Going for a walk in Bristol almost inevitably means a walk up a hill. Start in the centre, say by the Neptune Statue in the docks, head off in pretty much any direction and you’ll quickly find yourself on a hill of some variety, sloping up and out of there.
Some of Bristol’s hills – typical of the character of the place – really take their time about it: Stokes Croft-Cheltenham-Road-Gloucester Road-Filton Road (AKA the A38) for example. This long, leggy, deceptively sloping affair, ever-so gradually unfurls itself in a northerly shuffle from the sullen concrete clutches of St James Barton roundabout, before climbing through St Pauls, Montpellier, Cotham, St Andrews, Bishopston and Horfield to Filton.
In parts it might not seem much of a hill, but it is – a good chunk of it formed my daily, grudging trek to school between the Victorian redbrick of the late, lamented Bristol North Baths to the more cheerfully forgotten Monks Park School in Filton. Much of the Gloucester Road stretch of this route is lined on either side with dozens of largely independent shops, forming one of the few remaining high streets in Britain not reduced to a soulless identikit parade of chain stores, or filled with the boarded up shells of defunct small businesses.
Other hills in the city have their own distinctively languid, charm and grace, such as Park Street, while a few are simply brutes. One of these is the short and abrupt St Michael’s Hill, stretching from Upper Maudlin Street to Cotham. The lower slopes are dotted with attractive iron street furniture, step-work and historic buildings – including the pretty Colston Alms Houses – but don’t let these architectural gewgaws deceive you – it’s a bastard (the fact that a gallows was once sited near the top seems absolutely fitting).
By the time you’ve climbed from base camp at the Church of St Michael’s On the Mount Without (so named because the original building was situated beyond the old city walls) to the Children’s Hospital you’ll be begging for mercy. A gentler alternative pass leading towards Kingsdown is on hand via Horfield Road to Cotham Brow; but, unless you’ve got a thing for hospital car parks, it’s far less appealing.
Yes, wherever you find yourself in Bristol, from St Andrews to St Werburghs, Clifton to Clifton Wood, Bedminster, Bishopston and err Barton Hill – hills lie in wait. South Bristol even has a whole area seemingly named in jokey reference to its steep streets – Totterdown.
My favourite though, will always be Brandon Hill.
From some perspectives Brandon Hill juts out, rounded like a perfect child’s drawing of a hill – Peppa Pig’s house could comfortably sit up top. Closer in, it is less obvious and partially hidden, tucked between the faded grandeur of Park Street and the traffic-clogged Jacob’s Wells Road, which curves up and around great stone walls at the foot of the Brandon Hill’s wooded western slopes.
Brandon Hill is a city park – perhaps England’s most ancient municipal open space. The hill was ‘granted to the council in 1174 by the Earl of Gloucester, which was sublet to farmers for grazing until 1625 when it became a public open space, used for what seems to be “unrestricted recreational pursuits”‘
Now a largely pleasant, leafy and peaceful city centre park with attractive views across Bristol, Brandon Hill has a rather noisy and eventful past – particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries when it was a regular venue for public meetings organised by groups such as the Chartists, protesting over a variety of political and other social issues. Most famously in 1832 Brandon Hill was the site of the Great Reform Dinner attended by a 5,500 local dignatories and gatecrashed by a crowd of 33,000 uninvited protestors who overturned tables amidst “riotous scenes”. A decade later in 1843 a more peaceful crowd of over 30,000 stood on the hill to watch the launch of the SS Great Britain.
Steve Poole in his essay `Till our liberties be secure’: popular sovereignty and public space in Bristol, 1780-1850′ sets out the historical importance of Brandon HIll as a site for free, unrestricted public association – a status dating from at least the late 16th century:
“Customary rights of access were formalized in the sixteenth century when the Corporation acknowledged a duty to protect the hill and permit free exercise, clothes drying, and `other business’. As `Eliza’s royal boon’, observed the poet Henry Jones, Brandon Hill had become the property of every citizen… Rights of free unrestricted association on the hill had been intermittently linked with contention over civic polity throughout the eighteenth century. In open defiance of the Whig Corporation, for instance, Jacobites used it with apparent impunity for anti-Hanoverian revels in 1716 and 1718, and a `confederacy’ of over a thousand striking sailors resorted there in 1745 to pass formal resolutions demanding higher pay from their merchant masters. Yet the authorities often recognized the hill’s popular associations by sanctioning its use for more approved displays of power. The deserter John Faulkner was shot on the summit in 1771 before a suitably `vast concourse of people.”
In the following centuries other forms of violent disturbance continued to erupt, including in 1897, an apparent pistol duel to the death. In March of that year rumours reached the national press that a fatal shoot out had taken place on the slopes of Brandon Hill.
Correspondents were duly dispatched to Bristol to cover the story, but some while later it emerged that in fact this was a publicity stunt for a melodrama that was currently being staged at the Bristol Theatre Royal.
Today, Brandon Hill’s most salient feature is the Cabot Tower, a striking red sandstone and white Bath stone Neo-Gothic lollipop of a building, erected in 1897 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of John Cabot’s voyage from Bristol to Newfoundland in the Matthew.
A climb to the top of the tower’s winding stairs is rewarded with fine views in multiple directions, looking out over the river Avon, the city and beyond. Brass plaques featuring arrows point towards all kinds of other places, from local landmarks like Bristol University’s Wills Memorial Building, to far off cities in lands thousands of miles distant. This has always had a curious dual affect on me – at once making Bristol feel right at the centre of things – with Cabot Tower serving as a gigantic mapping pin – and yet highlighting how very far away it is from places like New York, Sydney or Mumbai.
