The idea of painting a mural on her home in Kingsdown had been on Sue Kilroe’s mind for a long time. As a member of the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft and the group working to improve the Bearpit, she was imbedded in a community bristling with street art and colourful expression. And, as she began to unearth the history of her home, the idea to render it in paint crystallised.
“When we bought the house in 1993, the people we bought it from told us this house was originally a farm building developed in two stages – the downhill part was original and then it was extended,” Sue begins. “You can see it inside – there are two levels upstairs. A seed was planted in my mind at that point.”
Ongoing issues with damp prompted investigations that uncovered a well under the floorboards at one end of the house, and also revealed that the salty deposits oozing from the walls were bovine urates. “That was proof positive to me that it had been a cowshed,” Sue continues.
More evidence was uncovered in 2010, when work on a kitchen extension revealed a stone archway beneath the plaster that had been filled in. “It showed that the entrance to what had been a cowshed was from the back of the house, not the front,” says Sue. “It was common to have that kind of arch where there were milking stalls and space for the cows over winter. I come from a farming background, and knew what the old buildings looked like, so it was very interesting to me.”
Armed with this knowledge, Sue met with Penny Mellor and Mary Wright, who wrote the book Kingsdown: Bristol’s Vertical Suburb. Their research wasn’t able prove that Sue’s house had been a cowshed, but they did have evidence of the well Sue uncovered, and could shed some light on how the surrounding area might have looked at the time it was in use.
“They told me it predated Kindgsdown Parade, and would have been in open country and pasture land. The deeds of the house go back to 1790, which was the time urban development was taking place and it must have been converted into a residence. But as a cowshed, it could go back to 1600s – we just don’t know.
“It was commonplace in towns for there to be a ring of small dairy farms around the settlements, where they would sell it out of churns or people would go to get milk. Just think what it might have looked like, standing on the Downs and looking across the hills towards Colston Fort and Kingsdown, with a footpath going across that people would use to collect water and their milk, and with cows here.”
Making connection with artist Sophie Long, who painted the mural, was sheer luck, Sue says. “I was having a cup of coffee in Better Food in St Werburgh’s and on the wall was an exhibition of Sophie’s art – an exhibition of cows. I knew I wanted to find someone who could do cows and would love doing cows, and I thought they were good images, artistically. I took a photograph of her contact details and she responded instantly. Things happened very quickly then.”
Sophie began to sketch out ideas for the mural. “A lot of the imagery was referenced from books and old photos of Kingsdown,” she says, including the image of the house on the hill, and Mother Pugsley’s well, which was off Fremantle Square. “It was a very popular well – the water was reputed to be sweet, and people walked out of the city to collect water from it,” Sue adds. “It’s a wonderful story, and part of the folklore of this area. The well is still there, in someone’s garden.”
Other parts of the mural were more personal to Sue, and came from conversations she and Sophie had during the creation process. “The three cats and a dog are my two cats and my daughter’s cat and dog,” Sue explains. “I wanted a jackdaw sitting on the branch of a tree – and next door have a laurel hedge, so Sophie thought it would be hilarious to continue the laurel into the image.
“I painted the sky – that was my contribution!” Sue laughs. “And a neighbour said to put a sun on the chimney, so we did.”
There are also a couple of hares playing on the side of the building – “hares on the hill, which of course is in reference to the name of the pub next door to Sue’s house,” Sophie says. “That was a little something for them,” Sue smiles. “Bath Ales, perhaps unknowingly, referenced the history of the area when they renamed the pub.”
One part of the mural that have received comments are the chickens. “Sophie does the most brilliant chickens,” Sue says. “The house is right on the street, so I can hear all the conversations that go on. There was a yong woman passing recently with a screaming toddler who wanted to say hello to the chickens. She had to let him out and he sat on the pavement and said hello to them.”
For Sue, creating this mural was ultimately about sharing the history of the area, and her home’s unique place in that story, with others. “The most fundamental driving force, for me, was to remind people that this area was originally pasture, and to prompt people to stand and think what it might have looked like.
“There’s so much concern about the planet and environmental threats now, so it’s a gentle prompt to try and remember and think about how life used to be. People get very excited about the history of Kingstown Parade, and that it was an early example of urban development, but there was history before then.”
Though Sue could have chosen other forms to share the history she had uncovered and felt moved by, she chose a bright and very ‘Bristol’ solution. A painted blue plaque next to the front door explains a little more about the story for those who pause to take in the mural. “Art on buildings is very much about sharing,” Sue says. “Sophie and I have created something for everyone to see.”