Hidden away behind Victoria Street in tranquil, tree-lined gardens stands the empty shell of Temple Church with its distinctive leaning tower.
Giving its name to Bristol’s main railway station and a large stretch of the city centre, the original church on the site was built in the 12th Century by the Knights Templar, an order of warrior monks steeped in mythology.
The existing church – dating mainly from the 14th Century – was bombed during the Second World War and it has stood empty and unused for more than 75 years since, a hidden historical gem that hundreds walk past each day without ever knowing its story.
The people working on a new vision for the church and gardens hope to change this and breath new life into the site while transforming it into a destination that can be enjoyed by locals and visitors alike.
The Architecture Centre is working with English Heritage and Bristol City Council on the project. English Heritage has already set aside up to £1.3m for vital repair works to the church and tower – but the ultimate vision goes far beyond this.
“We think it’s incredibly important for the whole city to engage in the journey of Temple Church,” says Dr Anna Rutherford, director at The Architecture Centre.
“In the future, it can be a place that promotes wellbeing, joy and tranquillity, that is both useful and beautiful for those who explore it.”
Explaining what has happened so far, Anna continues: “We were invited by English Heritage to lead a consultation on the use of the church and gardens, engaging with designers, businesses, developers, historians, residents and the wider city to transform the space into an asset for the city and citizens alike.
“We believe strongly in co-design, and it’s been great to see how collaborative working is shaping a design to make Temple Church both an inspirational destination but, importantly, a useful and precious asset for the communities who work and live nearby.
“A great deal of work has already been done to vision a future for the space, including our Shape My City sessions, inviting 15- to 18-year-olds to have their say, as well as live broadcasts from the site, and digital events inviting users and neighbours to give their views as plans have progressed.”
An on-site consultation took place in the spring 2020, as well as a BID (business improvement district) workshop with local businesses and community stakeholders.
The project is now progressing alongside English Heritage’s repair works and Anna says that she looks forward to sharing the designs in the new year.
The Architecture Centre put Temple Church at the heart of its Bristol Open Doors audio tours for 2020. Historic Bristol invites people to explore the history and significance of a space which is right in the heart of the city, but so often overlooked.
English Heritage has confirmed the conservation work at Temple Church is scheduled to take place between April 2021 and October 2022, and will include repairs to stonework at high levels of the church and tower, and works to address issues with security.
The charity says this work will help ensure the site is safe and accessible to prepare the building for any possible future use.
Rob Woodside, estates director at English Heritage, says: “We are delighted that our project to undertake specialist care of the historic fabric of Temple Church is now potentially in a position to start work on site in the spring.
“These works will help ensure that the historic fabric of the church receives the care it needs, and also make sure that the building is safe and accessible for the future.
“As we look towards a potential future for the church, the sessions we have been running with the Architecture Centre have been a real inspiration.
“After more than 75 years, we want Temple Church to be part of community life in Bristol once again, and it has been amazing to see what a passion there is for this wonderful building in the wider city.”
The original 12th Century church was round and was one of the largest of only a dozen such churches in England.
After the existing building was bombed during the Bristol Blitz and gutted by the resulting fire, the site was excavated and the plan of the former Templar church was revealed. Among the treasures rescued from the debris was a unique medieval chandelier, which is now in Bristol Cathedral.
The tower, which leans 1.6 metres out of the vertical, was started in the 1390s when the lower three stages were constructed. Work was halted when the tower began to lean but was resumed in around 1460 when the tall top stage was added with a deliberate correction of the leaning angle. This has since tilted.
Main photo by Martin Booth
Read more: Audio tours to tell the secrets of the city