When I posted news of the Bath Brew House’s grand official opening last week, little did I think that within a few days another old photograph of the Midland Hotel – as it was then – would surface. The archive photograph that accompanied the post, of the Midland Hotel surrounded by floodwater, was, it has to be admitted, not the most auspicious image to mark its reopening. Unfortunately it was the only one available. Yesterday, however, something altogether more suitable turned up, showing the Midland decked out in bunting and lanterns to celebrate a festive occasion – probably a royal jubilee or coronation. And haven’t they gone to town with the decorations? Many thanks to Paul De’Ath for allowing me to reproduce this fantastic photograph, which – unlike the previous one – shows the front of the building and indicates how extensively it was rebuilt in the twentieth century, with its three floors being reduced to two and the archway moved to the right-hand side of the building.
In a back street near Stapleton Road station lies the Old Fox, one of Bristol’s most sadly missed pubs. Today it overlooks the M32, but originally stood on the banks of the River Froom and took advantage of its location by providing bathing facilities. On 19 July 1755, the Bristol Journal advertised ‘the Old Fox public house, at Broad Stoney, near Lower Easton’ for sale or to let, along with ‘a bathing place in the river Froom, with commodious dressing houses’. Matthew’s Bristol Directory for 1793-4 listed two establishments ‘for those who are fond of bathing and swimming: the spacious bath and dressing houses … of Mr Rennison, near to Stokes-croft turnpike; and the conveniences for bathing in the River Froom, at the Fox, Baptist-mills, about half a mile from Bristol’.
In 1857, when Henry Fletcher, the landlord of the Old Fox, was declared bankrupt, he was described as a ‘licensed victualler and bathing-house proprietor’, and the lease of this ‘well-known house’ was advertised ‘with bathing houses adjoining’. It was taken over by Joseph Reynolds, who two years later established a court of the Ancient Order of Foresters – known as the ‘Banks of the Froom’ Court – at the inn. On 14 June 1860, he placed an advertisement in the Western Daily Press:
Festivities were not confined to the summer. On 7 January the following year, the Western Daily Press reported that ‘the low-lying meadows … opposite the Old Fox at Baptist Mills … were thronged with young and old of both sexes, enjoying either a slide or a skate, and fearless of a fall, knowing that the water beneath was but the shallow flood occasioned by the recent melting of the snow.’ Later in the year, on 2 September, a ‘grand fete and gala’ was held in the ‘pleasure ground’ of the Old Fox to raise funds for the Bristol Royal Infirmary. There was also a bowling green in the grounds, on which quoits matches were played.
When the Old Fox was put up for sale in 1888, it was described as:
the old-established, valuable, fully-licensed freehold premises known as the Old Fox Inn, with the skittle alley, stabling, greenhouse, well-known bathing and boating houses, extensive pleasure grounds and premises, containing together one acre, one rood, 4 poles or thereabouts, adjoining the River Froom, having a frontage of about 670 feet to Fox Lane, and conveniently near the Stapleton Road station. The house contains extensive underground cellarage, bar, bar parlour, brewhouse, kitchen and offices; on first floor, large clubroom and bedroom, and four bedrooms over. The property, besides offering a good opportunity for greatly developing the present business connected with the pleasure grounds, bathing, boating and skating, possesses a valuable frontage which is very eligible for building purposes.
The Old Fox’s career as a bathing and boating establishment was rapidly drawing to a close, however, as in 1891 the council announced plans to straighten and widen the River Froom as part of a flood prevention scheme. Shortly afterwards, the pleasure grounds were sold for housing and the Old Fox settled down to life as a backstreet boozer, albeit one with a distinguished past.
