Being at Cabot Circus gave us a good spot from which to embark on our exploration and it's in the vicinity of a couple of cracking pubs. It seemed only fair, with the weather forecast to be wet and windy thanks to Storm Erik, to choose a route which kept us as dry as possible. To that end, our day began at The Phoenix.
Situated on a corner plot that faces into Champion Square, The Phoenix opened in 2011 following a refurbishment of the previous property. A further recent refurbishment has taken place to add an enclosed, modern conservatory space. Inside, the bar sits to the right of the door with the immediate area consisting of low seating and dim lighting with a single step down to a rear area where can be found further tables and chairs, the aforementioned conservatory lit by bulbs attached to repurposed gas cellar gas gauges and a large outside patio area. The 3 handpumps on the bar regularly offer beers from local breweries and our visit was no exception. Available to choose from were New Bristol Uber Paris, Butcombe Original and Bristol Beer Factory Independence. I opted for the Independence, Matt for the Original and Amy went down the craft beer route with a pint of Tiny Rebel's Clwb Tropicana. We took our seats at a table in the conservatory and absorbed our well-appointed surroundings. I'd never been to The Phoenix before and I was glad we'd started the day here as it definitely bade well for what was to come. As for the beer, the Independence was an excellent starting choice. This is a 4.6% pale ale with strong hoppy notes on the nose and in the taste which leads to a sweet fruitiness and a hoppy finish. All-in-all, it's a very well-rounded beer indeed!
Upon leaving The Phoenix, it was clear that the rain had begun again. Thankfully, our next destination was a very short walk away. It was time for a return trip to a Bristol institution and a perennial favourite amongst the many pubs in the city. We now made our way to the Volunteer Tavern.
Dating from 1670 and listed, the Volunteer reopened in 2011 following a 6 month period of closure. Very popular locally, it was voted Bristol and District CAMRA Pub of the Year in 2016 and regularly features in the Good Beer Guide. The interior is small but cosy with a small bar to the side of the room and low tables and chairs throughout. The garden is large and features repurposed kegs as stools, along with picnic bench style tables and a working piano! The pub hosts regular pop-up kitchens with the incumbent being Naasto Baasto Gujarati cuisine. The pub was quiet on our visit which is not a surprise given the weather and that it's the middle of the day on a Friday. This does however, give us plenty of time to peruse the beer options. 5 of the 6 handpulls are occupied when we arrive offering a wide choice of beers, namely Animal Polar Bear, Twisted Oak Volly Hoptamistic (brewed especially for the pub), Electric Bear Werrrd, Kult Rebel and Twisted Oak Solstice. I eventually decided to go for the Twisted Oak Solstice (4.7%). This is a beer in the style of a special bitter so it's dark brown in colour with a warming maltiness and intense bitter notes that lead to a surprisingly smooth finish. It certainly helped in the process of drying off! We took a round table roughly in the middle of the room and adjacent to the toilets where conversation turned to family health and the fact the inside of the pub's main door is painted like the exterior of a TARDIS. Today was already turning into a fantastic day and that was certainly set to continue.
We left the Volunteer through the aforementioned door to find that the rain had at least temporarily abated, although this didn't stop the driver of a passing car from driving through a puddle and splashing us. Still, the next pub wasn't far away and this would be another new location to tick off the list. We ventured now, to The Bridge Inn.
Independently owned and decorated externally with a giant mural of Jimi Hendrix, The Bridge is a small but comfortable pub with a décor dedicated to rock music which has already made it a winner before I've even had a look at the beers. The main entrance leads directly to the bar, with a small seating area to the right, which is already full, and a smaller area to the left which features the toilets. In good weather, picnic style tables placed outside increase the seating options. In addition to the 5 handpumps clustered on the bar, there is an impressive selection of malt whiskies, rums, gins, vodkas and Belgian bottled beers. To add to how incredible the place is, it also features in the Good Beer Guide. Speaking of the 5 handpumps, there was an intriguing selection available for us. Our choices here were XT 4, Grey Trees Mosaic, Box Steam Tunnel Vision, Animal Polar Bear and the regular Dark Star Hophead. I decided on the Mosaic (4.2%) from Aberdare-based Grey Trees. As the name suggests, this is a single-hopped beer. The Mosaic gives a complex array of tropical fruit flavours, along with characteristics of citrus, berry, herbs, earth and pine. It packs quite a hoppy punch for its ABV and it certainly won me over. The pub was standing room only by this point but we manage to find a small ledge opposite the bar on which to lean and passed the time by trying to identify the musicians who featured on the newspaper collage on the wall next to us. The Bridge is an absolute belter of a pub and I recommend that you stop what you're doing right now and go there as soon as you can. You won't be disappointed!
We could have stayed at the Bridge all day but needs must and so we made our way to another pub that is something of a favourite of mine as well as locally. Next stop, the Cornubia.
