The bare minimum

The above Twitter conversation got us thinking once again about ‘proper pubs’, and reaching a conclusion: barebones isn’t everything – there are some minimum entry requirements.

We had a perfectly fine time on our visit the Myrtle Tree and, a little sleazing aside, we were made to feel reasonably welcome.

But, still, we’re not sure it’s a ‘proper pub’, because it lacks atmosphere and that sense of timelessness that you find in, say, the Merchant’s just up the road.

A ‘proper pub’ can’t have cold light and pale walls. It can’t be dominated by TVs and flashing fruit machines. If you need to have a conspiratorial conversation, there should be a corner in which to do it. Ideally, there’ll be some sepia tones.

The Myrtle Tree fails all these tests for us and so we would classify it as something else: a plain old, straight-up, stripped-t0-the-bone boozer.

Boozers have their place, too, of course, but beyond the strange appeal of Bristol-style flat Bass, there’s not much for pub obsessives to look at or enjoy at the Myrtle Tree.

To put all that another way, ‘properness’ is a positive quality, not merely the absence of contemporary adornments.

20th Century Pub pubs

Beer delivery vans in Bristol between the wars

“In 1929 neither estate had a pub or off-licence, and tenants had to resort to vans selling alcoholic drink which plied the area.”

That intriguing line appears in a paper by Madge Dresser called ‘Housing policy in Bristol, 1919-30’, collected in Councillors and tenants: local authority housing in English cities, 1919-1939. The estates Dr Dresser refers to are Horfield and Sea Mills.

As we discovered researching 20th Century Pub, it’s almost impossible to take a serious interest in the development of the public house without also getting into housing and social policy.

Housing estates – a new idea as the 19th century turned into the 20th, even if they’re now taken for granted – were generally dry by default until the 1920s. What was the point of moving people out of slums if the slum behaviour (as it was viewed) carried on as before?

Estates, and especially those with ‘garden city’ pretensions, were about fresh air, healthy pursuits, and the comfort of the home. If people needed to socialise, there were churches, and maybe sports clubs.

But fancying a pint with your mates every now and then isn’t weird – it’s quite normal. As a result, many people living on estates lobbied for the provision of social clubs and pubs, but Bristol’s estates were without pubs until the 1930s.

What about those booze delivery wagons? Well, a 1929 news story covering the application for an off-licence by a Sea Mills shopkeeper Thomas Prestidge (Western Daily Press, 5 March) provides a bit more detail:

There was a large number of residents on the Sea Mills Estate who had asked Mr Prestidge to make the application. The nearest licensed house was the Swan in Stoke Lane, over a mile away, and in the other direction the nearest place was a mile and half away. At present the wants of the inhabitants were supplied by three or four people who came from various districts in and out of Bristol and delivered to residents on the estate in dozen and half-dozen bottles.

So, to be clear, not only were there no pubs – there was nowhere to buy any alcoholic drink at all.

Objections to this application from local doctors and religious types argued that supply by delivery was perfectly adequate and that people who had moved to Sea Mills to get away from ‘hubbub’ would prefer drinking to happen, if it had to happen at all, behind closed doors. Nonetheless, the licence was granted on a provisional basis.

Sea Mills did eventually get a pub, and a very grand one: the Progress Inn (pictured above). It opened in 1936, but closed in 2011, and was then converted into a nursery.

That means if you live at Sea Mills and fancy a beer, delivery trucks, from supermarkets these days, might once again be the best option.

Progress? What progress?

This happens to be Sea Mills’ centenary year and the estate is the subject of a local heritage project, Sea Mills 100. We’ll be watching with interest for information on the estate’s licencing battles.

pubs real ale

Bristol, Where Headless Pints are a Feature, not a Bug

A Bass pale ale advertising lantern.
The William the Fourth, Staple Hill.

Here’s a thing: the perfect Bristol pint doesn’t have foam. It comes up to the very brim, and the merest  hint of scum might draw a tut.

At least that’s what we’ve been told by several different people on several different occasions that this is the case, and that Bristol historically likes its pints ‘flat’.

A few months ago we had to negotiate heads on our beers with a member of staff in a pub more often frequented by elderly men who angled the glass and trickled the last inches with great care: “Look, I agree with you, but I’ve been working here for a while and this lot have got me trained to serve it flat.”

At which point, an interruption from a grey-hair with a sad-looking decapitated pint: “Yeah, proper Bristol style, we’re not up north now.”

To Jess, this idea doesn’t seem so alien: she recalls a general preference for completely headless pints in East London before about, say, 2005.

There, it often seemed to be tied to the question of value, and a refusal to be at all influenced by the superficial: foam’s a marketing trick to make mug punters pay for air, innit?

In Bristol, we wonder if it’s a combination of that, plus the influence of scrumpy cider drinkers, whose pints are froth-free by default.

But we can’t say that in practice we’ve encountered many flat pints in Bristol, though, and one of the few handy sources, Fred Pearce’s 1975 guide to the pubs of Bristol, features plenty of shots of white-capped glasses.

