History of Bristol

Mother Earth Travel > United Kingdom > Bristol > History

The city has precious few relics of its long voyage through time, some have been lost accidentally through lack of interest and brash phases of urban planning, others with malice aforethought - such as during the Blitz. But there are still plenty of sites which, like windows on the past, allow the mind's eye an insight into how things used to be...

As with many ancient settlements, Bristol owes its origins to a river that literally as well as metaphorically runs through its heart. Fully 250,000 years ago, for instance, during one of the warmer interludes in the Ice Age, people were exploiting the abundant wildlife both in and around the River Avon. One of several clusters of flint tools found locally, and used by these palaeolithic hunter-gatherers, has been discovered on the riverbank at St Anne's. Other, more famous archaeological remains are on view at Cheddar Showcaves.

There are important prehistoric monuments of a later date at Stanton Drew, and archaeologists believe that the Bluestones of Stonehenge were transported from Wales by water, along the River Avon during the Bronze Age.

The Celts erected carefully positioned and well-defended forts to oversee the passage of trade using a ford of the river between Clifton and Stokeleigh. It is possible that these state-of-the-art Iron Age strongholds acted in concert to block the river against joint enemies.

Following the Roman occupation, a port was established at Sea Mills (or Abonae, as the thriving town was called). Sea-going vessels would import wine, olive oil, and fruit from far-flung extremities of the Empire. The Avon would be used to carry the goods inland towards Bath. Although eclipsed by Bath's Roman remains, the villa at Kingsweston is one of several around Bristol, which is particularly well-endowed with high-status villas.

Bristol owes its name to the Saxons who called it Bricgstow, which translates as "the place of settlement by the bridge". The bridge was particularly important as it was the lowest dry crossing point of the Avon. Modern-day Bristol Bridge (Bridge Street) is built over the foundations of the medieval stone structure, which eventually replaced the Saxon wooden bridge. The Saxon town itself was situated on the spur of high ground nestling between the Avon and the river Frome, and incorporated what is now Castle Park.

Owned and commercially developed by the crown (nearby Kingswood, for example, was the king's hunting grounds), this emerging harbour town was far enough inland to offer an element of safety from marauding Viking raiders. Early in the 10th century there was so much traffic in the port that Bristol began to grow rich, and a royal mint was established here. From the 11th century, the slave trade contributed much to the prosperity of the town.

Little more than the foundations are left of the late 11th century Norman Motte & Bailey Castle that was erected on Castle Park. Part of the 12th century keep however has been excavated and remains exposed.

In fact, the legacy of the Norman Conquest has left few substantial tangible remains in Bristol, the best known being the Chapter House of
Bristol Cathedral.

In 1497 Bristol sealed its place in global history as the port from which John Cabot sailed on the voyage that discovered North America. Although he may not have been the first European to set foot there (the Vikings probably beat him to it by several centuries), his venture started the process that led inevitably to the colonisation of the New World.

Cabot, an Italian, had left Venice to seek finances for his long-dreamt-of expedition and, although King Henry VII allowed him royal consent, it was the merchants of Bristol who put up the money. The Matthew was built in Bristol and rode the Atlantic to weigh anchor in the "New Founde Lande" - Newfoundland. To mark the 500th anniversary, in 1997 a replica vessel made the same round trip, to international acclaim. This new Matthew is currently a major attraction berthed adjacent to the SS Great Britain.

Bristol merchants grew increasingly rich and powerful as is shown by the splendour with which they endowed certain churches such as
St Mary Redcliffe - which once stood by the quayside.

Relics of Elizabethan times can be found at the Red Lodge, and there are historical records of the queen's visit to the city during which sailed in a convoy of three resplendent galleys along the Avon Gorge to view the nationally important merchant seamen plying their overseas trade.

In the Civil War, being a merchant rather than an aristocratic centre, the memory of King Charles I's onerous taxes meant that Bristol declared for Parliament. There are remains of defences near Cabot's Tower on Brandon Hill.

Nevertheless, the subsequent years of Puritan rule proved equally distasteful to the urbane well-heeled who hoped to enjoy the privileges of their status here on Earth. King Charles II actually came to Bristol after his famous escapade in the "Royal" oak tree, looking for a boat to ferry him to safety. Two notable buildings surviving from the 17th century are the Llandoger Trow and Ye Shakespeare, both now public houses, and the Christmas Steps offers another perspective on this era.

By the beginning of the 18th century Bristol was the 3rd wealthiest town in Britain and a port second only to London. A certain triangle of trade was particularly profitable: the enterprising merchant could export trinkets and alcohol to the west coast of Africa; ship native slaves to West Indies and mainland America; and import sugar, rum, and tobacco from the plantations to Britain.

With wealth came refinement, and the wealthy merchants lived in luxury exemplified by the Georgian House. Eventually, people realised that something really had to be done about the dreadful dirt roads that made socialising such a tiresomely dirty affair. This increased awareness occurred, incidentally, not long after the slave-trade was finally prohibited (1807). So, early in the 19th century John McAdam was given charge of improving Bristol's road network.

He reconstructed them between drainage ditches, and with layers of compacted stones, each of uniform size. His system was soon applied throughout the country and is still commemorated today (with the addition of tar as a bonding agent) in the word tarmac.

Brunel was a redoubtable Victorian innovator in the field of transportation who, apart from designing the Clifton Suspension Bridge, and surveying the Bristol to London railroad, built the SS Great Britain- the world's first ocean-going propeller-driven ship.

However, as ships grew larger the city's ancient docklands grew increasingly difficult to access along the winding Avon Gorge. A grand scheme to divert the tidal river made the Harbour only accessible at high tide but improved anchorage facilities. Even these enhancements though, proved too little too late, and trade ebbed away - particularly to the port of Liverpool.

Although always predominantly a merchant port, the city had built up enough of an industrial base (the Black Castle, for example, is a spectacular testament to local smelting) to see it through the worst of the rigours of the 1930s Depression. However, these same industries (particularly the aeroplane works), attracted the attentions of the Luftwaffe in WW2 and, on the night of June 25th, 1940 when the first air raid struck, war came home to Bristol.

Many ancient landmarks were swept away in the Blitz, some leaving picturesque ruins such as the fascinating Temple Church.

Relatively modern buildings such as the "sky-scraper"office-block Castlemead, which overlooks and dominates Castle Park, signified a new era in the city's history: that of a thriving regional administration centre. The city's various attractions are continuing to draw important new developments by national companies keen to relocate to Bristol.