The Clifton, Bristol

A great thing about Bristol is that this pub is this pub.

Opposite the most iconic street in Bristol – the joyfully grand Royal York Crescent, the longest terrace in Europe – and right in the heart of what we’re legally bound to call ‘Clifton Village’, this place could be going in all kinds of directions.  It could be a snooty, snappy pub/restaurant – a sort of bumptious, provincial Harwood Arms – and I wouldn’t bear it any ill-will. No, I’d think, it’s only to be expected that a pub called ‘The Clifton’ in the middle of Clifton would turn out to be such a thing.

But it hasn’t turned out to be such a thing at all – it’s a cosy, cheery, sometimes quite noisy gathering spot for studes and young professionals to munch on massive burgers and drink a surprisingly good range of lagers, ales and ciders.  It is another of those pubs with multiple furniture personalities, which can confuse some but, once you know the drill, there’s generally a spot going for whatever mood you’re in.

It also has a website that says things like “Dogs are allowed as long as the staff can have a cuddle!”.

I like that.

Interior of Clifton pub

I guess this would be the ‘palm-strewn living room’ section of the pub
Photo taken from http://sl-arch.net/

Looking at this website, you realise that it’s another Mitchell and Butler spawn – not least because they have to use the shitty template M&B demand for their pub sites – and you think, hot damn, can’t a welcoming, nicely kitted-out, unpretentious pub make it independently these days?

And then you think, no, no probably it can’t, not slap bang in the middle of the fanciest suburb for miles around.

So, oh well, but also, hooray. At least this pub is this pub.

Regent Street
Bristol BS8 4HG
Phone:01179 746321

Start the Bus, Bristol

To unpick the credibility of Start the Bus is to take a great big piss on central Bristol’s only properly decent, triply-cooked, fresh-out-the-fryer, Maris Piper bowl of chips.

But you know, this is obviously the site to visit for shocking revelations about the pub world in Bristol and London, so it should be noted that this place is owned by Mitchells and Butlers, currently under the watchful eye of multi-gazillionaire Joe Lewis. So, as far as I can work out, for every pint of vaguely-hip, vaguely-European is-it-proper-pilsner lager on which you drop your hard-earned, at least £2.63 of that ends up paying off the debts he incurred in buying Bear Sterns.

Bristol___Start_The_Bus-from pub website

This is the exterior of Start the Bus. And to think, but for one small word, it could have been the world’s first David Lloyd-themed pub.

Okay, this may be slightly wide of the mark. But who knows, eh? Right, thank god that’s out the way.

The most important thing to say is that it’s great, Start the Bus. Thirty-something dolts like me can go in there with their awkwardly-attired chums and suck up the desultory atmosphere of the pre-club churn. Students, club promoters and account executives lurk around at the bar with their hyped mates, chatting and scanning, laughing with purpose. We watch, jealously, wordlessly, from our booth.

The pub’s decent range of hot snacks (calamari, fat chips, some form of meat-based fried thing etc etc) don’t make their way through to us at any special pace, nor with much added value, but still, at least they’re on offer, and we could use the hot fat and liberal doses of salt to help inject a few more minutes’ worth of tragic bonhomie into our attempts at staying up with the cool kids, before one last, unexpected, wholly insensible round of almost-interesting lagers really puts the kibosh on things and we weave our way through the by-now contemptuous crowd, leaving the night to people in v-necked tee-shirts and elements of neon elsewhere upon their person.

But the thing is, loads of good music can be heard at STB. That’s what I really wanted to say, before I got bogged down in nonsense. Find their promoter, really seek that cat down, and shake him/her firmly by the hand. They’re doing a grand job. Here’s their listings page, for instance. That might help.

7-9 Baldwin Street
Bristol
Avon BS1 1RU

The Albion, Clifton

Clifton used up its edginess quotient on its hilltop location. The rest of it is MOR comfort, brim-full of Lovely Things shops, cobbled streets, coffee shops, and high-ceilinged townhouses. It’s been lording it over the rest of the city for centuries, and shows no sign of stopping.

