We knew we’d been riding our luck weather wise but there was still a little more of Bristol we wanted to see before we returned to Temple Meads. None of it was graffiti related but it was, broadly, on the way to the station. When I’d been looking at Google Maps plotting out our route I’d noticed a place called Castle Park and, what looked to be the remains of a castle. Who knew Bristol even had a castle? As it was close to the city centre it seemed too good to miss even if it did add a little bit to our walk back to the station.
Once we’d crossed the Bear Pit yet again we made our way along The Haymarket and then Union street and there was the park in front of us. Perhaps if it hadn’t started to rain we might have found what we were looking for, although, to be truthful, when we saw the stone tower, we thought we had. As the pitter patter of rain on the flagstones got harder we took a few photos of the tower but something didn’t seem quite right.
“It looks more like a church than a castle,” I said, looking at the row of arched windows along the side.
CJ agreed and we went for a closer look.
As it was we were both right. It turns out we were standing in front of the ruins of St Peter’s Church, like our own Holyrood Church, bombed out and preserved as a memorial. In fact there were plaques by the arch of the door to all the people of Bristol lost during the war. The church was founded in 1106 and part of the tower was built in the twelfth century with the remainder of the church completed in the fifteenth century. In 1975 the site was excavated and it’s thought this was actually the site of the first church in Bristol. Before the blitz there was also an almshouse nearby.
Little did we know there was another tower in the park, the only remains of St Mary the Port church, built in Saxon times and rebuilt between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries. The tower is hidden amongst derelict office buildings at the western boundary of the park and, although this area is intended for development and isn’t really part of the park, the plans are controversial and the people of Bristol feel it should be. Until the Bristol Blitz on the terrible night of 24 November 1940, just a few days before Southampton suffered the same fate, this area overlooking the floating harbour was Bristol’s main shopping centre. What little was left, with the exception of the remains of the two churches, was demolished and the park was opened in 1978.
Of course, we didn’t know any of this at the time because tiredness after walking almost non stop for around six hours and the ever increasing rain didn’t really lend itself to exploring. We did peer through the locked gates that barred the doorways at the shell of the building. Perhaps if we’d been able to get inside we might have lingered a little longer. As it was we skirted the building seeking what shelter we could find.
On the eastern side we found a small physic garden with a rather beautiful water feature a long thin gully with interesting sculptures at each end. Sadly, there was rather more water than we’d have liked, most of it falling from the sky. Even so, we wandered around for a while looking at the damp flowers and herbs laid out in rectangular beds to the side of the ruined church.
The fennel seemed to be very attractive to ladybirds for some reason and I crushed a seed or two between my fingers drinking in the aniseed aroma. There was another distinctive aroma in the air though and it soon became clear that this was a favourite place for youth of Bristol to hang out smoking some rather aromatic herbal substances. They didn’t seem all that perturbed by our presence but we left them to it and wandered deeper into the park with our hoods up against the rain.
A little way off we found a bench and sat for a moment to look at the map and get our bearings again. I knew there must be a castle ruin hidden somewhere but I couldn’t find it on the rain splattered screen of my phone, although I was sure I’d seen it on the iPad at home. Before too long I gave up and, while CJ kept peering, I wandered off a little way to look at a bronze sculpture I’d noticed near the bench. This turned out to be a very good idea because, as I was taking photos of the verdigris covered fish that looked to be part of a fountain, I spotted an interesting looking door behind it. This warranted further exploration.
Like the church doors, the gate was barred but a sign told me this was the castle sallyport, a hidden exit built in the thirteenth century. Squinting through the bars into the darkness beyond I could see steps leading down to a dark, moss and liverwort filled tunnel. How I longed to be able to get inside and explore.
“Come and look at this,” I called out to CJ and he came scrambling across the grass.
“I wonder where it comes out and whether you can still get through it?” He said, rattling the gate a little in the hope it would open. Of course, it didn’t but we both wished it had.
The tunnel was chiseled into the rock so soldiers could make a surprise attack on intruders trying to dig through the ditch under the Barbican Gate drawbridge. A hundred years later the moat flooded and the ditch silted up so the sallyport fell out of use and, in the sixteenth century when the rest of the castle was destroyed, it was filled in. When it was excavated by archeologists the bones of an Indian monkey, probably a pet, were found amongst the debris.
If only we’d known we’d have been able to see the partially excavated remains of the castle and its vaulted chamber to the north east of the sallyport. The castle was Norman, originally a timber motte and bailey built by order of William the Conqueror for the defence of the town. Later rebuilt in stone it had curtain walls and a large keep. The river Frome was partly diverted to supply the moat. By the sixteenth century the castle was disused and became a haunt of Bristol’s criminal fraternity. When civil war broke out the city sided with the Parlimentarians and restored the castle but Royalist troops occupied Bristol and Cromwell ordered the castle destroyed. It was demolished in 1656 although one tower survived until 1927 before it too was demolished.
There was much we didn’t see but curiosity led us down towards the river to look at a strange ruin. It seemed to be a building of some kind, covered over with turf with a low doorway that looked to be blocked off.
“Maybe it was an air raid shelter,” I suggested.
“The walls look old,” CJ said, “at least some of them do. Do yo think it might be part of the castle?”
