The thriving community demolished for a road never built: Totterdown versus the Three Lamps Interchange


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Totterdown is a suburb of Bristol perched on steep slopes just south of Temple Meads station. I made a previous video about the rainbow effect of colourfully painted historic terraced houses in Bristol, and while this phenomenon is found throughout the city, Totterdown is an epicentre of the trend. It may have been one of the earliest areas to adopt it, and the topography here means that it’s certainly one of the most prominently visible.

You can pick a residential side street in Totterdown at random, and it’ll probably look like this. It’ll be sloping. In extreme cases, like Vale Street here, it may even be allegedly the steepest residential street in the UK. It’ll be solidly lined with Victorian terraces, and they’ll be painted in these nice cheerful colours.

Green Street, Fitzroy Street, Hawthorn Street, Richmond Street, County Str-

wait, hold on… There’s a big chunk of Totterdown, in the triangle where the Bath Road and Wells Road meet, which doesn’t fit the script at all. Instead of neat terraces lining the street, we have detached and semi-detached blocks set at jaunty angles. Instead of charming Victorian stock we have these 80s boxes which are, in my personal opinion, absolutely hideous.

But if you consult historic maps of Totterdown, you’ll see this entire segment used to be filled with the exact same dense Victorian terraces as the rest of the area. And if you look up old photos or read old reminiscences you learn it wasn’t just housing: middle Totterdown was an extremely thriving shopping area, with everything from a cinema to poodle-groomer.

So how and why was all this wiped out and replaced with this horrid little bubble of the 1980s?

Now, if you’ve ever watched a single video or read a single book or article about urban development in 20th century Bristol, or England in general come to that, you probably have two guesses why this would be: it was bombed out in WW2, or 1960s planners were, with hindsight, appallingly stupid.

This is one of the latter stories. In fact, one Totterdown resident, Elsie Lawrance, summarised this sorry tale by saying “The Planners did to us what the war could not do”. Despite lying so near to the major strategic target of the railway yards, Totterdown escaped relatively lightly in the Bristol Blitz - certainly not unscathed, but substantially intact But its heart was deliberately and systematically destroyed by the planners and politicians of the 60s and 70s.

To understand why, we need to rewind to the part where I mentioned “where the Bath Road and Wells Road meet”. This is Three Lamps junction, and I don’t think I need to explain the origin of that name. This cast-iron signpost dates from 1830 and weighs 2.8 tons.

Bath and Wells were historically the most important cities in Somerset - in fact, even today, they’re actually the ONLY two cities in Somerset, despite towns like Taunton being far bigger than Wells these days. So these were - and still are - the two most important roads heading south and south east from Bristol. Unsurprisingly this junction was a major bottleneck as private car ownership exploded after the war, so it was inevitable that traffic engineers of the 60s would be keen to create a larger, more free-flowing junction here.

However, they were not looking at this bottleneck in isolation. At the same time, plans were afoot for an Outer Circuit Road, a motorway-standard ring road that would orbit Bristol city centre about three quarters of a mile out. It would plough its way destructively across the Harbour and through Clifton, Montpellier, Easton, Lawrence Hill, St Philips, Totterdown and Bedminster, much as the M32 cuts through the city today.

Ring roads obviously need to have interchanges with the radial routes in and out of the city, but at Totterdown the radial route forked into two radial routes at Three Lamps, and this meant an interchange here was gonna need to be very big and very complicated.

The monstrosity that came off the drawing board was this.

What’s really striking here to me is just how much of a completely terrible plan this was. And I don’t even mean bad because urban motorways are bad and knocking down thriving communities to build them is bad, and all that usual urbanism youtuber stuff. Well, I do mean that, but we’ll get onto that in due course. I mean even from a pro-car, pro-road perspective, this is a terrible plan.

Look at the route to get from the City Centre to the Wells Road. Now look at the route to get from the Wells Road to the new ring-road heading north or anti-clockwise. At this point there’s a few hundred metres where the people in the right lane are needing to get into the left and the people in the left are needing to get into the right. This creates weaving with drivers constantly forced to cut each other up.

