Crossing the Avon
So getting in and around Bristol you may worry about the traffic, or how wet you are going to get on your bike, but as a whole crossing the river isn’t generally on the top of the agenda of things to worry about. I’d go as far as to say it doesn’t even cross your mind (until you suddenly realise you are staring at the SS Great Britain and the nearest bridges are a 10 minute walk in either direction).
But have a think about it. Pre Clifton Suspension bridge, before Brunel had even conceived the thought of his ‘first son’ and before any of the lifting, turning, elevating and swizzling bridges that now lattice the Avon were any thing more than pipe dreams…….
You are in North Somerset and wanting to get across the Avon to South Gloucester or Bristol. That is a pretty big, deep and powerful river you need to get across. To be precise it is a river whose ebbs and flows are generated by the second greatest tidal range IN THE WORLD. So unless you have a sturdy boat, are fool hardy enough to attempt the crossing at low tide, or are a human catapult in a travelling circus, the furthest downstream, you are going to be able to cross the river is at Bristol Bridge. A bridge which is now so modest that to clarify this is the bridge at the bottom of High Street, at the juncture of Welsh Back and Castle Park.
Totally overlooked now, this bridge is Bristol.
Bristol and the Bridge
Lets start at the very beginning. Bristol started life as the Anglo Saxon settlement of Brigstowe – the settlement by the bridge.(1) Brigstowe then became Bristol through the pronunciation habit of Bristolian’s adding an ‘L’ onto the end of word’s – great ideal. Sound familiar?
But more than simply being Bristol’s eponymous bridge, it was one of Bristol’s key raison d’être. I mean, why did the bridge need to be in this exact location?
Well buried beneath the concrete of Broadmead, underneath the fountains, before the inhabitants of Bristol MOVED THE RIVER Frome to create the marshland that would become Queen Square, Bristol was really established on the most brilliant natural topography, which allowed the burgeoning settlement to strike the perfect balance of defence and accessibility.
(Nb. I am working on a much better version for future use but for now below is a hyper realistic and 100% accurate sketch to illustrate my point for now……)
On the one hand this position provided the town with amazing defences, a walled town on a hill (the hill was much steeper then), within a natural moat. And, that is without considering the additional buffer that the gorge provided – imagine the damage that could be done to a boat by firing a rock down from 300ft height….
But on the other hand this spot also meant access. Firstly, it was the most downstream point that the river could be forded and a bridge built.
Secondly the bridge marked the upper limits of where seagoing vessels could safely navigate to. Ships could dock at Welsh back or, until vessels got too large and the quayside too congested, could slide under the arches of the Bridge to be unloaded at the bottom of what is now Castle Park.
Bristol’s first town seal depicts this and caricatures the centrality of the bridge to Bristol. (Medieval Seal, Common Seal of the Burgesses of Bristol.)
Basically, the amalgamation of all these factors meant that this site really had it all going on, allowing Bristol to thrive with relative autonomy. At the centre of this was Bristol Bridge.
Bristol’s First Boom
So the thirteenth century and Bristol really is England’s second town. Wool was the happening industry and Bristol was making a killing exporting the old Cotswold gold.
Bristol was literally bursting at the seams. The old city walls had been expanded out past Baldwin Street but that still leaves little breathing room and within the walls it is a world barley comprehensible to us; labyrinthine streets and courtyards, buildings jumbled on top of one another with every successive level leering further over, blocking out the sunlight, insulating the miasma of smells and noises caused by town’s people, industries and animals.
However underlying this frenetic atmosphere Bristol actually had a pretty solid and industrious civic corporation. Pioneering, adventurous, proud and with the capital to invest in their town’s expansion. So in the 1200s not only were the city walls hemmed out but the townsfolk also increased the size of the quays and even diverted the course of the river Frome to increase their little inland island to create the marshy area that would eventually become Queen Square.
