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.
It seems logical to start at Bristol Bridge where the Anglo-Saxons made the first river crossing (give or take a few yards).
I don’t think there’s much doubt that the first bridge would have been of wooden construction, but a stone one definitely replaced it in the mid-13th century.
Bearing in mind that the river was part of the town’s defences, it’s not difficult to imagine that the new bridge would have incorporated a gateway, which in this case also included a chapel over the top of it – for ‘divine protection’. It wasn’t the only gateway to have a chapel as I’ll be explaining later.
There were shops and houses on the bridge too, but as the traffic increased it was obvious that it was time for another new bridge – which came in 1768.
To pay for this new bridge a toll was introduced which didn’t go down well with the natives, and to make matters worse, the bridge trustees refused to reveal their accounts. When they did finally agree to show the toll-paying public how much money they had, they reneged on it, and the response was to ransack and burn down the toll houses. In return, the council’s response was to send in the militia and fire into the crowd. As a result, eleven people were killed and fifty-two wounded.
It’s something to remember when walking across today’s toll-free bridge – which incidentally is still here, but hidden beneath the wider one that was built over the top of it during Queen Victoria’s reign.
It’s time to cross over the road and head towards St. Nicholas Church where the tour will start.
To get there you’ll need to negotiate your way across Baldwin Street via the traffic lights and into High Street; then turn left into St. Nicholas Street.
Before we actually get going, I’d like to point out that, with the exception of the churches, most of the older buildings are Georgian or Victorian and often originally associated with the city’s dealings in trade. That said, this walk includes an interesting mix of things to see along the way.
St. Nicholas Street is a good place to start the walk because if you look at the map you can see that it runs in a curve along the same route as the old city walls.
Several churches somehow managed to survive the blitz but St. Nicholas wasn’t one of them and was rebuilt in the early 1970s. It’s not that there’s nothing of interest in here to see, but I want to use this trail as an introduction to the area, rather than concentrate on too many specific features.
Just along the road on the opposite side of the street are some examples of what I’m talking about.
Firstly, on the wall of the Market Hall, there’s an ornate Victorian Drinking Fountain (No1 on the map), followed by some interesting characters on the building at No.18 (currently Mugshots Restaurant). I particularly like the Veiled Lady (2).
Next door at No 20 there’s another wall feature that will catch your eye. The name of the place these days is The Boardroom, but there’s no prizes for guessing it was called The Elephant (3) in the days when I used to frequent it.
You can probably already see a theme developing here; It’s a street that has a good selection of pubs, clubs and restaurants – and it’s been like that for as long as I can remember, but if something a bit more traditional is your thing, make sure that you check out the former Stock Exchange Building (4) further along the street, and also while you’re at it, take a look above the portico of the Old India Restaurant which has the city’s insignia – Virtute et Industria emblazoned across it; of course, for Bristolians it’s quoted with the Bristol ‘L’ on the end (5).
On reaching Corn Street, I’m continuing the trail across the road and through Leonard’s Lane (6) which is next to Stanford’s, the first branch outside of London of my favourite map store.
You may be wondering why I’m bringing you down here, especially if you’re not into graffiti, but the reason is that it still follows the route of the old wall. If you remember, at the beginning of the trail I said it would be an interesting walk, not necessarily a pretty one, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Leonard’s Lane comes to an end at Small Street, but if you walk straight across the road into Bell Lane (7), then you will be continuing to walk around the site of the old city wall. Try to ignore the Brutalist architecture, rubbish and mattresses, and carry on along to Broad Street, or more precisely, St. John’s Gate and the Church of St. John the Baptist (8).
Those of you who read my previous post, From Brycgstowe to Bristol, will already know that four streets converged at the centre of the medieval town (Wine St, High St, Corn St and Broad St), and at the end of each of these streets was a gate that allowed access into the town through the wall: St. Johns Gate, at the bottom of Broad Street is the only survivor; and what makes it extra special is that the Church of St. John the Baptist is actually built into the old wall, and the reason why it’s also called St. John-on-the-Wall.
Built in the 14th century, it is now cared for by the Churches Conservation Trust and manned by volunteers. If they happen to be around at the time of your arrival, make sure that you take a look inside. Although it was modified by the Victorians, it’s worth paying a visit, especially the crypt.
Before moving on, take a look at the two figures either side of the main archway. Their names are Brennus and Belinus, and supposedly the legendary founders of the city, but I’ve still yet to find anybody who actually believes it.
Avoid the temptation to walk up Broad Street, and instead continue alongside the church into Tower Lane as this is still the route of the old city wall, but that soon comes to an end, and so we need to turn sharp right into John Street with the enclosed St. John’s burial ground on the corner where victims of the 1665 Great Plague are buried.
Just a short distance along John Street is a nice little back-street boozer called the Bank Tavern (9) if you want to take a rest for a while, but there are plenty of other options at the end of the tour which isn’t too far away.
At the end of the street is Broad Street again, but before going up to the top of the street, turn right and take a quick look at the Edward Everard (10) printing building with its Doulton ceramic tiles frontage.
Retrace your steps across John Street and look out for an alleyway on the left that takes you into Tailors’ Court (11). This is a good example of how old Bristol would have looked before the Second World War. Take note of the Taylor’s Hall with its crest of the Merchant Taylor’s Guild who controlled Bristol’s trade from 1399 until the 19th century. Why there’s a discrepancy between the spellings I have no idea.
Returning to Broad Street you’ll be confronted with several imposing buildings including the Guildhall, Assize Courts and the Grand Hotel before reaching the original town centre crossroads at the top where the High Cross used to stand. Turn right into Corn Street.
We’re now coming towards the end of our tour, and in many ways, the best bit.
Down on the left-hand side is the (Corn) Exchange Building (12), built by John Wood the Elder in 1743. Outside this fine building transactions took place where traders used to ‘pay on the nail’. The four brass nails (which date from the 16th century) are still here and another interesting feature is the clock which has two minute hands, one of which is 11 minutes behind the other: The reason being that Bristol is 11 minutes behind London time, and it wasn’t until the railways needed a timetable that was the same everywhere that times became coordinated.
The Exchange Building is now part of St. Nicholas Market (13) which is the last part of the tour.
St. Nick’s, as it’s affectionately called is a warren of streets and stalls as most markets are, and there’s not a lot of point in me telling you which way to go from here, because it’s just a case of wandering around at will.
You won’t want to miss the Glass Market, and you might want to pop into The Rummer or tuck into some street food, but wherever you go you’ll probably end up at the bottom of either St. Nicholas Steps or Market Steps next to the Old Fishmarket (14), now another pub in Baldwin Street just down from Bristol Bridge and the end of the trail.
It would be impossible to cover everything in a blog like this, and it’s already longer than most of the ones I do, but hopefully it’s provided an appetite for exploring the area further, and even if Old Bristol isn’t as picturesque as some other places, I don’t think anyone could argue that it has enough interest to satisfy anyone with an open and inquisitive mind.