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The Best of Bristol

A Short History of Bristol in Twenty Episodes,
researched, directed and written by Shaun MacLoughlin, conceived by Bob Pierson.

Part 1: The Legend

Goram's Chair
Goram's Chair

According to legend two giant brothers carved out the landscape around Bristol.

At Blaise Castle there's a rock known as Goram's chair and a limestone pavement called the Giant's Footprints.

But Goram was very lazy and so his brother, Vincent threw a shovel at him accidentally killing him.

Avon Gorge
Avon Gorge and the Giant's Cave

To make amends Vincent carved out Avon Gorge.

He spent his last hours seated on the rocks, looking at the magnificent view from where the Clifton Observatory now stands.

Just below it is The Giants Cave, where, in the Middle Ages, a hermit lived.

Both are open to the public.

2. Bristol's First Slave Trade

William the Conqueror
William the Conqueror

An ancient custom so hardened the hearts of the Bristol townsfolk, that not even fear of William the Conqueror could abolish it.

That was back in the 11th Century.

What was the custom?

Drinking too much? Driving into the City Centre and not taking the bus?

Capturing slaves
Capturing slaves

No, the custom was slavery.

English slaves were dragged off to Ireland in the hope of profit and both virgins and girls with child were offered for sale. A healthy male slave had the same value as six oxen.

Eventually the saintly Wulfstan, Bishop of Worcester preached against this "vile traffic" and, at least for the time being, succeeded in banning slavery from Bristol.

3. The Little Brothers of Nazareth

St James Priory
St James Priory

Bristol's oldest Church, St James Priory, was founded in 1129.

St James Priory
St James Priory

It stands, almost hidden, close to Bristol Bus Station, a haven for quiet prayer, open at all hours of the day.

In the Middle Ages the monks - with the help of lay people - looked after the poor and needy of Bristol.

Today, once again, Catholic brothers - with voluntary help - are looking after the homeless.

Next to St. James they have built Walsingham House a hostel for drug and alcohol addicted.

The patients work all day and not even television is allowed; but their success rate is well above the national average.

4. "Brunels' Billiard Table"

Temple Meads
Temple Meads Station in the 1840's

"Brunel's Billiard Table" was the name given by engineers to the first main railway line in the country: the Paddington to Bristol opened in 1841.

It was called this because the gradients from London to Chippenham were never more than 1 in 100, before it dipped through Box tunnel.

St James Priory
Great Western Electrification

Thanks to Brunel's foresight it is now possible to run trains at 125 miles an hour. There are plans to reach 140.

It is claimed that the electrication of the railway to be completed by 2017 will shave twenty minutes off the journey time to London.

5. St Mary Redcliffe

Temple Meads
St Mary Redcliffe

St Mary Redcliffe was described by Queen Elizabeth as: The fairest, goodliest and most famous Parish Church in England".

Its spire rises 292 feet above the "red cliff' from which it derives its name.

The Chaos Pendulum
The Chaos Pendulum

Beginning with the seafarers shrine to Our Lady, in the North Porch, the visitor can discover a treasure trove of the beautiful and unexpected from mediaeval glass to whalebones.

A recent acquisition is the "chaos pendulum", whereby water flows onto a crossbeam. Science does not predict how the beam will move. This suggests that religion sometimes provides answers where science cannot.

6. The Mathew.

The Mathew
Replica of the Mathew

In 1497 John Cabot, originally named Giovanni Cabotini, sailed to North America on the Mathew and discovered Newfoundland.

John Cabot
John Cabot

In the hold he carried six months of provisions and the crew of 18 had to sleep on deck.

A Venetian reported: "Our countryman is styled the great Admiral. Vast honour is paid to him; he dresses in silk and the English run after him like mad people." King Henry VII was so pleased that he paid him a pension of 20 a year for life.

The reproduction of the original ship is moored next to the SS Great Britain and it often cruises round Bristol Harbour, stopping at John Cabot's statue by the Arnolfini, at the heart of the city.

7. The Red Lodge

The Red Lodge
The Red Lodge

The widow of the poet Byron bought the Red Lodge in Park Row in 1854 to be the first reform school in the country: "to rescue young girls from sin and misery and to bring them back to holiness."

It was first built on the site of a Carmelite monastery and contains the finest Elizabethan oak panelled room in Bristol.

John Cabot
The Red Lodge Garden

Today it is used as headquarters by the Bristol artists', Savage Club, so called because they used to argue like savages.

They have designed a Meeting Hall called the Wigwam, to one side of the Elizabethan Garden, where they entertain each other by playing music, reciting poems, sketching and painting.

