News / Bristol

Putting Bristol on the map

By pamela parkes, Wednesday Apr 26, 2017

From the oldest existing city map in the country to pub maps, street art maps and even sheep trails, Bristol has always loved cartography and a new generation of map makers are continuing to put the city on the, err, map, as Pamela Parkes discovers.

Jeff Bishop’s first encounter with maps during a school geography lesson set him off on a lifelong love of cartography. Now a true expert with a passion for his subject, his new book tells the history of his home city in maps.

Bristol Through Maps: Ways of Seeing a City starts more half a millenia years ago when Robert Ricart created a map of Bristol city centre.

Jeff Bishop Author of Bristol Through Maps

Jeff Bishop Author of Bristol Through Maps

The original 1480 map, which was drawn at the very start of the Tudor dynasty, still exists and is now the oldest surviving map of any city in the UK.

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It shows the High Cross, which stood in the centre at the crossroads of Bristol’s four main streets Broad Street, Wine Street, Corn Street and High Street. The city was then surrounded by walls, four city gates and prosperous-looking buildings.

Ricart's 1480 map of Bristol is the oldest surviving city map in the UK

Ricart’s 1480 map of Bristol is the oldest surviving city map in the UK

It wasn’t a map to help you find your way around as the port and Bristol Castle were left off and it certainly didn’t portray the grim realities of medieval life (there is no sign of the slums outside the city walls) but nevertheless Ricart’s map was a celebration of civic pride in Bristol, which at the time was England’s second largest city.

Future maps of Bristol not only tell the story of its geographical and economic expansion but of the political and religious reforms which were sweeping the country. Braun’s 1568 map of Bristol is a secular map, the Reformation having swept away 11 of the city’s monasteries. There is also a hint of living conditions at the time, with an open sewer running down Redcliffe Street draining into the River Avon.

Millerd's 1673 map shows Bristol's rivers full of ships and commerce

Millerd’s 1673 map shows Bristol’s rivers full of ships and commerce

Bristol’s growing maritime greatness is depicted in a 1673 map by Millerd. The river is now teaming with ships and goods but the castle has gone, destroyed by Cromwell’s forces. Millerd himself describes the city as “sublime, spacious, faithful, pleasant and glorious”, but such greatness was built on the darkness of Bristol’s pivotal role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade which was just beginning to flourish.

The city’s development has always been constrained by its geography . Reflected in maps throughout history, its expansion has been hemmed in by valleys, hills and water.

“When you look at the early maps you find that a lot of them have the old core of the city around Corn Street and then quite a lot towards the south and St Mary Redcliffe which is relatively flat,” says Jeff.

“It was quite late towards the 18th century that development started to move up the hill, but of course that was about getting yourself out of the horror, poverty and smell to places like Clifton.”

Maps of Bristol can also reveal something about Bristolians, people power and community resistance.

Leigh Woods 1864

People power overturned plans to build houses in Leigh Woods

In 1864 a plan of Leigh Woods shows the ancient woodland split into spacious building plots reserved for 800 ‘tenements’. The community stood up to the greed of the developers and it marked the beginnings of the conservation movement in Bristol, says Jeff.

Bristol certainly needed its activists in the 1960s as town planners feverishly sketched out plans for a gutted city crisscrossed by superhighways, pedestrian walkways high above the streets and a filled-in Floating Harbour.

A 1966 map created by Bristol City Council’s planning department laid out a dystopian nightmare where the car was king, but once again the city rose up against the plans to destroy its heritage.

1966 plans to 'gut' the city to make way for the cars never went ahead

1966 plans to ‘gut’ the city to make way for the cars never went ahead

Former mayor George Ferguson was one of the people who led a successful resistance to the proposals. But vestiges of the scheme still exist in Totterdown and Easton, where huge swathes of homes were demolished to make way for a ring road that was never built.

While no-one is proposing to ever fill in the docks again, Bristol is still in the grip of the car and solutions to our traffic nightmare are still being sought today as maps of the future Metrobus route reflect how the city is continually being remoulded and developed.

Looking back at what was and telling the stories of what could have been is a cornerstone of the heritage mapping project Know Your Place. Using historic maps, digitally layered one atop of another, visitors can explore the historic narrative of a street or neighbourhood.

Know Your Place

Know Your Place maps give a glimpse of the past

“It’s easy to get caught up in what is happening now… easy to think that ‘nothing like this’ has ever happened before,” says Peter Gardom, from C-I which helped develop the Know Your Place digital touring exhibition.

“Such opinions are often founded on a historical thinking, or at least short term historical thinking. Once you start to zoom out, to track how peoples and ideas, rituals and social formations have risen and fallen, and moved fluidly from once centre to another over extended timescales, you start to see patterns – not so much evolutionary, but definitely impermanent, developmental and shifting.”

While Know Your Place is using technology to help us explore the narrative behind historical maps, not all digital mapping advances have been welcomed.

Jeff dismisses any talk of the demise of maps in the face of satnav and Google Maps: “Frankly, satnav is not terribly accurate – it shows you the route from A to B but gives you absolutely no context along the way. And Google Maps are quite frankly just ugly. There is no quality to them at all.

