. It’s never ‘dead’, only ever ‘pre-gig’ or ‘post-gig’. And the energy of thousands of bands has soaked into the walls.

Or it could be as simple as this, now we think about it: The Old Duke always has music playing in the background, as does the current incarnation of The Pembury. Whereas The Llandoger and the old Pembury don’t/didn’t.

In conclusion, then, atmosphere is, or might be:

  • dark walls
  • greebling
  • background music
  • potential energy
bristol pubs

The Hare on the Hill and the mysteries of pub atmosphere

It’s great when a pub suddenly levels up, even if it’s not always easy to work out what’s changed or why it’s better.

The Hare on the Hill is one of a cluster of pubs in Kingsdown, a hilltop neighourhood north of Bristol city centre.

We’d visited a couple of times in the past and it simply didn’t click with us.

Once, we recall, we were told by the staff behind the bar that we should probably go to a nearby brewery tap if we wanted decent beer.

In general, our impressions were of a lack of warmth and atmosphere, as if it was permanently ten minutes from closing time on a wet Wednesday in February.

Then last year someone told us we really ought to give it another go. It is under new management and, according to our informant, much improved… somehow.

We’d missed the relaunch, perhaps because it happened, unfortunately, in spring 2020. When we could finally get out to pubs again, The Hare wasn’t high on our list of priorities.

When we made our first visit to the new incarnation just before Christmas, we were immediately impressed.

Pot plants at The Hare on the Hill.

It felt as if the heating had been switched on. There was both more light and more warm shadow.

The walls were covered with greebling that we’re certain wasn’t there before: paintings, prints, posters, signs, vases, jugs, kitsch ornaments, Boba Fett figurines and what felt like hundreds of beautiful pot plants.

Interesting music played softly from a record player on top of a piano.

On the bar were several cask ales from local breweries, a choice of lagers from Lost & Grounded, and a selection of Belgian and British beers on keg.

“This is like a different pub,” we said to each other.

As we left, we noticed a fridge full of Belgian and German bottles: Orval, Duvel, Cantillon, Augustiner, Jever, Schlenkerla – a nice slice of the classical canon.

Last night, we went back after dark, and found it no less appealing.

Sitting on a table for two by a radiator, we listened to conversations crossing over each other in the gaps between tracks on Love’s 1966 album Da Capo:

“…it’s about using your bishops tactically…”

“…that little pub in Hotwells that looks like a converted terrace house…”

“…she said they hooked up before Christmas…”

“…I’ve been obsessed with Talking Heads lately…”

“…earned a pint after walking up that bloody hill!”

Looking back at photos of the pub in its previous form, we wonder if it’s as simple as the paint on the walls. It used to be blue, now it’s mostly brown, burgundy and nicotine beige. Proper pub colours.

Or maybe it’s that you can tell it’s being run by people who live in the flat upstairs. There’s a sense of personality and personal investment that was never there before.

Whatever magic has been wrought, it’s rocketed up our Best of Bristol list and will be a regular destination from now on – especially as its proximity to several other excellent pubs invites a crawl.


A Pleasingly Busy Pub

The Star Inn, Crowlas (exterior)

I took my parents to the Star Inn at Crowlas, our favourite pub, on two occasions last week and they were amazed at how busy it was.

They are former publicans, albeit almost 40 years ago now. It didn’t work out for them — they talk about Whitbread much the same way present day campaigners talk about pubcos — and kept muttering, astonished, and jealous: ‘We’d have been happy with this on a Saturday night, never mind a weekday teatime!’

Everything is stacked against the Star, on paper at least. It’s way out of town, and there’s no food. It’s a handsome building but not a quaint old inn by any measure, not with the A30 running right past the front door. Though there are campsites nearby Crowlas isn’t really a tourist destination either.

And yet, there the customers are, session after session, day after day.

A group at the bar.
Mid-afternoon at the Star back in January — a relatively quiet moment.

It’s tempting for us to argue that the Star’s success is down to the exemplary products of the Penzance Brewing Co, the onsite microbrewery, that dominate the pumps, alongside exotic guest ales from the North. Certainly that’s what gets into the Good Beer Guide and draws in at least part of the crowd — people who might otherwise not make the trek on public transport from places like Hayle, Penzance and even St Just. That the beer is relatively cheap by Cornish standards, as well as being great, probably doesn’t hurt either.