However, most of Clifton’s pubs have been cocking a snook at their passing trade for quite some time. While most pedestrians look as if they’ve stepped straight off the Fulham Road, Clifton hostelries defy such polish and sheen – the Coach and Horses, Somerset House, the Portcullis, the Grapes, to name but a few, are a good yard of ale away from the gastropub template you might expect for these parts.

It’s rather gratifying, and I suspect Cliftonites rather like it too, even if they might not dip into these places too often; it gives the area Bristolian virtues it struggles to present elsewhere.

albion from Bristol Culture

This is the outside space what I mentioned. Thanks to Bristol Culture for the image.

Of course, the Albion lets the show down terribly, sitting as it does in a cobbled alley of its very own – hardly the most down-home statement to be made. It has large peachy awnings outside, beneath which sprawl a selection of pink-cheeked puddings and panda-tanned pricks, bawling and drawling at each other in accents that are most definitely without rotic curl.

Inside lies a crackling fire, open-plan kitchen and solid oak tables. All very comfortable, but for some reason, not especially inviting – not, at least, till you’ve got to the bar and hidden from the haughtier sorts. Despite the grandstanding of the restaurant menu, the Albion tries to keep its pubby heart beating – there are actually drinkers standing up by the pumps, not every table is laid up for dining, and it continues to offer a bar menu (even if this has now been repurposed as ‘tapas’), as well as homemade pork scratchings. Okay, so it’s not quite a packet of Planter’s, but it’s a good effort, and it has a decent choice of ales.

You’ll be amazed to discover that none of these things come cheap. For some, the fact that a pint in an expensively upholstered pub in Bristol’s very own SW6 costs more than elsewhere seems to come as something of a shock. I hope this review has forewarned you sufficiently.

Boyces Avenue,
Clifton Village,
Bristol BS8 4AA

The Orchard Inn, Spike Island, Bristol

You can do a lot with a room.  Order two years’ worth of Elle Decoration back issues for inspiration, rebuild one wall out of meat and cover it in pictures of haystacks and vomiting dogs. Or put in a mezzanine – sod it, two mezzanines – which only toddlers and limbo dancers can use.

Or, y’know, you just leave it as a basic box: tiled floor; patterned stools; bar at one end; filled rolls on the bar; newspapers on the windowsill. It shows how much of a massive dick I am that this time-honoured approach should be greeted with surprise and delight.

Orchard Inn - Bristol

Orchard Inn – Bristol. I thought about using a fancier image for this – but then thought, no. This is how it is.

This place is  a beaut.  Beyond the filled rolls (which are made with Herbert’s baguettes, and filled with roast beef, chorizo or mature cheddar – no soggy baps here), you have burgers, curries, pasties, hand-reared pork pies. No messing.  Not pricey. Just great pub scran to soak up the cider.

And so we get to the cider and, as a consequence of this, the clientele. The pub won CAMRA’s best cider and perry pub of the year in 2009. There is a phenomenal range of national and local ciders on offer, both on draught and from casks behind the bar. Single estate. Small yield. Artisanal booze porn. This draws in the CAMRA heads – those entranced with alcohol production as a herald of our country’s heritage. Those interested in having their heads educated by pure fermented Kingston Black apples, or what have you.

But what does your common man know about artisan cider making? One thing – the product is strong. And like a spotlit Batman sign in the sky, except with less stylised bat and rather more rotted apple and the words “7% minimum”, the local pop-heads flock like ducks on ice come opening time.

And then you have its position within Bristol – just round the corner from Aardman HQ and the Spike Island art gallery, just off the tourist harbourside trek. This brings in customers with haircuts asymmetric by design rather than accident; studenty scamps with charming retroussé noses jostling alongside retirees whose probosci are rather more rosy and pockmarked; or even just people who enjoy laughing and talking about life and work.

