It is unclear as to when the first bridge over the Avon was built. The Avon has a high tidal range, so the river could have been forded twice a day. It may be that former bridges were situated slightly up-river, nearer to St. Peter’s church, the ruins of which can be seen from the existing bridge. The bridge, originally constructed in wood, was replaced in 1247 by a four-arched bridge of stone. Many houses with shopfronts were built on it. These bridge houses were five stories high, including the attic rooms, and that they overhung the river much as Tudor houses would overhang the street. At the time of the Civil War the bridge was noted for its community of goldsmiths.
Eventually, the bridge became too small for modern traffic and, in 1768, a bill was passed through parliament by the Bristol MP Sir Jarrit Smyth for it to be replaced with the one you see today. The gateway to the old city, it was originally entered through St. Nicholas Gate. The church of St. Nicholas, now a museum, was situated over the gate. You will learn more about the church later.
Walking along High Street you can just see the tower of St. Mary-le-Port. The church is said to have been founded in Saxon times, based upon nearby archaeological excavations. It was rebuilt and enlarged between the 11th and 16th-centuries. All that remains of the church is the 15th-century tower, following the church being bombed on 24 November 1940 during the Blitz. After the bombing, the congregation moved to St. John-in-the-Wall church, which you will pass later in the walk.
On your left is St. Nicholas Market which was established in 1743. The classical façade was built by Samuel Glascodine with John Wood the Elder. Four principal streets meet at the top of the High Street. These are High Street, Corn Street, Wine Street and Broad Street. This was the site of the forty-foot tall ‘Civic High Cross‘ erected in 1373 to commemorate Bristol becoming a county. It was removed for safety reasons in 1733 at the request of a local goldsmith, who feared that his adjacent property was in danger of the swaying structure. In 1768, the Dean of Bristol gave the cross to a friend named Henry Hoare.
Hoare used the cross as a focal point of his fine landscaped gardens in his then-new property in Stourhead. It was returned to Bristol and what remains can be seen in the gardens of Berkeley Square. Turning right into Wine Street. This was the site of the timbered merchants’ houses, sadly destroyed during the Second World War. Its name was derived from ‘Wynch’ Street, where a pillory once stood.
Number 9 is where poet Robert Southey was born, in 1774, and a plaque on the wall of Christ Church commemorates his birth. He was England’s Poet Laureate for 30 years from 1813 until his death in 1843. This was also the site of his father’s linen draper’s shop. Opposite, you will see the ruins of St. Peter’s Church, which can be explored on another walk. Turn left into a narrow lane named ‘Pithay‘ (pit-hay). This was the site of the gateway through the second city wall.
On your left is Tower Lane. The tower no longer exists, but the lane still curves along the line of the old wall. Here you will pass from the old Parish of Christchurch into the parish of St. John-the-Baptist or St. John-in-the-Wall. There is a reference to the boundary on the wall. At the end of the lane, you will find a church built into the old city wall alongside the last remaining Gothic gateway of seventeen (aptly named St. John’s Gate) through which the ancient city was entered.
There has been a church on this site since 1174. During the 12th century there were five churches built into the walls. This is the only one that remains. Founded in the 14th century by three-times mayor, Walter Frampton. His effigy lies on a tomb chest decorated with heraldic shields, with a long-tailed dog at his feet. The entrance to the vaulted crypt can be found in Nelson Street.
Proceeding through the gate into Nelson Street and on your right, you will see St. John’s Conduit, which conveyed water from the top of Park Street. At one time this was the only water supply for the whole city. Queen Elizabeth the first, entered Bristol through this gate in 1574. Returning through the gate to Broad Street where you will see two figures – Gaulish chiefs, Belinus and Brennus – who, legend has it, founded the city of Bristol in 390 BC. Sons of Malmutius, King of Cornwall, Brennus and Belinus, reigned jointly as Kings of Britain following their father’s death. Brennus is credited with enlarging and improving Bristol.
In Broad Street, one of the four original streets of the old city, there are several well-preserved 17th-century houses. This was an important corner of ancient Bristol. On your left is the beautifully preserved Edward Everard Printing Works, possibly the most decorated Art Nouveau building in Europe. Designed by Bristol architect Henry Williams around 1900 and was far larger than the Broad Street front suggests. It stretched back from the street and behind neighbouring properties to another entrance on John Street.
John Street is a narrow street running through, with the Bank Tavern on your left and the remains of St. James’ Churchyard on your right. The Bank Tavern has stood here since the 1800s and has recently awarded Bristol’s best Sunday Lunch at the Bristol Good Food Awards.
Another street with reminders of the 17th-century is Tailors’ Court. Here you will find the Merchant Tailors Guild Hall built in 1745. At the far end of the court, you will see a fine example of a Jacobean house, aptly named ‘Court House‘, built in 1692 for I.F.Miller, a wholesaler.
The Guildhall was built in 1846 in a Tudor style on the site of the earlier medieval Guildhall. In 1685, in the aftermath of the Monmouth Rebellion, this is where Judge Jeffries held his ‘Bloody Assizes’. The early Guildhall doubled as a theatre. William Shakespeare is believed to have been a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Company, which performed here between 1587 and 1603. Bristol’s earliest surviving example of Norman domestic architecture can be found within The Law library, where parts of a thirteenth-century house retained.
