Category Archives: Bristol Pubs

Reading Matter

Interesting article on the craft beer revolution in the Guardian today, very balanced and not taken in by the hype. It also addressed the issues of big brewers jumping onto the bandwagon and of artificially inflated prices for anything that can be labelled craft beer. Among those interviewed was Pete Brown who ‘railed at the opportunism – generally third-party distributors, bars and restaurants adding unreasonable mark-ups – that means even average craft beer can increasingly cost £5 a print.’ The article’s balance even extended to CAMRA, represented by an affable spokesperson who, while admitted that CAMRA would ‘always promote cask beer … anything attracting new drinkers to the joys of beer has got to be a good thing’. The CAMRA types I tend to come across, however, seem to regard craft beer either as a return to the bad old days of Watney Red or as overpriced novelty juice appealing to those whose lack of beer knowledge is matched by a willingness to fritter away money.

CAMRA also figures largely in a splendid book I’ve just finished reading called Brew Britannia by those indefatigable bloggers Boak and Bailey. It looks at how brewing in this country – and indeed elsewhere – has changed from the days before CAMRA came on the scene to now. It is a story that has been told many times before, but rarely as well and never as comprehensively. Not only have they carried out loads of new research, they have interviewed many of the key players from way back as well as many of the new kids on the block. There are also some fascinating brewery family trees at the end, showing how new ideas and techniques have been disseminated through the industry by innovative brewers training others who have gone on to put them into practice elsewhere.

The Small Bar in Bristol, decked out for the Harbour Festival
The Small Bar in Bristol, decked out for the Harbour Festival

For local drinkers, the book has the added appeal of an introductory chapter set in the Small Bar in Bristol, which, although the authors don’t actually say so, seems to stand for the best of today’s cutting-edge beer culture – and that’s something I’ll certainly drink to.

IPA Day and Wickwar’s White Lion

A visit to Bristol a week or so ago coincided with ‘IPA Day’. I have no idea whether this was a local or national initiative but it gave me the chance to try some interesting brews. Supernatural from the New Bristol Brewery was one I had been hearing about for some time – not least from Noel the brewer – and I am glad to say it lived up to expectations. A splendid beer – richly-flavoured, amber-coloured and well-balanced – that lets you know it weighs in at a hefty 7%. Definitely one worth seeking out. Somewhat more challenging was Arbor’s collaboration with Indy-Man Brewhouse, a Lemon and Lime IPA that weighed in at 8.2%. Given its name – and its pedigree – it is hardly surprising that the ‘citrus notes’ so beloved of beer bloggers were to the fore here. Verdict – not a session beer (obviously) and maybe not something I’d want to drink regularly, but certainly interesting enough to want to try again if they get round to another collaboration.   IMG_8197

The same evening, I decided, largely because it came on to rain rather heavily, to call into the White Lion on the Centre. This Wickwar brewery pub was one I called into quite regularly when Les (most recently at the Vittoria on Whiteladies Road) was the landlord, but after he left my visits grew more infrequent as the quality of beer grew more unpredictable, and I had not been in for about three years. I am very pleased to report that, under Martin, the current landlord, the White Lion has returned to form, and the selection of Wickwar beers was on top form.IMG_8300

Can it be June already?

We return after long absence, due (almost) entirely due to other commitments, such as working on a couple of books (of which more anon) and of course visits to some outstanding pubs. We also ran a one-off Georgian pub crawl in the Bath Literature Festival, starting off in authentically early Georgian setting of the cellar of the splendid Independent Spirit, and kicking off with tastings of Bliss, a traditional saison-style brew from the Wild Beer Company. Numbers were strictly limited on the Georgian Pub Crawl, so, for all those who did not get to find out how they liked to get hammered in the eighteenth century, a version of it will shortly be appearing on the blog. We have also discovered some excellent new pubs, especially in Gloucestershire, but also in Cornwall, and we have made return trips to some Somerset pub s we hadn’t visited for a long while. Needless to say, they were all dog friendly, and Islay gave them all the thumbs – or at least the paws – up.

