Back in my freshly-returned-from-university days, I have a feeling that I went to The Bear once. But I’m not sure. It was that unmemorable.
What we can tell you is what happened far more recently. The recent history of this venue is a sorry tale, which RealAleRocks helps me recall: after being The Bear for as long as we could remember, in Autumn or so of 2015, it closed for a refit, reopening in December as the Artisan Tap. The refit served it well, and as well as the handles and taps, at the end of the bar were three large fridges of real ales from where you could select your bottle, and a chilled mug for it to go into, before taking them both to the bar. However, it’s worth noting that the range of beers in the fridge never changed, even if the handles did.
At some point by February or March 2016, they started serving a range of 9 or 10 cocktails, which was a welcome addition. In July, they closed for a few days for staff training, then reopened, now running down the beer fridges to clear the stock. Then a week or so later they closed again, reopening by the end of the month as The Snug, with those large beer fridges gone, and the cocktail list greatly expanded. But much as we personally enjoyed this particular incarnation, beer or not, it wasn’t to last: by the time the Bedford Beer & Cider Festival rolled around in the first week of October, The Snug was no more. Finally, on December 9th 2016, it reopened once again as The Bear.
So now it’s open once again under the old moniker, and presumably they won’t have completely undone the refit – right?
When we visit, it’s late on a Friday afternoon, just before traffic picks up after work. The first obvious change from its previous incarnation is that in the front room, most of the tables and comfy chairs are gone, and a pool table has been added. A couple of men, perhaps in their 30s, are sat at one of the few remaining tables here. The front room is carpeted, and quieter than the bar – with no speakers in here, the music is allowed to spill out from the bar, behind.
We head into the bar – a long, thin room, with the bar down three-quarters of the left hand side, with tables on the right and at the end. There’s a mixture of wooden and stone tiled flooring. Three or four men are sat and stood in a group around the handles, being quite loud. One of them in particular is mouthy. We’ll come back to him later.
Gently negotiating our way around these human obstacles, we see that the beer choice is better than I think we both expected – GK IPA, Tring Pale Four, Robinson’s Trooper, Tring Puma, Sharp’s Doom Bar on the handles; Strongbow Dark Fruit, Fosters, Guinness, Kronenbourg 1664, Heineken Extra Cold, Strongbow Original, Amstel, and Moretti on the taps; and a handful of Brew Dog beers, Corona, Newcastle Brown Ale, and Old Mout ciders in the fridge. We opt for the Pale Four and the Trooper (“12 til 6, cask ales £3 each”), and sit at a nearby table.
The music plays indie / rock, at a medium level. We could have had a conversation, at least insofar as the music didn’t prevent us from doing so…
At the end of the bar sits a man, perhaps in his 60s, looking at his phone. Likewise a hipster-type man, sat near to him. A man in his 40s also plays with his phone. A juke box flashes blue on the wall; “Free jukebox Wednesdays until 7”, a sign says. On the opposite side wall – where, back in the Artisan Tap era, were three fridges of assorted real ales – are now three fruit machines, silently flashing their enticements to nobody in particular. At the rear, next to the doorway to the toilets, is a cardboard cut-out of a bear, some 7 feet tall.
The mouthy one at the bar continues to be loud, frequently swearing. He uses an offensive slur which could have been directed at me – it “applies” to me – but I don’t actually think it was aimed at me. Still, both RealAleRocks and I pick up on it, and we’re even more on our guard than we already were. We can’t relax in this place, not today. This place is bloke-central, it’s dangerous for people like us. We’ll be keeping our heads down and drinking quickly, thank you.
For this reason, I never got a photo of the inside of The Bear – it just never felt safe enough to do so. I did, however, head out into the beer garden. Out here was just one older chap on his own, with his hi-vis jacket, his pint, and a phone. So I got a snap of that instead.
I return to the bar, lucky me.
It’s now after 5pm. A man, perhaps in his 50s, wearing a shirt and tie, arrives, orders a Fosters, and sits. Nobody else in here is wearing anything similar: he looks almost as out of place as we feel. A man and woman arrive, and take another table. Other than us, she’s the only woman here.
I did find one improvement that had been made, compared to our last visit, when it was The Snug. Literally, one improvement: the hand-dryer in the ladies’ has been moved from its previous awkward position, right next to the door, to the opposite wall, which is a far better choice. It’s a stupid detail that I wouldn’t normally write about, but since all of the other changes we saw were so unrelentingly awful, I felt compelled to include the only positive thing that I could find.
But there’s no getting away from it: this place is not for us any more. At least at the time we visited, it was very blokey, heavy on the testosterone, heavy on the swearing. Aggression and threat hung in the air. The Artisan Tap’s, and the Snug’s, bar staff – friendly, chatty, young women – have been replaced by a man who looks like he knows how to handle himself, should the need arise. Gone are the cocktails, the fridges full of real ale, and the rather extensive wine list. Gone is most of the quiet seating. But mostly, what’s gone is something that is generally so reliably omnipresent, you didn’t even realise that you had it: the ability to feel safe and relax, and enjoy what used to be a promising pub.
We might be back, but if so, we’ll be exercising plenty of caution. Feeling like we might have to make a run for it at any minute is no way to enjoy a pint.
Images by GirlMeetsPint, CC BY 4.0