Much to Jeff’s delight, one Bristol company is on a mission to make online digital maps both beautiful and functional. Design and marketing agency Green Chameleon, based on King Street, work with clients in the travel industry creating interactive digital maps of Japan, Burma and Indochina.

“The maps we produce are built for the online experience; with each map we aim to create something this is both unique in design and delight for the user,” says creative director Tom Anderson.

Interactive maps of asia created by Bristol company Green Chameleon

Interactive maps of Asia created by Bristol company Green Chameleon

“By allowing potential customers to explore the areas that they plan to visit through digital maps, video content and online access, we’re able to give them real insight into the wonders that await.”

But even in this brave new world of interactive maps and 3D technology there is still a place in Bristol for printed maps. Bristol has embraced the traditional art of cartography to produce a plethora of maps and trails for every occasion and event.

“What I think is interesting and Bristol is a great example of it is a lot of people are now doing personal expressions and maps that show different things,” says Jeff.

“Maps for visitors, maps for tourists, maps for locals who want to move around for certain activities… what we are seeing is a whole range of different local mapping which has been triggered by the apparent takeover of satnav and Google Maps and I think that’s very exciting.”

Maps and trails are now being used as a way to boost tourism and the economy. “It’s great that Bristol trails are always a little more unusual than some of the others offered internationally so they feel there is something special to see,” says Kathryn Davis, head of tourism for Destination Bristol.

“Bristol is a wonderful to city to walk and explore, from the zoo’s gorillas to Shaun in the City via Gromit Unleashed, we have seen arts trails that are always a little more quirky than the norm.

Thousands followed the Shaun the Sheep trail in Bristol

Thousands followed the Shaun the Sheep trail in Bristol

“There are also a huge number of other trails in the city – Treasure Island, street art, an urban food trail, craft beer – some with maps, some with apps and others led by professional tour guides featuring a very different experience.”

Embracing Bristol’s difference is graphic designer duo Adrian Barclay and Gillian Marles, based on Cumberland Road. They produced the Independents Map which set out to “show off the great diversity of the city – from the ‘big stuff’ like Banksy and the Clifton Suspension Bridge right down to some of the great and quirky independent shops and cafes”.

Bristol independents map

A celebration of Bristol’s independent spirit

They started with the look and feel of the map and created illustrations of the more than 50 landmarks before settling on the finished design. “Even in a city we can feel like explorers with a map in our hands,” says Adrian.

Exploring areas of Bristol off the regular tourist trail was the brief for a map to celebrate east Bristol, which was created during Bristol’s year as European Green Capital.

“People always go to the centre and Clifton but they don’t realise there are other places which they can explore,” said Dave Bain, who was part of a Drawn in Bristol team. “There was no one ‘go-to’ map for east Bristol showing all its wonderful open, green spaces.”


Discover East Bristol map was created to encourage tourists and residents to explore new areas of Bristol

The team set about creating a map and interactive online version, with a distinctive clear and simple design which harks back to the 1920s, which was designed to encourage residents and visitors alike to discover east Bristol.

“Maps in general are really important not just to navigate our way around the city but to give us a sense of belonging in the area where we live,” says artist and designer Emmeline Simpson, who created her version of a Bristol map in 2013.

“I recently worked with school children to create a community map with the residents of Sea Mills where I used to live and this map is now firmly visible in the centre of their community. As residents they feel proud of the place they live in when they see it come to life in a visually stimulating map of the area.

Emmeline Simpson’s maps are available in a variety of formats from coasters to tea towels

Emmeline may not be a cartographer, but she is another Bristol map maker with a twist. “I love looking at old maps and I wanted to incorporate the idea of an old map but then bring my collage style into the illustration.”

She used a Bartholomew map from 1910 and worked in her distinctive style into the original design.

“I discovered some unusual landmarks when I was looking at these original maps from the 1900s. It was quite a shock to discover that there was a Blind Asylum on the site of Bristol Museum or that there was a cattle market behind Temple Meads station.

While creating beautiful maps to celebrate Bristol’s culture has enjoyed a renaissance, some maps have a much more prosaic function. The first Bedminster toilet map appeared several years ago following a discussion at the Bedminster Older Peoples’ Forum.

It came about because research showed some people, and not just older ones, were imprisoned in their homes because they need to go to the toilet frequently and they could not be sure of finding one when they were out. The practical map has been so successful that the city council has now rolled it out across the city.

While there is a map for every occasion in Bristol, it is the civic pride in the city that reflects Ricart’s pride more than 500 years ago.

“People feel a strong connection to where they live and they are proud of where they live,” says Emmeline. “They might not use them for navigation but more as a piece of artwork to have on their wall and to celebrate their locality.”

For Jeff, there is something about the feeling, identity and image of a place, and the image of a city that maps reflect. “They give you that character of a place, what they value about it and what they love about it.”


Jeff Bishop will be giving as talk on his book Bristol Through Maps at Stanford’s on Corn Street at 6pm on May 4. Tickets from Stanfords. As part of this month’s Bristol Walking Festival, Jeff is also running two-hour guided walks. For more information, visit or email Jeff via

Find many original Bristol maps and view them for free in Bristol Archives, online and at the Create Centre. For more information, visit


Read more: Taking on the Bristol bridges challenge

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