Local news is sadly that planners gave the go ahead for the Farmhouse to be converted from a pub to a ‘health hub’ – so much for safeguarding local amenities. Two other Bath pubs have had a complete makeover and change of name. The Grappa Bar on Lansdown Road (still remembered by many as Bath’s last true cider house) has been reinvented as Comfort & Cure, featuring charcuterie, cheese and craft ale, while the Piccadilly on the London Road, unchanged since who knows when, has become the Hive, a community-based enterprise run as a cafe during the day and a bar with live music, etc, in the evening. All this is purely hearsay, as neither has yet been visited, an omission which will be put right asap. One that has been visited is the Westgate pub in Westgate Street, which since its latest makeover has around five craft beers on keg, including Brewdog Punk IPA and offerings from the likes of the Wild Beer Co, along with a good selection of cask ales and ciders.

Over in Bristol, things are finally happening at the Lamplighters, which after having got into an appalling state closing several years ago, is set to be refurbed for an opening later in the year.

The Lamplighters a few months ago ...
The Lamplighters a few months ago …
... and as it looked when it was a George's pub.
… and as it looked when it was a George’s pub.

Over in St Werburghs, meanwhile, one of Bristol’s most striking pubs, the Duke of York, has been given a facelift in the form of a new mural.

The Chelsea gets a new look
The Duke of York gets a new look

Independent Spirit in Bath (see above) goes from strength to strength – and we are not just talking ABV here. Chris and Christian continue to source superb beers from around the UK – and the world – that have simply not cropped up on the radar before, so many in fact that it is impossible to keep up with them. We also managed to get to a terrific rum tasting evening there as well as a ‘meet the brewer’ session with Shane O’Beirne from Beerd. This was something of a revelation, for, although I was familiar with Shane’s keynote ‘new wave’ style brews using American, Australian and New Zealand hops, his Scottish 80 shilling and a mild – Mildy Cyrus – brewed in collaboration with the Bristol Beer Factory were superb examples of more traditional beer styles. My favourite of the seven beers of the evening, however, was Convict, a cheekily-monikered offering using Australian hops – mainly Galaxy, but with a sprinkling of Ella. This should be appearing in selected Bath Ales pubs and other outlets soon.                

Shane O'Beirne of Beerd and Chris Scullion of Independent Spirit
Shane O’Beirne of Beerd and Chris Scullion of Independent Spirit


The Sorry End of Another Bristol Pub

Nothing illustrates more graphically the plight of so many of our pubs than the sad fate of the Kings Arms on Little Paul Street in Kingsdown. Not that well known a boozer perhaps, set as it was off the beaten track in the middle of a housing estate. Many people – even dedicated pub crawlers – may not have come across it. But, if you are struggled to locate it, It lies roughly midway between two of the best-known pubs in Bristol – the Highbury Vaults on St Michael’s Hill (now with Bath Ales Beerd across the road) and the Green Man on Alfred Place, the Dawkins’ Ales pub known until about five years ago as the Bell. The Kings Arms had been there since the 1820s and could, given the right level of support, been as successful and popular as either of those aforementioned pubs. It was certainly a handsome and commodious building, with plenty of space to host all manner of events – but in this case ‘was’ is the appropriate word, for, after closing in 2010, an application to convert it to student accommodation was submitted. An initial refusal was overturned on appeal, and within the last week, the building – all except for its facade – was bulldozed to create ‘student cluster flats with an office and letting agency’. The first two pictures show it as it looked in June this year, the last three were taken yesterday (7 January). Not perhaps the more cheerful note to start the New Year on, but have a good one anyway.

kings arms kingsdown facade 3 kings arms kingsdown facade 2 kings arms kingsdown facade 1

Beer & pub related literary events in Bristol: No 1 Marks Steeds and the Seven Stars

Last Saturday, 7 December, as part of a local book fair at the Create Centre in Bristol, publican, publisher and local historian Mark Steeds gave a talk on slavery, focusing on two characters – St Wulfstan, who brought the slave trade between Bristol and Ireland in the eleventh century to an end, and Thomas Clarkson. Wulfstan once lived at Hawkesbury Upton in South Gloucestershire, where Mark is the landlord of the excellent Beaufort Arms, while Clarkson was closely associated with a pub in Bristol – the Seven Stars.

1 SEVEN STARSThe Seven Stars is one of Bristol’s oldest inns. It is also – for those who don’t know the city – one of the most difficult to find. Its location, tucked away down an alley well away from the city centre and not too near the docks, was, in the bad old days, something of an advantage. Not only could it escape the prying eyes of the city fathers; it was at a safe distance from all the nefarious goings-on at the dockside.