Maybe we’re having our legs pulled, or perhaps this is more complex than we’ve realised  – maybe only certain brands or styles get the millpond treatment – but either way, it would be a bit sad if a genuine bit of local beer culture has been lost.

Even if it’s good news for us as drinkers who very much prefer a bit of dressing around the top of the mug.

As you might have guessed, this is really our way of flushing out more information. Do comment below if you can tell us more.

bristol pubs

The Distant Gleam of a Backstreet Pub

There’s something Narnia-magical about looking along a silent terraced street at night and seeing a corner pub throwing its light out over wet asphalt.

You know the feeling – walking up the centre of the road because there’s no traffic, TV light flickering behind curtains here and there, and the sound of your boots crunching and echoing in the quiet.

It’s special, too, because by our reckoning, after pubs on housing estates, this is the most endangered species.

Last Saturday we made a concerted effort to ‘tick’ a few pubs for our #EveryPubInBristol mission and so ended up in Totterdown, across the river from Temple Meads, wandering among rows of humble Victorian houses.

Sign: "Booze, food, tables & chairs".

Our first target was The Shakespeare, a pub we gathered from the 1975 guide was once a bit naughty…

The pub that one of us came very close to being beaten up at… [but] pub guide writers can run faster than nice young men with Nazi badges!

It looked mysterious and inviting, like one of those West London mews pubs, hidden from casual punters. To find it, you’ve got to live in the neighbourhood, or be hunting for it, or be a bit of an explorer.

Inside, it’s all scrubbed wood and mild gastro tendencies, but by no means pretentious: “Unfined? We don’t sell that hazy shit here.”

Less than a minute’s walk away, deeper into the maze, there’s the curiously named New Found Out – another corner, another spill of yellow, but also an air of mischief.

It was plain, bright, and lively in that way which makes it hard to quite relax. But, still, there was a bloke reading Brian Aldiss between puffs on his asthma inhaler, and everyone seemed friendly enough, even if we did feel as if we were drawing a few stares.

The Oxford in half darkness.

Our final pub, The Oxford, wasn’t quite on a backstreet, but was hardly on the main road either. We felt like Goldilocks here: if the first pub was too posh, and the second too rough-and-ready, The Oxford was just right.

It sat in the sweet spot between scuzzy and characterful, with a ska band, a lot of Spaniards, and a bloke in a pork pie hat who looked as though he’d been sat in the same seat since 1968.


Notable Pubs: The Elmer’s Arms, Old Market, Bristol

We’re sure The Elmer’s Arms was announced as a micropub when it opened earlier this year – real ale, homemade furniture, conversation, no lager, no music, right? Got it.

But we’d also been told to expect something “a bit different”, and that’s what was evident even as we approached the small antique frontage on Old Market, Bristol’s gay village. (Which drops off steeply in every direction to either dystopian post war roadscape, industrial estate or generally dodgy fringelands.)

The pub (“formerly Rainbows; Proud Bar; Lounge; Masons Arms”) was pulsing with dancefloor lights, and there were glowing Trojan Records logos in the window. A suedehead DJ was on display, spinning a vintage 45 delicately between his fingertips as he searched for the next track, while his partner, in two-tone vintage dress, awaited her turn at the decks.

Ska DJs in a pub window.

Inside, the front half of the small space was lit low, aquarium colours cycling, while the area around the bar was bright. Behind the bar, in purple tonic suit and with grey statement sideburns, was Elmer himself, dashing back and forth, up and down, looking delighted to be busy rather than put upon.

The beer was mostly craft (def 2) on keg, with a solitary cask propped on a stand at the end of the bar with a damp towel to protect its modesty. We ordered Lost & Grounded Keller Pils (a fine beer) and something hoppy from Lervig the name of which we didn’t write down, and retreated to the darkest corner at the end of the bar.

Most of the other customers were in full mod uniform, to varying degrees of commitment: jeans, Harrington and T-shirts at the lower end of the scale; vintage boots, vintage dresses, vintage suits, Steve Marriott mops and skin-n-fringe at the other.

One veteran from the second time around, perhaps in his late fifties, wore a heavy woollen overcoat in bold checks, sharply creased grey trousers and what looked like handmade shoes in bold tan. He wasn’t showy, just confident in his inner modness. We noticed and wondered about the enamel England flags on each lapel.

The dancefloor at the Elmer's Arms pub.

“Elms”, as people kept calling him, dashed out between serving drinks to clear a dancefloor and a couple of people went for it at once, shaking cherry red Derby boots in the air and beaming with joy.

We, along with some stray hippies and a handful of real ale sniffers, didn’t quite match the scene, but it was fun to be a tourist, and Ray, something of a lapsed mod, but always too round in the middle and too self-conscious to really pull off the look, muttered something about coming back more appropriately attired sometime…

There’s a story here that people who worry about the loss of pubs ought to find cheering: Elmer’s was a pub, then a bar, then a taxi office, but has been reborn as a pub. A lively one, at that. How often does that happen?

Another strangely normal, typically unique pub. An expression of personality – is that what micropub is coming to mean? – and a haven for a subcategory of a subculture. One more possible arrangement of the standard modular components, with a few custom circuits.