The tower was one reason that, as a child, Brandon Hill was by far my favourite park in Bristol. I also loved the small stream that runs down through rocky slopes into small ponds below – providing compact and bijou residence for frogs, toads and smooth newts. This part of the park is filled with bushes and shrubs perfect for hiding in and set amongst winding stone pathways, made the crown of the hill seem like a magical place. There’s even a small footbridge – that really should have a Troll lurking underneath – which was the scene of countless scrambled youthful assaults on the hill’s summit.
I also loved a sign that stood for years near the playground lower down the hill, which proclaimed a local bylaw that Carpet Beating was not permitted here between the hours of 6 am and dusk. This, I think, relates to the traditional privileges of Bristol washerwomen – mentioned earlier Eliza’s royal boon’ – who were supposedly granted the right to dry their clothes on the Hotwells side of Brandon Hill for all time by Queen Elizabeth I.
In 1980 a large area of Brandon Hill was turned into a nature park in a pioneering move by the Avon Wildlife Trust. I remember being delighted to see the meadow featured in a BBC Nature programme called The Wild Side of Town a few years later. The meadow and woodland walk mean that Brandon Hill is far more than a pleasant urban park, but is also an important haven for wildlife, one that happens to sit smack in the middle of a large city.
The park is home to almost 100 different species of trees, including an Oak that predates Cabot Tower by about 150 years, a Golden Rain Tree and Giant Sequoia. For anyone wanting to investigate the hill’s sylvan inhabitants, there’s a Tree Trail guide produced by the Friends of Brandon Hill.
This extensive collection of trees is the main reason that to this day I can’t help but see Brandon Hill as a kind of Bristolian version of Isengard – a view I have been unable to shift since first reading The Lord of the Rings when I was 12. Sadly for me – in the nerdiest sense – Cabot Tower will be forever Orthanc and the colourful, tree filled slopes below it, its gardens.
Whilst it is unlikely that any White (or many coloured) Wizards are going to be found here sweet-talking visitors, the spot was for hundreds of years of its existence home to hermits.
The Cabot Tower is only the most recent building to top the hill. Previously the site has been home to a hermitage, or chapel, a windmill, defensive trenches during the Civil War (when it was one of the chief defences of the city during the sieges of 1643-4), two massive 36 pounder Russian guns – brought back from the Crimean war – and, in preparation for the First World War, practise trenches dug into the hillside by soldiers bound for France.
Long regarded as a holy place, the name may derive from St Brendan, although it could be even older. Victoria Coules in Lost Bristol says that: “the word ‘don’ is an ancient word meaning ‘hill’ – the name survives in places such as Snowdon (‘Snow hill’) and Swindon (‘Pig hill’) – and it’s possible that the hill may be named after the Celtic god Bran. The link to St Brendan was more likely to have been made in the eleventh century when the stories of the Navigato [the monk’s Atlantic voyages] became available in written form.”
Whatever the true origins of its name, Brandon Hill has been the site of a chapel or hermitage from at least as early as 1192, when, according to Rotha Mary Clay, author of The Hermits and Anchorites of England, the place was known as “waste land at St. Brendan’s”.
The earliest named inhabitant of the cell is Lucy de Newchurch “whose disappointment with the world [in around 1350] induced her to importune the Bishop of Worcester to allow her to seclude herself and become an anchoress” – as Arrowsmith’s Dictionary of Bristol rather delightfully puts it.
The Hermitage was still going strong well over a century later when the antiquary William Wyrcestre visited in 1480. Wyrcestre was a kind of proto-psychogeographer, born in Bristol in around 1415, he returned in 1478 and again in 1480 and spent his time writing topographical descriptions of the City, measuring and pacing out the dimensions of various of its buildings – including Bristol Bridge – and taking a keen interest in the shipping, trading and daily life of the bustling medieval city. According to Peter Aughton in Bristol A People’s History, Wyrcestre: “paced out every street in Bristol. He gave the dimensions of every church. He counted the cellars street by street…He chatted to the porter of the castle to obtain its dimensions and he spent time gossiping with the hermit of Brandon Hill.”
Wyrcestre’s meeting with the hermit must have delighted him, as it sounds as though the inveterate note taker, measurer and lover of details was met with an equally keen and exuberantly talkative fellow thinker: Rotha Mary Clay noting that: “This hermit told the chronicler that sailors and discreet men declared that the hill-chapel was higher by 18 fathoms than the spire of Redcliffe or any other church. The length of the chapel was about 25 x 15 feet (8½ x 5 virgas). The wall enclosing the cell measured 180 steps…” I suppose being a hermit, the opportunity for a good old chinwag might not have been a common occurrence – so it seems when Wyrcestre came puffing up the hill this one seized the chance with gusto.
Last time I visited, I noticed that someone had pitched a tent in a hollow next to a Lime tree, on the edge of the wild flower meadow. I didn’t see the occupant, but if they were some kind of modern day eremite reclaiming the area for St Brendan, they weren’t enjoying much in the way of seclusion, as a large dog was boisterously sniffing the canvas before its apprehensive looking owner hurried over to drag the beast away.
Links & References
Arrowsmith’s Dictionary of Bristol, 1906.
Bristol A People’s History, Peter Aughton, 2000, Carnegie Publishing
Lost Bristol, Victoria Coules, Birlinn, 2006
The Street Names of Bristol, Their Origins and Meanings, Veronica Smith, Broadcast Books, 2001