Thursday, 15 October 2015

Bristol: the Old City

Bristol Bridge

I have long planned a walk around central Bristol to see the numerous almshouses and I was delighted to discover this wonderful heritage trail around the Old City. It follows the line of the original city walls and starts from Bristol Bridge. It was designed by the well named James Bridges and built in 1763-68. We decided to do a melange of the two.

We immediately departed the route of the Old City walk however to head south to the superb King St, where the St Nicholas with Burtons Almshouses are to be found on the corner with Queen Charlotte St. They date from 1652 and were extended in the 19th century and restored in 1961. They are now student accommodation.

King St is full of interesting buildings, including the Bristol Old Vic and at the far end is another fine almshouse: the Merchant Venturers of 1699, intended for seamen as the plaque suggests.

The front view is delightful although it was originally a square, partly destroyed by wartime bombing and further constrained by road realignment. It is now private accommodation.

We returned to King St and carried on to enjoy lunch at Loch Fyne in the ground floor of the Old Granary, a fabulous building of 1869, once Wait and James's Granary, in the Bristol Byzantine style.

Suitably fortified we retraced our steps and rejoined the Old City walk at St Nicholas St, to be very quickly delighted by this wonderful drinking fountain on the rear of the undistinguished Market Hall of 1848. It was installed to celebrate Queen Victoria's 40th birthday in 1853. The beam of sunlight enhanced it beautifully.

Further along the street you lass the one time Bristol Stock Exchange and continue along the extremely narrow Leonard Lane, leaving it briefly to explore St Stephens St and St Stephen's church with its tall, slim tower.

Leonard Lane continues into Bell St, where you find St John;s church and the North Gate. An unusual feature of early Bristol was that there were five churches built on the walls, with gates under the church towers. I have never seen this arrangement before - shown below from the outside. In the city of Banksy, I suppose it is not surprising to find extravagant images on the ends of the adjacent office blocks.

Now it was time for our second side trip. We crossed the busy Colston Avenue and went to see St Bartholomew's Hospital at the bottom of Christmas Steps. It is a 12th Century town house incorporated into monastery hospital founded 1240 by Sir John le Warre, and later a school. All you can see now is the handsome gateway. A sign revealed that it was now apartments, all sold.

At the top of Christmas Steps is the dramatic Foster's Almshouses, originally founded by a bequest from 15th century merchant John Foster in 1492, but all too obviously high Victorian. The present buildings were constructed between 1861 and 1883 and are now private apartments.

Nearby, in St Michael's Hill, we passed these cheerfully painted old houses ...

... on our way to see the harmonious Colston's Almshouses, built in 1691 (and restored in 1861 and 1988).

After a quick look at the less impressive Bengough's Almshouses (1878) in Horfield Road, we returned down Christmas steps to rejoin the walk route at St John's church. We walked along Broad St to be immediately confronted by the simply marvelous Edward Everard Printing works, one of the very few all-out art nouveau buildings in England.

The architect was Henry Williams and the facade was designed by W J Neatby, the chief designer of Doulton (now Royal Doulton) whose tiles were used to cover the facade.

Almost next door, in a narrow court, is the one-time headquarters of the Merchant Tailors Guild, established in 1399. It is now appartments, but the crest remains over the door.

Also in Broad St are the Guildhall and Assize Courts, a branch Bank of England and the Grand Hotel, of which only the latter still carries out its original function. At the end there is a junction with the other three streets which define the old city: High St, Corn St and Wine St. Christchurch (rebuilt in the 18th century) stands on the corner and the High Cross, erected to mark the charter of 1373 which gave Bristol city status, stood in the intersection. It was removed in 1733 after a public petition, but can still be seen at Stourhead in Wiltshire.

The start of Corn St offers the neo-classical Old Council House, now the Register Office, and a very ornate bank building next door.

Almost opposite is the The Exchange of 1743, a grand building now somewhat diminished as a covered market, albeit a very popular one.

We completed our walk by going a short way along Wine St to see the church of St Peter, one of the oldest in Bristol. It was badly damaged by bombing during the second world war. It is a poignant reminder, like the Charles Church in Plymouth or the ruins of Coventry's old cathedral.

Conditions: generally bright and sunny.

Distance: about 4 miles.

Rating: four and a half stars. Very rewarding. Maybe only four stars if you are not interested in almshouses.

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