Oliver Briscoe reviews Clifton's finest traditional barbershop, revealing the enigma of Mr Swanston's
A curiosity from the outside, Mr Swanton’s can seem somewhat daunting to the uninitiated- or maybe just to those who have never bothered to get a haircut over £5. Regardless of its apparent mystery, it is familiar to all those of the Clifton area, its gold lettering on the window “For gentlemen and their sons” or the clock which hangs outside “Time cannot be regained” it seems forever dark like a creaky shop of oddities with its badgers and safety razors on display. True to its name, Mr Swanton does indeed exist! And I can safely say he is the most skilled barber in Bristol.
Image: Allef Vinicius / Unsplash
A single pane, glass and wood door is pushed open by a brass handle, and immediately one enters into an altogether different environment. A feeling of warmth and a veneer of a simpler time covers the place. The shop is deep and covered in dark mahogany panelling. To the right, there is a fireplace, a stuffed cat on a chair and the wall is covered by the heads of various animals. To the left, a small seating area, a wooden bench covered in maroon leather with a magazine stand, Beano, Men’s Health, Private Eye and Lonely Planet. The rest of the store is a line of three or four heavy barber chairs fixed in front of a marble counter and a mirror. The wall above is adorned with a collection of Victorian china pots and old postcards cover the bottom of the mirrors.
Mr Swanton only ever uses the station closest to the door and never has more than one customer at a time. When the small doorbell rings, he turns away from his task and welcomes you in with a smile. He is an older man, in full Victorian dress, from his waistcoat to his whiskers. He has warm red cheeks and a small but full beard of snowy white. Though it might seem a bit Mayfair, there's nothing of the old boys club here.
Image: Joshua Sorenson / Unsplash
You will probably have to wait a few minutes for Mr Swanton to finish up, he likes to take his time, talk and see his customer out the door. He then calls you up with a welcoming hand, helps you into a cape and then you seat yourself in the comfort of a deep-set leather cushion.
The haircut is secondary, but it is the first place to start. There is no doubt that Mr Swanton is an expert. After leaving Arts college in Twickenham early, he decided to do what his friends were doing and become an apprentice barber. First living in Hounslow in London, he has been running Mr Swanton’s, here in Bristol, for 38 years. He tells me that he moved down to Newquay to chase a girl, but when I turn to look at his wife, he winks at me and tells me knowingly that this was not her–a story for another day perhaps. The craft he learnt as an apprentice and those 38 years of experience really come through at the start. He knows hair, understands crowns and his technique is unrivalled. The first time I went he had me change my parting from the right side to the left, “it sits better and looks more natural” he explains. His style is personable and homely, an overall lovely manner that I have yet to see elsewhere in Bristol.
The most important part of the cut at Mr Swanton’s or at any barber shop is the atmosphere, the talk, the sense of ease and retreat from the outside. Mr Swanton certainly provides that; talking to you for hours about the sport of your choice. I was there before the Winter Olympics, and sure enough, Mr Swanton could tell me everything about it, even though he has never skied a slope in his life. He can surpass any man in the knowledge of cricket and football, being a season ticket holder for Bristol City football and Bristol rugby clubs, explaining why the store abruptly closes at one on a Saturday–his attempt to make it on time to the game. His conversation is varied, his topics ranging from the times he used to DJ the CHH and Manor balls back in the day, to anecdotes about his family farm. Whatever your interest, you sit relaxed, knowing nothing will go wrong and passing the time with fascinating chatter.
The whole cut is convenient, and everything is accommodating–as it says on the board, “drinks and abuse are free”. Mr Swanton offers all your classic barbershop services from a simple cut to a full wet shave and is open Tuesday to Saturday. You might not be impressed by the Victoriana setting or fancy the idea of fostering a relationship with your barber but be in no doubt that for a couple of extra pounds (£15 for students) you will get a classic, expert and enjoyable cut. Safe to say, I always leave the shop feeling confident and renewed, something that confirms that my extra 2 pounds are undoubtedly worth parting with.
Featured Image: pix-4-2-day / Flickr
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