CAMRA Books News & Events

Heritage Pubs of the Southwest


written by Paul Ainsworth
Is there such a thing as a ‘typical’ South West pub? Given the large and varied nature of the region and the fact that its pubs have taken shape over many years, the answer, essentially, is‘no’. By and large, pubs developed in much the same ways as in the rest of the country, though with only one large city (Bristol), the South West is short on the grand late-Victorian edifices which adorn the likes of London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester. On the other hand, the area is especially rich in fine rural and small-town pubs, some of which are quite remarkable survivors. But first, a bit of history.

In the beginning

Most early public houses were literally just that – ordinary houses whose owners opened up a room or two to sell drink to neighbours. All you needed was somewhere to store the merchandise, somewhere to serve it and somewhere for customers to drink it. Pub keeping was a family business and, especially in the countryside, usually part-time and combined with, say, farming, carting, blacksmithing or some other trade. Nearly all these very homely pubs have gone now because such small businesses just aren’t any longer an economic proposition but the South West has some of the best remaining examples. Top of this list has to be the Luppitt Inn, Luppitt, Devon, the epitome of the simple, unspoilt farmhouse pub, owned by the same family for more than a century and still with a few acres attached (and also with very restricted opening hours which makes visiting a challenge.) The Berkeley Arms, Purton, Gloucestershire, too has both a small holding as part of the business and limited hours, including being closed altogether between October and Easter). Also with land attached (28 acres) is the Hunters Lodge, Priddy, Somerset . Until it was sold off in 1980, the Seymour Arms, Witham Friary, Somerset had a whole farm attached. Visit any of these pubs and you can get a strong flavour of the rustic simplicity of rural pubs of yesteryear. Only six open pubs in the whole country now have no bar counter – once a common arrangement. Two of them feature in the guide – the Rose & Crown, Huish Episcopi and Tuckers Grave, Faulkland, both in Somerset. Something which would have been done in hundreds of pubs in the past – the brewing of beer on the premises – had dwindled by the early 1970s (when CAMRA was formed) to just four examples, one being the Blue Anchor, Helston, Cornwall. As the other three later stopped brewing, before starting again, the Blue Anchor is unique in being the only one to brew continuously. The Bruce Arms, Easton Royal, Wiltshire did once brew its own ale and on a mantle-piece is a piece of wood from a cask impressed with the words ‘Bruce Arms’.

Inns and taverns

The other types of establishment up until the early 19th century were the tavern and the inn. The former existed only in larger towns, catering for the more prosperous customer by serving wine and food. They were never common and no former taverns appear to survive in the South West although the Haunch of Venison, Salisbury perhaps enjoys something of the atmosphere of such places (and wording on the frontage proclaims ‘Old  English Chop House’). In any event, it’s a rare example of an urban pub that has stayed virtually unchanged for over 100 years. Inns provided meals and accommodation for better-off travellers along with stabling for their horses. Inevitably they have been greatly modified; places which go back centuries but now retain few ‘pubby’ features include the George, Norton St Philip, Somerset, the New Inn, Gloucester, and the George & Angel, Glastonbury, Somerset. The Luttrell Arms Hotel, Dunster, Somerset has the most intact historic inn interior but lacks the iconic courtyard associated with such establishments.

The golden age

The pub as we know it today is mostly a Victorian creation. The first part of the 19th century saw the widespread adoption of counter service and the hand-pumped beer engine, heralding the change from an essentially domestic environment into a form of shop which could handle a greater volume of trade. Just as most rural pubs once catered primarily for the agricultural labourer, vast numbers of urban pubs were fairly basic establishments for the working man. In industrial area especially, pubs afforded welcome refreshment after a shift down the pit, in the steelworks or a day of hard labour. However, such industrialisation largely passed the South West by so pubs of this kind always were few and far between. The Lamb & Fountain, Frome, Somerset is a ‘back street boozer’ like those still relatively common in other parts of the country Later in the century, under the influence of social reformers and the powerful Temperance lobby, a drive to improve public houses took hold. This enhanced the multi-room principle with its ability to offer a choice of ‘better’ rooms and thus attract a respectable clientele. Nearly all these many-roomed interiors have since been opened out but you can see a surviving partition at the Nova Scotia, Bristol. The years around 1900 proved to be the high point of pub-building and design, with grand, ornate ‘palace’ pubs arriving in bigger towns and cities, but also with lesser variants being built elsewhere. Sadly, the South West mostly missed this aspect of the ‘golden age’. The Palace Hotel, Bristol is the nearest to what are often (and inaccurately) termed ‘gin palaces’ with its impressive arcading, but even this has been much altered. Glazed screens made their first appearance at this time but were largely a northern phenomenon. The Seymour Arms, Witham Friary, Somerset (p.xx) has fine horizontally sliding windows while the Globe, Appley, Somerset has a simpler version. The best survivor from this era is the Kings Head, also in Bristol with many features dating back to the middle of the 19th century, including one of the oldest bar-back fittings we know about. The late-Victorian public bar of the White Hart, Midsomer Norton, Somerset contains much to admire. Other notable pubs from this ear are the Cricketers, Bournemouth , built with a separate billiards room, and the Victoria, Oldfield Park, Bath, of 1897.