“It could be a bit of both. They used the undercroft and the vaults at home as air raid shelters,” I reminded him, “I guess back then anywhere that could be used was used.”
Later we discovered these were the excavated south walls of the castle. Whether this building was ever used as an air raid shelter remains to be seen. A young woman was sleeping on the grass nearby, an umberella covering her head. She was completely oblivious to the rain falling on the rest of her and I wondered if she’d been smoking in the physic garden beside the church.
A bridge made of what looked to be railway sleepers stained a beautiful brick red spanned a gap that may or may not have been a small stream and led down a narrow pathway beside the building. The walls here looked far older, mostly flint and rubble but with patches that looked to have been repaired with concrete or plaster. At intervals angular terracotta pipes like sharp beaky noses stuck out, perhaps some kind of drainage. As we walked along I couldn’t help smiling to see someone else had thought the pipes looked like noses and had added eyes and a toothy grin. It seemed there was no getting away from the graffiti in this city. Extensive Googling has told me next to nothing about this building but I think it probably is part of the castle wall.
At the far side of the path we climbed more railway sleeper steps back to the main path and, with one last look back through the rain, headed out of the park. From Castle Street to Queen Street, then Passage Street we went, hoods still up and the rain getting worse. On St Phillips Bridge we stopped for a moment to look across the water at the park one final time. Beside the bridge was a rather grand old building that bore the legend Courage Accounting Centre on the arch above the entrance. This, it turns out, was once the Tramway Generating Station, built in the late 1890’s by William Curtis Green who later built the Dorchester Hotel in Park Lane, London. The station delivered power for the Bristol trams until the bridge was bombed in April 1940 and the power cables cut. This proved to be the end of Bristol trams and the building was later taken over by the Courage Brewery, hence the name over the door.
We were now on Counterslip and, turning onto Victoria Street in the now pouring rain, we finally saw the last of our objectives for the day, half hidden between the buildings on Temple Street. Sandwiched between a tall, grey office block and a red brick shop called Celebration Cake Centre was a stone arch and an open gate telling us this was The Temple or Holy Church. This was a building I’d seen in passing the first time I came to Bristol but hadn’t had the chance to visit.
Where Southampton has one bombed out church, preserved as a monument, Bristol has three. We’d seen St Peter’s, missed St Mary le Port and now we were about to visit Temple Church, a place with an interesting history. Built on the site of the oval church of the Knights Templar, it was rebuilt around 1312 as a parish church. Despite the weather, we peeked through decorative wrought iron gates into the interior. Again this was a church we would only be able to look at from the outside and, annoying as this was, there was nothing we could do about it.
The church gives its name to Temple Meads, the station we would soon be standing on. We walked around the outside looking through arched windows that must once have been filled with beautiful stained glass and up at a tower that leaned quite alarmingly. CJ and I assumed the lean had something to do with the bombing, which happened on the same night the area around Castle a Park was bombed. In actual fact, we were wrong. The tower was built in stages. The lower parts were built in 1390 but, when the tower began to lean to the west, work was halted. In 1460, when everyone was happy that the leaning tower wasn’t going to fall, the upper stages and belfry were built. Legend has it that the problem was caused by the foundations being dug on top of wool sacks but, in all likelihood, the real issue is the soft clay soil.
Once we’d satisfied ourselves there really was no way inside, we took a stroll along the avenue of trees beside the church. This was, in part, to escape the rain but also because it was so pretty with the first fallen leaves scattered on the wet path. In the end we had to brave the rain for the short walk to Temple Meads. There was one quick stop to take pictures of a very young seagull sheltering in the doorway of a shop and pretty soon we were at the station.
Perhaps we should have ignored the seagull because, inside the station, we discovered we’d just missed a train. In some ways this was a blessing in disguise because we were both quite hungry so we decided to go off in search of food. We found a restaurant/bar almost at once and, after a look at the menu for something snackish, decided on a sharing platter of tortillas topped with cheese and chillies, it sounded good until the waitress told us it would take twenty minutes. Quite how it takes so long in an empty bar to sprinkle some cheese and sliced chilli on a few tortillas and pop them under the girl is a mystery. We had an hour until our train but the wait would eat up too much of it, especially as we’d still have to eat and then find our platform.
“I wonder if they ever sell any food?” CJ mused as we left in search of somewhere else.
“I shouldn’t think so,” I said, “after all, every single one of their customers is going to be waiting for a train and if it takes twenty minutes to cook tortillas when they’re not busy how long does it take to cook a proper meal?”
Luckily we found a snack bar on our way to the platform and grabbed coffees and some rather tasty wraps which we ate on the platform. At least it was dry if you stood in the right place and avoided the rain dripping through the roof. The train arrived on time, which was unexpected after my last experience at Temple Meads and we were soon settling down for the journey.
Althought the train was crowded, we managed to find two seats together with a table. There was one man sat opposite with his bag on the table. Neither of us paid him much attention as we sank gratefully into the seats after such a long day of walking. A few minutes later I finally glanced at our travelling companion and, it seemed there was something very odd about him. It looked for all the world as if he had his feet on the table, one on either side of his bag and, if he did, he had ridiculously short legs. It took a while to work it out and, when I did, I had a hard job not to laugh out loud. What I’d taken for feet were actually rollerblades attached to the bag at each side. You see some funny things on a train, especially in Bristol.