At the top of Broad Street stands Christ Church, easily recognisable with its eighteenth-century quarter-jacks on the clock. The hammers strike the quarter-hour after which the figures move. In 2013, they were taken down for repainting and found to be so badly split they could not return to the outside. There is a movement underway to raise funds for their restoration. There has been a church on this site since 1153. The present church was designed by James Paty in 1786. Poet Robert Southey was baptised here.
Turning right into Corn Street and on the corner stands the old Council House built by Sir Robert Smirke in 1827. The sculptures on the exterior of the building are by Edward Hodges Bailey, whose statue of Nelson sits on the column in Trafalgar Square, London. Corn Street was the centre of world banking akin to London’s Lombard Street today. Although banks may still be present here, many buildings have been converted into cafe bars & eateries.
Small Street was the site of the premises of attorneys Lambert. And it was here that poet Thomas Chatterton spent many tormented hours. Thomas Chatterton, born 1752, was an English poet whose precocious talents ended in suicide at age 17. He was an influence on Romantic artists of the period such as Coleridge, Keats, Shelley and Wordsworth.
The Corn Exchange, built by John Wood the Elder of Bath in 1741, leads into the glass-covered St. Nicholas Market, which was established just two years later in 1743. In front of the Exchange are four ‘Nails‘. This is where the 16th-century merchants struck deals and received payments, thus the phrase, ‘paid on the nail’. The oldest one is dated 1594 and all bear different inscriptions.
The clock in the centre of the building was first started in 1822. Bristol time was then ten minutes behind Greenwich. This meant that telegrams could be received at the ‘Old Post Office‘, on your right, before they were sent. To your left of the Corn Exchange, on the corner of All Saint’s Lane, stands what was originally built as a Coffee House – and it still is today.
Next to the Coffee House is All Saint’s Church, built on the foundations of the earlier church which was destroyed by fire in 1466 along with the oldest city reference library of Kalenders. However, the church retains, from the original church, four Norman pillars in the nave. The church also contains a monument to Edward Colston carved by Rysbrack in 1721. To your right is All Saint’s Court with its seventeenth-century parsonage.
Before proceeding down Corn Street go right into Small Street. Many illustrious visitors have lodged here over time, notably at Colston’s house, evidence of which can be found in the Law Library at the Guildhall, which now occupies the site.
The Guildhall and Assize Courts which were rebuilt in the 19th-century, the most significant features that remain are the façades to Broad Street and Small Street, the Entrance Hall, Central Stairs Hall, Grand Jury Room and the former Nisi Prius Court, now Court 11. Both the Guildhall and Assize Courts were partially damaged in the Blitz in the 1940s and were rebuilt in the 1960s.
All the other original houses have been demolished, although the cellars at number 16 still exist, at Foster’s house. This was where the house of John Foster, stood. Foster was Mayor of Bristol in 1481. Next to this is what was called The Assize Courts Hotel. This is a relatively new building but, despite its modern appearance, does contain an Elizabethan stone chimney (sadly not visible when I last looked) from the old house which stood on this site. This is where King Charles I once lodged. In the same house, William Bonny set up and printed the Bristol Times and Mirror until 1868.
Returning to Corn Street where, at one time, every bank was once represented. Turn right into St. Stephen’s Street and see St. Stephen’s Church. Wall monuments are hailing the Atlantic exploration by Martin Pring who sailed from Bristol in 1603 to New England. The Western Tower, built in 1470, was funded by John Shipward, four times Mayor of Bristol. The churchyard is a calm and peaceful retreat – somewhere to eat your sandwiches. In fine weather, refreshments are served here.
St. Nicholas Street runs along the line of the old medieval street. On your left is the old Bristol Stock Exchange with the Bristol Coat of Arms above the entrance. Further along on the left is The Boardroom. This establishment traded under the name The Elephant since at least 1787. It was rebuilt in 1866-7 with a splendid pub sign of an elephant’s head carved in stone on the first floor. Originally built in the 17th century and during 1853 was listed as the ‘Elephant Wine and Spirit Vaults and Slate Billiard Rooms’. The building was demolished in 1863 when St. Nicholas Street was widened but was rebuilt by architect Henry Masters and completed in 1867. It first appeared in the Street/Trade Directories, held at the Bristol Records Office, in 1866.
St. Nicholas Market was built as the Corn Exchange. Originally just fruit and vegetables were sold here, but now you can buy almost anything. There are three arcades covered with a glass roof and the Market has another entrance on High Street. The site of The Rummer, built by John Wood when he erected the Exchange and designed the Market, has records dating back to 1241. These show that a hostelry has stood there since that time and was known as the Greene Lattis. Elizabeth I, Charles I, Charles II and Oliver Cromwell were known to have ‘rested’ there.
At the end of St. Nicholas Street is St. Nicholas Church, now a museum. Badly damaged during the 1940s, the vaulted medieval crypt survived. The Southside formed part of the old city wall. Visitors are allowed on Bristols’ ‘Open Doors Days’ and it is well worth it just to see William Hogarth’s ‘Altarpiece’, a great triptych originally painted for St. Mary Redcliffe in 1755. It was never housed at St. Mary Redcliffe as it was too large for the destined space.
At the end of your walk, turn and view the clock face, which is believed to be the only church clock in England with a second hand. The second hand was added during renovation works in the late 19th century. The clockwork mechanism was destroyed in 1940 but was later repaired and converted to electricity, so that it still functions today. From Norman times until the early part of the last century, the curfew bell was rung every evening at 9 pm.