Where exactly is the centre of Bristol, and how the hell did it end up next to a lake in Wiltshire?

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So where exactly is the centre of Bristol?

Now some of you might be thinking “stupid question, cities have central areas, not exact centre points”, and if I’m honest, then that’s kinda my opinion too - but this is a question which the likes of the BBC, local newspapers and local subreddits have all pondered, often with the suggestion that Bristol’s centre is somehow harder to pin down than most places.

In 2018 a GIS software company called Esri UK decided to cash in on people’s interest in this question, and engaged in a light bout of marketing churnalism by calculating the geographical centroids of various British cities. That is to say, the arithmetic mean of all points in the plane figure as defined by their official boundaries. Since cities don’t grow uniformly, and their official boundaries are often pretty illogical in themselves, these centroids frequently bear no particular resemblance to the natural human understanding of where the city centre is, but rather, ‘surprisingly’ land in some quiet suburb.

Bristol was no exception. The firm’s calculations came up with Ravenswood Road, and local media dutifully lapped up the gift of free, highly shareable and tweetable content. Thus the firm’s press release was cheerfully regurgitated by Bristol’s local paper, and respectively by other local and national papers, and, well, I’d be more snarky and acerbic about how this reprint-corporate-press-release-fluff routine devalues proper investigative media and undermines its vital role as a guardian of truth and democracy and whatnot, buuuuut, I’m painfully aware that here I am, regurgitating it all again myself, for exactly the same clickbaity motives, so I haven’t got a high horse to stand on.

Still, I had another problem with this story. One born less of high moralising principles, and more of cartographical pedantry. See, this is the outline of Bristol that Esri used. Whereas this is the outline of Bristol according to Openstreetmap, notably including a big chunk of sea.

I don’t think you even need to do calculations to tell that there’s simply no way that Ravenswood Road is the centroid of this shape. It’s obvious to the eye.

But I wanted to calculate it anyway. Fortunately, Wikipedia helpfully includes the necessary formula to calculate the centroid of a polygon, but unfortunately, accurately defining the polygon of Bristol is far too much hard work for me, and calculating that formula is beyond my GCSE level maths.

Luckily, we live in a wonderful world of open data and open source libraries to do all the hard work for me, so it turns out I could calculate the answer in a mere 6 lines of code.

The answer, it turns out, is just slightly south of the M5, in North Somerset. It’s in some rich person’s enormous garden, to be precise, so I couldn’t go and film it. It’s vaguely near the Iron Age hill fort of Cadbury Camp, which I have been to, so have some photos of that instead.

You can see why the GIS company decided they didn’t like this result - the average person isn’t going to be happy with an exact centre of Bristol not even being in Bristol, so they opted to not include the area of sea to come up with Cotham instead.

Personally, though, however much this answer seems more sensible, I’m not really a fan. You might argue the sea shouldn’t really count because there are no homes, offices, shops and so on there, and the meaning of a city is an urbanised area with these residential, commercial and employment activities going on. But, if we are insisting that a city is reasonably defined by its built environment and economic geography, we have another problem.

Look at the Bristol area on a satellite image and get 100 people to draw a boundary around what ‘the city’ is, not only will they almost certainly exclude that chunk of sea, but they will almost certainly IN-clude big swathes of continuous urban area to the east which, in fact, are not officially counted as part of Bristol, but rather South Gloucestershire.

Whether these areas are excluded from Bristol due to meaningful social, economic or cultural-identity differences, laziness and inertia, or rotten gerrymandering, should probably be left to a separate video. For the sake of this one, I will simply observe that if we are arbitrarily deciding we will override the official borders to lop off that chunk of sea, why not do likewise and add in these de-facto suburbs of Bristol? Surely we either accept the prescriptive legislative boundaries, however ridiculous they might be, or we should instead devise a consistent descriptive definition, i.e. the contiguous urban area.

So, I went off and found the Office for National Statistics geoJSON definitions of English urban areas, extracted Bristol’s data and re-ran my epic python program, and got myself a different leafy suburban street to clickbaitingly proclaim the ‘true centre’ of Bristol. This time, it’s Stottbury Road, near the mound.

At a glance, this seems a lot more sensible candidate than somewhere near the M5 in Somerset, and perhaps even more sensible than the Cotham suggestion - but it is of course nevertheless still completely ridiculous. Our notion of what constitutes a ‘sensible’ centre is inherently rooted in various cultural, economic and historical perspectives, so let’s consider them directly, and discard the rather silly idea that pure geometry would ever be a sensible way to answer this question.

