I’d like to think that my wanderings sometimes inspire people on places to go, but at the same time I also think it’s worthwhile pointing out places where they shouldn’t, and The Bearpit is one of them.
The reason I’m writing about The Bearpit is because it’s right in Bristol’s city centre and it would be easy to inadvertently find yourself in a place that you wish you hadn’t.
The official name of this sunken pedestrian plaza is the St. James Barton Roundabout and is located at the point where several busy roads meet near to St. James’s Priory Church, which is generally regarded as Bristol’s oldest surviving building.
How the church managed to survive the air raids in WWII I’m not sure, because much of the densely populated area around it was flattened.
The area was left pretty derelict until the late 1960s when bold new plans were realised. These included Avon House and Avon House North, which as their names suggest, were huge administrative office blocks for the newly formed county of Avon.
The problem with 1960s architecture is that it all seemed such a good idea at the time: It was a time to forget the past and move on to a bright exciting future, and it was during this time that St. James Barton Roundabout was constructed.
The area beneath it was designed to be both practical and attractive, with subways making it easy for pedestrians to negotiate the road layout and a place to sit out of harm’s way amongst well-kept flower beds. That was the theory at least, and to be fair it did work for a while.
By the 1980s it had started on a downward spiral: Instead of attracting shoppers and office workers, it was attracting beggars and drunks. The council were forced into doing something about it, but no matter what solutions they came up with the area never really improved. It seemed as though it’s what people would have to accept as the price for crossing over from the shops at Broadmead Shopping Centre to the Bus Station for example.
One report in Bristol’s Evening Post illustrates what it was like to walk through The Bearpit, as it was now called. It describes how a man was approached by a mugger who tried to rob him, and when he explained that he didn’t have anything worth stealing because he had already just been mugged, his attacker told him “Don’t cross the Bearpit if you don’t want to get robbed”.
I’d like to tell you things have improved, but I’m afraid I can’t, which is why I’m posting this blog: If anything, things have got worse.
Huge sums of money have been spent and small businesses encouraged to transform the pit into something respectable, but so far, it’s all been to no avail: As soon as improvements are made and the graffiti scrubbed off the walls, then it’s back to square one again.
One of the roads that leads off of the roundabout takes you into The People’s Republic of Stokes Croft, an area that I’ll be writing about in due course. For now, all I’ll say is that it’s an area that attracts an alternative lifestyle to one that most of us lead. There were riots here in 2011 over the proposal to open a local Tesco store and the aftermath has seen a softly softly approach by police, which seems to have led to an anything goes society. It’s got to a point now where the council are taking over some of the buildings and starting to demolish them.
Last year there was a concerted effort to bring the alternative lifestyle of Stokes Croft to the Bear Pit which at the time seemed to be another good idea, but lack of local support and council funding left small businesses to fend for themselves – which they couldn’t. They were seeing “the worst of the worst” as they put it.
The owner of the Bearpit Social Café was one of the people who thought that they could make a difference and had a resilient attitude to the problems, but even she had to admit that it had all got out of control. She was calling ambulances four or five times a day, and as she put it “We were trying to help people to make sure they weren’t choking on themselves while they were being robbed by other people”. She was assaulted herself, and has now given up the business.
With the failure of the Bearpit Bristol CIC (Community Interest Company) to change things around, a new £3½ million plan has been put forward to have yet another go. It will involve removing Ursa the Bear, the iconic sculpture that overlooks the roundabout and a change of name to ‘The Circle’. A few weeks ago, I decided to check out what’s happening now. Ursa was still here – and so were the undesirable element that has caused so much grief in this “lawless no man’s land” over the years.
The businesses that once took up the fight have been cordoned off, but it hadn’t stopped a group of feral youths getting inside and doing what feral youths do. In another corner of the cess pit were a number of people who were obviously the worse for wear on alcohol or drugs – or both. I managed to grab a few discreet pictures before an argument broke out which was beginning to turn ugly. I didn’t hang around, and did what any sensible person would do and escape through one of the smelly, subway tunnels into the world above.
Some of the people who cause this anti-social behaviour are homeless and resort to using drugs and alcohol to escape into another world. It’s a problem that society in general has to face up to – for everybody’s sake, but I don’t suppose there’s an easy answer.
Bristol, of course, is not unique in having these problems, but there’s no getting away from the fact that The Bearpit is a very intimidating place to come during the daytime, let alone at night, and until somebody finds a long-term solution then take my advice and walk around the roundabout rather than through The Bearpit. No matter how much longer it takes, it’ll be worth every minute of your time.