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Bars in Bristol

The Marketbritishfoodinamerica recently sent a flying column into Bristol to reconnoiter the terrain for architecture and public houses. We also found time to have dinner at The Albion; the review appears in the critical. Unlike some of its staffers, bfia is not primarily infatuated with the history of building design, so we will cut to the primary subject and try to minimize digression.

This was an incursion rather than a campaign, so we only found time to visit four public houses, one in the center, one in Hotwells (one of the better, if not best, names for any urban neighborhood anywhere) and two in Clifton. We chanced by another Clifton place, The Alma Tavern and Theatre, which displayed an interesting menu and looked nice, but we had no time to try the food. Too bad; they cure their own sausage; serve potted smoked mackerel; rarebit with something called “doom bar,” which also goes into their fish batter and of course is a beer, from Cornwall; 5 hour pork belly; and a local game pie among other things. They actually run a theater upstairs too (but the dreaded ‘dinner theater’ combining the distraction of bad food with forgettable acting).

It must have been beginners’ luck or random walk theory in action, unless Bristol has no bad pubs, because we liked all the establishments we did manage to visit.

Ship WreckWe zipped in and out of The King William, a rambling dump off of Queen Square hard by the ‘floating harbour,’ a series of locks, pools and docks cut into the Avon at the turn of the eighteenth century to keep the port viable despite a tidal reach of fifty feet in the treacherous river. During the age of sail, oceangoing ships were obliged to await the conjunction of wind and tide to dash upriver or face destruction; many were wrecked. The dash required superb seamanship, and according to shipwright Jennifer Harner of Bluewater Marine Consultants, gave rise to the term “Bristol fashion” to describe a well-handled ship. Eventually, as the scale of ships and number of wrecks increased, the city gave up on its floating harbor and moved the port downstream to the Severn.

Queen itself was the first square laid out in the city and remains the biggest. It has been diminished, first by the Luftwaffe and then by consequent modernist infill, but a good proportion of structures built over the course of ‘the long eighteenth century’ survives. The square never was architecturally flamboyant like Belgravia or nearby Bath but the stolid four-story simplicity of the houses gives the huge perimeter a quiet, almost moving grace in spite of the depredations of war and stupidity.

King William Ale House SignBack inside The King William, which fills its entire block from street to street and includes a number of bars and many taps (it is big, too big, but lovely in its faults), we found coal grates and amiable punkers playing board games; this is Bristol, not East St. Louis, and if most of the center has lost much of its ancient glory and lacks architectural conviction, it no longer is a sump of crime or blight.

We spent considerably more time in Hotwells and Clifton. Hotwells is decidedly scruffy and even decrepit, a sort of boho adjunct to elegant Clifton up the hill. There are not many trees or children here. The area does not appear to have been fashionable historically; some of the rowhouses are a mere bay wide, and the topography is so steep that descending some streets induces vertigo. As a result, front steps can reach the scale of oversized stairways. Their proportions are clumsy. Some of the peeling stucco is painted in pastels and primaries, which also appear elsewhere in central Bristol.

Hotwells was the home of one of the more lovably eccentric scientific institutions founded by a lovable figure during that long eighteenth century, an era that Richard Holmes calls ‘The Age of Wonder’ for its fascination with experimentation and inquiry. Miranda Seymour has described Thomas Beddoes “as an amiable eccentric, a warm-hearted physician whose Pneumatic Institution spawned the life-enhancing substance known as laughing gas.” Unlike generations of American undergraduates, his fascination with amyl nitrate was not entirely frivolous, although Southey, in full collegiate flow, found that the gas “makes one strong and happy, so gloriously happy! O! Excellent airbag!” (“Provider of Instant Hilarity,” Literary Review, August 2009) Beddoes experimented with the gas in an effort to fight tuberculosis, especially among the poor, and if these efforts and his fascination with meat smells, cow breath and oxygen proved fruitless in eradicating the disease, the work prefigured inhalation therapy and did no harm.

