12 facts and stories taking you on a historical journey down this iconic street that captures the spirit of Bristol. x
- St Bartholmew’s Hospital : The M32 Holiday Inn and the Start of Centuries of Detentions
The oldest and founding point of the 12 days – and also starting at the bottom.
Rather tucked away now behind layers successive building work St Bartholomew’s gate makes for a rather unimposing vortex into another time.
With origins in the early 13th century this hospital was one of the religious houses that encircled the city walls, a place where the sick, infirm, or visitors to the city may stop and rest before they continued their journey, or whilst they awaited for the town gates to open and let them pass.
Harder to envisage now under the dual carriage way and electric house, St Bartholomew’s Hospital sat on the north side of the stone bridge over the rive Frome, facing the city gate of St. John’s.
However as pious as the majority of the staff may have been, guests – and staff- could not alwys sleep easy during its first 400 years as a religious institution. It was plagued my power politics including the Prioress Eleanor evicting all the males in 1330, religious mafia-esque murders when the master of St Bartholomew’s was killed by two Chaplains from the nearby St James’ Priory in the 1280s.
- The CHRISTMAS Steps : Swords and Armour at the Ready
So a traveller may be awaiting to enter the town (or conversely fleeing it) and in doing so, after the town had begun to spill out of its early medieval walls and stacks of ships chocked up the river in between St John’s gate and St Bartholomew’s, they would find the road aligned with shops and businesses.
In the case of this muddy track winding up from the stone bridge over the Frome up to St Michael’s Hill this was home to the craftsmen who made blades, tools, weaponry and armourers. So from the fourteenth century it was known interchangeably as Kynfe-smythestrete and Cutellare Street. Say that quickly 10 times and well… you’re pretty much at Christmas Street, which was the accepted version by the 1500s.* (This included both Christmas steps and the now extinct Christmas Street that it flowed into below).
Over the next 300 years for short times it was also known as Lunsford Steps, after the Royalist colonel who was killed there in the Civil War and after the Restoration (named after Charles II queen) was also known as Queen Street until 1775.
*The corruption could also have been caused by the combination of ‘knife’ and ‘mass’. The mass referring to the Eucharist processions that occurred on the street.
- The Christmas mudslide
For hundreds of years this steep path was just that. A steep path. The town swelled, trade boomed and industry was unstoppable. Muck, industrial, animal and human waste oozed down said steep path, while traffic slid with it in a haphazard fashion or attempted the poison, rather fecal travelator that was before them.
Or more elegantly put in seventeenth century John Latimer’s words a, “break neck footpath very perilous to passengers in winter weather and dark nights.”
Eventually a wealthy vintner (basically a wine wholesaler) called Jonathan Blackwell was able to show his vested interest / generosity in improving the city’s communications and paid for the track to be ‘steppered’ in 1669. A stone path and steps were constructed as well as a turnstile and lanterns – thus the Christmas steps as we know them were created.
- The Three Kings of Cologne: We three kings of Orient are…
Another generous businessman, this time a salt merchant named John Foster was responsible for building both the tiny chapel that is perched atop the ascent of the steps and the adjacent almshouses.
The alms houses were originally built for 13 men and 1 women in 1483 and later added to by Henry VIII’s physician, but would have looked very different with their entrance being on the now gone and aptly named Steep Street, hidden from view.
It was in 1883 that these flamboyant Burgundian creations came into being, in action until 2007. Judged to no longer be adequate for their occupants the proceeds of the sale went to a new purpose built John Foster’s alms houses.
Over a half a millennia of charity.
The little chapel. Well it really is little. Only 18ft x 22ft it is Bristol’s smallest place of worship. BUT despite its size it is rather special being othe only dedicated church to the 3 Kings Britain (and one of only around 5 in the world). It is known at the 3 Kings of Cologne as Cologne Cathedral is where the relics of the magi are supposed to be laid and this little chapel is inspired after it.
- Stone Seats: Stolen Time
So feeling all virtuous, fresh outta church and staring down the steps a few paces forward and there are 6 stone seats to the left and 6 to the right.
Why are they here? It is generally though they were removed along time ago from either St Bartholomew’s or the 3 Kings Chapel. Either way they have provided centuries of shoppers aand travellers with a nice little respite or some time to day dream over the view.
- Ghostly Happenings
Or sitting on the steps, rather than looking down you might squint upwards and see the ghost of Sir Henry Lunsford, the Royalist who was killed there and for a short time gave his name to Christmas steps.
But that’s not all.. reports have also been made by former business owners that they have seen the ghost of a young Victorian girl as well as having an uninvited guest at their kitchen table, a spectral lady dressed in black (who apparently was very friendly). This led them to speculate that the houses on the south side of the street may have been built on an old cemetery…..
- The Civil War: Cromwell’s rage against the statue
Back to old Sir Henry. This poor chap was killed at the top of the steps during the siege of Bristol. A Royalist cavalier he would have had his base up at the site which now is now occupied by the Royal Fort Lodge and Garden’s at the top of the hill.