They all sit together, these people. It’s a potent combination, a mad meld of styles, insobriety and ciders. You can do a lot with a room.

The Orchard Inn
12 Hanover Place
Bristol BS1 6XT

The Windmill, Windmill Hill, Bristol

As an example of a modern pub made for its location, you could find little better than this place.

Windmill-from their website-300x300

As you can see… it’s on a hill. Image taken from the pub’s website (click on the picture to visit)

Born, apparently, from the ashes of a scrofulous hole, the latest incarnation of the Windmill arrived at a time when this hilly, pastel-shaded corner of Bedminster, home to armies of young parents with bohemian aspirations, had nothing within walking distance that this audience would deem worthy of a good night out, or a boozy Sunday afternoon.

It’s been packed full of Those Types ever since, cooped up in the family pit, clutching their Thatchers scrumpy, wiping Pieminister detritus from their stomachs/beards, fluffing out a broadsheet supplement, all the while trying to ignore the din emanating from their brood.  Up by the bar, Sky Sports News burbles unobtrusively in the corner, while suspiciously cheery groups of vaguely young people hang out and laugh and talk and look like they’re posing for an advert for some kind of aspirational hotel, except with more pint glasses and scruffy hair and less power-suited shittery.

Maybe that’s what this pub’s missing – a good dose of business-networking bullshit and Hollywood teeth. Wouldn’t that be a thing to find up a hill in south Bristol? Wouldn’t it indeed. But until investment brokers and international recruitment consultants start flinging their weight around Windmill Hill, this crowd will have to do.

I see I have failed to mention the back bar thus far. A tip: don’t explore the back bar. It’s too wide and wondrous for any good to come of it… (srsly, how often does a pub this size get to use one of the best spirit ranges in town?)

The Windmill
14 Windmill Hill
Bristol, Avon BS3 4LU
0117 963 5440

Charlton Inn, Shepton Mallet

With a small child in tow, you try to keep the tone of conversation pretty light.  It can be taxing stuff, especially considering the gruesome nature of most fairy tales, but a sing-song or a game of spot-the-sheep generally helps tick things over.  Is there an expectation that those with whom you come into contact should also be co-signatories to this accord?  If I had any memory banks worth pilfering I’d be able to answer this, but parenthood and the drink have done my brain in, so you’ll have to help me out.

Anyway, the point is, children normally offer you a certain force field, through which the grunted threats of pub thugs don’t tend to penetrate.  Having a kid renders you invisible, takes you out of the game.

But here, it was slightly different.  Car-cranky and bored, I saw the foursquare frontage, branded windows, and a kid’s play area out the back – the place bore all the hallmarks of the sort of wanky 21st Century pub/playhouse that parched dads all over the country seek out.

Although the kebab van sat right outside the front door should perhaps have lent a clue.

Charlton Inn, Shepton Mallet from pub website

Kebab perma-van just visible to the right…Photo is taken from https://b.geolocation.ws/

We strolled in on a Sunday afternoon, eager to find a bench where we could park the small stuff and fill her with foodstuffs while once of us, at least, got the chance to take the edge of a day’s heavy parenting with a glass of something nice.  When I say afternoon, I mean about 2pm, but even at that civilised hour, I had to jostle at the bar alongside a young man ordering up a few shots of Jagermeister.

That’s 2pm, on a Sunday.

I edged my way to the bar area, resolve fading fast.  It wasn’t an easy approach route, either – most of the bar area had been occupied by characters who put the ‘ur’ in surly.  I realised I had to adopt urinal rules, and quick – stare straight ahead, focus on the task in hand, no tangential head movements. Yet I could feel the eyes boring into me, waiting for the eye-flit.  No chance.

‘Dickhead’

I mean, it’s not to say they’re wrong – but still. There it was. Wife and infant spawn sat yards away; and here, pissed aggro.