Thomas BeddoesMost people who think of Beddoes at all think of him as a crank, and the Institute was satirized by the great Gillray and others, but Seymour contends that Beddoes was “one of the most formidable polymaths of an intellectually adventurous age.” (Seymour) Beddoes was not only a doctor but, [u]nusually in an age of doctors who specialized in fleecing wealthy and credulous invalids, he sought to improve the health and welfare of the poor.” He published an encyclopedia of botany, translated medical and scientific texts (from six languages) and conducted geological research. This doctor did not neglect the humanities; he was an authority on eastern religion and western literature too. (Seymour) It seems he was a very kind man who shared our affection for a quirky urban enclave.

Today, if you did not know otherwise, you might mistake Hotwells for dangerous. Instead, it is peopled by students, artists and others who have more creativity than roots or income. On these terms it is an appealing enclave.

Hope & AnchorThe Hope and Anchor fits right in. It looks like one of those halfheartedly ‘healthful’ places from a ‘70s time warp. The place has earnest, highbacked benches, the plan planked tables are unset and some of the passages between them are awkward. The shabby dress of the young, male staff matched the facades of Hotwells in elegance on the day of our visit, and was not intended as a fashion statement. As with its neighborhood, however, a superficial impression of the Hope & Anchor is deceiving. It is plain but not grubby, and the big festoons of hops over the doorway, along the blackboards (no menus here) and above the bar betray no cobwebs. The bartenders are helpful, the service efficient and everyone takes the food seriously. This is not so much a gastropub (is there even the halfhearted but obligatory wine list?) as a public house that has decided to serve good food without frills.

We were unacquainted with beers from the Bristol region; a bartender described them for us without prompting as he carefully pumped four free samples for us to taste. No one batted an eye when we mixed and matched soups, starters and mains around the table (granted, this was lunchtime but we got no impression that The Hope & Anchor stiffens up in the evening). The food is sensible more than exotic, powerful rather than nuanced. Soothing soups and sound sandwiches (roast pork with stilton was particularly satisfying) join reasonably priced pies, stews and sautés on the blackboard; the staff cheerfully reads to the myopic. It is hard to imagine a better place to settle in for a session, unless it is up the hill.

The staff and crowd was older at The Somerset House up in Clifton during the evening. Otherwise the place was not unlike The Hope & Anchor in appearance, and was almost incongruous in the sensibly posh shopping zone around the Mall and other Regency lanes behind Rodney Place. It has the same atmosphere of welcoming austerity, with chairs salvaged from a church filling in for the highbacked benches downhill. Somerset House was not offering food at night but it serves massive breakfasts into the afternoon. The house has no hand pumps because real ale is bunged straight from two rows of casks behind the bar; unsolicited samples dispensed here too. The beer is kept at cellar temperature under insulated vests and it is superb.

There are not many shops by the standard of London or New York in Clifton, but beyond two major shopping drags there are not as many chain stores either (the little Culpepper shop near Bristol University is better than the ones in London; it still sells spices and herbs along with cosmetics) and the people working in the ones we visited were uniformly friendly and helpful. High street chains fan out around Queen’s Road abaft the University of Bristol; their upmarket counterparts march straight and steep up Park Street to the university’s Wills Memorial, a spectacular Victorian tower in Perpendicular Revival style that soars over the city from its perch on the Clifton ridge.

Clifton Hotel

Beyond these two retail arteries in the streets around the Mall, Coastal Clothing Co. has the usual range of khakis, polo and rugby shirts and related prep/Public School gear, but of high quality with their own discreet logo; the merchandise and staff at Bracey Interiors were both beautiful, appealing and reasonable (we needed a pillow taken from its case to facilitate packing a small bag and got a discount to boot); the price points for women’s apparel at “The Funktion Room/Elavon” and its helpful, patient staff made up for the shop’s name; and the proprietors of Avon books and a junkshop called “Out of the Past,” where we found an Edwardian hamburger springmold, would sooner top themselves than submit their customers to pressure selling.