Between the wars

The Great War brought pub-building to a full stop but it resumed quite soon afterwards. Pubs at first continued to be built on traditional lines, but before long we saw arrival of the ‘improved’ pub, often built for growing suburbs and busy highways. Reducing the number of pubs but improving standards in what remained had been the mission of magistrates for some years and there was now a concerted drive to broaden the appeal of pubs and reduce their dependence on alcohol sales alone. The idea was for pubs to offer a ‘respectable’ environment with a range of rooms and facilities that encouraged civilised behaviour and patronage by the middle classes. Having said that, although these ‘improved’ pubs proliferated in the rest of the country, relatively few were built in the South West and none survive with any degree of intactness. Nonetheless, brewers responded to these developments with a fresh surge of pub-building from the mid-1920s. Art Deco was the emblematic architectural style in this period but was adopted only rarely for pubs. An excellent example is the Corner House, Barnstaple, Devon with its typical Deco frontage and little-altered, mostly panelled interior – the curved bar counter is especially redolent of the period. Many older pubs were given makeovers in styles of the period such as two pubs in Bath, the Old Green Tree and the Star, both refurbished by the same architect in the 1920s with plentiful panelling and a variety of small rooms. Other notable inter-war decorative schemes can be found at the The ship, Shaftesbury, and the Journey’s End, Ringmore, Devon.

Post-war decline

Britain was bankrupt after the Second World War and hardly any pubs were built for a decade. When building restrictions were relaxed in 1954, new pubs began emerging again and were typified, unsurprisingly for these straightened times, by utilitarian design and low-quality materials. Layouts, though, still provided a choice of rooms and such customary features as off-sales and concert rooms. Inevitably, once the economy picked up, these cut-price reminders of post-war austerity became highly unfashionable and few intact interiors from the period remain. However, difficult to love as they may be, they are important as reminders of how and where folk drank in those increasingly distant times. Bristol has two good examples, the Hartcliffe Inn of 1958 and the Giant Goram of a year later. Both have two rooms and skittle alleys, the one at the Hartcliffe remarkably being open to the public bar (though a screen has been removed). The Falstaff, Plymouth, is a little later and even has a few architectural flourishes, notably the bar counter. From the mid-1960s, pub architects started to become more adventurous and some decidedly quirky buildings, mostly now lost, took shape. Best of those remaining is the (recently statutorily listed) Centurion, Twerton, Bath, of 1965 whose striking design owes much to its hillside position. The interior takes you straight back to an era where innovation and imagination were the order of the day. Sadly, this increased prosperity heralded a time of rapid and mostly regrettable change. The social divisions mirrored by the multi-roomed pub were vanishing while magistrates and police favoured direct supervision of all parts of a pub from the serving area – hence the widespread removal of internal walls to the great detriment of the atmosphere and attractiveness of most traditional pubs. Many pubs throughout the South West were heavily influenced by their pub-owning brewery in the 1960s and 1970s, some being allowed to do their own thing, whilst others had to follow the company policy (if, indeed, they had one!) on how the pub interior was presented. In later years the corporate image became all-important and is discernible today, even if done in a subtle way. Some refits, such as those at the Cock & Bottle, East Morden, Dorset, and the Hunters Lodge, Priddy, Devon, displayed real care and attention but serious trashing tended to be the rule. At the same time, a series of brewery mergers brought the majority of pubs into the ownership of one or other of the ‘Big Six’ national brewing conglomerates. All of these, in thrall to their corporate accountants and marketing men, inflicted huge damage on the pub heritage they inherited. Smaller brewers and many private owners shared this obsession to modernise. There was no respite. The rise of off-licences, shops and supermarkets made pub off- sales redundant. Environmental health officers demanded changes to accommodate inside toilets and better food preparation facilities. Old bar-back fittings were hacked about to make space for more varied products like wine, spirits and refrigerated drinks. Fire officers insisted on adaptations to provide safer escape routes. Such relentless pressures resulted in a much-depleted pub heritage.

The aftermath

Recent years have seen a sad decline in the overall numbers of traditional pubs in this country – down from around 70000 in 1980 to 48500 today. To some extent, this has beenoffset by an increase in bars, nearly all in town and city centres, but, with a few honourable exceptions, few have much merit in design terms. Some new pubs continue to be built,mostly ‘family’ pubs on the edges of towns, but conversions from other uses like banks and shops are much more common . The fact that, in most years, no winner can be found  for the New Build category in CAMRA’s annual Pub Design Awards speaks for itself. Mentioned earlier were the particular pressures on small, rural pubs which struggle to be viable. Happily, some have successfully met this challenge by extending their building in ways which don’t impact adversely on their historic core. An excellent example is the Drewe Arms, Drewsteignton, Devon, which originally comprised just the simply- appointed public bar left of the entrance. On its own, this couldn’t pay its way, so further rooms, mostly for dining, have been developed elsewhere in the property – but discreetly separate. The Half Moon, Cheriton Fitzpaine, Devon sensitively added a lounge and the George, Portland, Dorset, added a new bar in a former kitchen. The expansion of the Glasshouse Inn, May Hill, Gloucestershire has been particularly well handled. Public interest in our built heritage has never been higher and the existence of this very book and the popularity of others like it published by CAMRA shows that this interest extends to our pubs as well.