The most nefarious goings-on, of course, were those connected with the slave trade. Far from being outlawed, however, those who dabbled in this evil trade were honoured by the city. Some, like Edward Colston, still are. Despite official assurances that the slave trade was a well-run business, with the slaves well looked-after, many people harboured grave doubts, fuelled by tales of what really went on.   


In 1787, a national association for the abolition of the slave trade was established. One of its founders was Thomas Clarkson, a 27-year Cambridge-educated clergyman who had determined to devote his life to the abolition of slavery. As he wanted to gather as much evidence as possible to use against the slave traders, it was natural that one of the first places he should visit was Bristol.

Abolitionists in Bristol were in an invidious position. Bristol had grown rich on the slave trade; to attack it was to attack the basis of the city’s prosperity. Clarkson and his co-conspirators – as they were undoubtedly seen by the authorities – had to operate by stealth if they were to get the information they needed.

Clarkson’s initial reaction to Bristol was not favourable. On seeing the city for the first time, he wrote that ‘it filled me, almost directly, with a melancholy for which I could not account. I began now to tremble, for the first time, at the arduous task I had undertaken, of attempting to subvert one of the branches of the commerce of the great place which was now before me.’

He found most doors closed against him. ‘The owners of vessels employed in the Trade there,’ he wrote, ‘forbad all intercourse with me. The old captains, who had made their fortunes in it, would not see me. The young, who were making them, could not be supposed to espouse my cause to the detriment of their own interest.’

Clarkson had been told, however, that sailors had ‘an aversion to enter and were inveigled, if not forced, into this hateful employment’. Disgruntled sailors would, he figured, be the best source of information about the slave trade. The problem was finding them. He was a middle-class clergyman; the men he wanted to interview would be found in the roughest parts of one of the most dangerous cities in the land. Not only that: he was, as far as the slave traders were concerned, a marked man. He was almost killed in Liverpool, England’s other main slave-trading port, by a bunch of roughs hired to assassinate him, and he was obviously keen to avoid a similar confrontation in Bristol. 

Fortunately, not all of those who wanted the slave trade abolished were middle class. Clarkson was introduced to a man called Thompson (we don’t know his first name), the landlord of the Seven Stars. Clarkson described him as a very intelligent man who received sailors discharged at the end of their voyages and helped them find places on other ships. He refused to have any dealings with the slave trade, aware that his reputation – and the reputation of his inn – would be ruined if he sent those who entrusted themselves to his care onto slave ships.

With Thompson as his guide, Clarkson made 19 visits to various public houses in Marsh Street used by masters of slavers to pick up hands. They generally set out around midnight and returned two or three hours later. From his own observations and from information given him by Thompson, Clarkson gathered ample evidence to confirm his suspicions that sailors were inveigled onto slave ships by lies and fraud. Getting them blind drunk or cracking them over the head in a dark alley were also regarded as legitimate means of recruitment. 

Clarkson was also able to prove, using information from muster rolls, that, far from being a ‘nursery for British seamen’, as anti-abolitionists claimed, slave ships were floating graves for sailors and slaves alike, with far more sailors dying on slave ships than on all the other vessels sailing out of Bristol put together.

The evidence Clarkson collected provided the abolitionists with an unanswerable case for reform. Hard facts, rather than opinion and hearsay, could be used to counter the anti-abolitionists’ claims that the slave trade was well-run and well-regulated. It took 20 years from the time Clarkson stepped over the threshold of the Seven Stars for the slave trade to be abolished, but his work in Bristol created a momentum that was unstoppable.

The scope of Clarkson’s work in Bristol would almost certainly have been far less comprehensive and have had far less impact if it had not been for the courage of the landlord of the Seven Stars. It was Thompson who provided him with an entrée to places he would not have dared go and to people who would not otherwise have trusted him.

Given the importance of the Seven Stars not only to Bristol’s heritage, but also to national and international history, it is astonishing it is so little known. Admittedly, the Civic Society put a blue plaque above the door a few years ago, but that was about it until Mark Steeds decided that something more was needed.

He came up with the idea of a large plaque commemorating Clarkson, and highlighting the role played by the landlord of the Seven Stars in the abolition movement. Bristol Radical History Group took up the idea and Mike Baker was commissioned to produce a plaque. The aluminium casting was unveiled at lunchtime on 1 May 2009, the 202nd anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in Bristol and other British ports.

