Category Archives: Pub History

Popping up at the Packhorse

Work and play at the PackhorseIMG_8254The controversy about the dropping of the word Easter from Cadbury’s Egg hunts, despite being exposed as fake news, also showed that Easter is a very ancient tradition which, wherever and in whatever religion it is celebrated, marks a new beginning, a rebirth. So it was very appropriate that it was on Easter Sunday that a pop-up bar opened at the Packhorse at South Stoke to mark the new beginnings of the pub. This is not the first such event, but it’s clear that visible work is now progressing to bring back this pub to its former glory as the centre of the community.

Not all the work involves actual hard graft – besides the craftsmen busy at work with their tools, there is also research work in progress. The secrets the building is giving up as inappropriate alterations are removed are revealing a surprising history. For instance, there’s the splendid fireplace exposed on the ground floor in the south room, now carefully restored and repaired by Nigel Bryant (Master Mason and Conservator) and his talented wife, Becky.

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The newly revealed fire surround – now throughly repaired and restored.

The fire surround is certainly seventeenth century and may be older. Dendrochronology has revealed that some of the floorboards are older than the building was initially believed to be. Floorboards and fireplaces could, of course, be recycled – building materials often were because they were expensive while labour was cheap – but there is a real sense of excitement among historians that the building has a longer history than was first believed. So some of the Packhorse team have been delving into the archives and have come up with a new theory. They are asking themselves if it was built as a church house. It is, at present, just a theory but it would increase the importance of the Packhorse both to Somerset historians and to the community. Although there are a lot of church houses in Devon they are much rarer in Somerset, so this would be an exciting discovery if true.

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Discussing history at the information desk.

However, history was not on the mind of the many people who turned up to enjoy the chance to have a drink at the Packhorse as they had done in the past. Honey’s cider was one of the tipples on offer, as was Abbey Ales’ Bellringer, but in good old Somerset pub tradition, there was also some cider made from local apples, pressed at the open day at the pub last October. It was, as I was warned, mouth-tinglingly dry, but once I’d recovered from the initial shock, I could see how a good cider could have replaced white wine. It is known that, after the restoration of Charles II, cider moved considerably up-market, competing with fine wines from the mainland of Europe.  The king himself enjoyed drinking it and the price went through the roof.

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Chatting about cider at the bar.

There was plenty going on during the day. There was an Easter egg hunt for children, music, a plant stall and a busy cake stall. Given the number of four-legged visitors, it seems clear the pub will have to be dog-friendly. It is certainly on Islay’s list. If the pub can attract this number of visitors by word of mouth and social media for a one-off event, without being able to offer cooked food (beyond homemade cakes baked by local people) it shows how well it could do when it is established.

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It was busy in the garden ….
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… and it was very busy at the bar!

Events like this are a rebuke to the naysayers who said it closed because it wasn’t supported. This is a building which has been at the heart of the community for centuries, perhaps even more so than was earlier suspected. It was heartening to see it so busy.

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A pub is a place for all generations to get together.
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Even though it’s a building site at present, Islay the Westie gives the Packhorse her seal of approval.

I hope to return at a later date to investigate the historic features which aren’t, at present, on show to the public – I will put up photos when I’ve been.

Good News and Bad.

Over the Easter weekend we received some good news – an application to convert the Red Lion at Ampney St Peter to housing was turned down. This pub was a real gem, with just two rooms as the pub and no bar counter, but perfectly served beer. It was a Mecca for pub and beer enthusiasts but the death of the landlord had seen it close. Now it looks as though the present owner will have to rethink her refusal to accept offers to run it as a pub.

Sadly, however, while chatting in the garden at the Packhorse, we received the unwelcome but not unexpected news that Tucker’s Grave is on the market. Watch this space for more news.

 

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Welcome to one of the country’s top pubs.

If you’ve ever watched the cult film Morris: A Life With Bells On then, inadvertently, you’ve seen glimpses of one of our favourite pubs – The Compasses at Chicksgrove, in Wiltshire. Much of the Morris team’s dancing is done in the car park and the cottage of the hero, Derecq Twist, is in fact Plum Cottage, where we have stayed.

According to the website the pub building dates back to the fourteenth century – Historic England says seventeenth century. The truth is probably somewhere in between. Cottages are notoriously difficult to date but there are records for the Sutton Mandeville estate which date back to the sixteenth century and it is possible at least one refers to the building. When it became an inn is unclear – it was certainly a well established one by the beginning of the nineteenth century because sales were held there.