8. Pennsylvania and the Quakers.

The Red Lodge
William Penn

In 1681 Charles II granted to the Penn family 47,000 square miles of territory in America. William Penn was a son of Admiral Penn. With the Quakers of Bristol he organised the "Free Society of Traders in Pennsylvania".

John Cabot
Quaker Meeting House Portishead

The colony was a great success. There was no slavery and the Indians' rights were respected.

In 1695 Penn returned to Bristol and was married in the Quaker Meeting House on the site of the old Dominican Friary. Today the oldest Quaker Meeting House in the Bristol area, where there has been continuous worship since the 17th Century, is in a thatched cottage at Portishead.

9. Early town planning:

The Red Lodge
Bristol Medieval Bridge

In the Middle Ages the Port of Bristol was in desperate need of enlargement. The River Frome was un-navigable. It meandered from where the Centre now is, through the marshes under Queen's Square. But in 1239 a tremendous work was undertaken - to cut a straight course to join the Avon, where Lloyds Bank now stands. The cost for that time was astronomic: 5,000 when the population was only 5,000.

John Cabot
The opening of Cabot's Circus

King Henry III ordered the folk of Redcliffe and Temple, beyond the city walls, to help out.

Today on the same spot Bristol Council has turned the Centre into 'Cabot's Circus', a place for people - as opposed to cars - with: "the sound of water, the shade of trees and the buzz of life." With the help of millennium funds the cost to the people of Bristol was estimated to be 5 a head.

10. The Suspension Bridge

Clifton Suspension Bridge
Clifton Suspension Bridge,
completed 1864

Everyone knows the Clifton Suspension Bridge - the symbol of Bristol and Brunel's masterpiece.

But why was the bridge built at all? Why in 1754 did William Vick, a rich Bristol merchant leave 1,000 in his will towards a stone bridge?

Concorde over
Clifton Suspension Bridge

When he died the beautiful Georgian terraces of Clifton were not yet built - Clifton on the hill was a hamlet and on the other side were two private estates.

So why link the two sides? William Vick appears to have shown extraordinary foresight.

You can learn the remarkable story at the awardwinning Clifton Suspension Bridge Centre, just 200 yards from the Clifton side.

11. Judge Jeffreys.

Judge Jeffreys
Judge Jeffreys

The "Bloody Western Circuit" was the name given to the proceedings of "hanging" Judge Jeffreys, who visited Bristol in 1685 after the Monmouth Rebellion.

The Medieval Guildhall,
Scene of Jeffreys' Bloody Assizes

"Rebellion", he said "is like the sin of witchcraft and there are too many rebels in Bristol".

He discovered that the Mayor was selling prisoners as slaves to work in America and pocketing the proceeds.

So he shouted in open court, "Sir! Mr Mayor! You, I mean, you Kidnapper! And that old Justice on the Bench, an old knave; he goes to the tavern and for a pint of sack he will bind servants to the Indies. I will have his ears off before I leave the town!" This was shortly before Bristol became officially involved in the African slave trade.

12. Privateers and Robinson Crusoe.

Llandoger Trow
The Llandoger Trow
Robinson Crusoe
and Man Friday

In 1708 the Bristol privateer - a sort of official pirate - Captain Woodes Rogers captured a Spanish galleon with 45 passengers and then set out round Cape Horn.

On a desert island deep in the Pacific Ocean, he rescued Alexander Selkirk, a castaway who had been alone there for four and a half years.

Selkirk told his story to the writer, Daniel Defoe, in the famous Llandoger Trow pub in King Street, Bristol.

Defoe was inspired to write his best seller Robinson Crusoe.

Woodes Rogers lived in Queen's Square and today a plaque marks the spot.

13. The Hotwells

Ferry to Hotwells 1796

Hotwells Spring used to bubble out of the mud at a rate of sixty gallons a minute, under where the suspension bridge now stands. The water was about 25 degrees centigrade and in the Fifteenth Century was said to cure sailors of scurvy.

A Hotwells Mansion

The Merchant Venturers acquired the lease when they became lords of the manor of Clifton and in the 18th Century a pump room, two assembly rooms and a colonnade of shops were erected.

The waters were believed to cure 'hot livers', 'feeble brains', 'old sores' and diabetes.

The export of the water helped to develop Bristol's thriving glass industry. But the pump was closed in 1913 because, sadly, the water had become too polluted.

14. The Great Britain

Great Britain
the Launch of the Great Britain

Launched in 1843 the SS Great Britain was the largest ship afloat and the world's first ocean going, propeller driven ship.

She sailed almost a million nautical miles first as a passenger and then as a cargo ship, before being beached on the Falkland Islands.

Great Britain
The SS Great Britain today

Today she is a familiar landmark in Bristol Floating Harbour, where she is being renovated in her original dry dock.

