Thursday, 1 March 2012

A Bristol pub crawl

An entirely subjective list of my favourite pubs in Bristol central/harbour area:

1. The Three Tuns

The Tuns used to be a bit of a dive. Actually that's not true. It was a lot of a dive. The Telegraph reports it was an 'honest boozer's pub.' Not sure about that, I remember it as the sort of pub one scuttled past on the way to Hotwells, ideally on the opposite side of the road. After a refit the Three Tuns re-opened three years ago under manager Mark Farrell, and soon became a favourite on the real ale circuit. The interior is plain - hefty pine tables and stripped wooden floor. No games machines or TV, a double plus on my marking system. A couple of managers on, the Tuns still serves superbly kept beer. One of two pubs owned by Kingswood brewery Arbor Ales, the Tuns gets it right on every count.

2. Bag of Nails

Just down the road from the Three Tuns is the Bag of Nails, which has long been a favourite of mine. Once known as the American Eagle, the pub got a refurb and change of name in the 1990's. Last year there was much consternation amongst the local real ale fraternity when the pub closed again - but it has since reopened, having been tastefully spruced up by landlord Luke. I like the record player and invitation to put on your own vinyl. I also like the ever changing choice of real ales on offer. Luke's Rules, chalked up on the central pillar have caused some discussion, especially the controversial Rule One.

3. Merchants Arms

A Bath Ales pub, it's a traditional boozer. The interior is painted cream and brown which sounds vile but actually works well. There's a separate room at the back popular if you fancy playing aboard game of which there are plenty. The pub has all the ingredients of a traditional boozer: friendly with good conversation, nice low lighting and good beer.

4. The Grain Barge

Two hundred and fifty years ago there were nine shipyards in Bristol. By 1976 there was only one, Charles Hill and Sons, who in that year, launched their last ship. The Grain Barge had been built at the Charles Hill Shipyard in 1936. The engineless 'dumb' barge used to be towed across the Severn from Bristol to Cardiff carrying barley and wheat. As Bristol docks declined as a working port, the barge sat rusting away on her moorings near the SS Great Britain until she was bought by Bristol Beer Factory in 2007 who restored and refitted her. She is now moored opposite the site of the yard where she was built. On summer evenings the Barge is a fabulous place to sit out on deck with a pint and watch the activity in the docks. Bristol Beer Factory produce some fine brews, my personal favourite is Sunrise, a lovely slightly citrus golden ale.

5.The Cornubia

The Cornubia was built as a Georgian townhouse in 1776 for a local wigmaker, Charles Cox. It became a pub in 1859 and has been so ever since. Sadly, all the surrounding buildings have disappeared, and it now sits incongruously amongst a sea of office blocks. Originally named the Rabbit Warren, 'Cornubia' is the old Latin name for Cornwall; it's likely that the pub was renamed after the SS Cornubia, a paddle steamship built in 1858 that used to run between Hayle and Bristol. In the American Civil War she was bought by the Confederate States and taken over to America to carry supplies as a blockade runner. (The ship not the pub.) The Cornubia was the brewery tap for Georges Brewery just up the road. After Georges was swallowed up by Courages it became a training pub for Courage managers, which is probably how it managed to hang on to so many of its original fittings. The pub is now run by Phil and Jackie who do a good job of having a regularly rotating choice of well kept beers. The only snag is Phil's dislike of cyclists - I'm going to work on that...

6. The Seven Stars

Lurking down a dark, cobbled alley off Redcliff Street, The Seven Stars is another pub with a long history. The first known mention of the pub is in 1694 when Sir John Hawkins bought the pub from the Saunders brewing dynasty, at the same time as setting up what was to become Georges Brewery. Almost a hundred years later, in 1787, Thomas Clarkson came to Bristol as part of his investigation of the slave trade. The landlord of the Seven Stars befriended him, and he would sit in the Seven Stars secretly gathering evidence of the trade, and of the underhand methods which the slave ship owners would use to recruit sailors for these voyages. The evidence Clarkson gathered was key to eventually changing public opinion and getting the slave trade abolished twenty years later. Nowadays things are much jollier; the Seven Stars regularly has eight different beers on offer, and it won CAMRA Bristol and District Pub of the Year in 2010 and 2011. The decor is pretty basic, there's a pool table and some rough seats. It is - in short - a proper pub.

7. Commercial Rooms

The Commercial Rooms is a JDW pub opened in 1995. It's a Neoclassical building designed by Charles Busby, an architect working mainly in Brighton and Hove, and opened in 1810 as a club for wealthy Bristol merchants. Perched on the roof are three statues - the 'three commercial graces' representing Bristol, commerce and navigation. The interior is stunning, a large room which still has the boards listing the names of the club presidents and officials. The first president was one John Loudon McAdam, inventor of tarmac. Although Scottish, he had been appointed surveyor to the Bristol Turnpike Trust in 1816. Above the bar is a circular weather vane dial which told the merchants when ships were likely to be arriving in port. (Incidentally the clock dating from 1822 on the Exchange immediately opposite the Commercial Rooms is also unusual, in that it tells both Bristol and Greenwich Mean Time.) The pub always has a good selection of well kept real ales. The only downside is the counter is very high. At least its a downside for shorties like me. Sometimes, when it's busy, I have to jump up and down to be seen.