It eventually became a Courage pub, but in 1975 the brewery decided it was surplus to requirements and put it up for sale. It was snapped up by CAMRA (Real Ale) Investments Ltd, a company set up by the fledgling Campaign for Real Ale, as a flagship for real ale in the city. In 1983, CAMRA (Real Ale) Investments changed its name to Midsummer Inns, and two years later was taken over a company called Swithland Leisure, which was dissolved in 1998. The Old Fox continued in private ownership as one of the top cask ale pubs in the city until 2004, when it was sold at auction. Unfortunately, the new owners had no intention of running it as a pub; they had plans to convert it into a computer education centre. And so, on 15 May 2004, after more than 250 years, one of Bristol’s most historic inns called last orders for the very last time.
A few months ago this former Punch-owned pub was acquired by the City Pub Company, which had bought the Cork, at the other end of James Street West, a year earlier. They set about an intense 13-week refurbishment, transforming it from 70s throwback to vibrant modern pub, complete with microbrewery. The gloomy old skittle alley was turned into a eating area and open kitchen with charcoal spit and smokehouse, while outside at the back a new patio area – with a heated marquee for the colder months – was laid out.
When the Brew House threw open its doors on 30 September, it was not only difficult to find any points of similarity with what had been there before, it felt as though it had looked like this for ages. Not surprisingly, the team behind the refurbishment had an impressive track record of designing and running successful pubs. John Roberts, one of the directors of the City Pub Company, for example, was once MD of Fullers, while the Bath Brew house’s manager, Lucas Van Rensburg, came fresh from turning the long-closed St Aldate’s Tavern in Oxford into one of the most popular pubs in the city.
The most successful element of the Brew House’s design is the way in which, while being defiantly open-plan, it consists of a series of distinct areas, which flow into each other but have very distinct identities. So, even when it’s really busy, with crowds round the bar, there are two areas near the front – one with leather armchairs round an open fire, the other with wooden tables and a bar-football table – where you can escape the mêlée. Heading towards the back, there are the aforesaid family-friendly dining area and beer garden, while upstairs is a meeting room with Sky sports. And one major selling point, as far as we are concerned, is that, like all proper pubs, well-behaved dogs are allowed in the bar area.
Pride of place, however, goes to the six-barrel James Street Brewery, which greets you as you walk through the door, and produces three cask-conditioned beers for the pub. Two regular beers – Gladiator, a 3.8% classic best bitter, and Emperor, a superb hoppy pale ale weighing in at 4.4% – are joined by a third, seasonal brew. Currently on offer is Maximus, a 4.9% stout porter. For the official opening on 23 October, Festivus, a superb 5.2% ABV wheat beer, made its first appearance. Hopefully, it will become a regular feature. The brewer is Anna Schwable, who learned her craft at the 400-year-old Klosterbrauerei Ettal in Bavaria, one of the last surviving authentic German monastic breweries. Before moving to Bath, she was the brewer at Zero Degrees in Bristol.
As well as the three cask ales from the James Street Brewery, three more from local breweries are available. These change on a regular basis – on a recent visit beers from Yeovil, Braydon and Milk Street were on offer. There is also an ever-changing selection of four keg beers from the likes of Dark Star, Tiny Rebel, Magic Rock and the Wild Beer Co. For cider lovers, there is, in addition to Stowford Press, Honey’s from Midford.
A BIT OF HISTORY
The Midland Hotel, first licensed in August 1869, was opened to serve the newly-opened Midland Railway station at Green Park. The first landlord was William Henry Eyles. It had 14 bedrooms, a sitting room (with a stuffed parrot and a rosewood couch), a conservatory, a smoking room, a bar (resplendent in mahogany and copper), a bar parlour, a coffee room (with a bronzed tea urn and a framed engraving of the officials of the Midland Railway Company), a garden against the west wall and a drawing room. The drawing room was full of High Victorian kitsch, including a rosewood chiffonier, seaweed under glass, a figure under a shade, and engravings of ‘Queen Victoria’, ‘Rustic Felicity’, and ‘Sunday Morning’. In the photograph below of the floods of October 1882, a solitary figure pilots an improvised raft past the Midland Hotel. The long-gone gardens against the west wall, with statues, shrubs in large terracotta pots, and wires for Chinese Lanterns, can be seen on the right. The buildings across the road, including Trinity Church, were lost to bombing in 1942. (From Bath Pubs, published by Akeman Press)
Some pictures from the official opening .
