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.