The St Mary Redcliffe Pipe Walk


Image/audio credits

Special thanks to St Mary Redcliffe staff for sharing some documents from their archives.

Errata, clarifications and additions

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Although I’ve made a few videos about historic engineering and even (ludicrously) have ‘engineer’ in my job title, I am, in fact, absolutely not an engineer of any kind. So you might think it’s a bit alarming that I was recently entrusted with joining the inspection party of a drinking water supply-pipe in Bristol. Even worse, me and the rest of this inspection party took only a few glances at the pipe, failed to take any samples of the actual water, disregarded the fact it has been severed by a bomb, and swanned off for coffee proclaiming ourselves happy that the annual routine had been ticked off satisfactorily.

Don’t fret, though. Your drinking water is not at risk from my negligence. I was just harmlessly continuing an ancient local tradition.

Here on the corner of St Mary Redcliffe churchyard is a lion-faced water fountain. It’s now defunct but it used to produce water from Rugewell, Knowle, a couple of miles to the south. The inscription tells us this water source was gifted to Redcliffe in 1190 by the landowner in Knowle, Robert of Berkley.

If this is giving you deja vu, you probably saw my previous video about the Winford aqueducts, where I rambled on about Bristol’s medieval water system at some length. I don’t want to repeat myself in this video, so go and watch that one if you want more details, but to briefly recap, prior to the mid-19th century Bristol lacked any sort of mains water system as we know it, instead relying on water from wells and springs. That’s not to say they lacked any sort of water distribution infrastructure, though. There were actually quite a few pipes and conduits getting water from wherever the spring happened to be, to wherever the people actually needed it - such as this one.

In that video I mentioned an 800 year old tradition of walking the Rugewell to Redcliffe pipe, noting that that would have to be a story for another time. This is that other time. Because despite being very bad at both mornings and talking to other people, I couldn’t resist checking out such an old and intriguing custom, so I headed to the church of St Barnabas in Knowle to join the 2022 pipe walk.

After teas and coffees we set off on our ‘audit’, led by the surveyor of St Mary Redcliffe, entering a part of the Northern Slopes I’d somehow never found before. There’s a fine view from up here, from that ubiquitous bridge, across the city centre, and the spire of our destination clearly visible; but we couldn’t head straight there - first we needed to head off to the neighbouring allotments to find the start of the pipe.

The allotments are normally inaccessible to the public, which if I’m honest was perhaps the decisive factor in forcing myself to actually come along and join in rather than trying to do my own stealth pipe walk another time. Here we got our first glimpse of the water source. Actually this is before the pipe even begins, as you can probably deduce by the fact there is spring water flowing in the open down there, with no sign of a pipe.

Not far away is the ‘official’ start of the pipe, in this fern-filled structure. As you can see, we all peered in for a bit of a look, thereby investigating it thoroughly.

And onwards we proceeded, periodically stopping to lift manhole covers and peer down and confirm, yup, there's still a pipe down there. This gives me a little time to go back to Robert of Berkley, who’s a somewhat interesting character, being one of very few Anglo-Saxon noblemen to integrate with the Normans and retain his family’s noble status under the new regime. He bought up most of the land that is today South Bristol - Redcliffe, Bedminster, Knowle and beyond - from the Earl of Gloucester, and also founded St Augustine’s Abbey in 1140, which you’d know today as Bristol Cathedral. His descendents still own Berkley Castle in Gloucestershire, and in 2013, one of them even came on the pipe walk.

We dropped out of the allotments and into the residential streets at the foot of Windmill Hill. At one point, the route of the pipe goes through somebody’s back garden, and therefore, so did we. I didn’t film in the garden, because, y’know, that would've been a bit intrusive, but here’s the access point for the pipe surreally located in the middle of their lawn.

I’ve seen a few sources describe the pipe walk as being done to “assert the ongoing right to walk its length”, but I guess there’s some philosophical and legal wiggle room as to what ‘right’ means exactly. The original 1190 grant from Robert of Berkley does explicitly state that the church and its ministers are entitled “without any hindrance” to follow the stream through his own lands and the land occupied by his tenants, cultivated or uncultivated, in perpetuity. But whether this easement has been consistently baked into the deeds of all the modern-day properties in a legally watertight way, seems like another matter to me. Even if it has been, the grant only mentions the church and its ministers, not 30 or 40-odd curious members of the public. But, tradition is a powerful thing, so law or no law, the homeowners welcomed us all through their garden, and many thanks to them for that.

