Part Two of our Covid-friendly, walking tour of Bristol’s architectural highlights include Europe’s longest terrace (we think), a Victorian engine house, a Greek Revival chapel with a shiny new extension, a giant’s cave (actually two giants) and the city’s oldest building. These suggestions follow Part One, but this not a B-list – far from it. The 1930s, ship-shape neon, for example, is one of my favourite city landmarks. It just took a little longer to get decent pictures. The street-art in the main image, by the way, is on Dean Lane in Southville.
St James Priory
Grade I listed. Dated 1129.
The Bristol Blitz, which obliterated much of the city centre between 1940 and 1942, left some of our oldest buildings stranded in unlikely places. This one – the oldest – is sandwiched between the bus station, St James Barton roundabout and Primark. And I have to confess, I’ve never been inside (nothing I can do about that right now as it’s closed due to Covid). However, I can tell you that it was founded in 1129 as a Benedictine priory by Robert, Earl of Gloucester (Henry 1’s illegitimate son) and the Grade I listing is down to ‘the survival of a significant proportion of medieval fabric … which contributes to an understanding of Romanesque church architecture in England’ (with thanks to Historic England for that).
• 1 Whitson St, Bristol BS1 3NZ
Grade II* listed. Dated 1664.
It’s not the oldest pub in the city (that accolade goes to The Hatchett in Frogmore Street), but this timber-framed Jacobean treasure is the best known, thanks to a rich provenance and a prominent location at the harbour end of cobbled King Street. It is here, we believe, that Daniel Defoe met Alexander Selkirk, his inspiration for Robinson Crusoe; the pub was also Robert Louis Stevenson’s inspiration for the Admiral Benbow in Treasure Island. Obviously, there are ghosts – 15 of them apparently. Sadly, they have had nobody to haunt for a year or so: the old inn closed in April 2019, believed to be in a poor state of repair and facing an uncertain future. Fingers crossed that it will find new owners prepared to take on a costly renovation while preserving its history and rakish charm. For now, the best way to enjoy the Llandoger is from an outside table at the Old Duke opposite.
• King Street, BS1 4ER.
The New Room
Grade 1 listed. Dated 1739
Forget the name, this is old – the oldest Methodist chapel in the world no less. Founded by John Wesley, it’s tucked away among High Street stores in the middle of Broadmead – and as one of the few buildings in the city’s old shopping centre to survive the Blitz, you can’t help wondering whether it owes its longevity to divine intervention. The simple, typically Wesleyian chapel is a quiet sanctuary away from phone shops and Tesco Metro; there is a pleasant courtyard furnished with a statue of Wesley on a horse; and upstairs, there is a relatively new museum housed in the rooms where John and his brother Charles lived and worked while constructing a blueprint for Methodism: social justice, health and education and anti-slavery were among their driving forces. In 2017, the old New Room got a new space – the three-storey extension includes a visitor centre, café and shop. See details of times, entry prices and Covid restrictions on the New Room’s website.
• 36 The Horsefair, Bristol, UK BS1 3JE
Grade 11* listed. Dated 1766
Images courtesy of Clifton Observatory / Visit Bristol
One of my favourite Bristol buildings: a squat, stone tower (originally a windmill) perched on a cliff overlooking the Avon Gorge with bewitching views of the city’s iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge. At the top of the tower is a working, 19th century Camera Obscura; down below, via 130 rock-cut steps, is the Giant’s Cave (the home of mythological giants Goram and Ghyston) – basically, a big hole high up in the wall of the gorge. In the 1890s, there was a proposal to demolish the Observatory and replace it with a commemorative tower (thankfully, Cabot Tower was built on Brandon Hill instead, see below). It’s been open to the public since 1837 and, in 2015, it was bought by Clifton-born businessman Ian Johnson who has treated the building to much-needed renovation, creating a roof terrace for functions (best views in the city) and a glassy extension housing the 360 Café. cliftonobservatory
• Litfield Rd, Clifton, Bristol BS8 3LT
Royal York Crescent
Grade II*. Dated 1791-1836.
Believed to be the longest terrace in Europe, Clifton’s Royal Crescent is a handsome curve of townhouse architecture: 46 houses in all, built by developer James Lockier in the late Georgian style. Building started in 1791 but due to a financial crash caused by the wars with France (thanks Napoleon) work stopped in 1801 and the terrace wasn’t finished until at least 30 years later. The pretty wrought iron balconies are intact though all but two of these very roomy houses are now divided into flats. Note: the late Helen Dunmore’s last novel, Birdcage Walk, is an illuminating insight into the precarious lives of developers during this period.
• Clifton, Bristol BS8 4JS.