A short walk from Temple Meads Station and a regular in the Good Beer Guide, this is a small, cosy pub in an 18th century building with two linked rooms displaying much patriotic memorabilia and an impressive array of pump clips adorning walls and ceiling. The bar takes up almost all of one side of the room, with a smaller snug to the left as you enter. Seating is in the form of wooden tables and chairs and sofa style seating near the windows. The outside area has been much expanded and now caters for boules as well as BBQs (weather permitting of course). A large selection of books and board games are available, there is a big screen TV and a fish tank that contains live turtles. 10 handpulls occupy the bar, with 8 in use when we arrive. Our options consist of By the Horns Transatlantic Cowboy, Lenton Lane Bluebird, Beowulf Clout, Cornubia SO (the pub's house beer), Incredible Amber, Incredible Rye and two ciders, namely Big Apple and Devon Blush, both from Ashridge. I opted for the Transatlantic Cowboy (4.5%), an American style brown ale from Wimbledon-based By the Horns. This is hoppy and lightly smoked with subtle roasted notes and it's a very good beer. I thoroughly enjoyed it as we sat in the window, admiring the interior of the pub and learning the turtles are named after the ones from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, although one is now sadly deceased. We also heard the barmaid discussing her bosom with a customer which seemed a bit random and out of context but strange things always seem to happen in Bristol!
Speaking of strange things, our next stop was a place that I'd heard many good things about, not just for the beer but for the history and stories about the place. Making the jaunt over to King Street, we now visited the Llandoger Trow.
This architecturally important and impressive pub dates back to 1664 and is thought to bear a unique name. The name comes from a captain Hawkins who retired to run the pub after previously sailing a trow (a flat bottomed sailing barge) between South Wales and Bristol. The Llandoger part of the name is thought to refer to Llandogo, a small Welsh village in Monmouthshire situated on the river Wye and believed to be Hawkins' home. When it was first built, the pub had five gables and stood beside Welsh Back where ships from across the Severn were once moored. The pub originally occupied just one of these gables with the others being used by tradesmen such as basket makers, grocers and tobacconists. The pub extended into the other gables in September 1942 when the two end gables were destroyed by WWII bombs. There are many stories about the pub including that this is where Daniel Defoe met Alexander Selkirk, whose story inspired Robinson Crusoe and that the pub itself was the inspiration for the Admiral Benbow featured in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. Other stories are less of literature and more the paranormal. The Llandoger Trow is alleged to be one of Bristol's most haunted pubs with its most famous tale being that of the apparition of a sad, crippled boy who is regularly seen around the property. Poltergeist activity has also been reported, particularly in the kitchen and restaurant where cutlery is thrown by unseen hands. Pictures have also been known to fly off the walls without an explanation. Given the history and stories of this pub, it's perhaps unsurprising that this kind of activity has been associated with it.
On the more earthbound side of things, the pub is large and atmospheric with much of the original architecture remaining including exposed beams, large rooms and mock Tudor frontage. The bar is large and long and runs parallel along an internal wall with lots of seating situated throughout. 5 handpumps sit on the bar with 4 of them available for us to make our choices from. The available beers were Sharp's Doom Bar, Brains Rev. James, Fuller's London Pride and Black Sheep Best Bitter. I'm rather partial to a pint of Rev. James (4.5%) and this proved to be a good option, with flavours and aromas of malt and fruit leading to a bittersweet taste and a well-balanced finish.
We'd decided earlier in the day that 2 bona fide favourites of all of ours would feature on this trip but before we got to both of those, we opted to stay on King Street for one more beer. There are so many cracking pubs in this area of Bristol that it would be rude not to. Our next location was a mere stone's throw away and another location that I was familiar with but which Amy had yet to experience. Next up, Small Bar.
Located in a large, Grade II listed building, the pub has gone through many incarnations including Sublime, Indigo, Mulligan's Whiskey Emporium, Dr. Thirsty's Surgery and The Bunch of Grapes but it's current name is something of a misnomer. Whilst the bar area itself is of a modest size, the rest of the building certainly makes up for it. The bar opened in 2013 and serves a mixture of keg and cask beers from a massive number of taps (I counted 21) on the wall behind the bar. Uniquely, the beers are only served in 1/2, 1/3 and 2/3 measures and payment is by card only, with no cash accepted. There are two rooms downstairs, one containing the bar and repurposed barrels as tables and the other featuring bench style extending to the rear. There is also an upstairs room that features comfortable chairs and sofas and a small library. Beer-wise, we were very much spoilt for choice here. The list of products is exhaustive but gives an idea of the range of styles and breweries featured. The available choices were Northern Monk Saesoner, Wiper & True x Tempest Sicilian Sour, Siren Calypso, Oedipus Polyamorie, Little Earth Hedgerow Blend, Left Handed Giant Ubu, Tiley's Cashmere, Tiley's Amarillo Centennial, Left Handed Giant Sky Alone, Electric Bear Whirly Bird, Verdant Bennetton, Manual This Elevator, Pressure Drop Show of Hands, Glasshouse Call of Beer Duty, Tiley's Amber Nelson, Good Chemistry Shadow Future, Manual Based on a True Story, Lervig Dark Orbit, Tiley's Imperial Brown and Kees Caramel Fudge Stout. Picking through the vast array of options was no easy task but narrowing down my choices, I finally decided on Cashmere from Tiley's. Tiley's is a small brewery, operating out of the award-winning Salutation Inn in Ham, Gloucestershire producing small batch beers for sale on site and at selected outlets in the local area. Cashmere (4.1%) is an American style pale ale with big, bolshy hop flavours and a big hit of citrus. It's very nice indeed and I settled for 2/3 to make it last even longer. We took a seat at a long table in the downstairs room, enjoyed our beers and discussed how the day was progressing. Personally, we have a fantastic time!