The polite people in the decidedly posh Caledonian Antiques shop went out of their way to dredge an eighteenth century pocket nutmeg grater out of their vaults for us to see, even though we obviously were not much of a sales prospect. We left before they remembered that they had one and chased us down five minutes after we had left the shop just to show us the treasure.

According to Elizabeth David, these nutmeg graters were much in vogue among traveling English gentlemen during the eighteenth century; they are hard to find and extremely collectible today. The English loved spice, not least nutmeg, and with your personal grater you could ensure spicing your meat, vegetables, sweets and drinks to satisfaction, however rustic or primitive the inn or tavern where you found yourself:

“For nutmeg, English silversmiths devised marvels of pocket graters, little boxes hinged and folded, with sharp grating surfaces and a compartment for the nut. No fastidious traveler need ever have been without a nutmeg to grate upon his food, his punch, his mulled wine, his hot ale or comforting posset.” Elizabeth David, Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen 41 (London 1970)

The graters were fashioned into egg, heart, octagonal, oval, rectangular, round and tubular shapes; “ours” resembled a little cask, which should lead us back to the subject of this essay. If, however, you like culinary artifacts and have £475, then you should buy the nutmeg grater from Caledonian Antiques. Alternatively, New Orleans Silversmiths, on Royal Street in the heart of the French Quarter, has a selection of English nutmeg graters, all Georgian, ranging in price from about $1500 to $1800.

Boyce Building

By navigating the uncertain street pattern you can reach the nearby Portcullis public house not far away. Clifton has no grid and its streets have all the logic of central Boston (Boston has some excuse; its layout is the product of medieval thinking while Clifton did not appear until over a century later, and then in the metropolis rather than on the frontier). That fact reinforces the residential paradise of the neighborhood; most corners hold a surprise, from shallow crescents to squares and parks, and without any speedy through traffic the place has a serene insularity. Individual buildings are not overly distinguished but this may be the most appealing urban ensemble in Britain. Edinburgh’s Morningside, New Town and Stockbridge may surpass it; Bath does not. Andrew Foyle provides a good description of the area in a Pevsner Architectural Guide:

“The years c. 1815-c. 1850 saw the apotheosis of Clifton architecture, with handsome and solidly built Grecian housing. One cannot speak of town planning in the French or Beaux-Arts sense. Clifton is planned for leisurely traffic, with not one straight main thoroughfare pre-dating the mid C19. Irregularly planned squares are interspersed with profuse planting and connected by obscure byways; Clifton’s abundant confusion is its great charm.” Andrew Foyle, The Pevsner Architectural Guides: Bristol (London 2004)

Bristol CrescentThe Portcullis is nestled under a corner of Royal York Crescent. This probably is the biggest crescent in Europe but that tells only a portion of its story. The setting is spectacular: The structure crosses the top of the Clifton ridgeline to look down on lesser crescents to the floating harbor, central Bristol and the hills beyond. The main floor of the crescent sits atop a giant basement that extends past the front doorways to form a sweeping piazza that gives each house a small patio between base and building that originally functioned as a service and servants’ entrance; bridges cross the well from the piazza to the doorways, allowing visitors to peer down into what have become the little gardens below and, for many of the houses, to the kitchen and dining facilities beneath the main floor. The scale of these houses is vast and many of them have remained intact. Those that have been subdivided contain big apartments.

A quirk of Clifton, and Hotwells hugging the lower hill, is the nearly random disposition of the housefronts; some, like Royal York Crescent, face out to the city below, but other frontages look into the ridgeline onto other stuccoed terraces, or parks and squares. Unlike Bath, Edinburgh’s New Town or the great London estates of the west end, there was no attempt at urban composition here. Some of the inward houses share the spectacular prospect, but their view is from the stock-brick rear elevations.