Mark Steeds at the unveiling ceremony
Mark Steeds at the unveiling ceremony

A prestigious line-up of speakers included Mark Steeds, who introduced the Seven Stars as ‘the pub that changed the world’, Roger Bell, from the Bristol Radical History Group, who gave a stirring resumé of Clarkson’s life and influence, Madge Dresser from the University of the West of England, who has written extensively on the slave trade, and Mike Baker, who described Clarkson one of the ‘greatest Britons’.

This sentiment was echoed by Paul Stephenson, the well-known local civil rights campaigner, who first came to prominence in 1963 when he organised a boycott of Bristol’s buses after the company refused to employ blacks or Asians. The 60-day protest, supported by thousands of local people, ended with the company backing down. Later, his refusal to leave a Bristol pub that had a colour-bar led to a court appearance and national media coverage. His campaigning on these and other issues influenced the framing of the government’s first anti-discrimination laws in 1965, so he is well placed to appreciate the difficulties Clarkson and other abolitionists faced and the convictions that sustained them. In a short but powerful speech, he emphasised not only the centrality of Clarkson to Bristol’s history, but also his role in the ongoing struggle for civil rights. He also called for Clarkson’s name to be taken up by the city council in recognition of his achievement instead of that of the now discredited Colston.

The plaque was unveiled by Richard Hart, a civil rights lawyer from Jamaica who played a key role in the transition from colonial rule to independence in the Caribbean and was Attorney General of Grenada before the American invasion of 1983, since when he has lived in Bristol.


Clarkson’s and Thompson’s story is still an inspiration today, demonstrating not only that if you believe something strongly enough you can change the world, but also that it doesn’t matter who you are – be it a Cambridge-educated clergyman or a pub landlord. The plaque on the Seven Stars is a first step towards raising the profile of one of the greatest Britons in a city that has so far paid him scant recognition. That it will also help raise the profile of one of Bristol’s best – and most elusive – pubs is another bonus.

If you haven’t yet discovered the Seven Stars, you’ll find it if you cross Bristol Bridge, head towards Temple Meads station along Victoria Street, take the second right into St Thomas Street and then turn right (between the Fleece & Firkin and St Thomas’s Church) into Thomas Lane. There really is no better place to toast Clarkson’s memory.



The Craft Beer Revolution in Bristol – or Today King Street, Tomorrow the World!

I’ve been meaning for some time to write about the craft beer bars opened in Bristol over the past year. Every time I decide to do something about it, though, it seems that another one’s opening up – another one that needs to be included, and of course to be visited and checked out.

Enough excuses. With apologies to anyone au fait with the craft beer scene in Bristol, what follows is a lightning tour of what’s happened over the last year.

It hardly seems possible that a little over twelve months ago, craft beer was largely unknown in Bristol – unless, that is, you include Zero Degrees, but more of that in a later blog.

1 BREW DOGTo all intents and purposes, it was the opening of the BrewDog pub in the old Sceptre Inn on the corner of Baldwin Street that kicked everything off. There’s been a pub on this site for a very long time. In the 1750s it was known as the Ship, before it was rebuilt and renamed the Sceptre in the late nineteenth century. It had been a sandwich bar or some such for several years before being revamped in grand style with ‘Welcome to the Craft Beer Revolution’ writ large on its plate-glass windows. When it threw open its doors, it was busy from the off, with many seasoned drinkers suddenly confronted with something new and exciting. Bristol’s drinkers, it seemed, couldn’t get enough of it.  

And, on the basis of ‘if they can do it, so can we’, others took up the challenge. Among the first were two of the best established cask ale pubs in the city. Both, as it happened, were taps for local breweries – the Barley Mow on Barton Road in the Dings for Bristol Beer Factory and the Three Tuns on St George’s Road for Arbor Ales. Both breweries and pubs were (and still are) very much at the top of their game, innovative, exciting, award-winning and all the rest. That’s why they decided not to stand still and do what they’d done in the past but to embrace the craft beer revolution, while maintaining a commitment to cask beer. It’s really all about quality, and about offering increasingly sophisticated drinkers what they want – even if they may not know what they want until they get it. Traditionalists – and anyone who likes decent pubs – will be pleased to learn, however, that both the Barley Mow and the Three Tuns are very much in the mould of the traditional welcoming backstreet pub.

Up at the top of St Michael’s Hill, meanwhile, Bath Ales went for something a little different, opening Beeerd, a craft beer and pizza joint opposite the Highbury Vaults, and launching a splendid new microbrewery – also called Beerd – to brew for it.

