Andrew Swift explores some of Bristol’s hidden corners, including the site of one of England’s largest castles, ruined churches, the remnants of the medieval city walls and two buildings with unexpected links to Bath
As the quickest and easiest way to get to Bristol is by train, the walk starts at Temple Meads. After going through the barriers, instead of turning left through the main exit, carry on to emerge in the original station, where cars now park between the platforms. Following signs for the city centre, cross a car park and continue past a row of shops. Bear left along Temple Back East and cross the dual carriageway to continue along Temple Back. Take the first left along Temple Rose Street and after 75m turn right through gates to follow a tree-lined path towards the shell of Temple Church, founded by the Knights Templar, and destroyed by bombing, like so much of Bristol, in 1940. If you look at its leaning tower, you will see that the top section is at a different angle to the lower stages, the result of an attempt to compensate for subsidence during construction. Go through the gates at the end and carry on to emerge amid a cluster of old buildings. Turn right along the main road, continue across Counterslip and take the next right along Bath Street. After 100m, just before the Premier Inn, turn left along an alleyway to Castle Bridge.
As you cross the bridge, the old George’s Brewery – taken over by Courage before closing in 2000 – is on your right. On the far bank, turn right, then left uphill, crossing a cycle path before turning left up steps to a garden with a water feature aligned on St Peter’s Church.
At the top of the steps, look back to survey the site of Bristol Castle, once one of the largest in England. After its demolition in the 17th century, the area was redeveloped to become the hub of Bristol’s commercial district, before being reduced to a bombsite in 1940. What remained was cleared after the war to create Castle Park, uncovering fragments of the castle hidden for three centuries.
Head towards St Peter’s and bear left to walk through a physic garden along its south side. The area to the west of the church lay within the old city walls and for over a thousand years was one of the busiest and most historic parts of Bristol.
Carry on, following a tree-lined path down to the river, with the tower of another ruined church, St Mary le Port, to your right. Carry on to the traffic lights, cross to St Nicholas Church, bombed but restored and reopened for worship in December 2018. Head past it and turn right up St Nicholas Steps.
Continue up All Saints Lane, turn left through the covered arcade and, partway along, turn right into the Exchange Hall. This building, whose central court was originally open to the sky, was designed by John Wood the elder (of Bath) as a place for Bristol’s merchants to transact business. Head for a doorway on the far side which leads through an ornate lobby to Corn Street.
As you leave the Exchange, look up to admire Wood’s façade and a clock showing local time as well as GMT. The Harbour Hotel opposite was built in 1857 as a bank on the site of a coaching inn called The Bush, featured in Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers.
Turn right past All Saints Church to the crossroads at the heart of the old city. The High Cross that stood here was cleared away in 1733 and later re-erected at Stourhead in Wiltshire.
Turn left down Broad Street, past the old Council House and Guildhall, and, just past Horts, turn right through an archway into Taylors Court, a hidden but neglected gem. A lavishly decorated shell hood over the entrance to the Merchant Tailors’ Hall, 18th-century lead drainpipes, St John’s churchyard and the 17th-century Court House are among the treasures of this forgotten corner.
Back in Broad Street, carry on past the Art Nouveau facade of Everard’s Print Works to St John’s church, the tower of which runs through the only surviving gate into the old city. Turn left before the gate to follow the line of the city walls, and at the end carry straight on through a low-beamed archway with a sign for the Centrespace Gallery. After passing under a bridge, look to the right for stones marking the boundaries of St Leonard’s and St Stephen’s parishes. Emerging in Corn Street, carry on, still following the line of the walls, along St Nicholas Street. Old India restaurant, on your left, was built in 1903 as a Stock Exchange, while Revolution, further along on the right, opened in 1873 as a fish market. After passing a carved elephant and a veiled lady on the left, turn right, looking out for the metal fish above Revolution’s side entrance.
At the bottom of the steps, cross and turn left, and at the end turn right along Welsh Back. Take the third right along Little King Street past the most striking example of the architectural style known as Bristol Byzantine. Built in 1869 as a granary, the building later became a legendary music venue and is now a branch of Loch Fyne. Turn right again to find, on the next corner, one of Bristol’s most celebrated buildings, the Llandoger Trow.
Turn left along King Street, past almshouses, pubs, converted warehouses and the newly revamped Old Vic. After passing the Cathay Restaurant (Bristol’s first library) on the right, look for the curious plaque on the Merchant Venturers’ Almshouses, before turning left and heading to the left of Graze to continue along the west side of Queen Square.
At the end, turn right and then left to The Shakespeare pub, built by John Strahan in 1725 as a townhouse for John Hobbs, a wealthy merchant responsible for developing much of this area. The birds carved in its pediment are hobbies, a type of falcon, and a pun on Hobbs’s name. Hobbs also employed Strahan to develop the Kingsmead Square area in Bath, and was instrumental in making the river between the two cities navigable, facilitating the shipment of Bath stone to Bristol.
Turn left along the Grove, passing the Hole in the Wall pub – claimed to have inspired the Spyglass in Treasure Island – and, after crossing a bridge, turn left along a harbourside walkway and follow it as it bears right between former warehouses. At the end, look across at a wall containing fragments of medieval arches, before turning left. When the road curves right, head past a barrier and an Archimedes screw to continue along a covered walkway beside the harbour. Turn right up steps past an armillary sphere and head to the right of St Thomas’s church where a plaque commemorates the Seven Stars’ links to the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson. Turn left at the end, cross the main road and head along Counterslip. Cross at the pedestrian lights and take the second right along Temple Back, crossing the lights at the end to return to Temple Meads.
More walks in Bristol, including the harbourside, city centre, and Clifton, can be found in Andrew Swift’s Walks from Bristol’s Severn Beach Line, published by Akeman Press.