Brycgstowe, Brigstow, Bricgstoc – It doesn’t matter how it was spelt, to the Saxons it meant the same thing – ‘Place by the bridge’.
The tendency for Bristolians to add the letter ‘L’ onto the end of words is no doubt the reason for today’s spelling, but why did they build a bridge here?
The answer is not just because it was the lowest convenient crossing point of the River Avon, but also because it was an ideal trading location.
Situated six miles upstream from the mouth of the river where it meets the Severn meant that it had both good protection and good access.
The River Severn has the second (or third) highest tidal range in the world, and you don’t have to witness the Severn Bore to see how fast the river can ebb and flow. This tidal range also affects the Avon, and for ships sailing up and down the river this was good news – or at least it was back then (see my post on the Floating Harbour for how things changed).
You wouldn’t know it (because you can’t see it), but there’s also another river that flows through the city centre called the Frome. The map above shows its original course which took a loop around the hilly ground to the north of the Avon and then joined it just below the bridge.
It’s had several diversions since but you can clearly see how the strip of land between the two rivers would have been a strategic and natural place for the Saxon town to be built.
We know very little about Bristol’s Saxon beginnings, except that the original wooden bridge would have been built close to where today’s Bristol Bridge is.
When the Normans arrived, the Saxon earthworks and wooden defences were replaced by a town wall and a castle and the town centre was where four main streets converged (the same spot where High Street, Corn Street, Broad Street and Wine Street meet today).
In 1373, a High Cross was erected at this junction to commemorate the granting of a charter by Edward III giving Bristol the status of a county – and it is still officially known as the City and County of Bristol.
As you can imagine, the cross became the town’s focal point for social gatherings, which included royal visits, proclamations and beheadings.
Unfortunately, it’s no longer here as the Bristol Banker, Henry Hoare, whisked it off to his private estate at Stourhead in Wiltshire, where it can still be seen – but unlike those who had their bodies separated from their heads, the cross is still in one piece.
As trade and Bristol’s importance grew, then the original encirclement of the two rivers became more of a hindrance than a help, and during the 13th century the River Frome was diverted through marshland below the hill to enter the Avon at St. Augustine’s Reach (where the Watershed and Harbourside entertainment areas are today).
Below is a map showing how the town looked between 1250 and 1350:
I’ve marked the location of the High Cross with a red star, and to the south-east of this you can clearly see the location of the castle which was destroyed by Oliver Cromwell in 1645: Second World War bombs, I’m afraid to say, destroyed the rest of the buildings on this side of the crossroads
This brief explanation of Bristol’s early history is meant to be just that: as I expand my Bristol pages, then other aspects of the city’s history will gradually come to light, showing how and why Bristol became one of the most important cities in the country after London prior to the Industrial Revolution.
The old photographs in this post were from the photo library of the late Reece Winstone, who I’m glad to say, I had the privilege of meeting.