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.

Notable Pubs: The Rhubarb Tavern, Barton Hill, Bristol

The Rhubarb Tavern

The Rhubarb is a rare survivor – an old backstreet pub that hasn’t gentrified or closed down, where locals still drink.

It’s one we’ve had on our #Every­Pu­bIn­Bris­tol tick-list for a while hav­ing noticed the unusu­al name on the Pub Stops of Bris­tol poster that hangs above our usu­al spot in our local.

A quick Google told us what to expect: a pub cater­ing to its locals, down-to-earth, but not unfriend­ly to strangers.

We walked there in dark­ness through eeri­ly qui­et indus­tri­al estates, past waste­land and road­side car­a­van shanties, and final­ly into a res­i­den­tial area with the smell of weed on the air as squat, mus­cu­lar dogs were tak­en for their evening walks.

The pub, by a rail­way line and oppo­site a hulk­ing, board­ed-up Vic­to­ri­an school build­ing, daz­zled from afar: there’s a paint­ed sign adver­tis­ing Georges & Co Ltd, either fake, or a recre­ation of a lost orig­i­nal, but con­vinc­ing; dec­o­ra­tive brick­work with swags and oth­er pseu­do-clas­si­cal details; and fairy lights. The build­ing is odd­ly trun­cat­ed – there sure­ly ought to be an extra floor or two – which only adds to the sense that this is a pub just hang­ing on in hos­tile ter­ri­to­ry.

The his­to­ry is a bit vague. Its appar­ent­ly old, though we can’t dig up a defin­i­tive found­ing date, but came into some­thing like it’s present form in the late Vic­to­ri­an peri­od, find­ing renew­al with the growth of the Great West­ern Rail­way.

On Sat­ur­day evening we found it busy, if not per­haps quite busy enough for its size.

A large fam­i­ly group with chil­dren was enjoy­ing a table-obscur­ing, won­der­ful­ly aro­mat­ic feast of Caribbean food, cen­tred around a tray of rice the size of Cap­tain Amer­i­ca’s shield.

There were mul­ti­ple TV screens show­ing foot­ball along with sev­er­al furi­ous­ly illu­mi­nat­ed fruit machines. Some strange light­ing scheme meant that one entire cor­ner was cycling through the Joel Schu­mach­er Bat­man For­ev­er colour scheme of lurid greens and pur­ples. Sev­er­al peo­ple were star­ing towards this elec­tri­cal storm, either watch­ing match high­lights, or per­haps just hyp­no­tised.

Brew XI beer pump.

The sight of Mitchells & But­lers Brew XI on cask was momen­tar­i­ly star­tling but the bar­man assured us that, no, the pump-clip was­n’t just a nos­tal­gic dec­o­ra­tion and, yes, they do actu­al­ly serve it. We had to order a pint, of course, hav­ing a weak­ness for orphaned brands. (Brewed by Brains these days, the inter­net tells us.)

He then did some­thing we’d like to see in more pubs: not lik­ing the look of the first pint, he sniffed it. “Hold on,” he said, before con­sult­ing a col­league who said: “Pull a cou­ple of pints through and try again.” Our man pulled through four pints in all before giv­ing up and sug­gest­ed GWB’s Ham­brook Pale Ale instead. What he did­n’t do – what hap­pens too often – was give us the dodgy pint and hope we would­n’t know bet­ter. And the Ham­brook, after all that, was pret­ty good.

Despite the bar being decked with bunting adver­tis­ing Car­ling there was a plas­tic mon­ey­bag over the keg han­dle sig­ni­fy­ing that the best­selling lager was off: “I’ll have to have Grolsch, then, won’t I?”

Local twen­ty-some­things played pool in the back bar and a ten­ta­tive group of what seemed to be food­ies arrived for din­ner, plac­ing a com­plex order punc­tu­at­ed by the bar­man’s gen­tle mur­mur: “Yes, sir… Yes… Yes, sir… Thank you, madam…”

A bloke perched on a stool and drank a pint while he wait­ed for take­away which emerged from the kitchen in four bulging car­ri­er bags. On his way to the door he stopped to ban­ter with what seemed to be his neigh­bours at the feast­ing table, telling an appalling dad joke that made the six-year-old gig­gle with delight. He left wav­ing, and being waved to.

Our favourite detail? On the dark red pat­terned car­pet, a free­stand­ing yel­low sign with a hand­writ­ten note sel­l­otaped to it: ‘Car­pet wet, please go round’.

A strange­ly nor­mal pub. Unique­ly typ­i­cal. A dif­fer­ent arrange­ment of the same old pieces to cre­ate some­thing that is all itself.

Bristol and the Berni Inns

The Berni Inn chain is fascinating for various reasons, not least because it originated here in Bristol.

