On foot to the UFO station

In my mental landscape, Bristol is a city of hills, not towers. Towers belong to elsewhere, rising high over narrow stone streets in the medieval quarters of ancient cities, accessed via narrow, winding stairs and topped with faded flags, or creaking weather vanes. Or on a larger scale, gigantic towers of glass and concrete exist to form the ever-expanding vertical postmodern metropolises of the USA or Far East, not to draw attention to my hometown. 

However, when I come to think about it, a number of significant Bristol towers spring readily to mind: the red and white lollipop that is Cabot Tower on Brandon Hill, the castle-like neo-Gothic of the University’s Wills Memorial Building and The Cheese Lane Shot Tower with its robot looking head, redolent of Ted Hughes’ Iron Man. But looming largest in my thoughts of Bristol towers, is the Purdown Transmitter, or BT Tower.

Despite its retro-futuristic style, it predates my birth, so has loomed large in my vision of Bristol for as long as I can remember. Erected in 1970 as part of the British Telecom microwave network, the tower used to be covered with satellite-TV style microwave dishes, which made it look like some kind of observatory, a Jodrell Bank or Herstmonceux. Growing up, it was easy to imagine this odd-looking building was a broadcast station to the stars, sending and receiving messages to and from aliens.

There have been claims over the years that the Purdown Transmitter is in fact a refuelling station for UFOs, with nearby copses planted in the shape of letters, to mark the spot for arriving intergalactic visitors. This is such a well-established urban-myth, you can buy a T-shirt with a picture of the tower, alongside a classic flying saucer and the words ‘UFO Station Bristol’. I own one myself. 

The dishes were removed over a decade ago and the tower is now used to transmit radio and mobile signals. Even stripped of its techy-barnacles, the building still exerts a powerful presence. A presence that drew me to walk up to it for the first time in decades – at least since my early teens – on a recent trip back to Bristol.

My family used to live locally in Horfield and a march to Muller Road, up the hill and across Purdown was a regular weekend activity. I suspect one, back then, that provoked mass whining and groaning on the part of me and my siblings. This despite the set of swings that used to be found on one side of the park, which Dad, would grudgingly let us play on, before pushing to the top of the hill and beyond towards the views over north east Bristol as it vanished into scattered fields and distant hills at Bath.

Despite this being a fairly frequent walk, my memories of it are vague. I remember always being hot and the hill covered with wall barley, which was handy for ammunition – pulling off the spiky flower heads and throwing them at my brother. The tower itself, of course, stands out, but I also have a clear picture of staring over towards another local landmark – the yellow painted Dower House, on a smaller hill, surrounded by woods in the Stoke Park estate.

This imposing house was built in 1533 by Sir Richard Berkeley on slopes rising above the Frome valley, and was originally called Stoke Lodge. Later rebuilt in Gothic style in the 18th century by an heir, Norborne Berkeley, the building was renamed Stoke Park. For a while after this, it was used as a ‘dower house’ – (a home for the widow of the estate owner – hence the name, related to dowager) – by the Dukes of Beaufort, of Badminton House, nearby. When I was growing up and on into the 1990s, the building was part of Stoke Park Hospital and used as wards for people with psychiatric illnesses. Now, perhaps inevitably, The Dower House has been converted into apartments. Like the neighbouring tower, this striking building also has its own folklore. People have claimed to have heard the sound of galloping horses nearby, with no riders or animals in sight. These ghostly hoof thumps may well relate to the apparent haunting of the area by young Elizabeth Somerset, who in 1760 fell from her horse and died. The tragedy was marked by the family with a stone obelisk, but this was struck by lightning and collapsed in the late 1930s.

When I was little, most of this history passed me by, but it now adds a fascinating extra layer to my recent re-walking of this childhood route. Although I’d seen it from the M32 and caught the odd glimpse of the tower from elsewhere in Bristol, I hadn’t been up on Purdown for years. I persuaded my old friend Chris to join me. I thought the area might feel smaller, but was surprised by how extensive it seemed. This time I also noted much beyond grass growing too. There were many more trees than I remembered, dotted all over, including rows of rowan – currently in full berry – and recently planted orchard trees, apple, plum and pears, on a stretch below the transmitter tower. As with the green lanes in Ashley Vale, across the other side of Muller Road, blackberries seemed to be everywhere, ripe and ready for instant gorging.

There is a more formal park-like lawn of grass to the west of the tower, on the Lockleaze side, but on the hillside rising up from the M32, various paths crisscross the down through wilder stretches of meadow, hedgerows and long grasses. Willowherb, curly dock and knapweed were all widespread, along with teasel – visited by all kinds of bees, hoverflies and other smaller flies flitting about between sun baked wildflowers. Noting rabbit droppings on the edge of the scrub between the meadows and the motorway, we heard an exciting, shrill kee-kee sound and looked up to see two, maybe three, kestrels, darting quickly between tree tops just downhill.

An unexpected glimpse of these birds, on a hot Sunday afternoon, was perhaps even more exciting than my long delayed, further, close encounter with that iconic tower, still thrusting up into the blue sky, at the top of the hill.

Links & References

The Dower House

BT Tower is alien refuelling station


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