But there’s more to it than that. It’s a proper village local with a loyal core of regulars attracted, we guess, by the same thing my parents particularly liked: it’s completely unpretentious, without being rough. A tightrope walk for sure.

People come in tracksuit bottoms and trainers, overalls and work boots, tweeds and wellies, suits and ties, hiking boots and anoraks — in short, they wear whatever they like, in whatever condition they like, and no-one cares. Well-trained dogs roam about licking up pork scratching crumbs, sometimes joined by a child or two in the after-school window, drifting quietly from parents to relatives to family friends with pop bottles in hands. The management sets this familial tone — informal, low-key, bluster-free.

We’re not against food in pubs, or even anti-gastropub (see the upcoming book for more on that) but my Mum was right when she observed that it made a change not to smell deep-fat frying the whole time. The lack of dining also seems to encourage friendly groups to form in what would otherwise be inconvenient places. It also leaves tables free for scattered newspaper pages or for elbows-on-the-wood deep-level conversation. The absence of food changes the mood, in other words. It’s certainly another blow for the received wisdom that a pub can’t thrive without a kitchen in 2017.

When we left after our trip on Wednesday my Dad, not a demonstrative bloke, turned and looked back at the door. ‘Bloody lovely pub,’ he said, sounding almost annoyed to have been so seduced by an establishment 150 miles from his house.

Disclosure: the Penzance Brewing Co’s Peter Elvin has shouted us a few pints over the years, including a round for Dad and me last week.


QUICK POST: Gathered Round the Fire

The fire at the Farmer's Arms.

The Farmer’s Arms opened a bit late on New Year’s Day. Can an entire pub can have a hangover?

The weather had finally, at last, come cold, and we were hoping to find the fire lit. It was, just, but struggling along, with too much blackened paper and damp wood refusing to catch.

One of the regulars, unlit roll-up in mouth, was trying to fix the problem and engaged our friend in a discussion about tactics. Eventually, he left her in charge.

We sat pitching in advice as she moved some logs around to give the fire air. Between us, we spectators retrieved a dryish log from the store under the bench and hacked it into smaller chunks with a pen-knife while she rolled some paper into twists. The paper went up, the wood steamed and then started to blacken, and smoke was sucked away up the chimney. Confident it was off and away our friend loaded the fire up and, for the next hour, kept a watchful eye, making occasional adjustments with the shovel (the only implement at hand) to keep the flames healthy.

We didn’t mind when it cracked like a whip and spat sparks our way — that was all part of the pleasure. Fires and the sea are two things we can stare at for hours, and if an open fire in a pub on a cold day is a joy, one you’ve had a hand in lighting is ten times better again.

The photo is actually from early December and isn’t our finest work but you get the idea.



On walking through the door of the Rusty Bike in Exeter we noted with pleasure the comforting aroma of wood smoke.

It’s an earthy, wholesome kind of smell that triggers certain assumptions in the primitive human brain:

I am home, I am warm, food is one the way.

Open fires have long been associated with proper pubs. The Campaign for Real Ale’s Good Beer Guide used to be sponsored by the Solid Fuel Advisory Service during which time a symbol appeared to show whether a pub had a real fire or not. The 1984 edition was a ‘real coal fire’ special with a two-page advertorial on their appeal.

As it happens, though, there is no open fire in the Rusty Bike.

‘Oh, yeah — we’ve been smoking pigeons all afternoon,’ said the red-eyed young man behind the bar, possibly suppressing a sooty cough.

But it turns out that doesn’t really matter: the smell was enough to make it feel as if we’d walked into a snug village pub, possibly via a 100-year time warp, rather than a modern gastropub a five minute walk from Exeter Prison.

(PS. We’re no food critics but the great big hunks of corned beef at the Rusty Bike struck us as astonishingly good, as did the pig cheek fritters. It’s part of the Fat Pig brewery estate and, though the beers are quite homely, a strangely coconutty cask ESB was just the job. We didn’t try the smoked pigeon.)