Thinking of the various ways a centre could be culturally defined, it occurred to me that all towns and cities must surely have one exact ‘centre point’ specified for the purposes of measuring distances to that city on road signs. Unfortunately, I was completely unable to get a definitive answer on where this might be, in Bristol or indeed anywhere else except London, where it’s famously Charing Cross. One source claimed they were measured to the town hall, which sounds truthy, but I can find no actual evidence of it. Still, the focus of local democracy and civic life seems like a reasonable criteria.

In Bristol’s case, City Hall is here, on College Green. I’ll be honest, College Green simply doesn’t feel like the centre of Bristol personally. This is despite the fact that since the cathedral is on the other side, it can claim to be the ecclesiastical as well as political epicentre of the city, giving it a pretty decent-looking claim on paper. Perhaps it’s because City Hall is only a post-war construction, or perhaps it is because this is well outside the original city walls of the Saxon city, but I just don’t accept it as a centre point.

Just around the corner we find our next candidate, whose most obvious claim to the title is that it is literally called ‘The Centre, Bristol’. Like, it’s actually called that on google maps, and bus timetables, and by local residents.

Now, most articles on this topic point out that this name is a shortening of the Tramways Centre that resulted after all the trams vanished after WW2, and they tend to do so in a tone which implies, ‘so, the etymology of calling it the centre is very recent and specific, and therefore shouldn’t be taken as evidence that Bristolians actually consider this to be the centre of town, in any broader historical sense”. Wikipedia, for example, explicitly cautions “The Centre is not the historic or civic centre of Bristol”.

The bit about the name only arising with modern trams is true, but I can’t help feeling this undersells the location’s historical claim to centrality.

As I mentioned in my previous video on the history of Bristol’s rivers, prior to 1938 the area where these people are walking would have been the River Frome. It was diverted down a hand-dug trench through what was then empty marshland in the 1240s, and was rapidly lined with quays and wharves, becoming arguably the dominant part of the port of Bristol for the next five hundred years or so.

In 1739, for example, Alexander Pope was astonished to see “in the middle of the street, as far as you can see, hundreds of Ships, their Masts as thick as they can stand by one another, which is the oddest and most surprising sight imaginable. This street is fuller of them, than the Thames from London Bridge to Deptford… a long street full of ships in the Middle & Houses on both sides looks like a Dream”. The same scene impressed the creator of this 1850 etching, and the section of the Frome in question is where the Cenotaph and fountains are today. So it actually seems to me fairly reasonable to suggest that your average Bristolian, well before trams were invented and over a period of many centuries, might well have considered this very area the centre of town.

If we want to pin it down to a specific point, not just an area, and we assume that this should be a point where a resident can actually stand, then perhaps the Stone Bridge could be nominated - the location for views like this. Today, the stone bridge is invisible, buried towards the northern end of this pedestrianised area near the cenotaph.

It did occur to me, however, that perhaps we should reject this assumption that the centre of Bristol should be somewhere you can stand or walk. Perhaps, during the era when Bristol was undeniably a port city, the locals would have pointed to the harbour itself, as the centre of town?

It’s an interesting thought, but doesn’t really help in answering where the centre is today, since Bristol is no longer a port city in any meaningful sense. Well, perhaps that’s not quite fair; the port at Avonmouth is still nationally significant, and still lies within city limits, but its counterpart across the river, the Royal Portbury Dock, does not. At any rate, shipping is no longer the primary constituent of Bristol’s economy, which today is pretty diverse, including aerospace, media, information technology, financial services, higher education and so on.

Which brings me to the next potential criteria for judging a city’s centre: it’s economic epicentre. The Britishism “city centre” is sometimes translated to New World dialects of English as synonymous with “downtown” or “CBD”, but I don’t think the terms are quite so equivalent. Like many UK and old world cities generally, Bristol’s ‘business district’, i.e. its biggest concentration of purpose-built modern office space, is somewhat outside of, and distinct from, the traditional city centre.