The next three craft beer bars to open were somewhat larger. Up on Stokes Croft, the

Crofter's Rights
Crofter’s Rights

owners of the Euston Tap in London, who’d already been serving craft beer alongside the bowling alleys at the Lanes in Nelson Street, took on the Croft. They renamed it Crofter’s Rights, stripped this fascinating old building – once an eighteenth-century coaching inn called the Swan – back to basics, turning it into a high-vaulted gothic fantasy of an ancient beer hall in an obscure Hanseatic fiefdom, adorned with little more than a gleaming row of beer taps.

Down on King Street, opposite the Theatre Royal, meanwhile, the Royal Naval Volunteer (or Volly as it’s more usually known) had a subtle renaming to the Royal Navy Volunteer, along with a thoroughgoing revamp and a similarly stunning choice of kegs and cask beers. Others may like the decor, the comfy chairs or the dim lighting, but for my money what really stands out – apart from the beer  of course – is the splendid way the beers are listed on a couple of boards – no more jostling at a long and crowded bar trying in vain to see what’s on the pump clips and eventually opting for something you recognise nearby.

Right next door to the Volly (and downstairs, so don’t be put off by the deserted range of seats and tables around the closed mini-bar on the ground floor) is the Beer Emporium – in the vaults to be precise. Anyone familiar with bars and clubs in vaulted premises in Bath and indeed in other parts of Bristol may now be thinking ‘cosy’ at this stage. Well, welcoming, friendly and awesomely arrayed the Beer Emporium may be, but these are vaults on an industrial scale – with a range of beers to match. The beer menu alone is a thing of multi-leaved beauty – hardly surprising when you consider that a fridge the length of one of the longest bars in Bristol is stocked full of obscure and wonderful things.

And, as if all that was not enough, last week the old Bunch of Grapes across the road –

The Small Bar
The Small Bar

more recently known as the Sublime Bar – opened as the Small Bar (a reference to the big bars across the road, perchance?) Small – although not actually that small – but perfectly formed, with more beers on offer than you’ll find in most medium-sized towns. And a minimalist makeover that makes the most of the building’s eighteenth-century pedigree.Plus a one-barrel brewery at the back which local microbrewers will be invited to collaborate to brew wondrous concoctions for the pub.

And last weekend, if you’d chanced along King Street, you’d have found a beer festival in a marquee in the middle of the street – free entry, with a superb selection of beers straight from the barrel – all courtesy of the Beer Emporium.

To call all this a revolution hardly seems an exaggeration. As far as King Street goes, its rather lacklustre reputation beerwise has been well and truly trounced. If there is,

anywhere in the world, a better selection of world-class beers in a compass comparable to that of the King Street Triangle – Volly, Emporium and Small Bar – then I’d like to hear about it.

And then there are all the other bars and bars who’ve signed up for the revolution – the Portcullis in Clifton with a couple of craft beer taps, the Colston Yard, the selection of bottled beers at the Bag O Nails and (so I am told) at the Hophouse – and no doubt several others I’ve not come across yet.

And, with all that happening in just over a year, who knows what 2014 holds. These are exciting times, not just for craft beer, but for all beer, and for all drinkers. Today King Street – tomorrow the world!

The Barley Mow in the Dings
The Barley Mow in the Dings
The Three Tuns
The Three Tuns
Beerd on St Michael's Hill
Beerd on St Michael’s Hill
Crofter's Rights
Crofter’s Rights

6 RNV3

The Royal Navy Volunteer
The Royal Navy Volunteer
Spoilt for choice at the Royal Navy Volunteer
Spoilt for choice at the Royal Navy Volunteer
The bar at the Beer Emporium - with a bottled beer fridge just as long
The bar at the Beer Emporium – with a bottled beer fridge just as long
Inside the Small Bar
Inside the Small Bar
Another view of the Small Bar - the dog was friendly, by the way
Another view of the Small Bar – the dog was friendly, by the way
The Beer Emporium Beer Festival
The Beer Emporium Beer Festival












The Sorry Saga of the Old Fox

OLD FOX INNIn 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’.

1855 mapA mid-nineteenth century map showing the Old Fox – or the Fox as it is called here – standing in virtual isolation on the banks of the Froom

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:

14 6 1860

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.

12 7 1870An advertisement from July 1870

1880s mapBy the 1880s, when this map was published, houses had begun to encroach on the Old Fox and a footbridge had been built across the river

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.         


RIP The Looking Glass

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.