Monday, 27 July 2015

Vice and Virtue in Old Market, Bristol

I’ll be the first to admit that Bristol’s Old Market area is somewhere I avoid like the plague as it has such a dubious reputation: many of the shops and businesses operating from there are of a less than feminist variety (brothels, lap dancing clubs, sex shops etc) and the whole place looks like it needs a lot of care. 

But if you look above the shopfloor level there is suddenly a lot of fascinating architecture there (from the Trinity Centre to Central Hall and the Stag and Hounds) that reveals a significant and prosperous relatively recent past. Before town planners screwed it up by planting a ring road to isolate it from the rest of Bristol city centre.

With the new Vice and Virtue project, the Trinity Community Arts team has worked hard to celebrate and reverse some of these preconceptions. Including mine.

Mike Manson and Edson Burton have collaborated on the new book Vice & Virtue: Discovering the History of Old Market (published by Bristol Books, £10, and also available from the Trinity Centre) to blow the trumpet for Old Market’s diverse and colourful past and present.

Once one of the busiest trading areas in Bristol, the Old Market area was also heavily populated and dominated by a variety of parish churches to accommodate the many faiths and worshippers. Filled with almshouses, pubs, churches and a rich array of shops, Old Market was a destination in itself and there was little reason for anyone to leave the area if they didn’t want to.

Much of the beautiful architecture still remains (The Palace Hotel - above left, Drill Hall, Central Hall - above right, and the Trinity Centre), and although now much of it is rather shabby you can still trace the former prosperity of the neighbourhood through the shadows it leaves on the skyline.

As Mike and Edson’s book shows, the area truly thrived in the years from 1900 to 1939, and even in the period during and after the Second World War it held its own. But the 1966-1967 reconstruction of Bristol City Centre involved the town planners deciding to put a whopping great roundabout and ring road between Old Market and Broadmead, meaning that Old Market instantly became an abandoned and isolated no man’s land… as well as seeing the brutal destruction of a raft of beautiful buildings in the process.

Revisiting Old Market recently for the launch of Mike and Edson’s book recently, and to view the accompanying exhibition at Trinity Centre, I walked down Old Market slowly and with new eyes – looking upwards and past the grotty and seedy shop fronts and boarded up buildings. It’s still an area with a long way to go before it becomes in any way popular again, but thanks to the work of historians like Mike and Edson hopefully others will also recognise there is more to Old Market than currently meets the eye.


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