Welcome to the Cabot information corner. Here you can find information about Cabot.
Cabot is the most historic and interesting ward in the city of Bristol! It contains the whole of the medieval city of Bristol, and therefore many of the oldest and most interesting buildings and places in the city. Little of the "Old Town" remains, but now Cabot is home to Bristol's historic Docks, the City Centre, the University of Bristol, and many other sites detailed in this page. This blesses Cabot with numerous interesting sites, including at least 17 churches, a cathedral, a synagogue, 4 museums and 3 hospitals!
Cabot Ward's Namesake: Cabot Tower
Cabot Tower commemorates John Cabot's 1497 voyage across the Atlantic in the Matthew, and his European "discovery" of Newfoundland. (We now know Erik the Red was there 500 years earlier). Cabot was not a local by any means: real name Giovanni Caboto, he was an Italian with Venetian, Spanish and Portuguese connections! (Note therefore that "Cabot" is never pronounced in the French style with a silent final 't'; it is pronounced with a hard 't'.) The tower was designed by William Venn Gough - apparently inspired by tower in the Loire in France - in a Tudor style, and was started in 1897 on the 400th anniversary and completed a year later. Cabot's ship, the Matthew, was recreated on the dockside for the 500th anniversary, and now resides in the Docks next to the SS Great Britain.
The tower is a well known Bristol landmark, standing 100 ft high on the top of Brandon Hill, itself 260 ft high, and is topped with a winged figure on the spire representing commerce - celebrating the dawn of Bristol's merchant trading era. The tower is visible from all except the northern part of the ward, and offers fantastic views of most of the ward - especially the docks - and a large slice of Bristol from the southwest to the east, away the Mendip Hills. At night a beacon on the spire flashes "BRISTOL" in Morse code.
The tower is open during daylight hours, and a tiring climb up a seemingly endless tight spiral staircase will take you right to the top; complete with fantastic views and informative metal plates showing directions and distances to various landmarks. At the base of the Tower are emplacements for Russian artillery brought back to England from the Crimean War, but these guns are long gone. Around the wall are the lovely Brandon Hill gardens - a favourite with Cabot residents and Bristolians in summer. It is apparently Bristol's oldest park, and is somehow serenely quiet - despite being surrounded by perpetual traffic jams.
Note that you are not allowed to beat carpets in the park during working hours!...
Other Cabot Landmarks
The City Centre
Bristol City Centre is considered to be the circus of Colston Avenue and Saint Augustine's Parade. Because of Bristol's lop-sided growth - hemmed in by the Avon Gorge - this is nowhere near the actual centre of the city any more, but is smack in the centre of Cabot. The river Frome was open here until 1938, but is now beneath the central reservation.
This area is bitter-sweet for Bristolians and Cabot residents: the focal point of the city and location of Bristol's main theatre the Bristol Hippodrome, main concert hall the Colston Hall, as well as the church of St Mary on the Quay (a grim looking neo-classical church wedged between high office blocks), the City Centre should be something for Bristol to be proud of. Unfortunately, a combination of being the confluence of every road into Bristol, Bristol's terrible traffic, a huge number of bus stops, strange fake cobbles and even stranger water-feature/fountains (which are nearly always broken - famously referred to by Lord Mayor Bill Martin as "like 20 old men peeing in a pond"); make the City Centre a chaotic, noisy, generally dirty, and potentially dangerous place to be wandering around absorbing the feel of the city.
Since Bristolians can never agree what should be done with the centre, the only thing you can be sure of is that whatever is done, lots of people will be annoyed...
The Floating Harbour
The huge tidal range of the river Avon always made life difficult for shipping in Bristol Docks. At over 30 ft the range is the second highest range in the world, after the Bay of Fundy in Canada. The solution at the beginning of the 19th century was to make the river Frome effectively into a huge lock, or "Floating Harbour", and divert the Avon into a "New Cut" a few hundred meters south of the old course.
The Floating Harbour was a functioning commercial dock until the end of the 60s, but since then industry has moved to the larger and more accessible docks at the mouth of the Avon. Astonishingly, in the early 70's the Council actually had plans to fill in the docks! Local opposition eventually forced the plans to be dropped, but the story is testament to the kind of insanity that occasionally afflicts city planners. The last remaining industrial warehouses now house the Museum of Bristol "M-Shed", the Arnolfini, the Watershed, and trendy winebars...
