Sandwiched between Fishponds and St George, Speedwell is an area many people overlook on the way to one of its more ‘up-and-coming’ neighbours. Partly because, at first glance, it seems to lack a defined center with no apparent main street.
But walking around Speedwell and talking to those who live and work there, you quickly discover a friendly, unpretentious and relaxed neighborhood where residents, new and old, are at the heart of the community. In the 19th century, Speedwell was home to several small collieries, and while evidence of its industrial past is now fairly well hidden, there are still some clues.
The area is a patchwork of different architectural styles, but among the new and interwar housing, the dominant Strachan and Henshaw tower, and industrial units, there are still a few rows of old miners’ cabins. Perhaps the most obvious reminder of Speedwell’s past is the Wakkum, a Greene King pub and the pinnacle of the area run by Damion and Laura Pike for the past 12 years.
Read more: Man’s ‘disbelief’ after the great Speedwell fire completely destroys the business
Consistently reviewed as one of Bristol’s friendliest pubs, it was initially called the Beaufort Arms but was known as Beatem and Wackem, a name derived from miners’ wives who used to come into the pub to “beat and wackem” their husbands. .
Speaking about the area, Damion said: “I think it’s probably misunderstood a bit. It might have had a bit of a name in the past, but it’s a very family oriented place now. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have stayed 12 years and bought our kids here.
As managers of a well-loved venue, Damion and Laura try to cultivate a welcoming atmosphere, whether people are there with their families or just want to have a drink alone. He said: “We always tell our staff that we want to try to get people’s backgrounds. We try to get to know everyone on a personal level.
“Because if someone isn’t friendly, they’re not coming back. Our motto is to arrive as strangers and depart as friends.”
During his time running the pub, Damion has seen a massive increase in new residents as once-vacant tracts of land have been gradually redeveloped. He said: “We have seen a massive influx of different types of people over the years. Every time a housing development ends, we have a boom and then a plateau.”
Speaking about the upcoming Strachan and Henshaw tower redevelopment, Damion said: “I’ve heard numerous rumors of student flats with shops underneath or luxury flats. I’ve heard all sorts. It will bring a completely different clientele to our pub, but we give it Welcome. Everyone is welcome.”
Freshly glazed and gleaming, from a distance you wouldn’t suspect the 10-story tower was devastated in a massive inferno four years ago that burned for three days and could be seen for miles across the city. Up close, however, it’s a different story with the rear of the building still derelict and the ground floor units still empty.
An employee at a nearby business tells us that the fire was “really scary” and that they had to close for a month while the area was secured. They added that many people lost their livelihoods, property and tools.
In 2021, Wayne Braund, who bought the partly derelict tower for £1 in April 2018, has admitted to a large number of fire safety breaches. The ground floor housed a music studio, where the fire started, while the fourth floor housed swingers club The Office, the court heard at the time. An investigation launched by the Avon Fire Authority concluded that Braund, as the “responsible person”, had risked lives by failing to ensure fire safety measures.
Now, beyond the perimeter fences, work is underway, although not much can be seen yet. Every local we spoke to expected it to be full and bring a much speculated supermarket and maybe a cafe. It’s not that Speedwell doesn’t have options for those who want a bite to eat.
Nearby is Gillian’s cafe and sandwich bar, and The Croft, a large, bright modern cafe that you’d never suspect had a church upstairs. Renee, the manager, told us that when she started coming to the church 24 years ago, “the whole community was a wasteland” and the church itself was an “old, decrepit building.”
He explained that the shiny new cafe and church came about through the generosity of a member of the congregation who was also an architect and donated his skills so that the community would have a place to come together. She said: “The whole plan was for this cafe to be a community center. We have different groups coming in, a post-stroke group, mothers and babies, AA, anti-nuclear groups and the like.”
It’s not just about providing a space where people can come together for delicious yet reasonably priced coffee. Like The Wakkum, Renee said that she encourages staff to talk to customers and get to know them. She said: “We want you to feel free to share anything because it doesn’t go beyond space. However, people come here; we want them to live in a different place.”
It’s a level of casual familiarity befitting only a cafe off Cheers Drive.