Session #135: Sepia-Toned Pubs

The Session, when bloggers around the world get together to write on the same subject, is a fragile thing, only ever one dropped ball away from disappearing altogether. This month’s was looking dicey until Al at Fuggled stepped in heroically to save the day, proposing for Session #135 the topic ‘Sepia Tones’. Here’s our contribution.

Over the past few years we’ve spent a lot of our time thinking in monochrome, thumbing through decaying papers, and staring into the eyes of long-dead brewers and pubgoers. But something about Al’s particular choice of words made us think not of archives but of a particular category of pub that we’ve sometimes struggled to describe.

The Blue Bell, York.

We’ve sometimes used the shortcut ‘proper pub’ but calling them sepia toned is rather more poetic, and also implies less of a judgement against other less ‘proper’ pubs.

The Marble Arch, Manchester.

These are places dominated by shades of brown, from the dark wood of the bar to walls either stained with nicotine or painted to look that way. The prints on the walls are yellowed, the paintings dark and varnished to death, the photographs jaundiced.

Swan With Two Necks, Bristol.

The beer probably sits somewhere on that stretch of the colour spectrum, too — perhaps Courage Best, Bass, Tetley, or some other brand from a long-gone brewery frozen in the flash-bang of nostalgia, fading away with mishandling and neglect.

Two pints of Courage Best.

They have them on the Continent, too, where the clue is in the name: brown cafes, or brown bars.

A Belgian Brown Cafe.

Here’s one test: take a photo in a sepia-toned pub and compare it to one  of the same place from a hundred years ago — can you see much difference?

QUICK ONE: An Unexpected Beer in an Unexpected Pub

The Beaufort Arms, off Durdham Down.

Trying to visit every pub in Bristol takes us out of our way sometimes, as on Saturday when the mission nudged us up a side street towards The Beaufort Arms.

It’s on a steep, narrow lane called, oddly, High Street, which feels more like part of some windswept coastal village than somewhere two minutes walk from Whiteladies Road. Backstreet pubs are an endangered species in general which made this one seem all the more noteworthy.

“It’ll be poshed up,” we thought, but as we approached we saw plastic patio chairs lined up on the pavement outside, signalling otherwise. A young man was sat on one of them eating a Miss Millie’s fried chicken meal from a box nesting in a carrier bag, swigging from a can of energy drink.

Inside we found a single large room psychically divided into public bar vs. games-room/deadzone. Everything was brown and warm, dim and well-worn, the walls covered in nick-nacks and in-jokes, photographs cut from newspapers and holiday postcards from regulars. The accents were West Country, not west London. Most people seemed to be drinking cider, including cans of Natch, the availability of which divides a certain type of serious, old-fashioned Bristol boozer from the designer-gin and craft-beer lifestyle exhibitions.

In this context we were rather startled to see Theakston Vanilla Stout on offer. No, scratch that: we rather startled to discover the existence of Theakston Vanilla Stout, and even more startled to find it here. Not as startled as the woman behind the bar seemed when we ordered a pint of it, though, along with a half of St Austell Tribute as a safe fallback.

Our astonishment intensified further when it turned out not only to be in good condition, but also a quite brilliant beer. We (Jessica especially) have been fascinated by Tiny Rebel’s Stay Puft Marshmallow Porter for the past few months, half-repelled by its kitsch, artificial character, but unable to stop dipping back in. This Theakston beer was in remarkably similar territory, loaded high with sickly candy-bar flavouring, but somehow also irresistible — full of beans if you like, ho ho. But also cleaner than the Tiny Rebel beer, and without any pretence of being hoppy. If Young’s Double Chocolate is to your taste, or those Saltaire beers that seem like they’ve had Nesquik syrup squirted into them, then you’ll enjoy this one, too.

That’s two impressive “cask craft” (their phrase, not ours) beers from Theakston in the past year, for those who are keeping count. And another pub for our growing list of The Proper Pubs of Bristol.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 17 March 2018: London Drinkers & Bristol Dockers

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the past week in the world of beer and pubs, from beer festivals to Friday skiving.

From Roger Protz comes a reflection on the London Drinker beer festival which has been organised by north London Campaign for Real Ale activists annually since 1985, but which this year is sadly winding up:

It’s not because the festival lacks success. On the contrary, it’s one of CAMRA’s longest running and most successful events. But the Camden Centre is due to be knocked down and redeveloped and finding – and affording – a replacement venue is difficult if not impossible….

As interesting as the news itself, though, is Roger’s account of pioneering the very concept of tasting notes in the 1980s, and being jeered at for daring to suggest that there might be chocolate notes in a dark beer.


Illustration: fanzine style picture of a pint and a packet of crisps.

