I’m going to follow the advice of Fergy, a dear friend of mine, who often advises readers of his blogs to pour a drink of their choice before sitting down to read them: The reason being that his rambles (https://fergysrambles.org/) can be quite lengthy, but, I hasten to add, never boring.
Pirates, Slaves, and Riots
You may have gathered by now that my latest offering is going to be a bit longer than usual – and I hope, like Fergy’s rambles, you won’t find this one boring either – so grab a drink and make yourself comfortable while I introduce you to some of Bristol’s early maritime history.
No visit to Bristol would be complete without following in the footsteps of the merchants, explorers, and privateers who helped make the city one of England’s foremost ports.
Times have changed of course, and these days you won’t need to worry about bumping into press-gangs, one-legged sailors, or having a Black Spot thrust into the palm of your hand, so grab your treasure map and follow me around the riverside streets of old Bristol where I’ll attempt to sort out fact from fiction about the places and characters that gave Bristol its seafaring reputation.
My post, From Brycgstowe to Bristol, explains why a river crossing was made at the point where the River Frome joined the Avon near Bristol Bridge, and if you stand on the bridge and look downstream, you’ll see Redcliffe Back on the left hand side of the river and Welsh Back on the right. These ‘Backs’ were at the heart of Bristol’s early maritime trade until the Frome was diverted, and they were literally the backs of merchants’ houses where goods could be loaded directly onto the ships.
The Gentrification of Stokes Croft
Mention the name Stokes Croft to anybody in Bristol, and you’ll get an immediate reaction. Some see it as a cultural hub, but others are less enthusiastic, seeing it as a graffiti-ridden area full of drugs, crime and homelessness.
The Stokes Croft world is a very different one to mine – but it’s changing, and I think now is as good a time as any to find out more about the area known locally as The People’s Republic of Stokes Croft.
Stokes Croft, for those who don’t know it, is a relatively short stretch of road that forms part of the A38 trunk road from Gloucester as it comes into Bristol city centre, but to most Bristolians it also includes a small number of streets on either side of it.
Sandwiched between the relatively affluent Kingsdown and the African-Caribbean community of St Pauls, the area does not have an official boundary, but the map below shows what’s included within the ‘Cultural Boundary’ as featured on the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft (PRSC) website.
The problem with anywhere that sits on a boundary line is that it has no official identity of its own.
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.
Wandering Around Inside the Old City Walls
If the title of this post gives anyone the impression that wandering around Old Bristol is similar to wandering around York or Chester then I apologise straight away. For a start, apart from one notable exception, there are no parts of the old city wall left, and don’t expect to come here and tick off a list of medieval buildings either.
That said, just because the city’s core isn’t set in aspic, it doesn’t mean to say that centuries of history hasn’t left anything of interest behind.
My previous post, From Brycgstowe to Bristol, explained how the Anglo-Saxon settlement became a Norman town and trading port. The diversion of the River Frome in the 13th century helped the port expand, and for the town to do the same it meant tearing down the city walls.
The other major event to change Bristol’s layout was the Second World War when air raids did enormous damage. As far as the Old City was concerned, virtually everything in the south-eastern quarter was destroyed. Apart from the remains of two churches – St. Mary-le-Port and St. Stephens – nothing else survived.
The western side though escaped the worst of the Blitz and it’s mainly this part of the Old City that I’m going to take you around in this virtual tour.
From Brycgstowe to Bristol
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).