There was a party atmosphere outside and inside.
The Looking Glass, one of Bristol’s newest pubs, is now its most recent closure. It opened in March 2012 – to premature cries of gloom and doom from some traditionalists – in part of the Rummer, an old coaching inn that once stretched through from the High Street to All Saints Lane. The western part of it had long been trading – under the name of the Rummer – as an upmarket bar. Noted for whisky, cocktails, leather armchairs, wedding receptions and the like, it was memorably described on ‘Beer in the Evening’ as having the ambience of a Madrid hotel.
The cries of doom and gloom were because the Rummer was being taken over by an artists’ collective from Stokes Croft, whose aim, as well as running it as a pub, was to provide ‘an affordable public space /platform’ where artists could ‘present their work and where art, music, enterprise and innovation [could] cluster in a vibrant community hub’. What could artists – the traditionalists figured – possibly know about real ale? Well, quite a bit as it happened, as well as how to transform a dingy, derelict dive, closed for over a decade, into a thriving pub.
When it opened, there was, naturally, plenty of art, both of the performance variety and of the sort that hangs on the wall, but that was just part of the glorious gallimaufry that made the Looking Glass one of the most refreshing additions to the Bristol pub scene for years. Turning this long-derelict boozer into a place people would want to visit was the result of some astonishingly hard graft. The decor, sourced from charity shops and the like rather than bought by the yard, was an eclectic mix of speakeasy and 1930s living room as reimagined by the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band – or the Zen Hussies – complete with piano, gramophone and winsomely tasselled standard lamps. With all that, it still looked – and felt – like a proper traditional boozer, with wooden beams, wood panelling, parquet floor and that dimly-lit hum of conversation and music that lifts the spirits as you walk through the door. It was also another demonstration that pubs, at their best, are about much more than drinking. The Looking Glass was a true community pub, even though it may not have fitted the conventional stereotype of one. It also, in case you’re wondering, had an impeccably kept range of cask ales from local breweries, craft beer from Wiper & True, proper cider and an amazing selection of gin.
Sadly, they only had it on a short-lease from the council, so this pop-up pub – whose vibe felt as though it had matured over decades – closed last Saturday, 19 October. It didn’t go out with a whimper, though, hosting a weekend-long party with some of Bristol’s best performance artists.
Word is that the leaseholder who’s got the other part of the Rummer is taking it over. So we’ve got that to look forward to. In the meantime, we can only hope that, given the panache the Looking Glass mob have shown in their 19-month stint on the High Street, they get the chance to display their talents in another city-centre venue very soon – and this time on a more permanent basis.
Independent Spirit, the new off-licence on Terrace Walk in Bath, is gaining a reputation for organising exciting events, including spirit tastings and cocktail classes. The shop is also dedicated to furthering the cause of good beer, whether it be real ale, craft beer or exotic foreign beers. Chris Scullion and Christian Morrish, who run this exciting venture, have even set up a home brewers’ club. Clearly the local brewers are sitting up and taking notice, because when Chris Scullion contacted them to see if they’d take part in a ‘Battle of the Brewers’ for the Great Bath Feast, they all rose magnificently to the challenge, using it as an event to launch some new brews.
Abbey Ales, Bath’s longest established brewery, came up with Oh Mr Porter, a dark, smooth porter beer at 4.9%, and dangerously drinkable. It also had a new design of pump clip – very different from the usual ‘Gothic arch’ ones. Is it possible this marks some style changes up at Camden Row? With four pubs, all with differing clientele, and new breweries opening up in Bath, Abbey Ales may feel it’s time to branch out in new directions.
