Features / bristol open doors

Audio tours to tell the secrets of the city

By anna rutherford, Monday Aug 17, 2020

How well do you know the secrets of your city?

Why is “Temple” Meads the gateway to Bristol? Which leaning tower competes with Pisa? How did Corn Street change the course of English literature?

Theatre maker Sheila Hannon knows more about Bristol than most people ever will. This summer she’s been given a new challenge: To create a story for the streets of Bristol, with a “cast” of people who have brought our city to life – who have captured it, shaken it, or shaped it through the years. Historic Bristol: Through Time & Temple launches in September 2020 at Bristol Open Doors.

What drew you to Historic Bristol?

The people, the places and the fact that history’s being made right now as well as back in the day. We often hear the same voices tell a story, but it’s the forgotten tales that knock you for six.

Sheila Hannon (left) working on the new tour with Bristol Old Vic artistic director Tom Morris (centre). Photo: The Architecture Centre

In 90 minutes we traverse hundreds of years of history, peering through the windows into Bristol social life through the ages, from the remains of Saxon Bristol right up to the pubs and clubs of the noughties. You’ll be guided by people who know today’s city inside out, from gardeners to brewers; from archaeologists to DJs.

What’s the most interesting fact you’ve unearthed?

The location of St Edith’s Well in Castle Park, the first source of fresh water to the city, was thought to be lost; the whole area had been paved over. But Ann Freeman, who we meet on the tour, was determined to find it.

She finally tracked down the one person in the city who remembered that one of the paving stones in the park had been deliberately laid in a slightly odd way, to act as a marker. Ann found the man, and the slab, and now it’s been restored so you can see it.

St Edith’s Well is now marked in Castle Park. Photo: Lowie Trevena

Who is Saint Wilgefortis and what was she doing in Castle Park?

St Wilgefortis was a princess whose father insisted she marry someone not of her choosing. So, she prayed fervently for disfigurement in the hope it would make her intended reject her.

The next morning she woke up with a beard and the wedding was off. Her unfortunate father then had her crucified. She became the patron saint of Unhappily Married Women and a chapel was dedicated to her in the church of St Mary le Port in Castle Park. Surprisingly, historians now question the truth of the story – though the chapel certainly existed.

Finzels Reach is such an iconic new landmark for Bristol, but until fairly recently it was locked away from the public…

Finzels Reach used to be an industrial area, including brewing, sugar refining, cloth-making and associated trades.

There’s still a road here called East Tucker Street, harking back to fulling and tucking, processes in making woollen cloth.

Now, it’s a great place to live and work and eat. The Left Handed Giant pub was named after one of the giants said to have created Bristol, Vincent and Goram. By a strange coincidence, Finzels Reach is on the left bank: This area was the first to be developed on the other side of the River Avon from the Old City.

Left Handed Giant opened in 2019. Photo: Martin Booth

Tell us something we don’t know about the Llandroger Trow.

The Llandoger Trow was one of the first Berni Inns, founded in Bristol in 1955 by the Berni Brothers.

Bristol had been badly bombed during the war, food was rationed until 1954 and people had had a grim time for years. There were no nice places to eat out, because ordinary people didn’t. Berni Inns were a revolution, welcoming and not “posh”, so you didn’t feel stupid, with good food and a simple menu of mainly steak and chips with a schooner of sherry, which was an eighth of a bottle.

The Llandoger Trow was one of the first Berni Inns, a brand created following World War Two. Photo: Martin Booth

Bristol, and the rest of Britain, learned how to eat out with the Bernis. By 1970, it was the biggest food chain in the world outside the USA.

Which voices have taken you most by surprise?

I loved talking to Rubyjo and Chris from St Mungo’s, the charity that looks after the physic garden beside St Peter’s Church in Castle Park. It’s a beautiful, relaxing spot with gorgeous flowers and plants, and benches to pause for a while.

A week after we talked to Rubyjo and Chris, we dropped in to see so many people giving their time to the place. Visitors love to discover it, the surprise on their faces is special too.

Find the Castle Park Physic Garden on one side of the ruined St Peter’s Church – photo: St Mungo’s

It was shocking to hear about the fragility of Temple Church. But a nice surprise to hear from the architect Steve Tompkins and English Heritage about the importance of Temple Church to the city and the emerging ideas for its future.

Can anyone take part this September?

Anyone. And there’s something for everyone. Harbour and city, rivers and bridges, parks and city streets. You’ll take in forgotten gems like Temple Church and see familiar haunts in a new light.

Anyone can take part in the new tours. Photo: Colin Moody

The tour is open to explorers of all ages and all that’s needed are a smartphone and a pair of headphones. Historic Bristol begins at The Architecture Centre on the harbour. Tickets are £5 to £10.

Bristol Open Doors is the event that turns you tourist in your own city. This year the event heads outside from Friday, 11 to Sunday, 13 September. Bookings are now open for the three newly commissioned immersive audio tour at www.bristolopendoors.org.uk

Bristol Open Doors is supported by Arts Council England, Historic England, Visit Bristol and a range of partners across the city.

Main photo: The Architecture Centre

Read more: Explore the hidden history of Bristol

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