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.
The Centre and St. Augustine's Reach
I don’t think too many Bristolians would disagree that the city’s focal point is ‘The Centre’. It’s where people have traditionally met up, maybe for a ‘Blind Date’ outside the Hippodrome or somewhere. It’s a good location for that sort of thing because if your intended partner for the evening didn’t quite live up to your expectations, then you could always dodge the traffic, disappear into the woodwork, and try your luck elsewhere – or so I’m told.
London has Piccadilly Circus; Glasgow has St. George’s Square and Bristol has The Centre! Not the most innovative name for a focal point I’m sure you would agree, but before you start thinking that it’s just an easy way to name Bristol’s city centre, the name is actually an abbreviation of the Tramway Centre that used to operate from St. Augustine’s Parade, and it’s not the centre of the city anyway.
Pirates, Slaves, and Riots
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.
Bristol's College Green - A Place for Picnics, Politicians and Protests
College Green is where traditional and modern Bristol often collide. It can be an oasis of calm one minute, and anything but the next, and the reason for this paradox is that although it belongs to Bristol Cathedral, it is managed by Bristol City Council whose offices overlook the Green.
Originally, the area was the enclosed graveyard of St. Augustine’s Abbey, but after it became a casualty of Henry VIII’s Dissolution, the abbey became a collegiate church and the area occupied by the graveyard became the College Green. In 1542 the church became Bristol Cathedral, but the area has been known as College Green ever since.
On a lovely summer’s day, it’s an ideal place to escape the hustle and bustle of the city centre, and students often take full advantage of it to sprawl out during their never-ending lunch break while they plan their next protest march. To be fair though, we only have to look across the moat of the council offices to see where they get their inspiration from, but more about that in a moment because I want to put the area into context first.
Those of you who follow my blogs are probably thinking “Oh no, not another cathedral”, and even though it doesn’t quite match the grandeur of some of England’s other great religious houses, it’s the one that made my home town a city, and there’s no way I’m not including it in my historical chronology of Bristol.
On the plus side, it means that this won’t be a long post, and it’s just possible that I might be able to reveal a fact or two that you weren’t aware of, including perhaps, the fact that you didn’t even realise Bristol had a cathedral at all.
When it was founded in 1140 it wasn’t even a cathedral, but a monastery dedicated to St. Augustine of Canterbury, the missionary who brought Christianity to England. One of his companions was a man called St. Jordan who, legend has it, was buried in a chapel on what is now College Green. There has never been any evidence to substantiate this claim, but experts believe that there was a church here during Saxon times thanks to the discovery of a stone carving beneath the Chapter House in 1831. It now hangs on a wall in the South Transept.
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).