And walking back to the table, purposefully:

‘Fucking wanker’

My dad always told me that when determining the feasibility of any decision, he would consider whether taking the ‘risky’ path would leave him open to a loss greater than he would be happy to deal with, even if the rewards were great; if it did, he wouldn’t take it on.  I always replied that that was the very definition of risk. The point being: it’s  clear that risk aversion obviously runs deep in my family.

We scarpered.  Sometimes, pubs are no place for kids.

Bridge to Bridge: Wandsworth to Hammersmith

One of London’s finest bridge-to-bridge pub strolls is one the most understated, offering a sense of the riverine gentility on offer a few miles further upstream. The best place to start is Battersea Park, the most European of all London’s parks, with its grand fountains, activity areas and sense of purpose, as opposed to the usual patch of grassland with the odd ice-cream van chucked in.

From here, you stroll past Fosterville-on-Thames, where if you dare, you can peer in and watch the hundreds of eager, exotically-named building designers putting the final touches to their latest steel-n’-glass box. You then reach Battersea Bridge, one of a triumvirate of two-laned bridges over this sweep of the river. The lamp-posts remain old-fashioned, their palling light evocative on a misty November evening. But the best time to hit this crossing is at dusk in early September. Get there before time to spot the first arrivals. There they are, swarming clouds of them: starlings and swifts, almost careering into each other – but not quite, never quite – swooping down, under, round, over, and down again, and back, and back again. The preternatural speed of movement takes the breath away, the weight of numbers inspiring. The rush-hour traffic, bane of a wanderer’s life, is outdone by these avian pyrotechnics.

Eventually, they find their roosting spots. If you stand on the walkway to either side of the bridge, these gregarious birds offer you a glimpse of your London life from a planet abroad: a mass, convulsive, competitive twittering to find the perfect perch. It is uplifting and depressing in equal measure.

The River Thames. Interesting shot.

Then on, past the plaque commemorating the apt death of the head of the Thames Water Board, who drowned on this riverside embankment one severely wet Spring in the 1980s, to one of Obyto’s favourite London churches, St Mary’s. Poking out from the armpit of Richard Rogers’ metal cheesecake, the Montevetro, its simple portico opens out onto a small gravel driveway, with views across the yawning bend in the Thames that so inspired artists such as Turner and Whistler. A few houseboats bob in the foreground, shaded by a willow tree. You can sense the drift of silken hems, the crunch of Victorian boots, the chatter of a congregation on a spring day. It’s all very sprightly and modest. So you’d best plough on past the cascading towers of hubris that line this part of the river. Hold your nose, study the swirling depths, do all you can to avoid personal integration with these soulless developments, the heart-achingly inevitable arrivals on what was a scene of scrubby decay and quiet.

Soon enough, you reach the aimless gyroscope in the middle of the Wandsworth roundabout. Just over the road lies a possible pitstop – The Ship. Nestled in the lee of a concrete factory, this breezy, happy place serves up Young’s to the crowd of young professionals who most likely descend from those lifestyle eyries you have just passed to enjoy a slice of ramshackle bonhomie, sitting in the ample outside space to enjoy a shot of springtime smuggery.

From here, the journey turns up past home improvement caverns and the Wandle recycling megalith, and over the Wandle Delta creek. Now, there’s a name. A delta creek. In London. When I first saw the sign, oh! The flights of fancy that invaded the mind. A lazy, serpentine arc spewing out topsoil from surrounding hills into the swampy estuary, whilst catfish-hawkers chewed tobacco on the banks; a steamy, mangrove-strangled swamp where hucksters, shamans and mad lepidoptetrists scuttled about. Or a bedraggled, muddy sewage outlet where one or two bastardy barges lay impossibly far from the concrete sides, resigned to rot in ignorance. But it deserves a mention for the sheer optimism of the name. I’m sure you agree.