A challenger to Abbey Ale’s claim to produce ‘The beer of Bath’ is the newly opened James Street Brewery, part of the Bath Brew House. Formerly the ‘Metropolitan’, it’s been transformed into a pub and eating place which is pulling in the crowds. It might look a bit like a gastropub but it’s very serious about its beers. The head brewer, Anna Schwable,was the brewer at Zero Degrees, and she’s been dreaming up some interesting beers for the pub. Originally from Bavaria, home of lager style beers, Anna is adamant that her beers are very definitely cask conditioned. All their beers have a name with a Roman association and for the Battle of the Brewers, she came up with Cervisa Vatillum, a vanilla flavoured porter at 4.9%. The vanilla flavour was exactly right –discernible, but not too dominant.
Bath Ales is so well known, it hardly needs an introduction. Its pubs the Salamander and the Hop Pole have long been fixtures in Bath, now joined by the Graze Bar at the station, with its own brewery. Their brewer had also come up with a vanilla beer, but this was a milk stout with added vanilla. (They hadn’t yet come up with a name, it was so new. )
Moving further afield, Box Steam Brewery had come up with a dining beer, Evening Star. So new it isn’t on their website yet, this is a new concept in beer drinking. At 7.5% its intense flavour means it will match with many kinds of food and the brewery had provided chocolate for tasters to have with it – it certainly complemented that wonderfully. It comes in an elegant 75 cl stoneware bottle, should be served slightly chilled in goblet glasses, and, it is hoped, will convince dedicated wine-drinkers that beer is just as acceptable at the dining table.
The Wild Beer Company is based at Evercreech, and it had already made a big impact on the Bath drinking scene when its beers were at the pop-up restaurant, run by Sam’s Kitchen, in the Octagon. This is not ‘real ale’, but the new kid on the block in the brewing world, craft beer. While it might make diehard traditionalists shake their heads in dismay, many beer drinkers are enjoying it. They’ve produced a marvellous range of beers – there must be something for everyone. As they say on their website: ‘Our beers are brewed with a combination of ancient and new techniques, with the aim of producing a beer for people who want to discover and understand new tastes and flavours. ‘
At the Battle of the Brewers, they chose to see if they could improve on a former favourite Wildebeest. Although one or two punters weren’t certain, others thought this was even better than the first brew. But at a massive 11%, it’s definitely not a session beer.
And finally, from Dorset, came Artbrew. Becky and John Whinnerah ran the Royal Oak in Twerton before setting up their own brewery, with its very own water supply from a spring. Describing themselves as beer anarchists, they’ve been very adventurous in their brews. There are such beers as Baby Anarchist at 3.2% and Hip Hop Motueka at 4.3%. The Monkey series is very popular – in fact, Monkey IPA (6.4%) was the SIBA National Champion Premium Strong Ale 2013. Not for the faint-hearted is Spanked Monkey (6.4%) which is Monkey but ‘dry hopped’ with chilli and ginger.
But for the Battle of the Brewers, the Whinnerahs turned their back on these and their other beers and brought a unique beer – a two-year old spiced Ruby Porter at 6.5%. This was the only cask, so if you didn’t get there, you missed a very special treat.
So those were the six brewers. Independent Spirit, however, had its own stall, allowing people to try some of their more unusual foreign beers, including some from America, as well as bottled beers from local breweries. And, of course, we were there, in our guise as Akeman Press, with books for sale, old photographs some of which have never been published, and fliers to spread the word about this blog.
At the end of the afternoon, there had been an amazing number of visitors to the tent, despite the wet weather. Everyone said how much they had enjoyed it, and it looks as though most of the brewers would be interested in repeating the experience.
We’d like to thank Chris and Christian for inviting us, the six brewers for taking part, and Bath Bid and Bath Tourism Plus for letting Independent Spirit use the Feast Pavilion in Stall Street.
