Love architecture or just looking at buildings? Here are some of Bristol’s highlights – a walking tour of the city’s varied architectural landscape combining history with fresh air and social distancing. The list is deliberately random, mixing landmark buildings with the relatively obscure and ranging from medieval to modernist. Notable by their absence are the 12th century Cathedral on College Green, the Bristol Old Vic on King Street, Greek Revival Victorian rooms and Brunel’s iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge – all fairly easy to find we think. Listed roughly in the order they were built, you will find a replica of the Doge’s Palace, a post-war Cathedral and a Grade II listed multi-storey carpark. And there is so much more…see Part 2.
St Mary Redcliffe
Grade I listed. Dated: 12th-15th century.
This is Bristol’s tallest building thanks to the slender medieval spire that reaches into the skies over Redcliffe – an historic semi-industrial area which over the years has been ravaged by what the city council refers to as ‘highway works’. Described by Queen Elizabeth 1, as “the fairest, goodliest, and most famous parish church in England’, St Mary’s overlooks a busy traffic island and four-lanes of inner-city traffic. Still, all that fades away once inside the magnificent gothic masterpiece that inspired Bristol-born romantic poet Thomas Chatterton. Walk past on a misty winter’s evening when the bells are ringing. Magic.
• 12 Colston Parade, Redcliffe, Bristol BS1 6RA
Grade II* and Grade II. Dated 1702
The Queen in the name is Anne and they say it was the first residential square outside London (one of the largest of its kind in Europe). It’s certainly seen a bit of life from riots (1831) to an outdoor cinema and the annual comedy festival (suspended in 2020 for obvious reasons). The first house on the square was built on the south side in 1699, the remainder following over the next two years. It’s likely that the original residents would have been wealthy slave traders; now it’s mostly offices. In the middle there’s an 18th century statue of William III, and, in the summer, a group of street artists painted 224 hearts on the grass, each spaced two metres apart to aid social distancing.
• Bristol BS1 4LH
Grade II listed. Dated 1869
This striking Clifton building was designed to mimic the Doge’s Palace in Venice. The architects were Foster and Ponton and it was originally part of the City Museum (next door). Damaged by bombs during World War II, it lost a few of its finer details and the interior was gutted and remodelled in the 1950s – when it became a refectory and dining room for the University of Bristol (next door but one – see Wills Memorial Tower below). With its lofty ceiling, leaded windows and gothic arches, it’s still pretty impressive.
• 38 Queens Road, Bristol BS8 1RE
Edward Everard Building
Grade II*. Dated 1900.
The Edward Everard building in Broad Street is an exuberant demo of the Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts styles. The architect was Henry Williams, the striking façade was the work WJ Neatby, chief designer at Doulton, the building was originally the Everard Printing Works and the façade is Britain’s largest example of decorative Doulton Carrara tiling. William Morris, who is depicted in the design, is thought to have printed some of his best-known wallpapers here, including Strawberry Thief (a bar of the same name sits directly opposite). The listed façade is all that remains of the original printworks – it was demolished in the 1970s and replaced by concrete offices. In 2022, another more fitting transformation took place: the façade is now the entrance for the new Clayton Hotel Bristol.
• 37 Broad St, Bristol BS1 2EQ
Wills Memorial Tower
Grade II listed, Dated 1925
Talk about making a statement: this ornate neo-Gothic edifice towers over the city from its perch at the top of Park Street, upstaging the Cathedral (which sits at the bottom of the hill). Built as a memorial to Henry Overton Wills III (founder of Bristol University, he was the grandson of the HO in tobacco giant WD & HO Wills), it was designed by architect George Oatley and is considered to be one of UK’s last great examples of Gothic architecture. At 215 ft (or 68 metres), it’s the city’s third tallest building, it currently houses the University of Bristol’s school of Law and Earth Sciences and, when tower tours are available, you can climb to the top for unrivalled views of the city.