Thence through a happily uneventful industrial park, onwards past more vainglorious quik-bild flats, to one of the great pubs in London, the Cat’s Back. Own this discovery, dear walker – make it yours. And get like totally hammered for a bit. It’s explored elsewhere, and we’re running out of time. Not that we’re following any sort of chronological imperative here, but there we are.

Beautiful riverside strolling. NB: do not do as the man in the photo. It’ll give you arthritis.

I guess the main impetus of this site is a lifetime away from any ambition for self-improvement, but really, we’re left with only one option: that is, to run, run as fast as you can, through Putney. Oh alright, we’ll allow you a determined stride through Wandsworth Park, with its grand guard of beech trees, but from then on, it’s all we can suggest. Putney High St is one of god’s less impressive endeavours, relentless in its drive to resemble a Surrey market town high street.

Thankfully, from this moment on, it all becomes more amenable. Slouching past the boat clubs lining the river, taking care to look out for Skippy, an apparently resident seal who tends to hang out in this stretch of the Thames, you have in front of you a good mile of tree-lined strolling. If you happen upon this walk in Spring, your eyes will be bathed in luminous first-growth green; in autumn, the same leaves manifest a blissful yellow. In between – well, it’s the sights and smell of English hedge and bush, a homely, evocative fragrance that leads you along past the Harrod’s furniture depository and out onto Hammersmith Bridge, where it is the work of a moment to cross, dip down onto the northern embankment on the west side, and choose one of a number of pubs to cheer your endeavours – the Dove being the pick, I guess, although the Blue Anchor draws fewer crowds, and has a pleasing tartan motif. Congratulations for getting this far. In this article, I mean. It’s not as if you’re ever going to travel halfway across town just to walk down a bloody river, is it, you feckless urban mong.

Windsor Castle, Notting Hill

BAR SAUSAGES. They’re not difficult to make, you know. Grill some delicious herby bangers, put them on a plate, serve with pot of mustard. JOB DONE.

And yet, a review of this pub could start with nothing else, so rare have these porcine treats become in the capital. This, despite the fact that there is so much else right with the place: the original partition doors making a trip to the gent’s an exercise in British limbo dancing – head first, bumbling, drunk, awkward; the well-kept ales; the dinky nooks and crannies with comfy chairs and heavy wooden surfaces; the lack of standing space, which in this part of the world, guarantees a lack of loud, bottle-carrying prognosticators invading your headspace; the spacious, relaxed walled garden area.

 

Windsor Castle - from their website

A rather atmospheric shot, don’t you think? Thanks, Camra north london!

But I return to the sausages, for it’s a vital matter. This pub is a ‘heritage’ classic, found in all olde-worlde pub guides. Could this suggest that the bar sausage is associated with yesteryear, a quaint relic of pubs past? If so, it’s a dreadful state of affairs. These are our hot meaty snacks, and we can’t let them be pushed aside by awful, mass-produced crisps in their lurid, horrid packets. So. Bar sausages. Food of kings. Sermon ends.

Windsor Castle

114 Campden Hill Road
Notting Hill W8 7AR

Royal Oak, Tabard St

In a classic cheek-by-jowl corner of south London, where the shiny nests of polished Bermondseers nudge up against humbler estates, is this place, a confusing, historic collision of capital pub life.

royal-oak_1708313c

Here is the exterior. Sweaty chefs not in picture. Thanks to telegraph.co.uk for the image.

The exterior suggests a propah cockney sweat lodge, with genteel privacy curtains to hide the shifty boat races of those inside. Matt brown tiling trumpets the name of Harveys, which suggests something else altogether more stolid and calm. So, onwards and inwards, through the door, which looks as it might be the original fitting… Impressive.

The interior is a hurly-burly of cultural touchpoints. There is a decent proportion of dark, scuffed lacquer to suggest solid history. But then, countering a sense of heritage set in aspic, are various crappily written signs on luminous paper stuck here and there, advertising food and drink. It’s a curious mix of yeasty wartime nostalgia and Costcutter 2-for-1 madness.

