It is unclear as to when the first bridge over the Avon was built. The river has a wide tidal range, and so could only have been forded twice a day. This significant crossing gave Bristol its Anglo-Saxon name Brycgstow, meaning ‘bridge-place’. It may be that former bridges were situated slightly up-river and nearer to St. Peter’s church, the ruins of which can be seen from the existing bridge. The bridge, which was 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 up to five stories high, including the attic rooms, and they overhung the river much as Tudor houses overhung the streets.
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. As Bristol expanded and joined the southern bank of the river, the size of the city was effectively doubled. This gave the bridge and it’s location an even greater significance. So much so that, in September 1793, a Georgian bridge toll caused so much indignation that it gave rise to Bristol’s bloodiest riot. Although the Georgian bridge remains the road-way was later expanded, during the reign of Queen Victoria, to accommodate the increasing tide of people and goods through the south gate of the city.
In the Middle Ages Clifton Down was a common pasture for the manor of Clifton. In 1676 and 1686 the manor of Clifton was purchased by the Society of Merchant Venturers. During the 18th-century Clifton became a fashionable summer spa, and Clifton Down was increasingly used for recreation.
At the southernmost point of Clifton Down is an idyllic green flanked by Litfield Place, Harley Place and Christ Church. Penrose Cottage on Harley Road was home to the English writer, poet, and activist Walter Savage Landor who wintered here in the 1920s. Notably, he befriended and influenced the next generation of literary reformers such as Charles Dickens and Robert Browning. »
The Clifton Suspension Bridge spans the Avon Gorge and the River Avon, linking Clifton in Bristol to Leigh Woods in North Somerset, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Since opening, it has been a toll bridge. Brunel entered a competition to build the bridge, pitted against other master engineers such as Thomas Telford. The competition was held in 1829 and was judged by Thomas Telford. Telford rejected all the designs and put his forward which proved very unpopular. The subsequent competition was held in 1830 and Brunel was victorious.
The Bridge’s construction began in 1831 but work was delayed due to a lack of money. In October 1831, rioting in Bristol caused investors to lose confidence in the project which led to work on the Bridge stopping for four years. Brunel was understandable very attached to this project and in 1835 construction recommenced.
College Green, site of the crescent-shaped City Hall (formerly the Council House) built-in 1956, is approximately 3 acres and a popular local spot. The large hotel, built-in 1868, incorporates two 18th-century houses in its design. In front, there is a statue of Queen Victoria, which was erected in 1887 to celebrate her Golden Jubilee.
Overlooking College Green is Bristol Cathedral, founded in 1140 and consecrated in 1148, it was originally St Augustine’s Abbey but after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, it became, in 1542, the seat of the newly created Bishop of Bristol and the cathedral of the new Diocese of Bristol. It is a Grade I listed building. Legend has it that St. Augustine preached here in the late 6th-century. »
In King Street, we catch a glimpse of the 17th and 18th-centuries. The street was built outside the old walled city, in 1650, by merchants who wanted to develop the town marsh and create a new residential area for themselves. The north side was developed first followed by the south side in 1663 when the street was named after Charles II. The cobblestone street has been preserved and the whole area is awash with architectural treasures spanning the centuries.
Here, in 1554, the Society of Merchant Venturers founded the pink-washed residential Almshouses to accommodate sixteen old seamen. The property was enlarged in 1696, thanks to the generosity of Edward Colston. Read the poem on the wall in the centre of the building. On the side-wall of the house is the Coat of Arms of the Society of Merchant Venturers, with the date 1699. Associations have been drawn between one of these old sailors’ stories of hidden treasure and the Spanish Main and Edgar Allan Poe’s own story, ‘The Gold Bug’. »
At the top of Queen’s Road stands the Victoria Rooms designed as assembly rooms by Charles Dyer. The foundation stone was laid on 24 May 1838, the 19th birthday of Queen Victoria, in whose honour the building was named. The building was constructed between 1838 and 1842 in the Greek revival style. There is an eight-column Corinthian portico at the entrance, with a classical relief sculpture designed by Musgrave Watson above it. The construction is of dressed stonework, with a slate roof. A bronze statue of Edward VII was erected in 1912 at the front of the Victoria Rooms, together with a curved pool and several fountains with sculptures in the Art Nouveau style.
The building contains a 665-seat auditorium, a lecture theatre, recital rooms, rehearsal rooms and a recording studio. Its doors first opened to the public in May 1842, and for many years served as the most important and lively cultural centre in the West of England, hosting Charles Dickens who gave readings here from 1866-1869. Another visitor was Oscar Wilde who lectured on Aesthetics. And a Swedish opera singer, Johanna Maria ‘Jenny’ Lind, often called the ‘Swedish Nightingale’. »
Up to 1892, way before Bristol’s first tramlines were laid in the city centre, ships sailed into the city on the River Frome and until 1827, a drawbridge was in service to allow access to the other side of the river. During this time Bristol was enjoying the status of an international port. It is said that, on busy days, it would be possible to cross the harbour using the decks of the moored ships.
The 18th-century houses still remain on St. Augustine’s Parade and are now predominantly commercial outlets. The Hippodrome, designed by the renowned Theatre Architect, Frank Matcham, and opened for musicals and operas in December 1912.
In the centre is a statue of Edmund Burke, politician, philosopher and polemicist, the MP for Bristol 1774-1780. The statue was erected in 1894. Further along is where the controversial statue of Edward Colston once stood. Edward Colston made his fortune through slave trading in the 1700s and, although he bequeathed thousands to charitable causes, there are divided opinions as to whether such a person who had strong links to the slave trade should be celebrated. It is but one of many tributes to be found throughout the city to Edward Colston. »
The Haymarket was the location of the Horsefair held from 1238. An annual fair, held over fifteen days, was held here. Originally starting on July 25th (the feast day of St James) it was later changed to the first fortnight in September. The fair, which was held in the churchyard and adjoining streets, was regarded as the most important of the Bristol Fairs. By the 17th-century the fair was so prominent that merchant ships sailing into Bristol for it were frequently attacked by Turkish pirates in the Bristol Channel. The last fair was held in 1837. It also subsequently left its mark on the geography of Bristol as the roundabout nearby is called the Horsefair.
Start your walk at St James Church. The original Priory erected, in 1130, by Robert FitzRoy, 1st Earl of Gloucester, but it shared the fate of all monasteries at the dissolution in 1543.
St. James Church is a fine Norman Church with some unusual features. The church is entered through the West Front entrance in Whitson Street, where you will see the Norman arcade of arches. »
In 1240 the River Frome was diverted through Canon’s Marsh to join the Avon, close to the present Bathurst Basin, to provide a harbour close to the town centre. These works were carried out, under the command of Henry III, by men from the Redcliff and Temple parishes. At the time, these parishes were separated from Bristol by the Avon. The effect of incorporating these two parishes into the town was to double the size of Bristol.
Victoria Street started life in the 19th-century and you will see evidence of this in the converted warehousing and rows of Bristol ‘Byzantine‘ shops. These are on the left opposite the first fifteen storey office block which was built in 1964. Further along to the right and just before you turn into St. Thomas Street, there are four fine examples of 17-century houses, now shops and a café bar. »