In Bristol’s case, there are significant industrial and retail zones around Filton and Cribbs Causeway, but those aren’t even in Bristol by the ‘official limits’ definition. Within city limits, the closest thing to a ‘business district’ would probably be the Temple Quay area, but I’m afraid I simply don’t view that as a credible contender in my eyes for the title of Bristol’s centre. La Defense or Canary Wharf would never be considered the centre of Paris or London, no matter how much their skylines would appear to equate to new world downtowns. And Temple Quay, in its midrise blandness, can’t even muster a skyline.

I am personally inclined to dismiss the next candidate, the Cabot Circus shopping centre, just as summarily, but during my research I saw it mentioned several times, so I feel duty bound to offer it up, if only to shoot it down.

Actually, it seems like that reddit thread shot it down for me so we can move swiftly on. I have marginally more sympathy for the notion of Broadmead as a centre - at least it’s a public street - but, without wishing to get too judgemental, I’m personally not very into the whole consumerism thing, and as such I want my centre to be based on more than the place with the biggest range of shopping. Something with some historical roots - Cabot Circus is 21st century and even Broadmead only became the main shopping precinct following post-WW2 redevelopment - Bristol’s historic shopping quarter being roughly where Castle Park is today, essentially obliterated in the Blitz.

No, I need more than retail, I need something with a bit of symbolism.

Which brings me neatly to our final cluster of candidates.

If you type ‘Centre of Bristol’ into Google Maps it’ll show you a pin right at the end of Bristol Bridge. Given that the city’s very name almost certainly derives from the Anglo-Saxon for ‘the place at the bridge’, the bridge definitely has a decent historical shout, even if the current structure is obviously not the original Saxon bridge around which the city was born, nor the densely built-up medieval bridge around which it grew.

Bridges always have a geographical and logistical importance, both practically and symbolically, and particularly so when they are the only fixed crossing for miles around, in an era of travel by foot or horse. Being the sole point of transit between two sides of a major river in this era would have given any bridge tremendous importance, and in Bristol’s case this would have been amplified by the Avon’s status as the boundary between the Saxon kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia, and later the counties of Somerset and Gloucestershire: a portal between two realms separated in both physical and legal senses.

But today there are numerous alternative options for crossing the river a short distance both upstream and downstream, and with the city of Bristol encompassing the conurbation on both banks, and the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy long being consolidated into a single England, Bristol Bridge no longer holds any sense of being a portal between two different realms.

In fact, standing here today, Bristol bridge has such a humble presence that such talk sounds impossibly far-fetched and pretentious. Visually, it’s the complete opposite of iconic, an awkward mess your brain does its best to forget - the original Georgian stone arch design clashing with boxy iron girders added by the Victorians to widen it.

Its sense of practical importance was degraded in the 20th century when Temple Way superseded it as the main trunk road crossing, and most recently eroded further still with traffic closures to private vehicles to improve air quality. So, I’m afraid that’s yet another candidate that despite a good claim on paper to be the centre of Bristol, I’m going to reject because it simply doesn’t feel like central enough to me in 2021.

The northern end of Bristol Bridge adjoins the High Street, which is English English for Main Street, and the northern end of the High Street was once marked by the Market Cross; looking at this 1478 map, it is very clear that this crossroads was considered, by the illustrator Robert Ricart at least, but surely also the townsfolk of the time, as the very centre of Bristol. Unlike almost all of our previous candidates, this one actually lies within the extent of the original walled city: exactly at the centre in fact, where the only four streets worthy of depiction as streets, coming through the four gates worthy of depiction, met at a crossroads. So geographically it fits, historically it fits, and symbolically, I mean, the high cross literally existed for the purpose of symbolising the city.

So you might think that we have a surely unarguable candidate for the centre of town. Alas, it’s not that simple. Because while this location has probably the strongest historical claim to that title, judged purely on its modern day condition and importance, it’s a rather weak contender.

As I mentioned earlier, the area of modern-day Castle Park to the east of the High Street used to be densely built-up, and was the commercial and shopping hub of Bristol. But then World War Two, Luftwaffe, Bristol Blitz, Massive devastation… In my initial script I said that after the war it was decided to leave the cleared area as a park, leave the ruined church as a memorial, and build a new shopping district at Broadmead.

In fact, this isn’t strictly true: the war wasn’t even over when this plan was decided upon. I discovered this was first proposed as early as October 1943, and the plan was confirmed by the city council’s committee in September 1944.

Still, it was very much post-war by the time any rebuilding actually happened. And so it was that the eastern side of the High Street was rebuilt in an incredibly post-war kind of way: giant concrete blocks that totally ignored the historic street line and offered a hostile, bunker-like appearance, with no Bristolian architectural flavour, no public access or uses and zero active frontage.