It is planned to build a model of a Victorian Quayside around her.

Also to create a "virtual history", whereby visitors can experience what it was like in the Nineteenth Century to be a passenger in the first class dining saloon, when sailing the Atlantic.

15. Clifton Zoo

The Zoo in the 1960's

At Clifton Zoo in Victorian times there were animal rides, fetes, acrobats, singers, jugglers, archery tournaments and live music.

It is the oldest zoo in the world that is not in a capital city.

Great Britain
Model Dinosars among 400 animals

It was opened in 1836 to promote the growing of trees and flowers as well as to be a zoo.

During the First World War it 'did its bit', by providing the Admiralty with a seal, which scientists tried to train to detect enemy submarines. Sadly they were not successful.

Today the zoo is committed to conservation and education. It has many popular new attractions including Gorilla Island, Bug World, the Seal and Penguin Coasts and Model Dinosaurs.

16. Bristol Grammar School

Thornbury Castle
Thornbury Castle

In 1532 Henry VIII spent a night with Ann Boleyn at Thombury. He probably gave more thought to her than he did to the charter he granted to Robert Thorne, a wealthy merchant, to found Bristol Grammar School.

Great Britain
Bristol Grammar School

It was built on the site of St. Bartholomew's leper hospital at the foot of Christmas Steps.

In 1879 it moved to its present location at Tyndalls Park, under the tutelage of its upright Victorian headmaster.

He claimed that the object of school life: "is not to learn skulking and sneaking, but to make boys into frank, honest, straightforward and bold Englishmen." It is now a thriving school of a thousand pupils - girls as well as boys.

17. Redmaid's School

John Whitson

John Whitson was five times mayor of Bristol. "He was a handsome young fellow, and his old master being dead, his mistress one day called him into the wine cellar, and bade him broach the best barrel for her. His mistress afterwards married him. This story will last, perhaps as long as Bristol is a city."

Redmaids Girls on Founder's Day

So wrote John Aubrey.

The wedding took place in 1585.

In his will John Whitson provided for: "a fit and convenient dwelling house for forty poor women children to be maintained and also taught to read English and to sew".

This was the beginning of Redmaids School, the oldest girl's school in the country. Today every November, the girls enter the darkened crypt of St Nicholas Church bearing lighted candles. There they give thanks at the tomb of their benefactor, John Whitson.

18. Queen's Square and the Bristol Riots

Queen Anne's Square
Queen Anne's Square

In the Seventeenth Century where Queen's Square now stands was Bristol's chief pleasure gardens - with a bullring, bear baiting and a bowling green.

In 1699 it was laid out as a fashionable square and named after Queen Anne.

bristol Riots
the Bristol Riots

In 1831 the mob stormed the Mansion House there and was opposed by the Dragoons. This led to the Bristol Riots.

The writer Charles Kingsley, then a schoolboy living on St Michael's Hill, observed the burning of the city, "By ten o'clock that night one seemed to be looking at a picture of hell. We heard the multitudinous moan and wail of lost spirits amid the hiss and crackle of the flames."

After that many of the wealthy merchants who had lived in Queen's Square moved out to Clifton.

19. Harvey's Wine Cellars

Harvey's Wine Cellars

In November 1940 Harveys the wine merchants in Denmark Street - near the old Bristol Docks - was flattened by enemy bombs.

Lord Mayor's Chapel
Lord Mayor's Chapel

But its mediaeval cellars, part of Bristol's extensive 'underground', survived.

In the fourteenth century the cellars had belonged to the Dominican Priory, part of which remains as the magnificent Lord Mayor's Chapel on Park Street.

Harveys' shop has been rebuilt and the cellars now house a restaurant and a museum.

There you can see some beautiful 18th Century engraved glass and the famous Bristol blue in which Harvey's Bristol Cream Sherry is bottled.

20. Arnos Vale Cemetery and Bristol Gas

Arnos Vale Cemetry
Arnos Vale Cemetery

In 1839 Amos Vale Cemetery on the hillside between the Bath and Wells roads was brand new. The first Bristolian to be buried there - under a twelve-foot high obelisk - was Mary Breillat.

Lord Mayor's Chapel
Arnos Vale Cemetery

A silhouette portrait of her in a bonnet still survives.

Her husband, John Breillat, with her son and grandson, revolutionised the gas industry in Bristol.

John set up the Bristol Gas Light Company in Temple Back.

His son, Ebenezer, experimented to produce gas more cheaply and in 1812 a General Illumination in Queen's Square marked the coronation of George IV.

As pointed out in Bristol's Evening Post: "There seems little doubt that without the Breillat's, Bristol would be a much darker place."



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