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.