Another quick manhole cover lifted and pipe inspected on St John’s Lane. The pipe may have originally been wood, but was definitely lead for most of history, before the Victorians replaced that with cast iron.

Here I have a little confession to make. I have implied this tradition goes back to 1190. I haven’t decided on a title yet but I may well end up with something about an “800 year old tradition”. But in the interests of maintaining accuracy over clickbait, I should note that nobody seems entirely clear when this tradition started. It may have been some time after the pipe was built.

Furthermore, the tradition has definitely not been continuous. Its modern observance dates back to 1928, and nobody seems entirely clear when it had previously petered out, either. A lot of sources theorise that WW1 may have interrupted it, but none of them seem able to back this up with any documentary evidence of it occurring in 1912, 1913, then suddenly not in 1914 or '15. In fact I struggled to find mentions of it in any historical text from before 1928, uncovering only one report from 1853.

In Victoria Park we find what google maps calls a Water Maze, but some firmly point out is in fact a water labyrinth. This was built by Wessex Water in 1984 when they constructed a sewer interceptor to prevent heavy rain washing Bedminster’s sewage straight into the New Cut, and this new infrastructure intercepted the Mary Redcliffe pipe. The labyrinth is supposed to be fed by water from that pipe, although there was some debate about whether this still happens or if the flow has been blocked or broken somewhere. I think the consensus was that it was still flowing fairly recently but doesn’t seem to be right now, but to be honest I struggled to film and listen at the same time. The labyrinth design is based on a boss from the ceiling of St Mary Redcliffe.

In Victoria Park, one notable tradition of the pipe walk is that first time walkers are ‘bumped’ on the marker stones. On this occasion, there were twenty or more newcomers, which would have taken far too long, so a handful of volunteers were bumped as a token offering.

Next the pipe is crossed by the Bristol to Exeter railway lines, and although the pipe walk reportedly used to stop the trains to cross over the tracks, in 2022 we took the rather safer and easier option of going under the bridge.

Then into Spring Street, where this pipeline terminates. Or the water flow is believed to terminate these days, anyway: capped off after it was broken somewhere on York Road by a World War 2 bomb. Of course, the pipe didn’t historically end here, so we don’t end here either. St Mary Redcliffe is only about 400 metres away as the crow flies but unfortunately in the early 1800s the huge trench of the New Cut scythed through here. The pipe, therefore, had to be diverted across Bedminster Bridge.

Then it’s just a short hop up Redcliffe Hill to the fountain I showed you at the start of the video, marking the location of the big tank which used to stand here, from which the public of Redcliffe would draw their water for drinking, cooking and washing.

In 1843 one Redcliffe woman wrote a letter to the Bristol Times & Mirror, entirely in rhyming verse, complaining that the tap here had recently been rebuilt, and placed so low she couldn’t even fit her pitcher underneath it, and had to faff around with a jug instead. She scornfully asks:

“and is this, Mr Times, what the nobs of our city
call the work of the famous Improvement Committee?”

It seems when it comes to resident satisfaction with local authority infrastructure work, some things in Bristol never change.

So how old is the Pipe Walk really? 1190 is the headline grabbing date, but I’m afraid I can’t help myself from being my usual killjoy sceptic; I wonder if for most of history, church staff undertook the inspections as an unsung, boring part of their working duties, and the notion of it being this kind of annual, public, ceremonial sort of affair came along rather later. But to be honest, we just don’t know. Even in its current incarnation, though, it’s been observed for nearly a century, which is plenty long enough for a tradition to feel pretty damn traditional. And long enough that I’m definitely glad I dragged myself out of bed that morning to take part. In truth, seeing the actual pipe is kind of underwhelming - it’s just a pipe, really - but knowing I was one small link in a chain that extends back centuries, however intermittently, and may yet be observed for centuries more, seems quietly special.

If you want to do the pipe walk yourself, you totally can, but you’ll have to wait for the next one, because like I said, it goes through private land so you can only walk the entire route as part of the official annual event.

That’s all for this video. Thanks to the staff of St Mary Redcliffe for organising the walk and also for assisting me in my subsequent research. Thanks also to any other volunteers involved in organising it and everyone who went on it. Sorry about my scrappy camera work, walking and filming cinematically are hard things to combine. If you’re interested in centuries-old traditions of the west country then perhaps you’d also enjoy my video on the Westbury White Horse and its folklore links with Alfred the Great. In the meantime, if you liked this video why not give it a like and subscribe. Cheers.