The Bearpit

The Bearpit

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.

St. James Barton Roundabout and Ursa the Bear

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.

Heading down to The Bearpit
Heading down to The Bearpit
Walking through a subway to The Bearpit
Walking through a subway to The Bearpit

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.

Inside The Bearpit
Inside The Bearpit
06

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 Stokes Croft area
The Stokes Croft area

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.

08

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.

The Bearpit Social Cafe as it looks now
The Bearpit Social Cafe as it looks now

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.

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23 thoughts on “The Bearpit

  1. Liz Morley

    I have not been to this area but your review of it has certainly warned me off!
    Some aspects of it remind me of Christiana Village in Copenhagen though I hear that place has been “tidied up” since I was there over 20 years ago..

    Reply
    1. Malc Post author

      I’ve also been to Christiania Barbara and Stokes Croft does have some similarities, but it’s not a separate enclave in the same way. I’ll be writing a post on it at some point.. Thanks for your comment as always.

      Reply
  2. Grete

    I know the Bearpit well, although I haven’t been down there for a few years. I used to walk through there every day, and even have picnics in my lunch break there in the 1980s. Sad state of affairs.

    Reply
    1. Malc Post author

      You wouldn’t want to walk through there these days Grete. It’s very intimidating

      Reply
  3. TheRamblingWombat

    Great post Malc.. brave of you to go in and to take photo. Given your penchant for historical posts, on seeing the title I thought I was going to be reading about an animal pit under the Colosseum or such like place. On reflection perhaps this Bearpit is more dangerous!

    Reply
  4. bitaboutbritain

    I think it’s right to show places ‘warts and all’, but this was a particularly brave – and good – piece of writing. Blogland all too often shies away from reality, into a world where everything is pretty. As suggested, virtually every town has their Bearpit – and ‘no go’ areas aren’t new, either. The really sad thing is that we still have this in the 21st century. I don’t know any answers, either! Well done, Malc!

    Reply
    1. Malc Post author

      Thanks Mike, It doesn’t please me to write about my home city in this way, but I do believe, like yourself, that to make pages credible they also have to sometimes stray into a more unpleasant world that we actually live in and not just the world that we would like to. I’m sure some people don’t want to portray that sort of world, but that’s the way I feel, and I’m glad that I’ve got somebody who agrees with me. Thank you.

      Reply
  5. Alli Templeton

    So this is one to avoid when I bring Maddie over to the SS Great Britain at the end of the month, then! This is such a good idea though, advice as to ‘where not to go’ as well as ‘where to’. Otherwise, visitors like us could stumble into the Bear Pit without realising. Thanks for the warning, Malc.

    And your posts most definitely inspire people to visit places. We had to change our plans over the weekend, and we ended up going to explore Winchester with a printout of your walk round the city. We had a wonderful day, exploring the cathedral and the Great Hall and following your route round this lovely city. And I absolutely love the statue of Alfred. So this became the first of what will be many trips there, and I’m already looking forward to going back. So thanks for the steer, Malc, and keep up the good work. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Malc Post author

      You’ve made my day Alli. Printing out that walk and enjoying it makes writing these blogs all the more worthwhile. Thank you!

      I have to admit that your trip to see the SS Great Britain was partly in my mind when I wrote this post about The Bearpit. I had the feeling that Stuart wasn’t joining you and Maddie, but even though you probably won’t find yourself around here I think it’s worth warning people in general that it’s somewhere to be avoided. The trouble is I never listen to my own advice 🙂

      Reply
      1. Alli Templeton

        It’s definitely worth warning people, Malc, and I’m grateful you did. Even if we’re not in that area this time, we’ll know for the future, and I appreciate that. You should listen to your own advice too! 🙂

        And I’m really grateful to you and your excellent blog for re-introducing me to Winchester, and opening up a whole new place packed with medieval history to explore. We’ve got quite a few places we’d like to go to now, all from your blog, so the list is growing. 🙂

        Reply
        1. Malc Post author

          Great 🙂 I’ve still got some stuff to write up on Winchester, so I suppose I should find some time for that. The trouble for me is that I tend to flit around from place to place on my blogs so that I can have a change of scenery if you know what I mean. I hope that makes sense, and thanks again for your kind words

          Reply
          1. Alli Templeton

            It does make sense indeed, so we’ll just look forward to when you post more. No rush – I’ve got quite a lot on in the next few months, as you’ve probably gathered. In the meantime, thanks for thinking of us with your this latest post. I really appreciate it. 🙂

            Reply
            1. Malc Post author

              With the feedback you give me, how could I not? As you know, I love the social interaction on here, so whenever I get feedback it means a lot. I should be thanking you really 🙂

              Reply
              1. Alli Templeton

                I love the social interaction as well. It’s wonderful for breaking up a lonely day, and it’s what makes the blogging worthwhile, isn’t it? 🙂

                Reply
  6. Stuart Templeton

    Blooming ‘eck Malcolm that sounds awful – definitely a place to be avoided.
    You are right though – most places have this same issue. I wouldn’t walk under most of the underpasses in Milton Keynes during the day, and especially not a night. I’d rather cross the road and risk the Artics.

    Reply
    1. Malc Post author

      I agree with you Stuart. I think I’d rather take my chances with the traffic too 🙂

      Reply
        1. Malc Post author

          That’s the worrying thing isn’t it? Small towns and villages that never used to have any problems whatsoever are now having the same problems as the larger towns and cities, and dare I say it, a lot of these problems have been brought in by drug dealers from elsewhere.

          Reply

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