In front of the M-Shed are the most conspicuous landmarks of the harbour: the four old dockside cranes. These four electric cranes, numbered 29 to 32, were built in 1951 to serve the warehouses behind them. Amazingly, they were sold for scrap in 1975, but rescued at the last minute. They are being restored, and two are now in working order again.
Behind the pleasant face of the Docks lurks the dark side of Bristol's past: Slavery. Bristol, along with Liverpool, grew rich in the 17th and 18th centuries on the backs of African slaves. Many of Bristol's institutions, like the Merchant Venturers, and great families like the Colstons, were involved in the trade; although relatively few slaves ever came to the city. At the height of the trade, slaving ships operating out of Bristol took at least half a million people from Africa to the Americas. The slave trade was abolished in 1807, but festers still for some, in the heart of Cabot.
The SS Great Britain
The SS Great Britain was the first modern ship - i.e. propeller driven and iron hulled - built by the great Isembard Kingdom Brunel (runner up in the BBC's "Great Britons" national poll). When launched in 1843 it was by a long way the biggest ship in the world. Rescued as a near wreck from the Falkland Islands in 1970, it has been laboriously restored over the decades and is now in decent shape. Also in Cabot is the old Great Western Hotel, partially designed by Brunel and intended to house his wealthy sea-going passengers before their journey.
Brunel is renowned throughout Bristol and the South West for his numerous great engineering feats in the area, including the magnificent Clifton Suspension Bridge (visible from the southwest of Cabot), Temple Meads Railway Station (just outside Cabot), the Severn Railway tunnel, the Great Western Railway, and Paddington Station.
In the docks next to the SS Great Britain is the replica of the Matthew, the ship that John Cabot sailed to Newfoundland in.
Corn St and the Old Town
Corn St, Wine St, Broad St and High St form a cross, and were the 4 main streets of medieval Bristol. Their name gives good indication of their original purposes! On Corn St now there are regular markets, and you can see the "Nails". The four bronze Nails are now in a line on the pavement outside the Corn Exchange. These were used by merchants making deals, so that when money was placed on the Nail there was no going back on the deal; hence the local expression "paying on the nail".
At the end of Broad St is Saint John's Gateway, the only surviving gate of Bristol's original city wall. Saint John the Baptist's Church (named because it was by the old ford over the River Frome) was built into this part of the old wall in medieval times. The sight of the tower and spire of the church right over the gateway is a fine view. Between Corn St and High St is Saint Nicholas's market ("Saint Nick's" to Bristolians), a lively working market that evokes the spirit of times past. At the end of Corn St is Saint Stephen's Church. This is the parish church of the Old Town, and its fantastic spire is visible from most of the City Centre.
The Old Town area is scattered with fine old buildings and churches, many of them sadly hidden by grim 60's office blocks and in need of some repair. With some effort and regeneration, the Old Town area could be a serious tourist attraction for Bristol...
A lovely park right next to Bristol's main shopping precinct, Broadmead and Cabot Circus, it is the ideal place to rest after a hard day's spending money! The park borders the Floating Harbour and looks on to Bristol Bridge, which means that it is right on top of the original location of the original Saxon settlement: Brycgstow, which is Old English for "the place at the bridge". Over 1,000 years Brycgstow became Bristowe, and as the locals have a habit of adding an 'l' to the end of words when they speak, that became Bristol. In the park are some ruins of Bristol Castle. It was started just after the Norman Conquest by Robert, Earl of Gloucester (grandson of William the Conqueror) in 1120, and thoroughly demolished by Cromwell in 1650.
In the middle of the park is St Peter's church - a lovely old church that is completely gutted! It was bombed out during the WW2 Blitz on Bristol in 1940, along with most of the buildings in this part of Cabot. After the war it was decided that the church, and the somewhat grim ruined church of St Mary-le-Port at the other end of Castle Park, would be left untouched as a memorial to those that died in the bombings. The destroyed land around it was turned into the park.
