The destination for history

Bristol’s 10 historical places


Standing sentinel-like over the centre of Bristol is a 215-foot-high neo-Gothic tower known as the Wills Memorial Building. It houses more than 50 rooms including a Great Hall used for ceremonial events. This is the jewel in the crown of the University of Bristol’s campus. 

It was built by brothers Sir George and Mr Henry Herbert Wills, as a monument to their father who endowed the university in 1909 with the sum of £100,000. Construction work on the tower started in 1914 but was interrupted by the First World War and not completed until 1925 at a cost of £500,000. Housed in the building’s octagonal tower is Great George, the country’s seventh largest bell weighing in at 9.5 tonnes.

Until recently the tallest building in Bristol was St. Mary Redcliffe church with its cloud piercing spire rising 292 feet from the ground.  It’s been overtaken by a new residential block. In a tweet the Rev. Dan Tyndall said: “We’ve held the record since 1874. So we’ve had our fair share of that accolade. Will the new tallest building still hold that title in 2166?” Two thirds of the spire collapsed during a lightning storm in 1446 and wasn’t replaced more than 400 years because of a shortage of funds. St. Mary Redcliffe is often mistaken for a cathedral because of its space and grace.

Bristol City Council is the only local authority in the land to own and maintain a church. It is known as the Lord Mayor's Chapel although it is dedicated to St. Mark. It does not have a parish although services are held there. The chapel was created in 1220 and bought by the council when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. The chapel and all its lands cost the council £1,000.

The 848-acre site of Ashton Court mansion and estate was owned by the Smyth family for 400 years from 1545.When the last of the family died in 1946 the mansion, its grounds and lodge houses at the various entrances was later bought by Bristol City Council. The estate is the home of the annual Bristol International Balloon Fiesta, which attracts more than 100 hot-air balloonists from all over the world along with an estimated 250,000 spectators to the four day event. One of Ashton Court’s natural attractions is a 700 year old tree known as the ‘Domesday Oak’.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge gracefully spanning the Avon Gorge is often regarded as Bristol’s ‘trademark’. Construction work started in 1830 but came to a standstill several times as funds ran out. Eventually the bridge was completed in 1864 as a monument to Brunel who had died five years earlier. He had called the bridge ‘My first child, my darling’. The bridge spans the River Avon and is 245 feet above water at high tide. Many thousands of people watched the official opening ceremony of the bridge. When it was over 21-year old Mary Griffiths ran out of the crowd and across the 702 foot span of the bridge without stopping. She has gone done in the history books as the first person to cross Clifton Suspension Bridge.

Nestling between large departmental stores in the Broadmead shopping centre and surrounded by the roar of traffic stands the ‘New Room’. This is the world’s first Methodist church, built in 1739 by John Wesley. It was from Bristol that Wesley set out on horseback for preaching tours all over the country. It’s estimated that he travelled some 250,000 miles and preached something like 40,000 sermons, many of them in the open-air.  One of the features of the ‘New Room’ is a double-decker pulpit.  There are several rooms where Wesley and visiting preachers could stay. Many thousands of pilgrims visit the ‘New Room’ every year.

One of Bristol’s oldest churches was destroyed by bombs during the Second World War but its landmark leaning tower escaped damage. The story is often told that after the war a soldier looking at the ruins of Temple church thought the tower should be demolished for safety reasons. However, he was told that during construction of the church in the 14th century the foundations of the 113-foot high tower subsided. .Although attempts were made to ‘throw’ the tower back they were unsuccessful.  Ever since Bristol’s answer to the Leaning Tower of Pisa has stood at five feet out of true and has become something of a tourist attraction.

Royal York Crescent in Clifton is reputed to be the longest terrace of its type in Europe. Although construction was put on hold during the Napoleonic Wars and the financial crash of 173, building re-started as the economy recovered. All the elegant Georgian terraces in Clifton were finished by the start of the 19th century. They are often used now by film production companies producing costume dramas. The poet laureate John Betjeman described Clifton as “The Queen of Suburbs”.

Not far away is the Observatory standing above Clifton Suspension Bridge. Originally this was a snuff mill but after a fire it was converted into a camera obscura which gives visitors a panoramic view of the city. The observatory stands on the highest spot in Bristol, 338 feet above sea level and is believed to be one of three working camera obscura in England.

Bristol Zoo is the fifth oldest zoo in the world. It was opened in 1836 on 12 acres of farmland on the edge of Clifton Downs. The Zoo’s most popular resident was Alfred the gorilla who was an orphan from the Congo. He was often seen walking around the zoo gardens wearing his trademark cardigan and accompanied by one of his keepers. He was so popular that visitors from all over the world sent him a birthday card every September. He died in 1948 after being at the zoo for 18 years. There is a bust of him at the zoo. The zoo will be moving to South Gloucestershire in 2022.

By Maurice Fells

You might also be interested in:

Sign up for our newsletter

show more books