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The interior is a glorious mixture of old artefacts, including a piano, modern photographic images and the usual mixture of chalkboards with the day’s specials.

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pianoToday the establishment is rather more than just being a picturesque pub with beer. The food is excellent, with an ever-changing menu of everything from bar snacks to delicious three course meals. The beers are usually local – there are always two and sometimes three available, all well kept. Why the local CAMRA has not included it in the Good Beer Guide is a puzzle to both ourselves and the landlord. It certainly deserves to be there. Perhaps someone should give them a nudge. For those who prefer wines, there is a comprehensive wine list.

And of course you can stay there. Not only are there four well-equipped letting rooms, there is also the cosy Plum Cottage.plum-cottage

You can self cater, but it’s more likely you’ll want to try the delicious Compasses breakfasts. With one double and two single bedrooms, it makes a great place for a family to stay. Islay the westie very much approved of the wood-burning stove when we had an autumn break there. In fact, the whole pub is high on Islay’s recommendation list.

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So we weren’t too surprised, when we went down a little while ago, to find that it is now in the list of the top ten pubs in the United Kingdom in the 2017 Good Pub Guide. It’s an award that is well deserved, and they’re rightly proud of it.

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Your only problem may be finding it. I think I overheard someone saying their satnav had tried to take them down a farm track. So I recommend going to the Compasses website where you will not only find instructions on how to get there, but a list of nearby places which are well worth a visit. For keen walkers, as we are, there are also many interesting expeditions that can be made.

But here’s my advice. It gets very busy at weekends, and you will need to book. If you can possibly visit mid-week, then I recommend you do so. At least for the winter months they are closed on Monday lunchtimes, otherwise the hours are 12 – 3 p.m. and 6 – 11 p.m. and 7 – 10.30 p.m. on Sundays.

Forty Years On

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In 1976, the slim booklet seen above made its appearance. Its author, Fred Pearce, who appears on the cover, described it as ‘a guide for those adventurous citizens looking for variety in their drinking habits’, and he did not pull any punches. If he thought a pub was great he said so, and if he thought a pub was rubbish he said so too, presumably on the basis that he wouldn’t be making a return trip to discover the landlord’s reaction to his comments.

Forty years on, it makes entertaining reading. He rated pubs on a star system – 4 stars for a great pub, 1 star for a rubbish one. Among those awarded a single star were the Kings Arms in Monmouth Place, memorable solely for ‘that peculiar pub aroma of loo disinfectant’.

The Oliver - 'a particularly nasty Berni lounge'
The Oliver – ‘a particularly nasty Berni lounge’

Other 1star pubs included the Oliver in Green Street – a ‘particularly nasty Berni lounge’; the Roundhouse in Stall Street (now Pret a Manger), another ‘nasty pub’ with a ‘small selection of expensive lunchtime food served in cardboard plates’; and the Chequers on Rivers Street, guilty of ‘ridiculously inflated beer prices’. And what were these inflated prices, you might ask? Ushers Best at 27p, Watneys Pale at 25p and Worthington E at 30p – ‘for no apparent reason other than profiteering’ according to Fred.

The Roundhouse - another 'nasty pub'
The Roundhouse – another ‘nasty pub’

Although these prices may seem extraordinary today, what is more remarkable is how little choice there was. Fred Pearce was a wholehearted supporter of the fledgling real ale movement, and his booklet was largely aimed at discerning real ale drinkers. So what did they have to choose from?

Of 44 Watneys’ pubs surveyed, only 15 served real ale, mostly Ushers Pale, although a few also served ‘the locally popular Worthington E’. Of the 78 Courage’s pub surveyed – almost half the total – only 37 served real ale, mostly Courage Ordinary, as well as Courage Best and Worthington E. Seven pubs were owned by Wadworths, while Whitbread, Bass Charrington and Allied Breweries each owned a handful of pubs between them. There were also 18 free houses, plus ‘a rare example of Devenish beer (brewed in Weymouth) served on a handpump at the Coeur de Lion’ and Eldridge Pope’s ‘new and excellent Royal Oak’ available at the brewery’s only Bath pub, the Huntsman. One of the highlights of the real ale scene in the city was ‘the availability of the highly regarded Marston’s Pedigree Bitter all the way from Burton on Trent’ at ‘two central Bath outlets’.