What is also mad, given everything – its location, its appearance, its be-trackie-bummed Polish barstaff – is the flipping prices. Jesus. This place, of all places in the world, was where I first met a £4 pint of lager. And not any of your Staropramen mush – no, this was a Becks or something. Four quid! In a fusty rabbit hole in Southwark!

Anyway.

The confusion reigned further on taking Sunday lunch upstairs. It was in all aspects a perfect ‘upstairs room’ – a clatter of chairs and tables, random awful paintings of animals on the walls, heat oh god the heat, like no-one had opened the windows in 35 years, and an acoustic that kills a laugh in 0.3 seconds flat, but amplifies silence to unbearable levels. The kind of discomfiting space to render a group of decades-old friends awkward and, almost, polite.

The chef sticks his head round the door – oh dear lord. Soggy, is the only word to describe the combination of thinning, matted grey hair, dishcloth shoulder and tracksuit bottoms hanging horrifically low for a man of his age. His three remaining top teeth give it the upside-down Star Trek sign as he leers at us all. ‘I hope you’re not too hungry, I’ve got orders back to here and I’m baking,’ he crows, a delicious Crispness to his tone. What the huh? This is all kinds of extraordinary.

The ‘menu’ –the names of some animals, written on a piece of scrap paper is thrust onto the table. We study it, at a distance… Hang about, rabbit? Squab pigeon? Duck? This is a bit adventurous. I mean – look at him! Look at it all!

But we stick with the programme – and we are rewarded with delights. A half hour wait presents us with the sight of our poor, overworked chef de camp struggling into the room laden down with huge plates of excellently cooked birds and beasts, with gravies, yorkshires and vegetables of such proportion as to render a handful of England’s greediest fatheads stupefield.

Finished, we stagger downstairs, full of cheer and chicken, past the bar, where the skinheaded Polish staff stare at us as balefully, just as they had done on our arrival. But I swear I can see something in those glares: a hint of warmth; a recognition that we’d done the right thing. We’d allowed the confusion and suspicion to wash over us and we had been rewarded.

4 Tabard Street
London SE1 4JU

The Shaston Arms, Ganton St, Soho

A stroll down Carnaby St is one way to ruin a decent mood. Its memetic pre-eminence amongst British thoroughfares is due to the fact that it is a street with shops on it. Apparently they’re really good shops. So good that streets of truly historical import-  the Watlings, Broadwicks and Cables of this world – are relegated to the footnotes, whilst Carnaby gets those self-congratulatory signs at either end and one of those licences to print money we hear so much about.

I’m sorry, but if being a contrarian, mithering old sod whingeing about the takeover of material culture in Western society is a crime, then STICK ME IN THE DOCK AND GET A DUDE IN A WIG TO PATRONISE ME.

Luckily, ‘Carnaby London’, as the local shopkeepers association so vogueishly calls it, can only last so long, and if you hold your breath at Great Marlborough St and plug away, you’ll be spat out into the (slightly) more comforting back-streets of Soho in no time at all.

One of these side-steps takes you to Ganton St, and the jolly old boozer The Shaston Arms.

The Shaston Arms, Ganton St, Soho from their website

Interior of The Shaston Arms, Ganton St, Soho – taken from their website

It’s still a pub in Soho, so it’s never going to be your favourite place in the whole world, and Badger beer isn’t my favourite, but it’s nooky and boothy and woody, cramped and relaxed, a knockabout type of place. It’s probably been done extremely artfully, to pick up the detritus who fancy themselves beyond the commercial hurly-burly, so all I’m doing here is being second-guessed. I’m a patsy. But I’m a pissed patsy, with no outsized shopping bags to lug home with me. Much better.

4-6 Ganton Street,
Soho, London,
W1F 7QL
Tel: 0872 148 0917