And this is only one of four locations I can spot which would be plagued by weaving. All these stacked layers of flyovers, seven or eight separate bridges over the river, an entire neighbourhood flattened for slip road spaghetti and still it fails to grade-separate most of the major traffic flows. The absolute best case would have been huge tailbacks as people slowed down to weave and merge safely, or were controlled by traffic lights. The worst case would have been three or four accident blackspots, and huge tailbacks due to all the crashes.

And obviously there was no possible alternative towards catering to all this traffic. As many highly expert and well-qualified people are keen to point out even today, trams are completely unrealistic for a city like Bristol, because the streets are far too narrow and the hills are simply far too steep for them to be feasible. That’s why if you look at old photos of Totterdown you don’t see any tram rails, you don’t see any power lines for trams, and you definitely don’t ever see a tram, tram, tram or tram.

Anyway, the other reason this interchange was a terrible idea, even completely disregarding the destruction of a bunch of beloved homes and businesses, is the topography. This is basically a ridiculous place to build an interchange: perhaps the river being in the way isn’t much of a barrier to 20th century engineering, but this escarpment is no small obstacle.

Given that the ring road is shown passing underneath the Wells Road, I think it would have carved a deep cutting through the earth here to avoid the extremely steep incline evident on Angers Road, but even with a cutting it would have required an extremely tall elevated roadway through St Philips and over the river. I could only find this low-res sketch of what it would have looked like, but it gives some impression of how overwhelmingly intrusive it would be.

But of course, I’m not here to completely disregard the destruction of a bunch of beloved homes and businesses. Quite the contrary; so back to that story.

With this mega-interchange due to be located here, the council set about clearing out middle Totterdown. Eviction orders were served, compulsory purchases completed, demolition began in 1968 and within a few years the vast majority of this roughly triangular area had been reduced to rubble.

Earlier, I used the word “appalling” to describe the authorities behind this, and I didn’t do so lightly. Usually, when discussing any destruction or construction which I deem to be a bad move, with all the luxury of hindsight, I am keen to give all the historic participants the benefit of the doubt. I try to remind myself they were not acting from malice. They genuinely believed that the future of transport belonged to private cars and thus a new urban motorway was necessary and worth demolishing this or that heritage building; or that those hundred-year-old houses were overcrowded, substandard slums and the residents would have better lives in modernist concrete tower blocks, or whatever, as the case may be. So I soften my language to something like “regrettable” or “unfortunate”.

In this case, though, I feel a little dose of outright venom in my commentary is warranted. Why? Well, for starters, these 2000-odd Totterdown residents sacrificed their 550 homes and businesses for absolutely nothing, something which notably rankled with the community here for years and decades after. It would be one thing if their sacrifice had resulted in better transport for the people of Bristol, but the Outer Circuit Road was never built at all.

Even still, you may think it is too harsh to damn the planners on this basis. Why wasn’t it built? Well, long story, opposition groups, changing governments, changing economic trends, blah blah blah - but surely they didn’t know that would happen. When they demolished one third of Totterdown, they had every reason to expect the road would be built, and would be beneficial. Right?

But, no, and that’s the real sting in this tail, which turns it from merely unfortunate to something closer to disgraceful. At the time Middle Totterdown was demolished, the road had no finalised design, no official approval from government, no confirmed funding, and had not even been subject to a vote by Bristol City councillors. Let alone a proper public consultation. In fact, public consultation was minimal to nonexistent by current standards. Few to no local meetings were held in advance, no leaflet campaign forewarning the road plans, no chance to vote for or against councillors or MPs based on their party supporting or opposing the road - actually the two main people behind the scheme were Labour & Conservative. The whole thing was hardly democratic, and many residents in the firing line had no idea what was coming until they received letters giving them just months or maybe even weeks to respond to eviction notices or compulsory purchase orders.

I have seen no suggestion that the council acted illegally, by the rules in place at the time, but I have seen quite a bit to make me think the way they acted should have been illegal.