It was now time to move on again, to the first of 2 of our favourite pubs in Bristol. Making our way out of King Street, we retraced some of our steps from the previous day as we made our way to the Bag of Nails.
This small, gas-lit, terraced freehouse dates from the 1860s and is renowned throughout the city as 'the cat pub' and for its eccentric list of rules including no 'idiot pub crawls' or inflatable bananas. The pub landlord has several cats that are allowed to roam free and tend to take up residence on the bar, on tables or pretty much wherever they like! You definitely need to be a fan of felines here! Inside, as well as cats, there are terracotta colours, portholes in the floor and music played from an old school record player. There are board games and Lego sets for customers and toys for the cats. It's a brilliant place and that's before you even get to the beer! The pubs is Good Beer Guide listed and it's easy to see why. The bar extends down most of one side of the narrow room and features 8 handpulls, all but one of which had something to offer. Our choices in this fine establishment were between Dawkins Brandy Chocolate Stout, C.O.B. Ordinary Bitter, Box Steam Campfire Porter, Vibrant Forest Cambrian Root, Moor Old Freddy Walker, Hop Kettle Red Star and Electric Bear Werrrd. Amy and I went for the same beer here, namely Werrrd (4.2.%) from Bath's Electric Bear. This is a very well-balanced and very-sessionable American style pale ale brewed with fruit-forward hops. The aroma carries pink grapefruit, mango and orange rind and these follow through into the flavour. The whole thing ends with a nice, piney bitterness. It's a delicious beer and testament to the idea that beer tastes amazing when you're surrounded by cats!
It was a shame to leave our feline friends behind but we had one more pub to get to. Possibly our favourite pub in all of Bristol, it's a haven of great beer, awesome music and wonderful company. Have you guessed where it is yet? I speak, of course, of the Gryphon.
Triangular in shape due to its corner plot, the Gryphon sits just a few yards uphill from Colston Hall. It is very much a shrine to heavy metal and rock music and accompanies it with excellent beer, the fruits of which can be seen on the ceiling which is entirely covered with pump clips from every beer they've ever poured and its regular entry into the Good Beer Guide. We love coming here so it seemed only fitting that our final pub of the trip should be this one. 4 of the 6 handpulls were pouring on the day and they were offering a fine choice of Brew York Fairytale of Brew York, Harlech Castle, Fixed Wheel Bear Cage and Stealth Mint Spy. I'm becoming a big fan of Brew York so opted for the Fairytale (4.9%). This is a coffee and walnut milk stout with roasted notes and an aroma not unlike Christmas cake. The walnut is subtle and the lactose flavours round out the whole thing with a triumph. Christmas really had come early! We were lucky enough to be able to get a seat at one of the few empty tables were we happily soaked up the atmosphere and were joined by Matt's bandmate Kenny and his girlfriend Cecilia. With our party now up to 5, we continued to revel in our surroundings and gorged ourselves on more pints and epic music. It's never easy to leave the Gryphon but sadly the time had come to venture back to the flat, via the local takeaway. The weather had begun to worsen but luckily the only casualty was Amy's umbrella.
The following day would see us bid Bristol farewell until the next time. What a couple of days it had been! Bristol never ceases to impress and surprise me. There's a reason that we go back every year. As well as catching up with Matt and Jess, it's always a fantastic experience exploring this great city. The old favourites are deservedly visited time and again and new pubs always provide an opportunity to add more favourites to the list. The beers are fantastic, the breweries are brilliant, the pubs are wonderful and the people are by and large the nicest you could meet, notwithstanding the odd weirdo, evidenced by the bloke on the bus back to Hanham who was telling anyone who would listen about his health issues since his GP had retired. Still, despite the number of times I've visited, there's still so much more to see and do! Many more pubs have yet to make it into this blog and the time will eventually come, no doubt via some old haunts as well. I can say, hand on heart, that Bristol will never not win me over. Bristol you've done it again!