bristol pubs

The Bulldog: full of clowns?

The Bulldog is the last of three inter-war pubs surviving on Filton Avenue and it’s under new management. So, finally, after more than five years in Bristol, we visited for a pint.

When we lived in Horfield we did a pretty good job of popping into all the local pubs, from The Foresters to The Beehive. But we never quite found the right moment for The Bulldog.

Let’s be completely honest: it had bad vibes.

For one thing, if your pub has an actual bulldog on a sign above the door, it’s a bit on the nose.

Signs and icons have meanings.

They’re designed to send signals. (Or dog whistles, if you like.)

And publicans can’t benefit from the signal being sent – a welcome message to a particular subset of customers – while also expecting everyone else to overlook it.

Beyond that, when we’d pass on bus or on foot, there wasn’t much to entice us in. It looked run down and the windows were frosted and blank.

When it was busy, on weekend evenings, the people in the crowd spilling around the entrance often looked as if they partied way harder than us.

When we asked around, locals tended to say that they’d either never dream of drinking there, or that they’d tried and been made to feel unwelcome. Not threatened, as such, but frozen out.

Then there were online reviews which painted a pretty bleak picture, including our favourite pub review of all time:

Paul Connellly, 1 star review: "Shite hole, full of clowns!"
SOURCE: Google My Business.

An interesting pub

Pubs exist in four dimensions and The Bulldog has been with us for a long time.

When it opened in 1938, it was one of three pubs on Filton Avenue, the others being:

  • The Fellowship, George’s, 1929, now a branch of Tesco
  • The George VI, Bristol United Breweries, 1938, now a DIY store

All were built to serve expanding out-of-town communities built around the growing aerospace industry.

A painting of the pub with well-to-do punters wandering about the open space outside.
The Bristol Bulldog as the brewery hoped it would look when built, from One Hundred and FIfty of Years of Brewing, Georges & Co Ltd., 1938.

The Bulldog was originally called The Bristol Bulldog, after a fighter aeroplane built nearby, and its opening was newsworthy:

The Bristol Bulldog, Filton Avenue, Horfield, the latest and most modern house of the Bristol Brewery, Georges and Co., Ltd., was formally opened, yesterday, in the presence of a distinguished company of citizens… Features of this latest Georges enterprise are:—

Lounge and smoking room panelled in solid oak, public bar laid with rubber flooring, off-sales’ department with separate entrance, spacious club room on first floor, also with separate entrance; skittles alley with regulation camber, ample accommodation for car parking, central heating, and pressure system of supply to ensure beers being in the best possible condition. The house was designed by Mr W. T. Cockram, head surveyor to the company, and built by Messrs C. A. Hayes and Son, of St. Thomas Street.

The landlord was a former police superintendent, J.A. Price – a choice perhaps made to reassure licensing magistrates that this would be an orderly house.

Then there was the war, of course, and this kind of huge, multi-room pub went out of fashion. The Bulldog seems to have trolled along for decades, serving the local community.

But perhaps an incident in 1959 when three brothers stomped a 17-stone police constable into the pavement outside the pub gives a flavour of what the neighbourhood might have been like, utopian dreams aside.

A new regime

We made pretty poor progress on our plan to visit #EveryPubInBristol during 2022 and have decided to pick up the pace in 2023. And it was bothering us that we hadn’t ‘done’ The Bulldog.

So, we decided to make a day of it, with the promise of The Drapers Arms for afters.

Since moving out of the area, we’d heard some encouraging things from friends. Well, mildly encouraging: “It’s fine, actually. We’ve been a couple of times recently. It’s fine.”

Checking in on those online reviews, we noticed a definite positive trend:

  • “Nice open fire friendly locals managers really trying to make the pub work… Best of luck!”
  • “The pub has always had a bad reputation and never wanted to come here but today I thought I would give it a go and I must say everyone made me feel welcome, staff and the new management, Aaron and Donna!! Would highly recommend giving it a go. Will definitely come back!! Thanks all.”

And took special notices of this response from the owner…

  • “[We] are working hard to change the reputation we had in the past & can say getting there. New Manager Aaron & Donna are doing their best to attract good crowd & make The BullDog a customer friendly Pub. Looking forward to your visit again, Many Thanks.”

It’s amazing what a difference this kind of public statement can make.

It acknowledges that the pub might have been unwelcoming before; promises that steps have been taken; and tells us who is responsible for fixing it.

The interior of The Bulldog with light grey walls, pool table and fruit machine.
Inside The Bulldog.

Like a lot of pubs with a reputation for being “rough”, The Bulldog’s main problem today would seem to be the very structure of the place.

Over the decades, walls have been removed, interior decoration stripped back, leaving the new management very little to work with when it comes to creating atmosphere.