Finally – who won? Well, everyone decided it was such a friendly occasion, did they really want to give it a competitive edge? These six beers were all so good, how could you choose between them? The real winners were the public, who got the chance to taste six truly exceptional beers. Let’s hpe there will be more tastings like this one.
In 2003 we published Bath Pubs, the history of the city’s surviving pubs – all 108 of them. Since then 21 have closed. Many others have been renamed, while many have changed from being traditional boozers to gastropubs. The list of the 21 that have closed not only makes depressing reading, but indicates what we may have to look forward to in the years to come.
2004: HAT & FEATHER, London Street. This old inn, rebuilt around 1903, was long one of the city’s liveliest music venues. Now converted to the Hudson Bar & Steakhouse.
2006: NEW BURNT HOUSE, Wellsway. An eighteenth-century farmhouse, opened as a beerhouse around 1870. Demolished and replaced by flats.
2006: ROUNDHOUSE, Stall Street. Opened as a wine merchants in 1809 but converted to a pub by the mid-nineteenth century and rebuilt in 1897. Now a Pret a Manger.
2007: DARK HORSE, Northampton Street. Opened in the 1830s, occupying the ground floor of a very desirable Georgian townhouse, which it has now reverted to.
2008: ENGLISHCOMBE INN, Englishcombe Lane. Massive pub opened in 1934 to serve new suburbs. Now converted to a care home.
2008: JUBILEE, Whiteway Hill, Twerton. Opened in 1888, incorporating a small beerhouse called the Whiteway House, and renamed in honour of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Demolished and replaced by housing.
2009: BRAINS SURGERY, Dafford Street, Larkhall. Opened as a beerhouse called the Royal Oak c1841; rebuilt c1898; renamed the Brains Surgery after being acquired by Brains Brewery. Now converted to student accommodation.
2009: CASTLE, Forester Road, Bathwick. Opened before 1841, rebuilt in 1898. Now converted to housing.
2009: FILOS, Beaufort West, London Road. Opened as the First Inn Last Out c1900, having previously been a beerhouse. Now a restaurant called 1 Beaufort.
2009: PORTER BUTT, London Road. An eighteenth-century coaching inn, and latterly home to the ‘Walcot Palais’, one of the city’s most popular music venues. After closure it was occupied by squatters who set up the Black Cat Centre and held gigs there. It is now a Richer Sounds store.
2009: RUMMER, Newmarket Row. Eighteenth century tavern, now converted to an Italian bar and restaurant.
2010: HORSESHOE, North Road, Combe Down. Opened as a beerhouse, probably in the 1840s. Originally had a smithy at the back, hence its name. Despite an offer being made from a company wanting to run it as a pub, it has been converted to housing.
2010: LONGACRE TAVERN, London Road. Opened in the 1840s, rebuilt in the 1960s and now a branch of Domino’s Pizza.
2010: ROSE & LAUREL, Rush Hill. Opened around 1880 in a row of old cottages. Permission granted for conversion to housing.
2011: PARK TAVERN, Park Lane. Eighteenth-century tavern originally known as the Blue Lodge. Application lodged for conversion to housing.
2012: BATH TAP, St James’s Parade. Originally opened as the Devonshire Arms in 1849, the Bath Tap was one of the city’s top gay pubs. It was briefly renamed the 19th House before reverting to the Bath Tap in December 2011, but closed four months later. It is now being converted to housing.
2012: BELVEDERE WINE VAULTS, Belvedere. An eighteenth-century inn now converted to bed & breakfast accommodation.
2012: RISING SUN, Lymore Avenue. An application has been made to convert this nineteenth-century beerhouse to five flats.
2013: GREEN PARK TAVERN, Lower Bristol Road. Opened in the 1840s, closed suddenly in August 2013. A busy, popular pub, and one of the city’s most popular music venues, reopening seems likely.