This is some­thing that only real­ly dawned on us recent­ly as, tak­ing an inter­est in the his­to­ry of Bris­tol pubs as we do, we kept com­ing across ref­er­ences to Berni Inns in old guide­books and local his­to­ries:

Free House *** F
Queen Square
A Berni Inn, but don’t be putt off. Just make for the back bar, The Tav­ern Pub­lic. Here find beau­ti­ful­ly served Wad­worth 6X (yes, in a Berni) and Wor­thing­ton E in peak con­di­tion – both on hand­pumps. Sand­wich­es at rea­son­able prices also avail­able. Quite small friend­ly bar with com­fort­able seats, thick car­pet and jovial old locals.

Inso­far as we were much aware of Berni Inns at all, this kind of thing was not what we had imag­ined. For decades they were the punch­line to jokes about the tack­i­ness of aspi­ra­tional lifestyles in post-war Britain, famous for bring­ing prawn cock­tail and black for­est gateau to the mass­es. For exam­ple, here’s a song from Vic­to­ria Wood’s 2011 musi­cal That Day We Sang which hits all the famil­iar ref­er­ences:

There are no short­age of arti­cles sum­maris­ing the his­to­ry of the Berni Inn chain but – this one by Bris­tol-based writer Eugene Byrne is good, for exam­ple. The sto­ry is also cov­ered, with some love­ly archive footage, in this 2015 edi­tion of the BBC’s Timeshift.

To save you a click, though, here’s a pre­cis, based on Mr Byrne’s piece, the obit­u­ar­ies of Aldo and Frank Berni in the Guardian for 17/10/1997 and 01/08/2000 respec­tive­ly, and var­i­ous oth­er sources.

Frank Berni was born in Bar­di near Par­ma in Italy in 1903. He was brought up pri­mar­i­ly by his moth­er because his father was abroad in South Wales run­ning tem­per­ance bars. When he came of age, Frank joined his father in the fam­i­ly busi­ness in the UK. He was soon joined by his broth­ers, Aldo, born 1909, and Car­lo.

Frank and Aldo Berni.
Frank and Aldo Berni from Hotel and Cater­ing Review, March 1968, via Face­book.

In 1929, Aldo and Frank used a £300 inher­i­tance from their moth­er to buy a cafe in High Street, Exeter, which was suc­cess­ful enough to fund expan­sion into Ply­mouth and Bris­tol.

Dur­ing World War II Frank and Car­lo were interned as ‘ene­my aliens’ while Aldo, who had a British pass­port, was at first called up, and then assigned to Home Front work because of his poor health.

After World War II Frank and Aldo acquired Hort’s, an upmar­ket cock­tail bar and restau­rant in Bris­tol. Tom Jaine sug­gests in his obit­u­ary of Frank Berni that they might have got the mon­ey to fund this bold move from repa­ra­tion pay­ments for Blitz dam­age to their pre-war prop­er­ties which just hap­pened to be in the most heav­i­ly bombed cities in the West Coun­try.

Like motel entre­pre­neur Gra­ham Lyon the Ber­nis sensed that there were inter­est­ing things going on in Amer­i­ca that British peo­ple, exhaust­ed and bored by wartime aus­ter­i­ty, might be ready to wel­come.

Frank Berni vis­it­ed the US in the ear­ly 1950s and came away inspired by Amer­i­can steak bars which made mon­ey by care­ful­ly con­trol­ling mar­gins while main­tain­ing the appear­ance of gen­eros­i­ty and good val­ue. He was also impressed by the con­sis­ten­cy of chain restau­rants which were capa­ble of serv­ing iden­ti­cal steak meals in iden­ti­cal sur­round­ings any­where in the US.

When meat rationing end­ed in Britain in 1954, they pounced, tak­ing on The Rum­mer, a his­toric pub in cen­tral Bris­tol.

Berni Inns logo, 1964.

In a short essay for The 60s in Bris­tol (ed. James Belsey, 1989) Mary Ack­land offers some details we’ve not come across else­where:

The Rum­mer is a rab­bit war­ren of a place with cel­lar bars and rooms large and small as well as a his­to­ry as an inn which dates back to the 13th cen­tu­ry. They called in a clever design­er, Alex Waugh, who cre­at­ed sev­er­al restau­rants and bars under one roof and cul­ti­vat­ed an olde worlde, lived-in, almost shab­by look. No-one need feel out of place in this atmos­phere! Alex Waugh made a famous remark to the Ber­nis when he arrived. “If you’ve got cob­webs, keep ’em. If you haven’t, I’ll make you some.” Now that was very clever for 1955.

The Rum­mer was the pro­toype”, she writes; “The Rev­o­lu­tion quick­ly fol­lowed.” There were nine Berni Inns in Bris­tol by 1964, clus­tered around the city cen­tre.

The Berni Inn mod­el seemed to answer a need for acces­si­ble lux­u­ry. On the one hand, steak and wine felt sophis­ti­cat­ed and posh British peo­ple brought up on fish’n’chips and brown ale. On the oth­er hand, every­thing about The Rum­mer was designed to make eat­ing out unin­tim­i­dat­ing.

The Rummer, 2018.

