The London Road in Bath has lost more than its fair share of pubs over the last decade. Some of them, to be fair, seemed well past their sell-by date. Having said that, even pubs that seems to have reached the point of no return can still make a spectacular comeback. Take the King William at the bottom of Thomas Street, for instance – the first pub on the London Road you come to as you head out of town. Opened as a beerhouse in the 1830s, this was the sort of tiny street-corner boozer that – according to industry analysts – should have disappeared years ago, and when it closed in 2002 few people thought it would ever reopen. It was an archetypal local’s pubs, with card players, a thick fug of tobacco smoke and curtains drawn against the outside world even on the sunniest day.
But instead of being snapped up by a developer and converted to flats, it was acquired by Charlie and Amanda Digney who cleaned it up, preserving as many of the original features as they could, and reopened it as a combination of local boozer and gastropub that hit the mark from day one – and continues to do so well over a decade later. Superb food, superb beer, and a place where a loyal band of regulars are joined by a constant stream of newcomers who almost invariably vow to return. It’s got no parking, still has its old two-room layout, and is well out of the city centre – yet with all that it is one of the most inspiring success stories of the Bath pub trade in the 21st century.
Carry on along the London Road, though, and the story is less cheerful. A little further on was the Long Acre Tavern, a 1960s rebuild of another nineteenth-century pub which now houses Domino’s Pizzas. Across the road was the Porter Butt, which had a hall at the back – known as the Walcot Palais – which was one of the best small music venues in the city. It was – or at any rate had been – a very well-appointed pub, some 200 years old, but with lots of fittings dating from an extensive refit in the 1920s or 1930s, and was crying out for some serious investment to realise its potential. In this case, unfortunately, however, its decline led to its conversion to a branch of Richer Sounds.
And so we come to what was the Piccadilly Ale House on the corner of Hanover Street. Built around 1805, this was originally an upmarket hostelry called the Britannia. Masonic lodges and the local militia held their meetings here, and it was a focal point for local political groups. In the mid-twentieth century it was renamed the Piccadilly after the terrace it stood in, but, as the world moved on, it stayed just as it was – which would have been OK, if there had been sufficient investment to keep it up to scratch. But there wasn’t, and its slow spiral of decline ended with closure, followed by a short-lived reopening as the Hive – part family-friendly cafe, part music venue, part-pub. When that closed and the building was placed, on the market its conversion to flats, offices or a retail unit seemed unavoidable.
Step forward Michael and Emma Heap, with a new spin on what a pub should be, and the determination to make it work. In the case of the Piccadilly, that meant an enormous amount of hard graft, reversing the effect of years of neglect and creating a venue that looked to the future with confidence rather than muddling along in a time-worn timewarp. Dingy old fittings and decades of encrustation were stripped away – to reveal a light and airy space which, while harking back to its origins as a Georgian tavern, could accommodate the cutting edge of interior design.
After months of hard graft, Chapter One finally opened its doors in May this year, a new and very welcome addition to Bath’s pub scene. The emphasis is very much on beer, with up to five craft ales on tap at any one time. Cask ales are not offer at the moment, because of the logistics of serving them in a pub which is currently only open four days a week. Plans are in hand, however, to open on other days, and lines for cask ale (the pipes that will bring it up from the cellar) have already been installed. So, as soon as opening hours are extended, pumps will appear on the bar and cask ale will flow.
Michael and Emma are passionate about beer, and eager to introduce locals to as many small independent brewers as possible. So far, the list has included Kernel, Cloudwater, Ilkley, Siren, 5 Points, Arbor, Burning Sky, Bristol Beer Factory, Wylam, Beavertown, Saltaire, Wild Beer, Dark
Star, Wiper & True, Moor, Tiny Rebel, Thornbridge, Left Handed Giant – and many others. There have already been two tap takeovers – Good Chemistry from Bristol on 23 July and, more recently, Kettlesmith from Bradford on Avon on 8 October.
In line with their policy of supporting small independent producers, especially from the local area, Michael and Emma also serve Handmade Cider and Somerset Cider Brandy, as well as a carefully chosen range of wines and spirits. A range of Scotch eggs – made in Bath – are also available should you feel peckish.
Chapter One has already attracted a loyal band of regular customers, who come to enjoy its laid-back atmosphere, relax over a beer or two and maybe play one of the many board and card games on offer. And, although it is a fair step from the town centre, word is getting around that, for those keen on trying craft beers from an ever-changing range of cutting-edge brewers, it is well worth the effort of getting to know.
Chapter One is open from 5pm on Thursdays and Fridays, and from 2pm on Saturdays and Sundays.