2013: KING’S ARMS, Monmouth Place. An eighteenth-century coaching inn, and another top music venue, it closed suddenly in May 2013.
2013: YE OLD FARMHOUSE, Lansdown Road. The seventeenth-century farmhouse that housed the pub was rebuilt in 1892. Long famed for jazz sessions most nights of the week, opening hours were cut in April 2013 and it is now reported closed.
The last three may well reopen, but the others are almost certainly gone forever. (Although to be fair, three of them – the Hat & Feather, Filos and the Rummer – have survived as licensed premises.) To set against all this doom and gloom, three new pubs have opened – the Royal Oak, closed in 1999, reopened in 2005; Hall & Woodhouse opened a pub in an old auction house in 2010; and in 2013 Bath Ales opened a bar-cum-brewery called Graze in a new retail complex at the railway station.
It is a similar story across the country. The pub scene is in turmoil, with pubs closing at a faster rate than ever before. It is not just the future of our pubs that is at stake, serious though that is; it is the future of our communities, of community values, of tradition, of heritage – and of a unique institution in danger of disappearing forever.
Welcome to our new pub blog. In future, we’ll bring all sorts of news and views about pubs that we like, and that we hope you will like too. But what if pubs ceased to exist? Don’t laugh. It’s a real threat. Pubs are closing at a faster rate than they have ever done before. Throughout history, the numbers have always fluctuated – often through Government interference.
In 1830, for example, MPs voted in the Beer Act. This made it very easy to open a beer house, to encourage the public to drink beer rather than gin. It worked beyond the Government’s wildest dreams. So successful was it that the powers-that-be started to look for ways to close them again. During World War I, David Lloyd George declared: ‘We are fighting Germany, Austria and drink; and as far as I can see, the greatest of these deadly foes is drink!’The conflict was used as an excuse to crack down on pubs and beer. It was even an offence to buy someone a round or lend a friend money to buy his own pint.
Today, the situation is different. It is often the owners of the pub – it may be a pubco or a private individual – who want to sell their property – but as a house, not a pub. It’s worth much more like that. But there’s a little snag. To get change of use, they have to show that the pub is not viable. The local community has a nasty habit of rising up and saying it is, so the owners employ some little tricks.
Here are a few to watch out for.
- Frequent change of manager – especially if a manager starts to turn the place around and make it viable again. He or she will smartly be moved on.
- Putting in incompetent and/or inexperienced tenants.
- If privately owned, the formerly friendly landlord will start to be rude and unhelpful.
- It stops doing food when food was very popular.
- Most dangerous of all, the pub starts opening and closing at unpredictable hours. This deters customers very neatly.
If your local starts showing any of these symptoms – get on to your local councillor. If alarm bells sound and enough of the community support you, you can ask the council to declare the pub a community asset. The best place to find the information about this is on a website called http://mycommunityrights.org.uk. Briefly, being a community asset means that if it goes up for sale, the vendor can discuss a sale with whom he or she chooses, but they cannot exchange contracts within a six month period except with a community interest group. It does not give the right of first refusal to the group after six months, but the delay may be an incentive. And the fact that it has been declared a community asset means that, even if not sold to the community, the local planning authority should take a long hard look at any future application. It may not sound like much, but it has resulted in some success stories.
If you doubt that a well-run pub is at the heart of a community, let me tell you about two estates in South Croydon, both built in the late 1960s and next to each other. One is just a collection of houses, but the other is a community. Why? Because the developer of the second one built a community centre, with a bar and function rooms. It acts like the local pub. You might say: ‘But I hardly ever go down the pub.’ Maybe not, but at the moment it’s there for you to visit. What if it closed? As the song says, ‘Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?’ And once a pub has gone, it’s a lot of effort to get it back.
From village local like the Tom Cobley at Spreyton to town corner boozer like the Pride of Spitalfields, the English pub is a great institution, but today it really is a case of use it or lose it. We must save our pubs.