It is at this point, 1247 to be precise, that the 1st stone bridge is built across the Avon, joining onto St. Nicholas’ gate in the city wall. (This is contemporary with the building of London Bridge) Again, given the basic tools and lack of precedents to draw on, the simple fact that this bridge was built over this rapid tidal river is really rather astounding. Its would have been one of the most significant engineering feats in the known world.
Crossing Water, Borders and Orders
For medieval Bristolian’s the engineering feat of the bridge really was awesome, cutting edge and a huge source of pride and I think we can all get that. But what takes a little more grappling is considering the compounded layers of underlying significance that crossing this bridge had to medieval people; people whose perception of the world was framed by profoundly different parameters, people who were wired to think within a series of different boxes.
In the first instance religion was a way of life and the construction of the bridge was seen as a monumental effort for God – holding parallels with the construction of a religious building. In fact there was even a church built on the centre (alms from which helped pay for maintenance) whose arches you had to pass through to cross and whose spire, at one point, was the tallest in the town at 100ft tall.(2)
Secondly, the world was smaller, travel was slow and difficult. For the most part the parish formed the centre your world, you adhered to its jurisdiction and customs and to outsiders it was a facet that defined you.
So by crossing the bridge from the sleepy villages of Somerset, through industrious Redcliffe, passing under the imposing walled gate of St Nicholas (checked on the way in), into the steep undergrowth of Bristol town (which was made its own county in 1373) some pretty substantial borders were being crossed – and you were acutely aware of it.
The bridge was the main crossing between Gloucestershire and Somerset, it formed part of the ‘pilgrim’s way’ between Gloucester and Glastonbury and Bristol itself was one of the busiest places in the country. This bridge was getting a lot of traffic both over it– pedestrians, herds of animals, heavily laden carts – and under it with all those ships coming in.
As if that is not enough to picture, the bridge was by the 1300s also lined with shops and houses, as well as the aforementioned church straddling it. With so much passing traffic these were hot properties for tradesmen, made even more desirable as hanging over the river it was a site where they could casually dump their waste straight into the river and where fresh air could waft away the fragrances of the city. As such they commanded some of the highest rents in the area, the money from which was used for the maintenance of the bridge.
Drawing of the Medieval Bridge by an unknown artist, Bristol Reference Library
(There is also a wicked 3d model in the ground floor of the M shed)
A bridge lined in –well, more encased in – 27 medieval multi-tiered houses up to 5 storeys high; the pedestrian, carriage, geehoes and animal traffic dodging the shop fronts that spooled out into the 14ft wide causeway, all of this occurring under the watchful shadow of St Nick’s church and gate.(3) (And that’s forgetting the fervent action going on in the river below) Definitely a different picture to now.
(yes I got a few strange looks staring up the centre of the road….)
Where’d it go to?
Skim forward through a few centuries, the rise and fall and rise again of trade and economies and we get to the mid eighteenth century. Bristol was a fully fledged city at the front of Britain’s Atlantic expansion. The old city walls were pretty redundant and the population had also broken free of the paradigms of their medieval mindset. To the south the parishes of Redcliffe, St Thomas, St Phillip’s, Temple and the old manor of Bedminster were the sites of scores of local industries which was feeding Bristol’s gluttonous growth; glassworks, brass makers, lead shot makers, sugar refiners, rum distilleries – an rather apocryphal vision. Whilst on the north side the more genteel were fanning upwards, fleeing the acrid air, into the new suburbs of Cotham and Clifton. Noticing a rather distinct divide here?
However Bristol Bridge was still the only bridge in the vicinity,where different worlds collided. Literal collisions, an actual death trap with lives lost as they attempted to cross over through the melee, or pass under through the mesh of arches, supporting poles, boats and eddys.
To give the medieval builders their credit there really was little wrong with the solidity of the Bristol Bridge itself (the soundness of the houses are more questionable), so while it’s contemporary ‘London Bridge was falling down’ Bristol did not need the advice of a fair Lady. But still it was undeniable that Bristol had more traffic than the bridge could cope with and a solution was needed.
