Andrew Swift: In Search of Old Redcliffe

This year marks the 650th anniversary of Redcliffe’s transfer from Somerset to the newly-formed county of Bristol. On the face of it there may seem little – apart from the church of St Mary Redcliffe – to show for such an august history. Bombing and demolition have taken a terrible toll, and even today redevelopment seems unremitting. Yet, if you know where to look, fragments of old Redcliffe can still be found. The 650th anniversary of its absorption into the city seems an appropriate occasion to take a seasonal stroll around this often overlooked corner of Bristol to see what has survived the ravages of time.

The walk begins at Bristol Bridge, which until 1809 was the only way across the river by foot. South of the bridge lies Victoria Street, driven through a maze of narrow streets around 1870 to provide a direct route to Temple Meads. After less than 50m, you come to the former Royal Talbot Hotel on the corner of Bath Street, which, when it opened in 1875, was one of the best hotels in town. Turn left along Bath Street, into an area once dominated by George’s Brewery. It was founded in the 18th century, but, after being taken over Courage’s, closed in 1999. The Keg Store on your left dates from the 1930s, while the row of houses on your right dates from around 1790. It was originally longer; the buildings which survive once served as offices for the brewery. Further along on the left is the Lutyenesque Tower, built for George’s around 1925. Next door, the former fermentation building houses a creative hub for Channel 4.

Continue in the same direction between high buildings and turn right at the end. Towering above you on the left is an electricity generating centre, built in 1899 to power Bristol’s trams. At the road, cross and carry on along Temple Back, where the façade of the city’s first electric lighting station, opened in 1893, has been incorporated into a new development.

Turn right along Water Lane and after 35m left along Petticoat Lane. Turn right by a horse chestnut alongside the shell of Temple Church and, at the end, go through a doorway into the church. Dating from the 14th century and destroyed by bombing on 24 November 1940, it stands on the site of a church built by the Knights Templar around 1150, whose round foundations were revealed when the site was excavated. The church is famous for its leaning tower, the result of subsidence when it was still being built. After years being off limits, recent restoration has allowed the church to be opened to visitors, while its churchyard has been transformed into one of the city’s most tranquil green spaces.

On leaving the church, head through the archway ahead and turn left past a row of five buildings, two of which – the King’s Head and Costcutter – date from the 17th century. Inside the King’s Head, little has changed since a refit in 1865, although it is now owned by one of Bristol’s newest breweries, Good Chemistry.

Carry on past the Shakespeare, which bears a date of 1636, and cross at the zebra crossing. Turn right to the corner of Mitchell Lane, where a sculptural relief by Edward Bainbridge Copnall on the TGWU building depicts Unity.

Walk along Mitchell Lane, continue along Three Queens Lane, cross the road at the end and head to the left of the building housing a Co-op. Through the screens of a bin store, you should be able to make out two arches. They formed part of an arcade in the mansion of William Canynge, once the grandest in Redcliffe, dating from the 14th century and demolished in 1937.

Head south along Redcliffe Street, passing Ranger’s tobacco factory, built in 1883 and now converted to apartments, on the left. Beyond it, the zebra crossing stands on the site of Redcliffe Gate, demolished in 1772. A left turn leads along Portwall Lane, which follows the course of the 13th-century Port Wall. Like many of Redcliffe’s byways, it is still paved with pennant stone. After crossing St Thomas Street, bear right towards a solitary survivor of the hundreds of buildings that once lined the tightly packed streets around St Mary Redcliffe. It survives because it was the birthplace of Thomas Chatterton. Adjoining it is the façade of the nearby schoolhouse which was relocated here when the rest of the building was demolished for road widening.

Turn right along the dual carriageway, cross at the zebra crossing, head back along the dual carriageway and turn right up Pump Lane. Below the brick wall on the left at the top is the blocked-up entrance to a tunnel through which a railway ran to the docks. Turn right along Colston Parade. Through the railings opposite Fry’s House of Mercy, an almshouse opened in 1784, is a tramline which landed here after being sent flying by a bomb dropped on Redcliffe Hill on Good Friday 1941.

At the end, turn right to enter St Mary Redcliffe by the south porch. Queen Elizabeth I described this as ‘the fairest, goodliest, and most famous parish in England’. When she visited in 1574, it was less imposing than it is today, having lost much of its spire when lightning struck in 1446. It was eventually restored in 1872. A painted statue of the queen can be seen in St John’s Chapel, while, in the south transept, two tombs feature effigies of the same person – William Canynge, the site of whose house you saw earlier. The first shows him in mayoral robes alongside his wife; on the second he appears in priestly garb, having taken holy orders after his wife’s death. Many more treasures – including new stained glass in the north transept – await discovery in this extraordinary church.

Leaving by the north porch, head down the steps, turn left across Redcliffe Hill and then right to find the Quaker Graveyard, at the end of which is a cave in which Lord Berkeley installed a hermit in 1346 to pray for his soul.

From here, head up Redcliffe Hill and turn right along Redcliffe Parade, one of the most dramatically situated 18th-century terraces in Bristol. Turn left along Jubilee Place and at the end look across to a row of three houses built in 1718, including David Olusoga’s ‘house through time’ – 10 Guinea Street.

Turn right to walk down past the Golden Guinea and the old General Hospital to Bathurst Basin. On the far bank is one of Bristol’s most splendid façades – a warehouse from 1874, with two-tone brick teased into exotic exuberance. As you turn right, look to your right to see the west end of the railway tunnel. After passing the Ostrich and the Grove Ferry Slip carry on along Phoenix Wharf, where locked gates give glimpses into caves hollowed out of the sandstone bluff that gave Redcliffe its name. This is the last undeveloped part of the harbourside – although redevelopment seems imminent – and the feeling of a working wharf still lingers.

At the end, go through a gateway, cross at the zebra crossing, turn left, and just before the bridge turn right along a harbourside walkway. After turning right along Cheese Walk, you emerge on Ferry Street, where the wall opposite incorporates two blocked-up medieval windows, another remnant of Canynge’s House.

Head north along Ferry Street and, when it swings right, turn left into Buchanan’s Wharf. Head past a double Archimedes screw to follow a covered harbourside walkway. After 100m, turn right up steps to a sculpture celebrating Bristol’s seafaring heritage. Ahead is St Thomas’s, the third of Redcliffe’s medieval churches, although much of it was rebuilt in the 18th century. Head on past the Seven Stars, famous for its connection with Thomas Clarkson – famous too for its range of ales. Beyond it is the Fleece, occupying a Wool Hall built in 1828.

A left turn past a row of 17th-century buildings leads to Victoria Street. The range of ornate Victorian buildings opposite includes one bearing the word COURAGE. The proximity of the brewery has led some to conclude that it may have been linked with it. Courage’s only acquired George’s Brewery in 1961, however, and this building dates from the 1870s, when it was designed for David Oliver, a wine and spirit merchant whose trademark was the word COURAGE with a lion’s head in a roundel.

From here, head north along Victoria Street to return to the starting point.
Distance: 2 miles. Accessibility: Some steps and rough surfaces.

• More walks around Redcliffe, as well as many other parts of Bristol and south Gloucestershire, can be found in Andrew Swift’s Walks from Bristol’s Severn Beach Line, available from bookshops or direct from