It would be easy to be smugly scathing of how stupid the planners and architects must have been back then, except for the fact that kind of we-know-much-better-now attitude is what created those blunders in the first place, and I’m far from convinced that local citizens in 2080 will look back at all of today’s redevelopment schemes with any more enthusiasm.

Indeed, when I started writing this script there was a redevelopment proposal for these concrete bunkers on the table, and by the time I was almost finishing up the video, the council approved it; the margin of 4 votes to 3 reflecting the degree of controversy surrounding this vital site. My personal verdict is likewise… somewhat on the fence. I do like the idea of reinstating streets, and by making these streets narrow and lined with small, independent shops, extending the vibe of the Old City and St Nick’s market across the high street.

And I do feel that Bath-based Feilden Clegg Bradley architects have designed something with more class and thought than your average identikit 2020s proposal. The materials look high quality, the masterplan genuinely does ‘respond to the site context’ at least to some extent, and there are touches of inspiration from local historic buildings.

On the downside, they are really only touches. Sure, you can chinstrokingly point out the ‘reference’ or ‘allusion’ to the Dutch House that these outwardly cantilevering masses suggest, but from a layman’s, at-a-glance perspective, they’re fundamentally big blocky monochromatic office lumps. Unlike many opponents of this scheme, like the Bristol Civic Society and Historic England, I don’t have any particular objection to their height, per se. But I do share their concern that they are ‘monolithic’. I’d personally like to see architects incorporating a bit more decoration and ornament, and most of all designing with the appearance of narrower grain.

Anyway, although we can point the finger at the blitz and 1960s builders to explain why the High Street doesn’t feel or function like a proper High Street anymore, that’s not the entire story as far as why this crossroads doesn’t feel like the centre of Bristol anymore.

For starters, the crossroads isn’t actually a proper crossroads. Modern usage patterns and traffic engineers have instead turned it into one main road turning through 90 degrees, with two smaller side roads joining, and this has been made physical in terms of the street layout, the kerbs and so on. I feel like I’m straying dangerously close to pretentious overthinking here, but somehow this makes a big difference to how I conceptualise this space. A symmetrical crossroads of four equally major roads creates a natural sense of significance on the ground and a natural focal point on a map, whereas this awkward junction does neither.

Some critics of the aforementioned St Mary le Port redevelopment scheme were unconvinced by the renders of the High Street itself, and/or this junction, seeing it as failing to address these sorts of issues as well as it might. In fairness, I think much of this falls outside the scope of the development, and would be down to the council. I live more in hope than expectation that the council will nail this task.

More prosaically, it probably hasn’t escaped your notice that this junction is also conspicuously lacking an ornate market cross. And this turns out to be yet another cautionary tale on the danger of assuming that your current generation’s attitude to architecture and town planning is in fact superior to past generations’, or will be shared by future generations.

If Bristol’s ornately carved medieval market cross still stood here today, we can safely assume it would be a protected monument. It was constructed in 1373 to commemorate Edward III’s charter granting Bristol the status of county in its own right. Three hundred years later it was clearly still a source of pride, as it was rebuilt in 1663 to add another tier with four more statues.

By 1733 though it was deemed an obsolete encumbrance, an obstruction to traffic, and in the view of John Vaughan, the silversmith owner of the Dutch House, a danger to his life and property. He convinced magistrates the structure was at risk of collapse in high winds, and it was dismantled and placed in storage.

Only three years later, though, it was re-erected on College Green, near the cathedral. Alexander Pope, who’d been so impressed by the ships in the Frome quay, saw it there in 1739, complaining that the “very fine Old Cross off Gothic curious work” had been “spoild with the folly of gilding it, that takes away all the venerable Antiquity”.

This time, it lasted thirty years before it was once again deemed to be in the way. Apparently, the great fashion amongst prosperous visitors to the spas at Hotwells was to promenade across the green, arm in arm in lines of 8 or more abreast, and the High Cross was an obstacle to this. Bizarre as this sounds today, in the 1760s this fad for walking in big lines was apparently deemed good enough reason to take down the city’s iconic 400 year old monument, and essentially stick it on freecycle.

In 1764, it was given to Henry Hoare, to use as a garden ornament.