It was, however, clean and bright, and the welcome we got at the bar was cheerful.

All the best seats in the house, around the bar, were taken by locals and regulars, most of whom were either watching the football on huge TVs or chatting quietly.

We drank Guinness in a corner, trying to spot any remaining scraps of George’s original design – some wood panels around the outer walls, perhaps? – and listening to the sound of pool balls snicking into each other.

It’s exactly this kind of old fashioned working class pub that is in the greatest danger. It’s never likely to be hugely profitable; and it’s had its problems. Why not turn it into a supermarket, or flats?

But it’s also offering something you can’t get for miles around – reasonably priced beer without frills, in an atmosphere that for many people is the very definition of comfortable. Where they can really feel at home.

We hope the (slight) reinvention of the pub works. We hope it can find new regulars and a way to thrive. We hope it sticks around.


Filton in the Merrineum

Filton is and isn’t part of Bristol, out on a limb where the city fades into country via mile after mile of suburb, in the land of aircraft hangars and road junctions. It certainly isn’t famous for its pubs.

We’ve passed through many times, either on foot or on the bus, and noticed the shortage. Some, we guess, have disappeared, converted to other uses, like the George VI, built in the 1930s and now a DIY centre.

Others were never built, we suppose, perhaps because Rolls Royce, Bristol and other aerospace giants had their own on-site social clubs.

Nonetheless, with our duty to visit #EveryPubInBristol in mind, we set out in the bleak days between Christmas and New Year to explore as many as possible of those that do exist.

Air Balloon interior.

First, the most prominent and visible of them all, The Air Balloon, a Greene King pub on the big roundabout next to the Airbus site. It looks like a typical 1960s pub building – sparse and modern but with, as usual, a few bits of faux-Victorian detail glued on top.

Though hardly our kind of place – every bit of character there might have been has been buffed out by the corporate makeover – it had more buzz, better beer and warmer welcome than we expected.

In the absence of a local Wetherspoon, that’s the function it seems to perform, offering reasonably-priced fast food and space for large parties to dine and drink together. There was even a corner, in front of the TV, for a handful of older, harder drinkers to bash down pints and grumble at each other.

Like Dorian Gray’s painting in the attic, though, the gents toilets perhaps revealed the true soul of the place: foul-smelling, strewn with bloody tissues, battered and broken. All the Live, Love, Laugh decor in the world can’t compensate for that.

The Plough (exterior)
The Plough (sign)

A few doors up, there’s The Plough, which isn’t part of a chain and is certainly characterful. Low-lit to the point of gloominess, slightly tacky to the touch, with evidence of a governing force. In this case, we gathered from snatches of conversation behind the bar and the astonishing range of vodkas on offer, a Pole.

You know how sometimes you approach a pub and can tell everyone is thinking, “Hello, hello, what have we got here?” The Plough was like that. Not unfriendly, just… curious, or perhaps even sceptical.

The interesting looking cask Citra pale ale from Severn was off but their keg session IPA was on, and decent enough.

At the bar, middle-aged couples gathered to exchange notes on Christmas. A young woman fed the jukebox and lined up one 1990s rave tune after another. Pool balls clicked and smacked.

We sort of liked it. We’ll probably never go again.

Inside the Bristol Concorde.
Bristol Concorde, exterior.

For completeness, and with great reservations, we decided we had to investigate The Bristol Concorde, a Brewery’s Fayre in the shopping centre. We hoped it wouldn’t count as a pub – that it would so obviously be an anonymous hotel bar that we could just skip it. But it has a unique name, a bar, cask ale… It passes the test.

It was bleak.

Like a waiting area, or furniture showroom, or old people’s home.

We wallowed in it, looking out over the bland backside of the Premier Inn as dusk fell, knowing that we’d be able to leave soon enough for what we suspected would be the most interesting of the lot.

Ratepayer's Arms (exterior)
Ratepayer's Arms (bar)

The Ratepayer’s Arms is a council-owned pub occupying a corner of the local recreation centre.

It’s an odd place. If you look towards the bar, it feels much like any other social club with plenty of charming clutter, pickled eggs, rolls and drinkers clustered round the bar. Look the other way, though, and it’s all blank walls and municipal fixtures and fittings.

Still, the welcome was notably warm, nobody paid us the slightest attention – just how we like it – and we enjoyed the buzz of local gossip and, inevitably, bitter criticism of the quality of Boeing aircraft these days.

“Fancy a crawl?” someone asked. “We could go up The Bristol Concorde after this one.”

Everybody laughed at this absurd suggestion.

There are lots of houses in the area and the pubs there are were certainly busy, which made us think the area could certainly support a micropub or two. In fact, we bet there’ll be one before the end of 2021.