Bristol – as one of Britain’s biggest cities and ports, with fantastic Atlantic connections and in a pivotal point between the London, the Midlands, Wales and the South – West – was strategically a bit of a gem and as such saw some of the fiercest fighting, fighting where poor old Bristol kept on choosing the wrong side.
We all know that Cromwell eventually won. As a Puritan he was vehemently against idolatry (the worship of Statues) and had a number destroyed. This includes myths (entirely unsubstantiated) that he decapitated this statue of the Virgin Mary that rests under the arches of St Bart’s gate.
While that (sadly) probably isn’t true, you can see how her feet have been rubbed down by centuries of pilgrims and believers rubbing and kissing them.
- Stone Figures: The Horned Devil with a Joint of Beef
Now the Madonna is not the only old stone entity to align Christmas steps. Above Foto Haus there are these two weatherworn chappies. Described by one observer as ‘what appears to be a carving of a devil holding a haunch of meat..[it is actually]… a woman wearing an elaborate medieval horned headdress’.
Why they are here exactly? They were from the Merchant Venturer’s Hall in Marsh Street so sensible conjectures would be bought after a renovation of the hall? A connection of the buildings occupant with the Merchant Venturers? (I shall make this a mission of mine)
- School’s Out: Twice
After Henry VIII got testy about his inability to divorce and commenced the English Reformation religious houses were dissolved.
In this case St Bartholomew’s got off relatively lightly and rather than being left to moulder into rubble, or filled with the personal pretensions of the King’s right hand men, St Bartholmew’s was the founding site for not one, but two of Bristol’s oldest schools.
The merchant Robert Thorne bought the land after the dissolution and founded Bristol Grammar School and after this moved up the hill from 1767- 1847 it was the site of Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital before it moved to its Brandon Hill site.
10. Fish and Chips
Running up and down I am pretty darn hungry – sorry that was a tenuous link, but onwards.
This little chippy, a red plastic number poking out the bottom of one of Bristol’s few timbered houses is actually not that new. In fact it’s one of Bristol’s oldest and one of the first ‘chippies’ t o open in England with a chip shop being on this site for well over 100 years.
Not just that, but it has a reputation for being pretty damn good, back in the 60s winning the award of Best in Britain.
11. Mogwai: Just Listen
So, not something you can see on Christmas Steps as such but definitely something you can feel. In 1997 those Glaswegian post punk stalwarts of epic instrumentals released this song named after this enrapturing street. Haunting yet powerful, changing pace and directions it relentlessly travels on in its journey and tunes into the raw emotions that this street and city channel and its inhabitants feel. Well my words don’t do it justice.
12. Christmas Shops: Onwards and Upwards, Booze, Films, Art and Music
Starting of as a street of knife smiths, armourers and a whole heap of metal related crafts this has always been a busy street, full of visitors and customers. After the erosion of the medieval world and craftsmen’s communities the street has continually been chocka with an eclectic range of shops.Either side of the 1900’s century Kelly’s directory listed a plethora of wonderful businesses. To name a few…..
…..bakers, greengrocers, beer retailers, tinplate worker, newsagents, dining rooms, coffee rooms, hairdresser, watch maker, antique dealer, shell fish dealer, furniture dealer, second hand book dealer, engraver, confectioner and even a shell fish dealer.
Rolling on a century and the street has seen many events (abseiling for charity, 4th July parties) as well as many changes. In the early 2000s there has been a feeling of decline, family homes replaced by student accommodation, small businesses sucked out by the expansion of large chains, hiding under the umbrella of expansive shopping centres.
change is in the air. There is a brilliant buzz in the air, a kind of clean excitement; positive, creative, sustainable and forward looking – Europe’s 1st Green Capital. Bristol has re- imagined itself. From a busy but dirty, industrial warren into a city proud of it’s uniqueness, independence and its iridescent individuals that make it shine.
This is reflected in the re-rise of independent small businesses, start ups and collaborations and Christmas Steps is a vital part of this, an artery sustaining the brilliance of Bristol’s life blood.
Walking down you have it all, arts, music, booze, film, lost craftsmanship and rare collectibles: Bristol Cider Shop, Christmas Steps Art Gallery, Tano’s Barber, Foto Haus, Mother’s Tucker (Bakery), Veron Ikon, Kaern Reilly, Weber and Tring’s (best whisky I have ever tasted. Fact), West Region Stamps (I mean, how often can you find a stamp shop nowadays), John Stagg and Trevor Jones Bobby’s Fish and Chips, music shops, Christmas Steps Pub (stumbling up three levels and owned by a music magazine) and the newcomers 20th Century Flicks who managed to move from their previous premises in Clifton through the donations of local residents and supporters of the local institution.
A kind of support that makes me glad to live in this fair city.