From Brycgstowe to Bristol

Bristol Bridge

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).

Original Course of the River Frome

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.

Bristol Bridge with Christ Church at the top of High Street in 1901
Bristol Bridge with Christ Church at the top of High Street in 1901

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.

The Corner of High Street and Wine Street c1902

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).

Where the River Frome was diverted to join the Avon

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

The Frome Diversion

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.

Today's Broad Street

13 thoughts on “From Brycgstowe to Bristol

  1. Alli Templeton

    Great introduction to the early history of Bristol, Malc. And even more fascinating as Maddie and I were there recently – as you know – and the photo of the river in the town centre was where we got off the ferry boat after we left the SS Great Britain. I hadn’t known it was a Saxon town, so it was great for me to read about it’s medieval roots. I also didn’t know there was a castle there – good old Cromwell ruining everything again! It’s also fascinating to see the map of how it looked in Edward 1st’s time. Looking forward to more about the city – especially the golden-age-of-sail and pirate-related bits! 🙂

    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks for your nice comments again Alli, and I’m glad it brought back some recent memories, and you’re right to think that there may be some more posts to come 🙂

  2. Stuart Templeton

    Another very interesting post Malc – it’s always fascinating to learn the history of the places we know well and how they got their names, and I Love the old maps and pictures. Your photo’s are as good as ever!

    I hope all is well with you.


    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks Stuart. I always appreciate your kind comments. I’m fine thanks, I trust you are too

  3. bitaboutbritain

    That was great, Malc. I love stuff about a place’s origins – and your photos are super. I used to think that the Severn Bore was a bloke I met in a West Country pub (someone had to say it, and it may as well be me 🙂 )

    1. Easymalc Post author

      LOL. We’ve obviously met up somewhere before. Thanks for your kind comments again – and good luck with the book. I’ve got the paperback version in the basket ready to be delivered


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