Fred's photos of drinkers in the Volly
Fred’s photos of drinkers in the Volly

Many drinkers, myself included, will remember what drinking in the 1970s was like, but it still comes as something of a shock to be reminded just how little choice there was. One of Fred Pearce’s favourite Bath pubs was Broadley’s in the Sawclose (now Gascoyne Place), which he described as ‘a real ale drinker’s paradise. And what was on offer? ‘Marston’s Pedigree Bitter from the wood at 23p a pint, Mitchells & Butlers and E on handpump, plus Brew XI, Tartan, Trophy, Tankard and bottled White Shield’.

Another 4-star pub was the Coeur de Lion, on the strength of its Devenish Bitter and IPA. The Huntsman also scored 4 points, largely because of its premium bitter, Royal Oak, which Fred described as ‘a very strong pint served direct from the barrel (28p in the public, 30p in the other bars)’. ‘Very strong’ actually equated to 5%, and in 1976 it was very much the exception; today, the chances are that you will find produce at least one beer stronger than 5% – sometimes much stronger – in all of the city’s top real or craft ale pubs.

There was also a new pub on St James Parade in 1976 – long since closed – called the Heath Robinson. This, according to Fred, was a ‘brand new real ale bar set up to take advantage of the boom’. Presumably at the cutting edge of the real ale scene, it served Wadworth’s 6X, Worthington E and South Wales Club Best Bitter, all at 26p, and Wadworth’s Old Timer (which weighed in at a hefty 5.8%) in winter at 30p.

The Old Green Tree, where Ushers PA and xx were available
The Old Green Tree, where Ushers Pale and Worthington E were available
The Hat & Feather, awarded 4 stars despite the presence of nasty long haired hippies
The Hat & Feather, awarded 4 stars by Fred despite the presence of ‘nasty long-haired hippies’

Fred’s other top recommendations included the Old Green Tree (Ushers Pale and Worthington E on draught), the Midland (now the Bath Brew House) with ‘well-kept Courage Best and Ordinary on handpump’. Well-kept Courage Best and Ordinary could also be found in the Volunteer Rifleman’s Arms, the Saracen’s Head, and the late-lamented Hat & Feather (which Fred awarded 4 stars despite describing it as ‘tatty’ and filled with ‘nasty long-haired hippies’!). He was also keen on the Star, and his description of it is worth quoting in full:

When the lights are off inside you’d be forgiven for passing the Star by thinking it long abandoned. But thankfully it lives on. Entirely panelled in wood the 3 small old bars (including one called the Glass Room) have a unique atmosphere. Real Bass and E are served direct from the barrel – the array of six handpumps that occupy the entire length of the main bar are disused. There’s no music or games but beer for CAMRA men to rave over, a thigh-high communal trough in the men’s loo, old Punch-type cartoons in the Glass Room and some photos of the pub’s exterior in the heady days of 1917 and a ‘Guinness Time’ clock in the main bar. A star pub indeed.

The Star - an unchanged classic, but with its long tradition of Bass from the barrel in abeyance, at least for the moment
The Star – an unchanged classic, but with its long tradition of Bass from the barrel in abeyance, at least for the moment

Although the handpumps at the Star have long been reinstated, the tradition of serving Bass straight from the barrel was kept up until a few weeks ago. It has now sadly been discontinued due to a decision by InBev (who now brew Bass) to stop supplying it in kilderkins but instead to use 10 gallon barrels, which are incompatible with the Star’s racking system (see previous post). Elsewhere the availability of Marston’s Pedigree served from the wood is but a distant memory. But, while the range of beers on offer in many of Bath’s pubs is as predictable as it was 40 years ago – even though the brews may be different from those back then – in the city’s top real ale and craft beer pubs, the choice – and the rapidity with which guest beers succeed each other – is one that would have seemed unimaginable in 1976. Whether Fred would have approved or not is another matter.

 

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Launching Devon Pubs.

One reason we were too occupied to attend to this blog in 2014 was the final push to complete our book on Devon Pubs, finally published in 2015. We’d entered into this enterprise in a light-hearted manner ten years previously. Researching them seemed like fun then, but as the years went on, the book often seemed like a lament. Over and over again, we came across pubs that had been recently closed or converted to other uses. Perhaps the saddest was at the Woodpecker Inn, South Brent. It was closed when we were investigating it, and to our alarm we saw men in suits with clipboards drive up. They did not seem pleased to see us. Although it is likely that parts of the building were quite old, it was demolished in 2007 by the developers. It was all for nothing. A planning application for a business park was turned down in 2014, and the appeal was rejected. The site is now completely derelict.

