One of Bristol’s weirdest features is its central ghost town where, on inter-war maps, seven pubs were marked.
The ghost town in question is otherwise known as Castle Park and it was once the core of the central shopping district.
It was badly damaged during World War II and the decision was made after the war to clear it rather than rebuild.
Now, it’s a pleasant (if sometimes spicy) green space containing the bombed ruins of two churches and some hints of the old street patterns.
Let’s start our pub crawl on Bristol Bridge, heading into town along High Street, and pause to think about The Posada, AKA The Posada Wine Vaults.
It stood exactly where you can now find a weird little concrete obelisk with a door, leading down to tunnels beneath the park.
It was a 19th century building, erected when the road was widened in the 1860s, we think. In 1877 it was known as The Posada Espanola.
It survived a massive bombing of central Bristol in November 1940 before being finished off in another raid in 1941.
Next, let’s turn left onto Mary-le-Port Street. Except it’s not there any more, so we can’t, really, but we can cut through the park to look at the ruins of St Mary-le-Port Church hidden behind the brutalist Lloyds Bank and modernist Norwich Union building.
Then follow the path that tracks the old street pattern towards the site of The Raven. C.F. Deming, author of Old Inns of Bristol, published in 1943, reckoned The Raven dated back to the 17th century and was “mentioned in 1643”.
Interviewed for an oral history project in 2005 Dorothy Bullimore and Emily ‘Emmy’ Taylor recalled drinking there:
Dorothy: They used to have pigs’ feet up Hodders on a Saturday night and there was a little pub next door to it and after you’d finish shopping you’d sit in there with all your carrier bags at your feet. We used to go in the pub with my husband’s brother- he worked for Hodders, the butchers.
Emmy: It was a tiny little pub in Mary Le Port Street.
It had already gone when Old Inns of Bristol was published, destroyed by bombing.
A little further along we find the site of The Swan, just about where the diagonal path down the river meets the terrace in front of the ruin of St Peter’s Church.
Deming calls The Swan “one of Bristol’s most picturesque buildings” but adds:
Like many other notable Houses, The Swan had been neglected for many years, and its decayed timbers had fallen into such a sad state that, in conjunction with other circumstances and in spite of many requests to retain the building, its preservation was found to be impossible.
The Swan was demolished in 1936, after someone bought the whole corner site for redevelopment. The building that replaced The Swan was then so badly damaged by bombing that it had to be pulled down.
Rounding the corner of Mary-le-Port onto what was Dolphin Street we next find the site of The Bank Hotel, on the waterside. There used to be two urinals here, hanging over the river, which we guess were for customers of the pub.
An 1884 guidebook says this pub got its name because it was built on the site of a branch of the Bank of England which was opened there in 1827, but later moved.
Now let’s walk back along what would have been Dolphin Street to Newgate – that is, across the park to the junction with Union Street where the falafel stand is now.
Newgate was originally Narrow Wine Street and about here stood The George Inn.
The George Inn was certainly old and there was a brewery on the premises in the 1810s.
A Popular History of Bristol (not a hugely reliable source) dates it to the 17th century and suggests it was named in reference to St George, rather than any monarch of that name.
By the 1930s it was one of six Fussell’s pubs in Bristol.
In 1940 a 24-year-old soldier, Corporal Ernest Newman, robbed the landlord of The George at gunpoint, before being chased and captured by police. That’s an interesting glimpse into what Bristol was like during wartime.
At this point, follow the path back to the ruin of St Peter’s Church and go through the water garden. At the end of the garden a path curves down. Near the bottom is where Little Peter Street used to run and where two pubs stood side by side.
The Cat & Wheel and The Bear & Rugged Staff were both 17th century pubs but the former was rebuilt in the early 20th century.
Both, amazingly, survived the Blitz and were trading until the late 1960s. They were demolished in 1969 as part of the creation of Castle Park.
The Bear & Rugged Staff then donated its name to The Welcome Inn, an interwar pub at Southmead.
This was the final stage in the clearance of the area, which the city planners had decided to do as far back as 1943.
Shopkeepers and local wanted to restore the shopping district to how it had been but the planners were keen to do away with what had been a mess of narrow streets.
Some people are still annoyed about this decision today.
And that’s the end of the tour. If you want to continue hanging out in Bristol’s pre-war shopping district, fire up one of these two sites to layer old maps with new ones:
- Know Your Place Bristol – comprehensive, localised, harder to use
- National Library of Scotland Maps – works better on mobile
And if all that walking around pubs that aren’t there has you feeling thirsty check out our guide to the best pubs in Bristol, updated for 2023.
This has been an interesting exercise and has given us a partial answer to our question about why Bristol doesn’t have a central pub equivalent to Whitelocks in Leeds. It would probably have been one of those described above, if they’d survived.
Main image adapted from ‘Ruins of the Church of St. Mary-le-Port with St. Peter’s in the background’ by Beryl Thornborough for Bristol Siren Nights, 1943.