Enclosed by the docks on three sides, Queen's Square is reckoned to be the largest Georgian square in Britain, and one of the finest too since it was restored recently with a Heritage Lottery grant (required the digging up of an obscene 1940's dual carriageway!) Destroyed during the Bristol riots of 1831, this square is now a wide open green area surrounded by avenues of huge London Plane trees, and then by fine Georgian buildings.
John Wesley's Chapel - first Methodist chapel in the world
This chapel in Broadmead, called "The New Room", was the first Methodist chapel in the world, and headquarters of John Wesley (1703-1791) after 1739. It now makes a rather strange sight, surrounded as it is by the bustle of Broadmead shopping precinct and Burger King! The chapel is a lovely place to just get away from the noise for a minute.
Between 1739 and 1790 Wesley travelled 1/4 million miles around the country on horseback, giving two sermons every day - mostly to the poor and downtrodden. The humane, down to earth and industrious movement he started gained the name "Methodists", and shared many of the ideas and principles of Liberals (Whigs) of the day.
Christmas Steps is a quaint and steep stepped street that originally led up from Frome Bridge to Park Row. At the top of the steps are the John Foster Almshouses and the Chapel of The Three Kings of Cologne, built by John Foster, a wealthy Bristol merchant in the 1480s. Christmas Steps finally terminates at the church of St Michael on the Mount Without, at the foot of St Michael's Hill. Christmas Steps is one of the few remaining areas in Bristol where independent shops still flourish, and has recently become a focus for art galleries.
The Priory Church of Saint James
A little known gem hidden by the side of the bus station, this claims to be Bristol's oldest building. Founded in 1129 by Robert, Earl of Gloucester (of Bristol Castle fame), its true Norman flavour is underlined by being built from stone imported from Caen in Normandy. Only the nave remains of the original building, but still this contains magnificent Norman arches in excellent condition for their 900 years of age.
Started by the Normans as St Augustine's Abbey in 1140, the cathedral has - like most cathedrals - been through various stages of building and demolition. When Bristol became a city in 1542, the abbey was made the cathedral of the new diocese of Bristol and was dedicated to the Holy and Undivided Trinity. The cathedral is now grand and beautiful, and stands on one side of College Green opposite the Council House.
A large regular building on one side of College Green at the bottom of Park St, the Council House is the home of Bristol City Council, and actually looks quite nice in the sun. A slight curve on the building, fountains, and of course the green with the cathedral on the other side (with the fine Bristol Marriott Royal Hotel and Bristol Central Library on either side of it), make this a popular place for Bristolians to relax.
St. Mark's, the Lord Mayor's Chapel
The Lord Mayor's Chapel of St Mark forms a triangle across College Green with Council House and Bristol Cathedral. It is the only remaining part of the Hospital of the Gaunts, built around 1270. St Mark's is used by the City and the Lord Mayor for formal services, and the Boarders of Queen Elizabeth's Hospital School. Surprisingly inconspicuous from the outside, the inside reveals a fine building.
The Wills Memorial University Tower
The University of Bristol is one of the best universities in the UK, ranked right up with Oxford and Cambridge in many subjects. It started out under the name University College in 1876, and received its Charter in 1909. The university now has buildings spread throughout the north of the ward, and has around 10,000 undergraduates and 3000 postgraduates, many of who live in Cabot ward.
The Wills family, famous throughout Bristol for their huge tobacco factories in the city, donated a lot of money to the University that helped its expansion, and paid for the University Tower - to commemorate themselves. The tower was designed by Sir George Oatley, and was completed in 1926. The bell tower houses a bell variously known as Big Tom or Great George, whose dull gong is music to the ears of bored students in lectures throughout the university. At 215 feet, it is over twice the height of the Cabot Tower and is visible from almost the whole ward.
Next to the tower are Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, the Law Department, and The Triangle shopping area.
Historic Schools in Cabot
Cabot contains a close trio of Bristol's oldest schools: Queen Elizabeth's Hospital School ("QEH", on the side of Brandon Hill), founded in 1586 by a Bristol merchant, John Carr; the Cathedral School (next to the cathedral); and Bristol Grammar School (next to the university). QEH is famous for its Bluecoat boarder's uniform, which they can occasionally be seen wearing around "The Triangle" at the top of Park St. It also is the location of the QEH Theatre.
