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:
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.
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.
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.