Bristol Pubs by James MacVeigh
‘There is nothing which has been contrived by Man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.’ Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)
Why would anyone decide to write a book about pubs? Although they are so mundane and ordinary that often we don’t notice them, except perhaps to name them as landmarks when we are giving directions to a stranger, I personally agree with the opinion of the formidable intellect quoted above, compiler of the first English dictionary. Or to put it another way: ‘A public house is more than a building with people inside it, that description could include a factory or office block, railway station, church or prison. When beer, cider and spirits are added to the mix, the public house takes on a human dynamic that is different from all of the above, and can turn into a place almost of magic.’ Okay, that is an unashamed quote from Bristol Pubs, and you may consider it over-the-top. Is it, though?
Human beings are continually redesigning the towns and cities in which they have chosen to dwell, nowadays with smaller buildings generally pulled down in favour of larger ones, in an ebb and flow of urban demolition and renewal that takes away everything in its path. Or rather, almost everything. Have you ever noticed which type of buildings that are generally left behind by this inexorable march of progress? Churches, certainly, for one, are often repositories of the past, and crammed with articles of historic interest, and, besides, they have a spiritual aspect to them that may say, Hands off! – Even in this materialistic age. What other buildings, though, are almost invariably left intact, as though they too are sacred places of worship? You already know the answer to that one. Pubs! True, a modern boozer may be flattened in the name of progress, but you will often see an ancient hostelry, dwarfed by sky scraping office blocks, yet still as busy and popular as it was in centuries past. Let the entrepreneurs, architects, and builders lay claim to anything with some antiquity to it, and it usually creates uproar in the local community. This is something we must be thankful for, otherwise we in Bristol would be without the rambling, higgledy-piggledy Llandoger Trow in King Street and its near neighbours, the Old Duke, the Famous Royal Navy Volunteer, and the King William Ale House.
Sadly, there are always exceptions to rules, and acts of civic vandalism still take place in our city. The birthplace of the Bristol boy poet, Thomas Chatterton (1752-1780), on the other side of Redcliffe Way, has recently been renovated after decades of neglect, and is once again in use as a themed café, Chattertons. All well and good; as the co-author of a musical about him I would be the last person to argue with such a laudable event. In recent publicity material the City Council described Chatterton’s house as ‘the only surviving mid-18th Century house in the area.’ Not so. The Bell Inn public house, tucked out of sight and out of mind behind the magnificent St. Mary Redcliffe church was built only one year after the poet’s birthplace, in 1750. Its bow windows are the earliest example of this feature in Bristol, and its bar still retains its original stone flags, yet the historic building has not only been allowed to fall into disrepair approaching dereliction, efforts have even been made to accelerate the process of destruction, by leaving the windows wide open so that the wind and rain can enter to finally finish it off. This cannot be mere neglect. As one who is more sceptical than most when it comes to accepting conspiracy theories, I am nevertheless convinced that the City Council has some fiendish plan, perhaps in partnership with private enterprise, in which this lovely old inn is finally demolished to make way for an architectural monstrosity.
James MacVeigh's new book Bristol Pubs is available for purchase now.