Wednesday 7th May 2014
When I first called in to this pub during the 1990s I was aware that it had considerable history, yet I don’t remember how beautiful it really was.
I am aware that several aspects of the interior have only been exposed in more recent years and I suppose this is the answer as to why I was so surprised when I revsited in the late 2000s.
When I first visited it was a Courage house selling Best Bitter and Director’s, both brewed a few hundred metres away at the former Georges & Co brewery in Bath Street. I am not sure when the pub came under their control, yet from the early nineteenth through to the mid twentieth century it was in private ownership although allied to several breweries over the years.
A lot of what is visible inside dates from the mid nineteenth century although the pub was built around 1660.
Commencing in 1892 the beer was supplied by Bristol United Breweries Ltd. This company was founded in 1888 by four of the city’s brewers. It is believed that this action was in response to Georges brewery changing from being a family-owned concern to become a limited company. From the 1870s it faced on the new Victoria Street, formerly it was in Temple Street, which still exists, just around the corner.
The company eventually merged with Georges in 1956 by which time their estate had grown to around 600 pubs. However, reversing back to the early twentieth century we find that the King’s Head had ceased selling their beers.
A photograph taken around the time of the First World War clearly shows a painted sign on the exterior clearly extolling the virtues of the beers brewed by the Ashton Gate Brewery.
Ashton Gate was another of the city’s breweries back then. They were established in 1865 when the business of Baynton’s Brewery was acquired. The name was changed to Hardwick & Co in 1868 and back to Ashton Gate in 1883. In 1931 the company and its 150 or so pubs were acquired by the ever-predatory Georges Brewery. They stopped production at the Ashton Gate site in 1933.
A very interesting side line to this is that the buildings were not demolished as is often the case.
The happy conclusion was that 2005 brewing recommenced on the site in 2005 as it was taken over by the Bristol Beer Factory; please see the article on the Barley Mow pub which is owned by them.
So to summarise it would appear that at some time the Ashton Gate Brewery purchased the Kings Head and it passed to Georges in 1931 and then to Courage in 1961.
The Beer Orders meant that it eventually ended up in the hands of a pub-owning company. That law also led to the demise of the Bristol-brewed Courage beers as the Bath Street premises brewed the last in 1999.
Back to the pub, I noticed the Courage insignia etched into the glass on the front window and entered. The front window is very attractive and it is interesting to think that it was created since 1961. There is a small area on the right with fixed seating just inside the door. The bar counter is also on the right and the first thing I noticed was that this is a very narrow pub indeed; there is barely room to squeeze by those customers on stools in front of the counter.
What immediately strikes a visitor is the very decorative bar back with its mirrors and ornate carving. Each bay of it has a glass screen above it promoting the various offerings of the pub.
These continue past the bar counter right up to end of the end of the room, by the toilets. These name Claret, Hollands (Dutch gin), Cigars, Mineral Waters, Port & Sherry, London Gin, Jamaica Rum, Irish & Scotch Whiskey, Cordials and French Brandy.
Pride of place is the fantastic advertising mirror for “Burton Ales and Dublin Stout”. I understand this is dated 1860 and was created by Fred Bream of Bedminster. In fact, most of this area of the pub dates from the 1860s as the bar back was installed around 1865. It is said that it could be the oldest in the country. Should that not be the case, it’s the second oldest!
The bar counter dates from the same period although the shiny wooden top dates from 1998. However this is a good thing as it replaced a Formica one installed in the 1960s. Now I realise why I didn’t think the pub’s décor was as old as it was when I first visited. With a plastic-type bar and the old signs painted over and no doubt with rubbish wallpaper, its true nature had been disguised.
The pub is listed for its architectural merit as Grade II. Now, with all these beautiful artefacts on show again, maybe it should be regraded as II*? Yet, there is more as the rear of the pub is as fascinating as the front. There is a small private room that is separated from the pub by a wooden screen just high enough to prevent passers-by on their way to and from the toilet from seeing who is in there.
This snug dates from around 1900 and is believed to be the work of George Parnell, a local joinery company whose last work was the fitting out of the bars and restaurants on the Cunard liner Queen Elizabeth 2 in the 1960s. It is known as the Tramway Bar and it is said this is because of its shape. In a way that is true but I would suggest it is because of the seating arrangement whereby drinkers are facing each other sitting on fixed bench-type seating, just like in a tramcar of the time.
On the left side of the pub is a continuous wall. This is covered with photographs of old Bristol and in a nice link, many of them show tramcars in the streets. At the end of the room are the facilities and there is a lovely old painted sign on one of the doors stating it is for “Ladies Only”.
Regarding the cask beer it seems that Sharp’s (Rock, Cornwall) Doom Bar (4.0%) and Otter (Luppitt, Devon) Amber (4.0%) are regulars and the other two hand pumps host guest beers. On the occasion of my visit these were Skinner’s (Truro, Cornwall) Betty Stogs Bitter (4.0%) and Butcombe (Wrington, Somerset) Gold (4.4%).
This is great little pub that is on a walking route from Temple Meads station and the city centre. It shouldn’t be missed if you are in the city.
The King’s Head, 60 Victoria Street, Bristol BS1 6DE. Tel: 0117 929 2338
Open: Monday-Friday 11.00-23.00; Saturday 12.00-23.30; Sunday 12.00-14.30/18.30-23.00
The pub is just over five minutes walk from Temple Meads station. Exit the station and walk down the station approach. Turn right at the bottom and when you get to the large Temple Circus roundabout continue forward along Victoria Street on the opposite side. If you walk along the road with the Novotel on your right, you have found it and will soon come across the King’s Head on the right. There are many bus routes that pass close by.