Inside the ‘best pub in Bristol’ according to CAMRA

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The cosy two-room pub encapsulates everything great about small independently run local pubs

The Merchants Arms is officially the best pub in Bristol. That’s according to the Bristol & District branch of CAMRA, the city’s no-nonsense arbiters of all things real ale.

Actually, this Hotwells pub came runner-up in the pub of the year. The winner was the excellent Siren’s Calling in Portishead, but despite having a BS postcode that’s still not Bristol.

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The Merchants Arms is run by Mike Wilkins, who has been in the pub trade more than 40 years. When asked what makes an award-winning pub like his, he simply said: “No frills, no machines, no jukebox but a selection of excellent, mainly local cask ales, an eclectic mix of background music and great conversation. Oh, and a roaring log fire in the winter.”

That’s a simple philosophy hard to argue with and Mike’s cosy two-room pub near the Cumberland Basin encapsulates everything great about small independently run local pubs.

Located on a busy traffic island, thousands of people probably drive past the Merchants Arms every day, not even giving it a second glance.

But behind its butterscotch and chocolate brown exterior, this diminutive corner pub is everything you could hope to find as far as quintessential community boozers go.

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Food is limited to pork pies (£2.50), pasties (£3.50), cheese and onion rolls (£1.50) and a choice of packet snacks including Mini Cheddars and, of course, Scampi Fries.

There’s another option for those who may want to disguise the fact they’ve popped in ‘just for the one’ and that’s packets of Seriously Strong XXX Extra Strong Peppermints on the top shelf behind the bar.

They share the space with a row of ‘proper’ whiskies - Laphroaig, Talisker, Glenfiddich, Bushmills and so on - which marks this out as a pub for spirits connoisseurs rather than those looking to neck shots.

For the real ale drinkers - and this is one of the reasons why CAMRA handed them the award - there is range of immaculately kept beers.

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I could have gone for Cheddar Gorge Best or Pitchfork Old Slug Porter, but instead opted for the Somerset-brewed pale ale Nuttycombe Doonicans, which at £3.70 a pint was especially palatable.

Also on tap were Guinness, Thatchers Gold, Thatchers Dry, Amstel, New Bristol Brewery’s The Joy of Sesh and the German beer Paulaner.

The traditional interior of the Merchants Arms in HotwellsThe traditional interior of the Merchants Arms in Hotwells
The traditional interior of the Merchants Arms in Hotwells | Mark Taylor

Grabbing a window table next to a shelf of well-thumbed dictionaries, crossword books and beer guides, I sat back and watched as the late afternoon trade morphed into early evening, with a mix of regulars lucky enough to call the pub their local and visiting beerspotters clearly there on the back of the latest CAMRA accolade.

In the background, it was back-to-back rock anthems from the likes of Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane, The Doors and Cream. Just like the Merchants Arms itself, it was classic stuff to sit back and savour.

Merchants Arms, 5 Merchants Road, Hotwells, Bristol, BS8 4PZ.

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