Such a large structure would rather overpower my garden, but Henry Hoare’s Stourhead estate in Wiltshire was another matter. His Palladian mansion is, admittedly, a bit of an upgrade on my own flat, but in comparison to other stately homes like Blenheim Palace or Castle Howard, it’s hardly in the upper echelon, either in terms of size or architectural significance. However, the landscaped parkland - much of it laid out by Henry himself - is renowned as a masterpiece of landscape design, influential across Europe as an early archetype of the English country garden.

This style eschewed the formal symmetries and hard geometries of the then-dominant French style of garden design, as epitomised by Versailles, in favour of a naturalistic look. Designers like William Kent and Capability Brown worked hard to create landscapes that looked like they hadn’t worked at at all - landscapes that were picture perfect, but could have been “real”, or accidental. A gently rolling meadow, a copse of trees on the hill, a river or lake sparkling below, spanned by an elegant stone bridge, a hermit’s humble cottage hidden in the woods, a gothic castle tower brooding on a distant horizon…

Even today you have to be impressed by how artfully Stourhead was contrived to look neither artful nor contrived. As you walk around the lake, there’s always some nice focal point and/or framing added to the scenery, something to elevate a pleasant landscape into a visual composition, something with balance and narrative, as a photographer or landscape artist would seek out or create from English rural landscape that had not been knowingly sculpted.

Constable painted this bridge because he thought it looked nice in the landscape, but it had been built for the practical purpose of crossing the river. At Stourhead, from here the bridge looks like it similarly spans a river feeding the lake, but from the other side the illusion is clear. There is no river, only a tiny bay of the lake that you could easily walk around - and the lake only exists in the first place because someone dammed the valley to create it. There is no genuine obstacle giving the bridge any genuine function - it exists only as decoration, architecture designed only to punctuate a landscape which was itself designed to be punctuated by architecture.

A temple, a grotto, a cottage… and Bristol’s High Cross. Well, if you were that keen on having follies to sprinkle in your estate that you’d pay to create fake Roman pantheons, greek temples and castle towers, why not drop in a genuine medieval... ornamental... thingy.

In fact, Henry Hoare not only bagged the High Cross for this purpose, but St Peter’s Pump from the ancient well next to St Peter’s church, too.

But I warned you that this was a fable of subsequent generations disagreeing with their forebears about urban heritage, and the fable isn’t done yet. Having taken it down, put it back up and then taken it down again in the space of a few generations, we probably shouldn’t be too surprised that another few generations later, Bristolians were regretting the giveaway of their High Cross.

But the original at Stourhead was by now too fragile to return to the city, so in 1851 architect John Norton was commissioned to make a faithful replica, installed on College Green. With the finest masons and sculptors of the era proving rather costly, it took until 1889 to be completed, by which point it had - yet again - been deemed to be in the way. It was moved to the centre of the green to allow Victoria here to be installed in its place.

There it lasted about 70 years, but the architect of the new City Hall allegedly didn’t want his creation cluttered up, so in 1951 - you really couldn’t make this up - it was once more packed up into storage.

In 1956, the top of this replica was saved and placed in Berkeley Square, where it continues to sit today, rather forlornly tucked into a corner.

And that’s the story of how the historic epicentre of Bristol, or at least the architectural-slash-sculptural embodiment of said epicentre, came to sit next to a fake lake in Wiltshire, miles away from Bristol, while the mathematical centre of Bristol is somewhere near a motorway in Somerset, also outside of Bristol.

As for the more serious candidates for the centre of Bristol, I’ll be honest, I came into this video expecting to throw my weight behind the ex location of the High Cross, at the top of the High Street. Inside the original city walls, clearly considered the centre by the oldest map of the city we have - slam dunk. But I’ve come to think that this is evidence it used to be the centre, not that it is today.

Conversely, I came into this expecting to back the narrative that The Centre might be literally called the Centre, but it isn’t actually the centre, but after all this thinking and overthinking of the topic, I’ve decided it actually has about as good an all-round claim as anywhere else.

Ultimately, I fall back to what I said right at the start, which is that it’s a silly question, but hopefully even this fundamentally silly topic still provided some interesting nuggets along the way. That’s it for this one. As always, thanks for watching, and thanks to all the people whose work I built on to make this video, even the ones I was slightly ripping on. Perhaps especially those ones. Let me know in the comments where you think the centre of Bristol is, and if you liked the video don’t forget to subscribe in case I make any more.