8. The Kings Head, Victoria Street.

Another historic pub dating, according to the sign on the wall, from 1660. It sits in front of Bristol's own leaning tower, Temple Church, built on marsh land and bombed in World War 2.

The interior of the pub is an odd and fascinating mixture, dating from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. It is the only Bristol pub on Camra's National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors and is worth a visit for that reason alone. The Tramcar Bar was installed in the early Victorian period, and indeed the whole pub, with it's narrow corridor and brown paint, reminds me of  a GWR train.

There is normally has a good choice of real ale on offer, including a regular appearance of TEA (Traditional English Ale) from Hogs Back Brewery in Surrey and Betty Stoggs from Skinners Brewery. The pub is on the expensive side though, at £3.40 a pint.

9. The Cottage

Owned by Butcombe Brewery the Cottage is a comparatively new pub by Bristol standards. The building dates to 1868 and was used for timber storage and later as the Harbour Masters Office. It opened as a pub in 1983 and was bought by Butcombes in 2009.

It majors in food (which it does very well) but remains a proper pub and often has Butcombe's less easily available brews on offer. When I visited recently it was offering Old Vic Porter and Adam Henson's Rare Breed. It is also in a superb location with lovely views across the harbour (or 'the Docks' as we Bristolians call it). Worth seeking out on summer days.

10. The Orchard Inn

Tucked away behind the SS Great Britain Spike Island, Bristol's artisan quarter, the Orchard is primarily a cider pub, in fact it won Camra's National Cider Pub of the Year Award in 2009. But it always has a few real ales on offer as well. It has a down-to-earth friendly feel about it and the clientele is an interesting mix of local arty types, stray tourists and cider heads. To soak up the booze there is proper pub grub - pasties and pies, and delicious filled rolls. The beer has got more expensive of late, but sadly, that seems to be the case everywhere.

11. The Shakespeare

I was going to list my top ten but it seems a shame to miss out the Shakespeare  Tavern on Prince Street. I mention the street as there are quite a few pubs called the Shakespeare in Bristol. I know this as I remember sitting in one of them for quite a long time on my own wondering why none of my mates had turned up. (This was pre-mobile phone so no way of phoning and saying 'where the bloody hell are you?') I was in the wrong Shakespeare.

Anyway, this Shakespeare is one of a block of three Georgian townhouses designed by John Strachan in 1725. Fashionable with local wealthy merchants in the eighteenth century, the area fell out of favour after the construction of the New Cut which slowed up the flow of the river (into which everyone chucked their sewage) and the place began to stink. It doesn't stink now though. The Shakespeare is a Greene King pub although there is usually a guest ale on as well. For a city centre pub it has a nice, solid feel to it - lots of wood, and the beer has always been in condition when I've been here.

Well that's my top eleven pubs for Bristol central/harbour/Hotwells. No doubt there are many gems I have missed so if you know of any that should be added to the list please let me know and I will conduct an inspection visit. It's a hard job but someone's got to do it...

And because I'm feeling nice, I've drawn a map with a suggested route from and to the train station, showing where all the pubs are.

View Bristol pub crawl in a larger map


  1. What a splendid crawl! Are they "all dayers" at the weekend? My daughter lives in Bristol - might just be possible on a sunny Saturday and warm Saturday evening...

  2. A project for this weekend is to check out and post the opening hours on the blog, most of them are all day on weekend I believe. I'll post as soon as I have the info. Yes, it's a perfect crawl for a warm afternoon...

  3. Hi Ellie,
    Great blog! I've been trying to do some research on Bristol pubs. For anyone who is also interested....this article is pretty good for some recommendations as well:

    If anyone has any additional info, Id love to hear it.


  4. Thanks Ray, and thanks for the link. Ah King Street. Spent many evenings there in the early 80s. Flat Bass in the Volley, jazz nights in the Duke and after closing time which was a draconian 10.30, a late one in Renatos. Those were the days! Over the winter I will also be doing some research on Bristol pubs. Fieldwork obviously!

  5. Hi Ellie - great list. Used it as the basis for a recent 1/2 pint 1/2 marthon - started faithfully but soon went 'off piste'. Visited several on your list though, not a bad one all day. Thanks Tim

  6. Hi Tim, glad it was useful! 1/2 pint 1/2 marathon sounds like a great idea. Glad to assist and hope you had a good time. If you have any useful additions I'd love to hear them. Ellie

  7. Ps 'off piste' made me laugh!