Text and pictures by David Austin with contributions from Tim Mars
On Sunday 15th July, society members, led by Tim Mars, made a tour of central Gloucester on the trail of ancient inns and more recent public houses.
Our starting point—and probably the high point too—was Yorkshire brewer Samuel Smith’s astonishing £4.5m restoration of Robert Raikes’s Grade II* listed house on Southgate Street. Formerly a somewhat shabby and down-at-heel pub called The Golden Cross, it has been transformed and reöpened as Robert Raikes’s House, an elegant and well-appointed inn.
The building itself was in a parlous condition. The sixteenth-century timber frame was repaired, restored and in some cases (where it had been inadvisably removed) reïnstated by Tim Potts of the Oak Frame Carpentry Company. Their work was as much structural archæology as meticulous restoration and the end result is a marvel inside and out.
In our winter programme Tim Potts gave a fascinating talk on the restoration involved. From toolmarks, scribing marks, timber sizing and pegged mortises in the existing timbers, Tim Potts established that the original building had just three windows on the first and second floors—one in the middle of each bay—and that all six of these windows projected from the building as oriels. Sadly, Samuel Smith’s baulked at the cost of reïnstating them, so the eight sash windows of a fashionable 18th-century ‘facelift’ remain. For the time being at any rate.
(For more information click here for a pdf by Tim Potts on "Oriel Windows at the Golden Cross - what we know and what we don’t")
Across Southgate Street is the 1970s frontage of the Eastgate Shopping Centre, a bland façade in precast concrete and brick infill that replaces the Bell Inn, once the largest and most prestigious hotel in Gloucester. It was demolished in 1967.
All that remains is the Grade-I listed Old Bell, previously an annexe, housed above Costa Coffee in the upper floors of one of the city’s most ornate buildings. The carved and panelled Jacobean façade dating from around 1665 is of outstanding quality.
We moved on to the New Inn, the finest example of an intact mediæval galleried inn to be found in Britain today.
The New Inn is one of the three ‘Great Inns of the Abbey’, built by St Peter’s Abbey for the accommodation of pilgrims. It was constructed between 1430-1450 and is Grade I listed. While it is heavily overlaid with centuries of alterations, one can glimpse the original timber-framed building, particularly in New Inn Lane, a passage that runs along the north side. The restoration of Robert Raikes’s House gives an idea of what could be done with the New Inn.
Lastly on Northgate Street, the Imperial Inn. The façade of the Imperial is an essay in Victorian faience and ornamental ironwork, the latter and the windows painted a rather lurid turquoise. This Grade II listed building dates back to 1890, but the pub dates back to at least 1722.
Cutting through to Westgate Street, we stood in front of the entrance to the Fleece, another of the ‘Great Inns of the Abbey’. Closed for many years, the Fleece had been acquired by the South West Regional Development Agency (SWRDA). It was handed over by the government to Gloucester City Council when SWRDA was wound up. Emergency repairs have been instituted, the building has been extensively re-roofed and secure ventilation provided. We hope that it will at least be possible to walk through the inner courtyards again, even if its rëopening as a pub and access to the remarkable12th century vaulted undercroft may be some years away.
We then passed through the yard of the Fountain Inn, which is traditionally associated with a visit to Gloucester by King William III. To show his contempt for a Jacobite club that met in an upper room, the king is said to have ridden his horse up the stairs leading to the room from the courtyard.
Further down Westgate Street, which is looking tidier with some encouraging restoration work, but sadly many empty premises, we came to the Dick Whittington. The front portion of the pub is a complete 18th Century re-build but behind this is a Grade I listed timber-framed merchant’s house dating back to 1314. It didn’t become a pub until the 1980s, having been restored by Gloucester Civic Trust and the city council.
The walk back to our starting point took us through the Blackfriars Quarter, past brutalist offices set cheek-by-jowl with Ladybellegate House. It is a Grade I listed town house built around 1704 and the birthplace of Robert Raikes. The house is notable for its fine Rococo plasterwork and carved oak staircase. It was restored by Gloucester Civic Trust in 1978.
On the other side of Ladybellegate House is a brick-faced multi-storey car park with a concrete flyover almost scraping the roof of the Cross Keys, a Grade II listed 18th century inn which probably started life as cottages but was a pub by at least 1720. This brought us back to Southgate Street.
Our impression was that there is so much left of historic Gloucester, hidden behind centuries of make-over and adaptation.
After the war, the city suffered a perfect storm of roads, redevelopment, multi-storey car parks, shopping centres and doctrinaire 1960s planning policies, but all is not lost.
We heard from Jonathan Bassendale of Feilden Clegg Bradley in a talk last October about their conservation plans for the 13th century Blackfriars Priory buildings—a scheduled ancient monument owned by English Heritage—and the Grade I listed Fleece Hotel complex. Feilden Clegg Bradley have drawn up a masterplan for the Blackfriars Quarter, which contains more than 90 listed buildings, of which six are Grade I listed, and six scheduled ancient monuments.
Remarkably, we enjoyed three hours without rain!