Grade II* listed. Dated 1809
Head west along the south-side of the harbour (past the SS Great Britain, Bristol Marina and the Cottage Inn) and eventually you’ll reach this Spike Island boatyard – a collection of marine workshops clustered around a slipway and the red-brick engine house. The original building was designed by Thomas Jessop (who also created the Overfall dam) and was later improved by Brunel. Don’t ask me exactly how it all works (something to do with dredging silt – and keeping the harbour floating or at a consistent water level) but there is a museum … sadly not open at the moment. Exhibits include 1907 pumping engines, a Human Accumulator (which gives a fast-track explanation of hydraulic power) and a huge, interactive map table which illustrates the geography and mechanics of the Floating Harbour. Even without the museum, it’s an interesting place to visit – one of the last genuine relics of the historic docks. Last time I visited (September 2020) the café was still open.
• Cumberland Rd, Bristol BS1 6XG
The Granary: Bristol Byzantine
Grade II* listed. Dated 1869
A striking red-brick building on Welsh Back, the Granary is one of the best examples of an unusual city vernacular: Bristol Byzantine. A distinctive style of revivalist architecture, popular during the late 19th century, the style gave a Byzantine flavour to many of the city’s industrial buildings, particularly utilitarian docklands buildings like this one (designed by Archibald Ponton and William Venn Gough). Defining features include a decorative combo of pennant stone, fancy red, black and white brickwork and Venetian arches. You will find other good examples at Bathurst Basin, Victoria Street, Baldwin Street, King Street and Old Bread Street (behind Temple Meads). Recently home to the Loch Fyne restaurant (now closed) with apartments above, the Granary has served time as a rock venue (Motorhead and Iron Maiden are among the acts that played here); there was an underground bar, too (said to be the location for Del Boy’s famous bar-room fall in Only Fools and Horses).
• 53-55 Queen Charlotte St, Bristol BS1 4HQ
Grade II listed. Dated 1897
Built to commemorate the 400th anniversary of John Cabot’s pioneering voyage from Bristol to the coast of North America, this ornamental tower is set in the terraced gardens that crown the summit of Brandon Hill park. The 105ft building was designed by Bristol architect William Venn Gough, constructed from ‘snecked red sandstone rubble’ dressed with cream limestone and funded by public subscription. The style is Tudor Gothic Revival featuring bowed balconies with pierced balustrades, topped by an ‘elaborate ashlar octagonal spirelet’, heraldic beasts and buttress finials (thanks to Historic England for all those finer details). The real attraction of course, is the view from the top: a stone stairway spirals up to the aforementioned balconies, but sadly – due to the lack of social distancing in the narrow stairwell – the tower is temporarily closed. From Park Street (BS1 5NF), head up Charlotte Street of through Berkeley Square.
Java and the Mauretania neon
Grade II listed. Dated 1939
When I first came to Bristol in the 1980s, the Mauretania on Park Street was my favourite bar and not just because the owner was Avery, the wine merchant. The actual building is Victorian, but in 1939 the interior was decked out with fixtures and fittings – including gilded mahogany panelling – reclaimed from the retired luxury transatlantic liner the RMS Mauretania, in service with Cunard from 1907 until she was scrapped in 1934. Sadly, the bar became a night club, then Java, whatever that was. Then it closed and was empty for some time. Under new management, it’s just reopened (October 2020), is still called Java, and mixes café bar with cocktail lounge. I had a peek inside and although the ship’s interiors are still intact, it’s not what it was. The good news: the original 1930s neon sign is back in use. The jaunty, animated ship, with smoking funnels and a wavy sea, was switched off for ten years before coming back to life in December 2018. Off again, on again…no guarantees, but it usually lights up at dusk.
• Park Street, Bristol BS1 5NF
St George’s Extension
Grade 11*. Dated 1820s – and 2019.
Images courtesy of photographer Peter Cook / Patel Taylor
Robert Smirke’s handsome Greek Revival chapel was retired as a church in 1976 to become one of the city’s leading concert halls. The Georgian chapel is a hymn to Bath stone and Doric pillars but although it’s the original 1820s building that is listed, architecture buffs are more likely to get excited by the recent extension: a split-level, glass and concrete box which pulls off a tricky merger between old and new (the latter is separated from the chapel by a light, glass stairwell which cleverly leaves the original stone-work exposed). Award-winning architects Patel Taylor were commissioned to design the ‘flexible suite of multi-functional spaces’ which helps provide the hall with additional income – or did until Covid came along. In normal times, the best way to enjoy the building is by visiting the café (which is excellent, by the way) but it’s currently only open to people attending events (which are also much reduced). For more info and updates see stgeorges.
• Great George St, Bristol BS1 5RR
Eye-traveller is planing architecture tours to Georgian Bath, Penzance in Cornwall and Weymouth in Dorset.
For more on what to do and where to stay in Bristol go to visitbristol.co.uk.