Monday, 6 April 2020

Town Travel - Bristol UK


Town Travel - My favourite town by Mark Turnbull

When Pauline invited me to contribute to her interesting blog Town Travels, and pick a particular place to write about, I initially thought about my hometown of Durham, which is scheduled to host the Historical Novel Society’s conference in September. Another choice was Heidelberg in Germany, which was at the heart of the Palatine family; home to King Charles I’s sister, Elizabeth of Bohemia and her children. But then I considered a wildcard option; 17th century Bristol.  Over the past two years through research for my historical novel, Allegiance of Blood, I have come to know it quite well and especially its siege of 26th July 1643, during the English Civil War. This, I decided, would be my choice for town travel.
              Although you cannot physically visit the Bristol that was under siege by Prince Rupert of the Rhine (son of the Heidelberg Elizabeth of Bohemia) there is much that is still in existence from those days. I’ll take you through a short guided tour of just some of those places now.

During the civil war, this was where Bristol’s Parliamentarian governor, Nathaniel Fiennes conducted its defence. It was constructed at the behest of William the Conqueror and was a state-of-the-art strong point, bolstered by the natural defences of two rivers; the Avon and Frome. In 1138 King Stephen even considered the castle and the town to be impregnable, but by Tudor times the castle had fallen into disrepair. Nevertheless, it still had six heavy guns mounted in the keep and fourteen along its curtain walls and well-stocked, should have been able to hold out for months. It was unceremoniously finished off by Cromwell, who ordered its destruction after the civil war. Today, Castle Park has taken over the site of the mammoth structure. Opened in 1978, armies of children enjoy the park, while there is also a sensory herb garden and five silver birches that were planted to commemorate D-Day. Saint Peter’s Church stands like a haunting echo of WWII, ruined from a Luftwaffe bombing raid. To the east, like rows of ancient teeth, you can still see the remains of the castle poking through the ground and there is even an excavated vaulted chamber that has been restored.

As Bristol became more and more wealthy, its success gave a new focus upon trade. The city expanded and at one point was described as the second-city of England. The rabbit warren of streets at its heart, clustering around the castle, lay in a dip, and as such the new streets began to climb upwards. To protect the ever-expanding city, a string of forts was built on the hills to the north, and during the civil war an earthwork line linked each one. The problem for the parliamentarian governor, Nathaniel Fiennes, was that he had too few troops to man this huge expanse. It would only take the capture of the forts and then their cannon fire could be turned around to rain down iron roundshot on the city below.

Brandon Hill, the site of one of these forts, today houses a park and a nature reserve, as well as the 105-foot Cabot Tower, which offers great views of the city. Since 1625, it has been a public open space. You can still see the remains of the civil war earthworks which fortified this site during the siege.

It’s near Brandon Hill Fort where the royalists managed to break into the city, leading to its surrender. I consider the siege of Bristol to be the mother of all the English Civil War sieges. Sir Francis Berkeley, the main character in my novel, is in the thick of it at this breach on that early July morning. 

Victoria Street and Frogmore Street may have Victorian connotations, but they are made up of 17th century veterans of the 1643 siege. The Hatchett Inn dates from 1606 and is said to be the oldest operating public house in Bristol, though its exterior has been modernised. Ye Shakespeare was built in 1636, as its pub sign proudly announces. Separately, there is also the lovely Llandoger Trow dating from 1664 which is on King Street. Robert Louise Stephenson is said to have modelled Treasure Island’s ‘Admiral Benbow Inn’ on this place, and it is reputed to have been where Daniel Defoe met a man who was to be his inspiration for Robinson Crusoe. It is also billed to have fifteen ghosts! Additionally, Bristol was visited by the 17th century’s leading diarists, John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys. So why not have a drink in one of these establishments and see if you can experience any whispers of their past.

Founded in the early 12th century as an Augustinian Abbey, the chapter house is described as being a ‘stunning Romanesque gem’ and the Lady Eleanor Chapel is decorated with beastly carvings that masquerade as humans. It even managed to survive the Reformation and was rebranded and rededicated to fit with the new religious order. It houses a late 17th century organ casing.
Saint Mary Redcliff is the largest parish church in England. During the 1643 siege it stood outside of Bristol’s 2.5-metre-thick walls but was rapidly conscripted into the town’s defence. It was packed with soldiers as well as three cannons and held off the courageous attacks of the Cornish royalists. It still stands proudly as a monument to the civil wars.

 I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief travel around some of the sites of 17th century Bristol, which played their part in a pivotal period in our history. If you do follow in the footsteps of historical characters such as Prince Rupert and Governor Nathaniel Fiennes, or the army of other famous people linked with the city, I hope you enjoy experiencing Bristol’s fascinating heritage. 

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