Bristol BridgeBoth choices have merit. The view is self-explanatory, but Clifton originated as a salubrious refuge from the clatter, smoke and stench of the industrializing city below, so that a little escapism was a welcome attribute of the neighborhood for many residents.

It is entirely counterintuitive, but instead of creating a chaotic or even anarchic streetscape, the back-and-forth only adds to Clifton’s appeal. Good urbanism does not always result from rational urban design. Jan Morris for one marvels at the intricacy of Bristol in general:

“[U]nexpected courtyards, concealed entries, sudden medieval houses or expanses of Georgian elegance surprise you. The precipitous stone staircase called Christmas Steps, for example, up which condemned men used to stumble on their way from law courts to gallows, defies the temptation of picturesqueness by the eccentricity of its shops--a seller of wind instruments, a Chinese takeaway, a violin bowmaker, a dress designer and a philatelist. Financial Times, “Quays to the city,” 18-19 April 2009

It is unclear how eccentricity defies the picturesque--are they not cousins?--but Morris is a good writer and she captures the cast of the urban landscape as well as ever.

One of the crescents that turns into the hill, The Paragon, lies adjacent to Royal York, faces a small green and looks up toward Brunel’s miracle spanning the Avon Gorge. The suspension bridge is both muscular and elegant, overengineered in the endearing and reassuring Victorian way.

The Paragon is faced in warm, yellow stone instead of stucco, so that the dominant sense of the composition is rhythmic rather than sweeping. The scale is not close to that of York Crescent, but it remains generous, and the back of the crescent has the same kind of basement and piazza arrangement, with the same good view, at the reverse angle. A house within the Paragon might make an even nicer home than one within its grander neighbor.

The Portcullis in BristolThe Portcullis is across the street from one end of the Paragon. We found another young and engaging staff, who achieved the impossible by dressing worse than their counterparts at The Hope and Anchor. It is a cozy place, dark at midday, narrow, cramped and inviting. We would have felt like interlopers in a private club but for the welcome we got from patrons and staffers, and a relentlessly demanding Jack Russell called Daisy. The pub is devoted to craft brewers, and rotates its drafts on a thematic basis. When we visited, all seven casks held dark local ales, not your everyday brew in Britain and a testament to the indifference toward any sort of marketing at The Portcullis; they do what they like, and we liked it too. Once again, free samples all around, including pints for the education of the staff; the Editor’s favorite was Sheffield Old Dark, a strong, hoppy black ale that was expertly conditioned. Most of the other beers came from the Wessex region; all of them were good.

Dark ales differ from porters and stouts. They have the thinner, more refreshing texture of bitter ales and a hoppier, even fruity finish. The Ipswich Brewery produces a good one in the United States, but it is less hopped than the Bristol brews and tastes a bit like a porter without the heft. Turbodog, from the Abita Brewery thirty miles north of New Orleans, is even better; a hoppier and happier American variant on the British theme.

Pieminister PiesWith beer and cheer like this, the food was an unexpected bonus; they serve Pieminister pies, made right in Bristol since 2003 and available at Borough Market, Spitalfields and a couple of other locations; Londoners should get some. There were lamb and mint pies, chicken with Spanish seasonings (“chicken of Aragon”), a vegetable model made with wild mushrooms and asparagus, good steak and kidney, and others. All the ingredients are locally sourced. The pies themselves are conveniently small so, if they induce gluttony as they did with us, you can overeat without too much discomfort by sharing a few different kinds around and under (Daisy) the table. The pies come with or without good fries and fresh vegetables; it is your choice. They care about their customers and everything they do at The Portcullis. There is a bigger, ugly room upstairs that was deservedly deserted on our visit.

We do not mean to imply that Bristol is paradise; the Maritime Museum is closed indefinitely for reinvention, the city lacks many of the standard tourist attractions and the center is nearly as dire as Birmingham, but if you want to meet friendly people, eat good food and walk some of the most appealing urban landscapes on the planet, make it a point to go, or maybe move there.