Phil at Oh Good Ale seems to have found an interesting voice lately — a sort of stream of consciousness that coalesces into commentary if you let it. This week he wrote with some panache about the passing culture of Friday lunchtime pints:

1983, Chester

I knew we were on when I saw Tom going back for a pudding. Most days, we’d clock out at lunchtime, go to the canteen for something to eat – a hot meal served with plates and cutlery, none of your rubbish – and then it’d be down the Cestrian for a pint or two, or three…. On this particular Friday Tom went back to get some apple crumble and custard, which he ate with great relish and without any appearance of watching the time, heartily recommending it to the rest of us; a couple of people actually followed his lead. Then he looked at his watch with some ostentation and led the way out of the canteen…. It wasn’t a 15-minute weekday session or a standard 45-minute Friday session; that Friday, we were on.

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The Mystery of the Rock House Tavern

We spotted the above post one one of our favourite Instagram accounts the other day and thought it ought to be a doddle to track down the history of the Rock House Tavern. Well, it wasn’t, but we think we’ve got there, and the solution offers an intriguing glimpse into the past.

First, yes, Liz is right– there is no useful information online, or in our copy of the 1975 pub guide, or in newspapers archives. Searching for mention of pubs around that location in more general terms, though, did point us to a 1986 book called City Pit: Memoirs of a Speedwell Miner by Fred Moss. It might surprise some people to discover that Bristol had coal mines but it did. Fred Moss was born in 1906 and started work as a miner in 1921. Here’s what he has to say about drinking, on p.37:

[Let] me tell you about “The Long Bar”. This consisted of a lane running from Deep Pit Road to Holly Lodge Road. There were just a few houses in Holly Lodge, only a couple of miners lived there. Now about half way up this lane there was a pond called the “Lilly Pond”. It was a pool consisting of water pumped from the nearby pit. In this lane there was also a single railway track, which was used to carry trucks of coal from Speedwell Pit to the main Great Western Railway line and of course the Midland Railway line. The track was also used to take trucks of small coal to the coke ovens and washing plant.

Now, near this lane there was an off-licence beer house. The afternoon shift miners would buy beer at this off-licence and on a nice sunny day would to to this lane and have a chat and a drink before descending the pit…. There would be twenty or thirty men either sitting on a grass bank of leaning against a wooden fence drinking and chatting before working and when the morning shift came up from work, some of them would buy a drink and stand or sit in the lane before going home. Yes! I would say that was the longest bar in the world.

We find this fascinating — another reminder that people enjoyed beer in all kinds of ways in the past, not only in what we would now recognise as pubs, and following all kinds of patterns dictated by their work.

Fred’s memoir gives us some hard information to work with and we are blessed in 2018 with easy access to historic maps, satellite imagery and Google Street View which means it’s quite easy to pin all this down.

Here’s the lane we think Fred is describing as pictured in an OS map from the immediate post-WWII period, via Know Your Place:

Map showing the lane, 'Brook Road'.

The Rock House is at the very bottom left corner, marked “BH” for beerhouse; the lane is Brook Road which runs off immediately opposite passing a reservoir (the pond Fred mentions?) and crossing a small railway line on the way to Holly Lodge Road, which also fits with Fred’s description. One small wrinkle: there is another beerhouse marked on the map, also near the point where the lane spits out, so maybe he didn’t have The Rock House in mind. But we still reckon all this, especially the BH designation on the map, explains why The Rock House is so obscure: though it may have started as a proper drink-in beerhouse c.1830, it probably became a purely take-out premises in the wake of the 1869 Licensing Act.

But that’s just somewhat informed guesswork. If you know otherwise, drop us a line or comment below. We’ll keep an eye out in books and archives as we go and, as Google Maps satellite imagery suggests the lane is still there and now a public footpath, we’ll also go exploring and see what we can see.

Main image, top: Bristol miners c.1906 via City Pit.

Twenty-First Century Brewpub

A version of this post first appeared in the autumn 2017 edition of the Campaign for Real Ale’s quarterly magazine BEER and is reproduced here with permission.

To brewers, publicans and drinkers, there is undoubtedly something almost irresistible about the idea of making, serving and drinking beer within the same four walls.

If you’d been around three hundred years ago and ordered a quart of beer the chances are you’d be served something brewed metres away from where you drank it. The brewhouses weren’t necessarily on display but anyone who has ever visited the Blue Anchor in Helston, Cornwall, will know how a brewery makes itself known even from behind closed doors – with tumbling steam that carries the aroma of malt and hops. It seems to make the beer taste better and certainly adds to the romance.

Then, in the 18th and 19th centuries, industrial brewing developed, with production becoming ever more centralised in ever bigger facilities. By the mid-20th century a handful of big brewing concerns were operating across the country and the number of ‘homebrew houses’ had dwindled to fewer than ten.

But in the 1980s, as part of the post-CAMRA real ale boom with its rejection of the industrial and mass-produced, the ‘brewpub’ was invented. The primary driver in that was a brewery in the basement of a South London pub, The Goose & Firkin, set up by David and Louise Bruce in 1979. They opened several more pubs with their own breweries in the decade that followed, mostly in London. The Firkin chain made the Bruces’ fortune as they sold strong beer brewed on site to pubs rammed with the type of customer happy to pay a little more for something truly unique.

Continue reading “Twenty-First Century Brewpub”