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.

Every Pub in Bristol: The First 100

Collage: Bristol pubs.

On moving to Bristol in the summer of 2017 we commenced a mission to visit every single pub in the city. This is what we’ve learned in the first six months.

Completely unsurprisingly, the pubs we visit most frequently are those near our house. We have (well, Jessica has) been keeping notes in a spreadsheet recording each visit which means with the click of a button we can see our most-visited pubs.

At number one, by a massive margin, is The Draper’s Arms — not only the nearest pub to our house by any measure but also, clearly, the best pub in the area and one of the best in the city. We’ve been there together 28 times (plus the odd solo visit for one or the other of us that doesn’t count for the purposes of this count) which equates to about once a week.

The Inn on the Green is at joint third with five visits; The Wellington joint fourth with four visits; and The Golden Lion joint fifth with three.

The Barley Mow near Temple Meads station is our clear second favourite with six visits — one a month — and it is indeed a pub with which we continue to be very taken.

In general, any pub we’ve visited more than once despite (a) this daft mission and (b) our general excitement at new turf to explore must have something going for it. So, without filtering or comment on individual pubs, here’s the complete list of those we’ve been to at least twice.

Draper’s Arms 28
Barley Mow 6
Inn on the Green 5
Grain Barge 5
Wellington Arms 4
Hillgrove Porter Stores 4
Golden Lion 3
BrewDog 3
The Old Fish Market 3
Snuffy Jacks 3
Highbury Vaults 3
Commercial Rooms (Wetherspoon) 2
The Canteen (Hamilton House) 2
The Strawberry Thief 2
The Bridge 2
The Mardyke 2
Zero Degrees 2

With more data we’d expect a proper top ten to emerge in the next six months and suspect some of those names will drop away from the lead group.

Capsule Reviews

Another column on the spreadsheet records in a few words our impression of each pub. These are great fun to write and sometimes a bit snarky (“nice beer, filthy glasses”) but their purpose is to help us recollect the pub months and hopefully even years after what might be one visit. We tested it last night (in pub #103) and it worked:

Marston’s without the Marston’s? The Pump House. Belgian brown cafe vibe? The Grace. Crazy folly, now a Flaming Grill? The Black Castle. Cosy, smells like a swimming pool? The Victoria. (It is next door to a lido.)

The Next Stretch

We’ve got no more local ticks so it’s bus rides and shoe leather from here on. At the moment there’s a long list of pubs we’ve seen or heard of and are keen to visit — The Post Office Tavern at Westbury on Trym, for example, AKA ‘The Pot at Wot’; The Seven Stars in the city centre which we visited before we moved to Bristol but haven’t been to since; and The Colosseum, a rare post-war survivor in Redcliffe.

Rather than let the less immediately inviting pubs pile up so that we have to slog through them at the end, we’re trying to get to them on the way. So far we’ve found that a lot of Bristol pubs which look dodgy from the outside are at worst fine, and at best very pleasant surprises — full of warmth and community feeling even if the face they show the world might suggest otherwise. Just in case, though, we’ve given ourselves a get out clause: if we’re made to feel unwelcome in some active way, we can count it as a tick without stopping for a drink.

FAQ

How many pubs are there in Bristol?
We don’t know exactly, and don’t need to know at this stage, but we’ve seen estimates of about 450 which feels about right.

How are you defining ‘pub’?
We’re not — we want to be flexible and retain the right to play it by ear. Having said that, if we can walk in off the street, buy draught beer without feeling obliged to order food, and take a seat without reserving a table, then it’s probably a pub. In other words, we’re going broad rather than narrow, including tap rooms, bars, social clubs, and maybe even some cafés.

What counts as Bristol?
We keep changing our minds but probably the Bristol Built-up Area. Again, this won’t become an issue for a while — there are plenty of obviously-in-Bristol pubs to tackle before we start worrying about marginal cases, but we do particularly want to tackle suburban pubs and those on the outskirts, while still finding some way to limit the challenge.