On an aside, it was at this time that the wine merchant William Vick left his bequest for a bridge over Avon Gorge – i.e the seed of Clifton Suspension Bridge, but that is a tale for another time.
Back to Bristol Bridge.
Now the sensible option may have been to leave the bridge and build a by pass for the heavier traffic; traders, carriages of the wealthy, ie those who could afford to pay any necessary toll.
However, this option wasn’t really considered and eventually, after much bureaucracy, vested interests, clashes of egos and a lot of mudslinging (for civic and municipal history it is actually rather an exciting affair) it was decided to take down all the houses and build a new Bridge.
Eventually a chap called James Bridges (I kid you not) was awarded the post of bridge surveyor and here is his design, a delightfully classical Georgian number.
At this point it should have been straightforward but….
Still hounded by his detractors Bridges disappeared off the West Indies, never to return, leaving the bridge to be completed by Thomas Paty in 1768 (a family involved in much of Bristol’s Georgian architecture).
But that’s the least of problems. The inhabitants of the bridge buildings had not been overly happy about losing their homes and premises, but to cause further aggravation, no rental income for maintenance meant that tolls were to be levied, which are always popular. (You can see the toll houses on either side of the bridge in the above image). So while Bristolian’s usually loved their public celebrations, Bristol bridge was opened with a rather eerie silence.
Resentment of the tolls, those who controlled them and what the tolls stood for simmered for the next 25 years. In 1793 the tolls were meant to come to an end, but realising that the bridges debt had not yet been paid it was snuck through that the toll would be extended for one more year. Boiling point was reached and through a misreading of public sentiment, bad timing and just general poor leadership the Bristol Bridge riot broke out in 1793, leaving 14 innocent civilians dead. (5)
Rather ominously there was a rather resounding silence on the part of the official reaction to the Bridge ‘disturbances’ and the prominence of the bridge as a whole began its descent into relative obscurity. What did happen though was that the debt was paid off, making it toll free. (For a time the toll houses were shop premises). The riots also re-invigorated the movement to construct a bridge over the Avon gorge. This is illustrated by William Bridges (yes another unrelated Bridge designing a bridge) 1793 plan for an Avon Gorge bridge, which would have factories in the arches of the bridge to pay for its maintenance. Brilliant or slightly hellish I can’t decide….
William Bridges 1793 design for a bridge over Avon gorge, Bristol Record Office
So why is there no delicate Georgian bridge now at the site of Bristol bridge? No more drama, it is just simply hidden underneath the current structure as it soon became too busy again so the Victorians added new columns to support a pedestrian walkway and further metal railings added were in the 1960’s with the increase in our modern traffic.(6)
So there it is, what would Bristol be without it’s Bridge. Fireworks for the Suspension Bridges 150th? I’m looking forward to Bristol Bridge’s 777th in 2019.
To be pedantic / extra info
(1) It has also been suggested that the bridge could refer to crossing the smaller river Frome. However most assume that the eponymous bridge is the more significant crossing over the deep and fast Avon, although there is no solid documentation of this crossing until a stone structure was built in the thirteenth century. This gets further confused by the fact that ‘Bridge’ could also define a landing stage for boats.
(2) The church was Our Lady of the Annunciation.
(3) Geehoes were the local name for sledges that got pulled over the cobbled streets. If you ever visit Clovelly in North Devon they still have them there.
(4) The nearest alternative being at Keynsham 6 miles away or taking the chance on a ford that could be crossed on low tides (the slope down to this can still be seen outside the Ostrich pub in Redcliffe).
(5) 11 dead on scene, 3 later dying from their wounds.
(6) At least in 2005 the balustrade from the Georgian bridge could be found in the car park of Kings Weston house.
Books if you want to read more on building the new bridge and the riots these are a great start.
Drummond, Barb. Death and the Bridge: The Georgian Rebuilding of Bristol Bridge, (2005)
Manson, Michael, Riot: The Bristol Bridge Massacre of 1793, (Bristol: Bristol Books 2013, 2nd ed.)