11 Oct Press
We are quite frankly overwhelmed by all the fantastic support we have had from our neighbours, new customers, friends and the press since we got to The Grapes.
A recent fabulous double page spread in the Bath Chronicle and photo feature have got lots of people talking and the wonderful Melissa Blease, oh she of Bath Pig Guide fame kindly did a lovely write up on us for The Bath Magazine.
We are very grateful for all the support and below we have added the transcript to a piece written by local historian Kirsten Elliott for the Bath Echo, who also recently held a talk for us on the Boozers of Old Bath as part of the national Heritage Open Day weekend on the 14th September up in Pococks Living Room…..enjoy!
The Return of the Grapes.
When the owners of 14 and 15 Westgate Street, gained permission to turn the Grapes into an HMO (House of Multiple Occupation), there was perhaps even more regret than normal at another pub closure. The building has had connections with the drinks trade since 1728, when John Billing, a vintner, moved in. It is possible that the name dates from that period. Fortunately, experienced landlords Ellie and John Leiper decided it was too important a building to be closed to the public forever, and they applied for, and were granted, the lease. They were skilled at restoration, and I was impressed to find that Ellie is capable of mixing and applying traditional lime render. Having been on a course about this, I know it is no easy task.
Nevertheless, it’s been a rollercoaster ride for them trying to restore it, and to give it a modern flavour while respecting its history – a history that goes back to the sixteenth century or even earlier. Indeed, it has a much better claim to call itself the oldest building in Bath than a certain other Bath institution. So when I was invited by Ellie Lieper to come in during the renovations, I was very excited, as I had never been beyond the bar before. I particularly wanted to see the amazing ceiling on the first floor. In the mid 1990s I had persuaded one landlord to leave his curtains open at night, so that it could be seen from the street, and this became something of a tradition, until recent years when they were firmly closed at night.
The first reference to a building on the site dates back to a deed of 1302, which tells us there was a tenement here, belonging to Adam Fullo. However, if there are fragments left, no one has so far identified them. When Ellie showed me the cellar, I felt that the structure of the wall indicated an early date. The same conclusion was reached by archaeologist Peter Davenport in 2003, and he also thought, as I did, that the cellar marks the former street level. It’s amazing what you can deduce from cellars, which are often the most interesting part of the house. Early maps also show that there was a house here by the late 1500s, and substantial parts of it survive. There is a beam on the ground floor which looks as though it dates from that time.
But it is the 17th-century remains which are the most spectacular, especially the first floor ceiling, with its amazing plasterwork. One theory is that it was carried out for Dr John Ostendorph, who held the lease in 1637. He was a German physician, which would explain the double-headed eagles in the central feature. However, its style suggests he did not do the work immediately. Peter Davenport estimates that it dates from the latter part of the 17th century. This room has never been open to the general public, but John and Ellie have begun holding regular events in there, including Japanese dinners, yoga and life-drawing classes, and talks. Sadly, the great fireplace which would once have graced this room has gone, but Ellie found a fragment of a grand 17th century fireplace built into the wall of the bar – but not as part of a chimney breast. It is likely that this is all that is left of the one from the first floor. This is now a feature in the bar, surrounded and enhanced by Ellie’s lime render.
Throughout the building, there is a variety of styles. Georgian panelling rubs shoulders with Jacobean panelling, and on an old staircase with an 18th-century handrail there is a Jacobean dog-gate. Perhaps most striking is the frontage, added about 1710, displaying the same three orders of architecture that John Wood later incorporated into the Circus. Formerly, the house had gables, which are illustrated on Gilmore’s map of 1697 when it is shown as Ms Pocock’s Lodging. Some people have thought that it means Mr, but the proprietors of this and another lodging, Toops, are both described as Ms. I checked the latter in the council leases and it was certainly being run by a woman at the time, so I suspect that Ms Pocock was also a woman, as many lodging-house keepers were. So the modern abbreviation Ms is actually over 300 hundred years old!
The refronting, though spectacular, was carried out in a most curious way. New façades were often attached in differing ways, but I have never seen one constructed like this. They appear to have built the new wall in front of the old one and then removed the old one. At this point, the builders must have said ‘ooops!’ because there was now a gap between the front of the old building and the new façade. It is still clearly visible at ground floor level, where a beam stops well short of the front wall. Desperate efforts must have been made to tie it to the old house. It affected the upstairs ceilings on the first and second floors, but was hidden by adding a heavy cornice.
To reflect this mish-mash of history, John and Ellie have given the bar an eclectic appearance with a choice of old bus seats, comfy chairs and bar stools to sit on, and a mixture of modern art, old advertising signs and an elegant flower display to admire. As for the beer, there is a variety of keg beer, a couple of cask beers from Three Daggers brewery – one brewed especially for the pub – and a guest beer, as well as cider from Honey’s from Midford, and wines and spirits.
The Leipers plan to open it as a B&B as soon as possible, and to introduce light meals at a later date. One change Ellie would like to make is to restore the old sign – a huge bunch of grapes dangling from a bracket. Only the old bracket survives at the moment bearing the modern painted sign.
Despite the modern touches, the Grapes retains its aura of a traditional city centre pub. This is demonstrated by a photograph taken by Ellie of a 1920s-themed wedding party standing outside. Just a quick glance would lead you to believe that it really dates from that time. However, many old-time city centre pubs did not make women feel at home. The Grapes is very different. For everyone, from business people sitting looking at iPads, couples sitting for a quiet drink after sightseeing, locals pleased to find an old business still going or women enjoying a cheerful chat, there’s a warm welcome at the Grapes.