Bristol, like its neighbouring city of Bath Spa, has true historic architectural jewels. Unlike Bath, though, its heritage is all over the place. Bath is this compact town where its monuments are readily available in an easy to navigate format: A short walk takes you from the rail station to the Roman Baths, then onto Bath Abbey, the Circus, Queen Square and the Royal Crescent.
Bristol is not like that. This merchant city, which by the 14th century was the third most important town in England after London and York, has more sacred buildings than just its imposing cathedral or St Mary’s Redcliffe Church. It is just that the city is ever growing horizontally and more worrying vertically; and thus high-rise buildings are dwarfing church spires. It is easy to miss its gems. But they are still there, if one knows how to look. Sometimes they are easy to spot, such as the above-mentioned Cathedral. Sometimes they are a bit hidden, such as the Lord Mayor’s Chapel or St Stephen’s Church, which besides its size and beautiful churchyard-garden, sits squeezed between modern structures. And yet, tourists and Bristolians alike walk through the medieval archway attached to St John on the Wall’s Church, under the gaze of Brennus and Bellinus, the mythical founders of Bristol. They don’t realise they are following that very path, just as it has been done for centuries, when travellers entered and exited the city walls. After all, as I heard a volunteer at St John on the Wall state, this ancient archway was ‘like the “M4” of its time’.
Another wonder in disguise is St James’ Priory, considered the oldest building in Bristol. The city’s bus station wraps around it, and masses of people walk in and out, waiting for their transport, buying snacks at the cafés, without giving much of a thought to this serene church.
And yet, for all the loneliness that you breathe when you visit, through wars and redundancy, these buildings are still standing, resilient, a bit defiant, just as they have been for centuries, in no small part thanks to the people who care about history and heritage. And so they will be, even when you and I, reader, are no longer here.
Strolling around Bristol, whether on a busy Saturday morning on my way to Marks and Spencer in Cabot Circus or my power walks about town after work, is immensely more pleasurable by the sight of church spires. Featured photo: Door at Lord Mayor’s Chapel.
Below are some of my favourites:
Not really just a church, but a Gothic cathedral with a French touch, I especially love its Chapter House, a joy of Romanesque arches and carvings and its exquisite Lady Chapel. As so many religious buildings, it was on its way to destruction during the Dissolution, when it was included in a select list of “New Foundation” Cathedrals by Henry VIII and although further construction was halted, at least the building survived. It received a nave in the 19th century and a French-styled West front including towers. Although the Cathedral is imposing by its vast size, I think one feels welcomed in there. I also like that it has a feminist streak: It was here where in 1994, the first women were ordained as Church of England priests. Its walls also feature memorials honouring women in their own right, rather than as simple appendages of men: Ada Vachell (Founder of the Bristol Guild of the Handicapped) is remembered and so are others. A rare sight, indeed.
Below, the rood screen at the Cathedral. I simply love this place. It is very often that, on my way to the Central Library (just a few yards away), I take a detour and enter to pay a visit and marvel at this stunning building.
Below, another view of the Cathedral from College Green on a warm Autumn day.
Across the street from Bristol Cathedral is the Lord Mayor’s Chapel. It is a bit tricky to visit because it is not open every day, but totally worth considering taking a peek (they open Wednesday-Saturday each week and Sunday only for worship). A former hospital built in the 13th century which was part of the Bristol Cathedral complex, it quickly became independent and served Bristol’s poor for a couple of hundred years until King Henry VIII came along. It then became a school for boys and girls and much later a place of worship for Huguenots fleeing France.
My favourite place inside the church, the Jesus Chapel – Poyntz Chantry, built by Sir Robert Poyntz as a Chantry Chapel. This small room has a Spanish accent: The floor tiles are thought to be from Spain, a possible gift by Queen Catherine of Aragon. Sir Robert was her Chancellor. (Quick shoutout here for the book by Giles Tremlett on Queen Catherine. I bought it years ago and it was a joy to read). The Chapel features this odd decoration of a clenched fist; a pun (poing) on the Poyntz family name.
On one side of the church, these possibly are grotesques that fell from the ceiling.