Equally sad is the tale of the Toby Jug at Bickington. When we brought out the book, its fate still hung in the balance, but a month after the book came out, Teignbridge Council finally put corporate interests before those of the community and granted permission for change of use to residential. To be fair, they had done their best, but it had become an eyesore.

So our trips down to Devon were often tinged with sadness. Two landlords who keep two of the country’s best pubs, constantly encouraged us and jollied us out of our despondency. When we finally launched the book, it was lovely to have both of them there. It was a joy for them too, for they had never met.

Who are these two stalwarts and which are their pubs? Buy the book and you’ll find their pubs on the cover. Gracing the front cover is a reproduction of an old painting of The Bridge at Topsham run by the indomitable Caroline Cheffers-Heard. It’s the only pub the Queen has ever visited by request. It’s not known how old the building is – parts may go back to the 14th century, when Exeter Cathedral was being rebuilt. Beer is from the wood and an ever changing menu of beers – often local – can be found on their Facebook page.

From L to R Andrew swift, Islay the Westie, Roger Cudlip, Caroline Cheffers-Heard, Kirsten Elliott
From L to R Andrew Swift holding Islay the Westie, Roger Cudlip, Caroline Cheffers-Heard, Kirsten Elliott

On the back cover, you will find what was once known as the White Hart at Spreyton, but it now called the Tom Cobley. Yes, the very same Tom Cobley who went off to Widecombe Fair with … well, you know the rest. To the delight of the landlord, we found a newspaper report that showed that the Tom Cobley buried in Spreyton churchyard, after which the pub is named, was indeed known as Uncle Tom Cobley. There had been those who had pooh-poohed the theory that he was the one in the song.

And it was the landlord – the redoubtable Roger Cudlip – and his family who kindly agreed to have the launch at their pub.

We’ll be putting up some excerpts at various times but if you haven’t visited either of these pubs, you should. The Tom Cobley has a string of awards, including National Pub of the Year, and a huge range of beers and ciders. The Bridge menu is limited – lunch times only, simple but local, reasonably priced and tasty. The Tom Cobley has an extensive menu, the food is all home–cooked by Roger’s wife Carol, and served by their daughter Lucy. A warning – make sure you’re hungry before you go. The portions are ample. As Roger was once a butcher, you may get his homemade sausages for breakfast if you stay there in one of their lovely B&B rooms.

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The Bell in Walcot Street

Since the Bell changed hands last year, to become Bath’s first community-owned pub, work has been going on to smarten it up a bit, and a magnificent new sign – in the shape of a bell – has been mounted on the wall. Much of this work, including the sign, has been done by Stephen Bushell, who late last year uncovered some old lettering under the paintwork. Although too fragmentary and far gone to be restored, he took a couple of photos which he kindly let me have – along with one of the sign – to post on the blog.

Which prompted me to dig around in our archive for some old pics of the Bell, which I’ve resurrected and posted below, along with some snippets from old newspapers – some courtesy of Paul De’Ath – which supplement the information on the Bell in Bath Pubs.

An announcement of a sporting fixture from 1762
An announcement of a sporting fixture from 1762

 

The consequences of drinking on the job from the Bath Chronicle, 31 May 1827
The consequences of drinking on the job, from the Bath Chronicle, 31 May 1827
A new landlord: July 1828
A sale notice from July 1828
A plan of the Bell in 1829, with a brewhouse at the back.
A plan of the Bell in 1829, with a brewhouse at the back.

 

A sale notice from 1855
A sale notice from 1855
Council deliberations: 1890
Council deliberations: 1890
A Trip to the Seaside, 1927
A Trip to the Seaside, July 1927
The new sign
The new sign
Old lettering
Old letteringWORDS 2
The Bell around 2000: the layout of the windows on the second floor suggest the building was originally gabled, like the Saracen's Head
The Bell around 2000: the layout of the windows on the second floor suggest the building was originally gabled, like the Saracen’s Head
The beer garden in the old inn yard
The beer garden in the old inn yard
The top bar on the site of the old stables
The top bar on the site of the old stables
A pre-smoking ban view of the bar
A pre-smoking-ban view of the bar
Note: these were the prices in 2004
Note: these were the prices in 2004

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

4 CLARKSON PLAQUE

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.

1A SEVEN STARS INT

   

More on the Bath Brew House

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.

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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.         

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