The Watershed and Arnolfini
Sitting on opposite sides of the Floating Harbour, both are converted industrial docks buildings. The Watershed and Arnolfini were the first renovations that sparked the redevelopment of the Docks area in Cabot that then spread throughout Bristol. Each houses a gallery, art cinema, bar and restaurant, and are very trendy. The Arnolfini also sits the other side of water from the Industrial Museum, and is a great place to view the old cranes, and Prince's St Swing Bridge in action.
King Street and The Old Vic
King St is a very fashionable, old cobbled street that leads down to the Floating Harbour. Now stocked with restaurants, bars, and a few very old town pubs (like the Llandoger Trow), it is also home to Bristol's more avant garde theatre, The Old Vic. The Old Vic is Britain's oldest continually working theatre; the inside (the Theatre Royal) dates from 1766 and is grade I listed.
St George's Concert Chamber
Making the lofty claim of having the "best chamber music acoustic in Britain" is St George's on Great George Street, Brandon Hill. Packed with fine music, it is a must for the discerning listener.
The @Bristol Complex
Planned as a Millennium development and built with some National Lottery money, the @Bristol Complex is a collection of buildings around the Old Lead Works. It is a science exploratory, an aquarium and an IMAX cinema; all clustered around "Millenium Square" - a new public square with water features. @Bristol is a great place for kids in summer, and when the neighbouring Connons Marsh development is finished this is intended to be a major city focal point.
The Royal West of England Academy
This fine academy building (1844 Victorian, in Italian reaissance style) is home to many of Bristol's budding artistes. Just opposite the Victoria Rooms and fountains (just in Clifton East Ward), the two make a fine entrance to Cabot's historic "White Ladies Road".
The Red Lodge
A marvel on Park Row near the top of Christmas Steps, almost entirely unknown to Bristolians! Now a museum, the Red Lodge was built around 1590 and is the last surviving Elizabethan interior in Bristol. It features exquisite original oak paneled rooms, of which the Great Oak Room has been called one of the finest rooms in the West country.
The Georgian House
On the Park Street side of Brandon Hill on Great George Street, just along from St George's Concert Hall, is the Georgian House. A well preserved house of the time, it was built around 1791 and gives insight into the life of the wealthy of Bristol during the height of the slave trade.
Giving its name to the Redcliffe area, the Red Cliff is a large sandstone outcrop on the dockside in the south-east of the ward. The soft rock has been tunnelled and mined since about the 17th century, and became a huge network of caves under the area. Since the 1990's the old caves are being re-excavated and explored.
One of the best ways to see all of Cabot's attractions is on Bristol's "Doors Open Day". Every year around the beginning of September, a day is set aside when all the fine buildings and features in Bristol are open to the public for free! Naturally, most of these places are concentrated in Cabot ward...
There are a great many images of Bristol and the Cabot area at this website by Joe Dunckley.
Getting Around in Cabot
Since Cabot contains Bristol Coach and Bus Station, and the city centre, you might think that getting around the ward would be extremely easy. Unfortunately, Bristol's traffic problem is legendarily bad, and the ward that suffers most heavily for this is Cabot. The main roads in Cabot are at a stand-still for several hours a day during the rush-hour, and buses are quite expensive, rarely on time, and no quicker than walking during rush-hour. Cycling in Cabot can be difficult, because of the bad traffic and the hills.
Because of this - and Cabot's inherent pleasantness - the best way to get around is to walk. If you must sit, the next best way to travel is by ferry, on the docks. Ferries are cheap and fun, especially in the summer, and give you a different view of the city, away from the noise.
The most useful buses in Cabot are:
- The 506. This bus goes along Spike Island pas the SSGB and is operated by Wessex.
- The 8/9 pair. These buses start at Temple Meads Station, go around the centre up to The Triangle, and then head different ways into Clifton and Whiteladies Road; operated by First.
For connecting buses, the Cityline bus-route map - in the "London underground" style - may also be useful (pdf file, 50 kB). Also, this site called Bristol Streets is pretty good for working out journeys in Bristol.
If you know of other sites of interest in Cabot which you think should be listed here, please email the webmaster (details on the Notes page).