• Queens Rd, Bristol BS8 1QE
Grade II listed. Dated 1935-1948
This is a bit of an unsung hero in Bristol’s architectural landscape. Designed by A-list mid-century architect Giles Gilbert Scott (credited with the design of Battersea Power Station, Liverpool Cathedral and the red telephone box), it’s a curvy Deco number overlooking the city’s centre (the Cenotaph and the plinth where the Colston statue used to be). Construction began in the 1930s but during the war, the unfinished building was requisitioned for the aircraft industry. When it was completed in 1948, it reverted to its intended use as the offices of the South Western Electricity Board. Recent redevelopment has turned the building into luxury apartments and offices (home to, among other businesses, travel company Inside Asia).
• The Centre, Bristol BS1 4TB
Grade II listed. Dated: 1950s
In its post-war hey-day there would have been around 40 cargo cranes in use around the Floating Harbour, including eight of these heavy-duty electric numbers, built by Bath-based engineers Stothert and Pitt and state-of-the-art as far as port-side stevedoring gear goes. Now there are just four – massive steel structures, like giant Meccano and set on original rails outside the M-Shed (a museum devoted to Bristol’s social history). Loved, listed and part of the Bristol Museums’ Industrial and Maritime History collection, the cranes are occasionally brought to life, sometimes lit up at night; there is a book (Bristol Cranes, by Thomas Rasche, published by Tangent in 2019); and on regular steam days (pre-Covid), you can hitch a lift to a crane cabin and learn more about the lives of these remarkable dockland workhorses. Nearby, the Fairbain Steam Crane, dated 1878 (the oldest in Britain) is also still in working order.
• Princes Wharf, Wapping Rd, Bristol BS1 4RN
Cheese Lane Shot Tower
Grade II listed. Dated 1969
This unusual post-war monolith was built to replace an earlier shot tower – the first in the world apparently. In case you’re wondering what exactly it was for, the 142-foot tower was designed for the production of shot balls (made by dropping molten lead from a great height – as the lead cooled during the fall, it would form into perfect balls). One of three surviving shot towers in the UK, it’s now an office called Vertigo. Best seen from St Philip’s Bridge, or from a Bristol Ferries boat on the commute between Harbourside to Temple Meads station.
• Tower Wharf, Cheese Lane, Bristol BS2 0JJ
Prince Street Carpark
Grade 11 listed. Dated 1966
Odd choice this, I know: a multi-storey NCP is not going to float everyone’s boat, but stick with it. The car-park and the neighbouring hotel (originally The Unicorn, now The Bristol) were the two halves of a waterfront motel built in 1966 – when most of the docks were still a scruffy wasteland. The listing is down to a fancy bit of honeycomb concrete: a geometry of interlinked triangles supported on V-shaped legs. This fine, rather Brutal, example of the Modern movement was designed by architect Kenneth Wakeford.
• Bristol Hotel, Bristol BS1 4QF
Bristol Catholic Cathedral
Grade II*. Dated 1973
Designed by Ron Weeks, a classic example of Brutalist concrete, the Cathedral Church of SS. Peter and Paul (also known as Clifton Cathedral) looks like something out of Star Wars (or Game of Thrones possibly). The exterior is pretty impressive, if you like that sort of thing, but you have to get inside to get the full jaw-dropping picture: the hexagonal sanctuary, High Altar, modernist panels of stained glass, vast slabs of structural concrete. In 2018, the 1000-seater building was treated to a £3 million refurb (despite its impressive profile, it was draughty, poorly lit and leaking water).
• Clifton Park, Bristol BS8 3BX
We the Curious
Grade II listed. Dated 1906 (and 2000)
This is part of Millennium Square – the centre-point of the Harbourside development which transformed a derelict swathe of the old city’s docks in time for the dawning of the 21st century. The raw material is a 1906 railway goods shed, originally part of Brunel’s GWR network, and said to be one of the first buildings to use reinforced concrete. Architect Chris Wilkinson was responsible for wrapping it in glass – adding a diaphanous atrium – to provide a home for We the Curious (formerly the At-Bristol Science Centre). With rooftop beehives, photovoltaics and a ‘phase change tank’ (that recycles energy), it’s one of the city’s greenest buildings. Don’t miss the Planetarium, housed in a giant stainless-steel ball on Millennium Square.
• 1 Millennium Square, Anchor Rd, Bristol BS1 5DB
• For more on Bristol’s interesting buildings see the Architecture Tour Part 2.
Eye-traveller is planing architecture tours to Georgian Bath, Penzance in Cornwall and Weymouth in Dorset.