The large rubber builders bucket in the bar of Shirehampton Men’s Social Club is brimming with empty Natch cider cans by midday.
There can be around 30 morning drinkers in the bar before 11am, but then these regulars are among the 300 or so members who effectively own this long-running social club.
The pandemic has decimated many Bristol pubs but many of the city’s members-only clubs are bucking the trend.
Matt Williams became manager at Shirehampton Men’s Social Club at the start of the lockdowns but he has already seen the place change for the better.
Members here pay just £5 a year – a nominal fee that enables locals to benefit from huge discounts at the bar, where a pint of Guinness costs £3.20 and real ales are only £2.95 – prices that make even Wetherspoons look expensive.
The club on Shirehampton High Street has snooker and pool tables – 20p for 20 minutes – and darts teams compete on Monday and Tuesday evenings. Like other social clubs, it is very much a part of the local community, a place where locals can meet over a pint and some live entertainment.
There’s a full diary of live events already this month, including appearances from ‘dynamic vocal entertainer’ Tony B and singer Shaz Leigh. Next month, there’s a show from Our Way Duo ‘as featured on Britain’s Got Talent’.
It’s the live entertainment that has helped the club during the past 18 months, according to manager Matt.
“Most places struggled after Covid but we’ve actually benefited from the restrictions in a way,” he told Bristol Live.
“We had no outdoor area before so we put one in the car park and opened an outdoor drinking area.
“We were one of the few places in Bristol that managed to put on live outdoor entertainment during the restrictions and we started to attract big numbers for those, which has turned into new members for us.
“There were people who had walked past our club every day and never used it and they suddenly discovered us. It changed a lot of people’s opinion of the place.”
Women are now welcome
Matt says one of the biggest changes at the club is that despite its name, women are now welcome.
It’s a change of policy that was brought on by the pandemic and it has been something of a lifesaver for the club.
“It was men-only for years, with women only able to use certain areas but not the main bar – since Covid, we’ve opened it all up to everyone.
“During the pandemic, the grants helped us but a lot of local also people volunteered to come in and help decorate the club.
“It was dark and dingy before, but it’s much brighter and welcoming now. It feels like a different place.”
Open since the 1960s, many of the older members are now in their 80s and have been drinking there most of their lives.
Matt says the recent changes have been generally welcomed by all members, but there are still a few who aren’t quite so keen.
“It was a bit of a shock to a few of the older members, some of whom have been coming here since the place first opened in the 1960s,” he added.
“Back in its heyday, I think a lot of members were working down at Avonmouth so it has always been a working men’s club with wives only coming in on a Saturday night for the entertainment.
“In those days, women could come in but not the main bar. It’s all mixed now, and everybody is welcome, but there are a few of the older men who still want to get away from their wives!
“But we’re trying to get away from the image of grumpy old men sat there not wanting anybody else to come in.
“Anyone’s welcome as long as they don’t cause trouble. And you don’t have to live locally – we have a lot of contractors who might come down to the area twice a year and they keep their membership.
“There are also people who move away from the area and keep their membership going so they can pop in when they are back in the area.”
The club also raises money for local charities and helped a lot of people in the community over Christmas.
Matt says: “On Christmas Day, when the club was closed, we gave out free Christmas dinners to anyone who had nowhere to go or were on their own so they could sit and have a meal with other people.
“It went really well with most of the local businesses on the High Street donating towards the cost of the meal and our local butchers, Woods, donated meat for the meal.”
It’s a community spirit that has also extended to Shirehampton’s pubs, according to Matt, who says they’ve all worked together in recent months.
“The good thing was that since lockdown we’ve all been working together and helping each other, even when we run out of beer and ‘borrow’ a barrel,” he said.
“All the pubs are working together and a lot of our regulars wander around to places like The Lifeboat, which has brought more people to the High Street since it reopened.”
And the social club now hosts weekday events that would never have happened in the days when it was men-only.
Matt says: “We have Slimming World and aerobics classes in our function room during the week, which is completely opposite to what would have happened in the old days.
“But it was just empty space that wasn’t being used during the day so we make money on that whereas we don’t make much on the bar as the prices are so low.
“Before lockdown we were struggling a bit but, to be honest, we might not be open now if hadn’t been for the changes we made and we are getting new members all the time, which is great.”
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