Leaving College Green and walking towards Colston Avenue, between high buildings lies squeezed St Stephen’s Church. Upon entering St Stephen’s Lane, its churchyard is spread open, a lovely green nook in the heart of the city. Once one gets over the shock of seeing the hideous 1970s- style decorations at the altar (thankfully they are not very big) it is easy to love this church. Wide and airy, this 13th century building is located on the site by the ancient riverside boundary. River Froome was diverted at the same time St Stephen’s Church was built and in modern times, culverted.
The tower is its most noticeable feature. Centuries ago it would have been, as spires go, a very visible landmark for seafarers. Unfortunately, it is now dwarfed among office buildings. Lots of events, including lunch concerts, take place at St Stephen’s these days. Its “open plan” church structure and very accessible location make it an ideal venue for cultural events.
This is the “Leaning Tower of Bristol”, aka Temple Church. Back in the 12th century, this was a monastery built by the Order of the Knights Templar, inspired by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem a city the Knights visited during the Crusades.
The church was rebuilt between the 14th and 15th centuries but these rumours of the ancient monastery having round foundations persisted throughout the years. This “new” church was bombed during WWII and its roof destroyed. Years later, archaeologists investigated and discovered that the foundation was round indeed, see photo below. This quarter was quite wealthy in the 13th-14th centuries, as this part of Bristol was where cloth workers lived and worked, and so was their church. Near the church there is an area where the weavers used to hang their cloths to dry.
I was appalled the other day when I walked down Broad Street and saw a hideous advertising tent covering the corner of the street, and more alarming, when I found graffiti underneath. I work in marketing, but I find images of logos and advertising crass, especially when near or covering historic buildings.
The church itself (Christ Church) is totally worth a visit. I think it is the most European in looks of all the religious buildings in Bristol and indeed, the style is a soft Baroque, constructed in the 18th century as a replacement of a medieval one. There was another church opposite from the one we see today, named St Ewen but it was demolished in the 19th century to make space for the Bristol Register Office.
A bit Baroque, a touch Georgian. I am not accustomed to seeing religious paintings and crucifixes. It is thought that the area where the church sits could be the oldest religious part of Bristol, in the centre of the walled city (what remains of the wall is St John on the Wall’s church see below). The font and a bell that can be seen inside belong to the destroyed St Ewen’s Church, and the customary sword-rest, (with the arms of Charles II) can be admired as well. For all the details regarding the history of Christ Church, please visit this page.
Bristol, like many cities, had a wall for defense purposes. All that remains is the block that encloses this church. Indeed, St John the Baptist (its popular name is St John on the Wall) is built within the ancient city walls, which is quite unique. Founded by thrice Mayor Walter Frampton (who is buried by the altar) in the 14th century, this church includes a “crypt”, although this name is erroneous. It is actually the Lower Church, and it is accessed by a tiny door on Quay Street. Both floors are open by volunteers who give visitors tours on behalf of The Churches Conservation Trust, which manages St John on the Wall’s Church. I had the pleasure of visiting this very special building many times (for I was employed by the CCT) and I always found something fascinating and new, from the “hosh posh” stained glass to the fragments of 600-year old wall paintings that were discovered years ago.
As I mentioned above, this building includes an archway, crossed by people for centuries.
I wholeheartedly encourage anybody visiting or living Bristol to set up a bit of time and check out this medieval gem.
Below, the ceiling of the erroneously called “crypt”.
Finally, St James’ Priory.
Self-styled as the “Oldest building in Bristol still being used today”. What you see now is what is left after the Dissolution, but at one time it was a Benedictine monastery and before that, a priory founded in the 12th century by Robert Fitzroy, an illegitimate grandson of of William the Conqueror.
These days, although it remains consecrated, just like similar religious buildings, it is not a “functioning” church with everyday services, but it can still be visited and enjoyed, and so are its café and events.
The hustle and bustle of the bus station is next to it and so one gets caught in the mundane rush. Churches mean different things to different people, but for me they are like an oasis of quietness where I can escape for just a few moments to reflect, admire beauty and wonder about times past. They are also open most of the time, free to enter (donations are needed, though) and, no matter what God you profess -if any at all- you are always welcome. A win, in my book.