For starters, the fact that they her­mit-crabbed their way into pubs, retained a pub-like char­ac­ter, and called them­selves Inns, gave peo­ple some­thing to latch on to. (See also: gas­trop­ubs.)

Then there was what Mar­tin Wain­wright called “the cru­cial role played by chips as a bridge between tra­di­tion­al fare and the glam­orous… world of sir­loin and black for­est gateau”.  (Even if they did call them ‘chipped pota­toes’ on the menu.)

Final­ly, there was the sim­plic­i­ty of the offer as sum­marised by Mary Ack­land:

The broth­ers planned down to the last detail. They were deter­mined that every last wor­ry about eat­ing out would be removed… The fixed-price, lim­it­ed item menu ensured that cus­tomers knew exact­ly how much they would be pay­ing. The wine list was cut to just 16 names, eight red, six white and two rosé.

The lim­it­ed menu was­n’t only easy for cus­tomers, it also meant that the kitchens could be run with min­i­mal equip­ment by inter­change­able staff using a metic­u­lous man­u­al.

A menu.
SOURCE: Ron­nie Hughes/A Sense of Place.

The chain went nation­wide until there were 147 branch­es all over the coun­try, all fol­low­ing the same for­mu­la. Frank and Aldo sold up to Grand Met­ro­pol­i­tan in 1970. The chain con­tin­ued to oper­ate until the 1990s when Whit­bread bought 115 Berni Inns and, decid­ing that the brand was effec­tive­ly dead, turned half of them into Beefeaters.

Know­ing a bit about the Berni­fi­ca­tion of Bris­tol helps makes sense of the 21st cen­tu­ry pub scene in the city. Many of those famous, his­toric, poten­tial­ly bril­liant pubs are appar­ent­ly still recov­er­ing from their long stretch­es as part of a food-focused chain. We don’t think we’ve ever heard any­one rec­om­mend The Rum­mer or The Hole in the Wall, and the Llan­doger Trow, though it has its charms, is essen­tial­ly the bar and break­fast lounge for a Pre­mier Inn.

It goes with­out say­ing that we’d like to hear your mem­o­ries of Berni Inns but espe­cial­ly the extent to which you recall them feel­ing like pubs, or oth­er­wise.

Read­ing the descrip­tions of plush fur­ni­ture, wood­en tables, and chips with every­thing, we can’t help but won­der if most pubs aren’t Berni­fied in 2018.

Main image, top: a detail from an adver­tise­ment for Berni Inns in Bris­tol on the back of the pro­gramme for the Bris­tol 600 Exhi­bi­tion pub­lished in 1973.

A Surprising New Local

Our neighbourhood has a new place to drink, and a new type of place to drink at that: a specialist bottle shop with bonus beer on tap.

Bot­tles & Books opened as a shop only at about the same time we moved to Bris­tol last sum­mer. Com­bin­ing beer with com­ic books it nev­er quite seemed right, with not quite enough room to look at any­thing com­fort­ably, or to fit more than two brows­ing cus­tomers at once. A month or so ago, though, it moved into the emp­ty shop unit next door, to great effect.

Bot­tled and canned beers are clear­ly organ­ised and laid out with plen­ty of space to browse. The hippest of hop­py beers are refrig­er­at­ed while most oth­er styles are on open shelves for now – per­haps not per­fect by 2018 stan­dards, but a marked improve­ment on anoth­er near­by beer shop which keeps many of its beers on dis­play in a hot win­dow.

It’s an indie shop so costs a lit­tle more than the super­mar­ket, but not out­ra­geous­ly so, and the range is cer­tain­ly more excit­ing.

Keg taps.

The draft set­up is neat and dis­creet – a hand­ful of taps on the wall behind the counter with a small menu chalked on a board. The selec­tion tends towards the strong, intense and trendy – Ver­dant and the like. They are served in mea­sures of one-third and two-thirds and there are tables in the win­dow and (for now) on the pave­ment out­side.

We’ve popped in a cou­ple of times now and found it sur­pris­ing­ly busy. On anoth­er occa­sion, walk­ing home from work, we looked across the road and saw it heav­ing. So there is clear­ly pent-up demand for the craft beer expe­ri­ence out here in the sub­urbs.

The own­ers of the local microp­ub, The Drap­ers Arms, seem san­guine about what might look like com­pe­ti­tion because, actu­al­ly, there is almost no over­lap: Bot­tles & Books is about keg and pack­aged beers, The Drap­ers cask only; the for­mer is focused on for­eign beer and High Craft, while the lat­ter tends towards the tra­di­tion­al.

From our point of view, it looks like the con­vin­cer to get peo­ple on the bus and out to Hor­field where there are now the mak­ings of a decent after­noon’s crawl with enough vari­ety and qual­i­ty for any­one.

Bot­tles & Books is at 354–356 Glouces­ter Road, Bris­tol BS7 8TP, and is open six days a week, 12–9pm. It cur­rent­ly clos­es on Sun­day but there are plans to open sev­en days a week down the line.