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Winter Wanders: exploring Kingsdown with Andrew Swift

Tucked away high above the city lies an oasis of calm in Kingsdown. Andrew Swift explores the cobbled streets and discovers a hidden gem brimming with rich history, individuality, and a formidable line-up of hostelries.

Kingsdown, Bristol’s first planned suburb, is one of the city’s hidden gems. To find it, you can still follow the route a medieval traveller would have taken, heading north out of the city down Broad Street. Once through St John’s Gate, however, where the way ahead once led across the River Frome, you now have to negotiate several lanes of traffic. On the far side, though, the old route continues up Christmas Steps and St Michael’s Hill. The medieval traveller would by now be leaving the city behind. By the time they crested the brow of the hill they would have been in open country, with King’s Down – so called because it was the exercise ground for the horses in Bristol’s royal garrison – on their right.

Kingsdown is unlike anywhere else in Bristol. Parts of it don’t seem to belong in a city at all, looking as though they’ve been transplanted from the back streets of a select Georgian seaside resort

Regal equestrianism came to an abrupt end in the 1640s when Civil War broke out and a line of forts, linked by ramparts, was built around Bristol. It was Prior’s Hill Fort, in a seemingly impregnable position on King’s Down, that was the key to the city’s defence. In 1643, when Royalist forces took Bristol from the Parliamentarians, and in 1645, when the Parliamentarians took it back, it was the scene of long and bitter fighting.

With peace, rural calm again descended on King’s Down, but, as Bristol’s prosperity boomed, it wasn’t long before wealthy merchants, eager to escape the smoky city, cast envious eyes on its grassy slopes. Some of them built second homes – or ‘garden houses’ – there, to which they could retreat at weekends or when pestilence swept through the city. Before long, however, others decided to settle there permanently. By the 1740s, two long streets – Dovecote Lane and Somerset Street – were laid out along the contours and Bristol’s first planned suburb was born.
More streets soon followed, and, as the city continued to expand, Kingsdown was slowly engulfed. Due to its vertiginous location, though, its breezy isolation survived, as did what had so appealed to its first residents – its unparalleled views eastward. What didn’t survive was its cachet as one of Bristol’s most fashionable locales. Once eclipsed by the grander terraces of Clifton, Kingsdown was left to its own shabby genteel devices. Which, as far its residents were concerned, was absolutely fine.

What wasn’t fine was the city council’s determination, in the 1950s, to wipe old Kingsdown off the map. There had been nibbling at the edges for years, but, as the juggernaut of redevelopment rolled inexorably up the hill, before long all that was left were the streets at the top. It seemed only a matter of time before they too would be reduced to rubble to provide hardcore for high-rises.

The devastation of the lower slopes, however, forged the determination to save what remained. In 1957, residents formed a ‘protection association’ and started to gather influential supporters. John Betjeman, a long-time admirer of Kingsdown’s ‘blue vistas’, declared it an irreplaceable treasure, while the architectural critic Ian Nairn described it as ‘England’s only vertical suburb’, adding that ‘nowhere else is there an 18th-century suburb apparently hanging in mid-air over a big city’. It was a long struggle, but victory came in 1973 when Kingsdown was designated a conservation area. Almost 50 years on, it seems incredible that something so precious was once considered of such little value.

However well you know Kingsdown, it still remains astonishing how such an oasis of calm can survive amid the teeming city. But, as John Betjeman said, Kingsdown, with its ‘terraces, trees, cobbled streets, garden walls and residential quiet, is all the more attractive for its unexpectedness so near the middle of Bristol’.
The key to Kingsdown’s unique character lies in its location, but to appreciate just how vertiginous it is you need to approach it not via St Michael’s Hill but from Dighton Street, north of that tangle of busy roads around the bus station. A little way along Dighton Street is King Square, laid out in the 1740s as a smart residential development, but now, with all but a handful of its original buildings gone, a somewhat melancholy introduction to what lies above.

If you head through the garden in the centre of the square, however, and carry on up a flight of steps, you come to Dove Street – originally Dovecote Lane. Here too the Georgian houses have gone, replaced by flats which featured in The Outlaws. The views have survived, however, and if you look south-eastward you will, on a clear day, see the knot of trees on Kelston Round Hill, over eight miles away, with the long line of Lansdown to the north. You will, however, have to imagine what it was like when there was nothing in between but woods and fields.

It is Kingsdown’s unique character that is the best reason to seek it out – hanging, hidden away, high above the city, recalling days long gone and with those unrivalled views

Another flight of steps leads to Somerset Street and the heart of old Kingsdown. Despite its elevated position, everything here is on a human scale. Kingsdown may have been Bristol’s first planned suburb, but planning was confined to the road layout. When it came to the buildings, it was a question of what each developer fancied – or could afford. Three-storey houses with full-height bays stand next to simple cottages, brick rubs shoulders with stucco. This is vernacular architecture at its most alluring, echoing the mores of the early 18th century, when no one wanted to offend his neighbour, but no one wanted to mimic him either. Confident individuality is the norm.
Kingsdown is unlike anywhere else in Bristol. Parts of it don’t seem to belong in a city at all, looking as though they’ve been transplanted from the back streets of a select Georgian seaside resort. Most atmospheric, perhaps, is a narrow cul-de-sac curiously known as Back of Kingsdown Parade, which follows the line of the Civil War ramparts, and not only sports some impressive hanging bays but is still lit by gas lamps.

Kingsdown’s earliest inn, the Montagu, was one of the few buildings in the area to fall victim to bombing, but although a grassy space now marks the spot where it stood, few corners of the city have such a splendid range of hostelries on their doorstep – from the Hillgrove Porter Stores and the Hare on the Hill in Dove Street to the Kingsdown Vaults and the Green Man at the west end of Kingsdown Parade. Add to that the pubs on St Michael’s Hill and down in Stoke’s Croft and you have a formidable line-up.

In the end, though, it is Kingsdown’s unique character that is the best reason to seek it out – hanging, hidden away, high above the city, recalling days long gone and with those unrivalled views.

For more information, visit kingsdownbristol.net. Further reading: Kingsdown: Bristol’s Vertical Suburb by Penny Mellor and Mary Wright (2009). A walk through Montpelier, Stoke’s Croft, St Paul’s and Kingsdown is included in Andrew Swift’s Walks from Bristol’s Severn Beach Line; akemanpress.com