At times their actions bordered on the farcical. On the basis of the plan I showed you earlier, residents of Oxford St were evicted, houses boarded up and left to decay. But planners of the time realised the flaws of that spaghetti tangle, and came back with some variations, mostly shrinking and simplifying matters. Suddenly these houses weren’t in the way after all, so the council repaired, redecorated and rented them out to new tenants, under the disbelieving noses of their displaced prior owners. But then another few years passed, another revision of the plans, and whoops, we do need to demolish them after all. Today, the void they left is a car park.

Another example of simultaneously hilarious and infuriating council incompetence comes from the story of Henry Bradbeer, of 22 Highgrove Street. In 1972 he accepted the compulsory purchase valuation of his house at £1350, but refused to move out, successfully applied to a different department of the council for a home improvement grant, did up his house and then went back to renegotiate, pointing out that his house was worth more now, what with the renovations that they’d just paid for. The council was forced to admit that it was worth more, but refused to up their offer. In the end, he moved out in 1975 having become a local celebrity for his resistance, and his house was demolished, several years after all the others on the street had been.

His local fame was driven by the Evening Post regularly featuring his cause, alongside a steady stream of anti-road, pro-Totterdown-resident campaigning. Much of this newspaper support could be credited to Gerry Brooke who lived in Totterdown, worked for the Post, and set up the Totterdown Action Group with his neighbour in 77/78.

The full story of all the community campaigning would take too long for a video like this. Besides the TAG, there was the Totterdown & Knowle Action Group, the Totterdown Traders’ Association, the Totterdown & Lower Knowle Tenants Association, Totterdown Community Association, and many more... and that was just those affected by the Three Lamps Interchange specifically. As the Outer Circuit Route intended to cheerfully plough through Montpelier, Southville and elsewhere, similar groups sprung up there. Although these groups never officially united in a formal structure, they did collaborate in a fluid coalition under the umbrella name ‘Campaign against the Road’.

It’s worth noting that despite this name, they weren’t necessarily anti-road campaign groups, as such. Many of them sought not to stop the Outer Circuit road altogether, only to scale it down, or adjust it to take local communities better into account.

John Grimshaw, for example, a local civil engineer who played a notable role in the campaign, went so far as to draw up complete plans for an alternative scheme at his engineering firm. He would go on to become increasingly focused on the benefits of promoting cycling as an urban mode of transport, driving the creation of the Bristol to Bath cycle path and founding Sustrans.

George Ferguson, an architect then recently arrived in Bristol, remembers that the road planners’ “apparent resolve to destroy the best of Bristol, was eventually to drive me briefly into the Planning Department and into the local politics of the 70s” - he would go on to become Bristol’s first modern Mayor in 2012.

So the campaigns around the Outer Circuit Road were a crucible for some of the major individual players and organisations in Bristol’s political scene and civil society over the subsequent decades. And by the late 70s, early 80s, this coalition of opposition, in conjunction with the wider trends of the time, had successfully seen the outer circuit scaled down and down until it was abandoned altogether. But of course this was not much use to Totterdown, where the damage had already been done.

By this point Middle Totterdown had been a wasteland for about a decade, and urban wastelands of this size invite further issues. Totterdown residents had long endured lorry parking, large scale fly-tipping, vandalism, and dangerous subsidence of former cellars. In 1981 a traveller’s camp moved in and this added another dimension to the situation with some fairly vitriolic anti-”Gypsy” protests stirred up.

Even as the council attempted to make amends, they continued to infuriate the people of Totterdown. Proposals to tidy up the open space with landscaping and tree-planting were met with the furious retort from one resident at a public meeting “we don’t want a fairy park - we want houses or shops built on that dump”.

And even as plans were, eventually, drawn up to build houses and shops on that dump, still the planners maintained a we-know-better attitude. Totterdown people wanted to rebuild the shops and pubs where the shops and pubs had stood before. Planners, in their superior wisdom, insisted such arrangements would not be ‘commercially viable’.

Now, I am not a person of Totterdown, even in the present tense, let alone having roots in its pre-destruction era. I’m not even a proper Bristolian. So far be it from me to judge whether Totterdown people are happy with the rebuilding they eventually got. Perhaps they adore these little boxes on the hillside, and the contrast of their ticky-tacky 80s cul-de-sac aesthetic with the Victorian terraces. Perhaps they think having the arse-end of a grotty little supermarket building fronting onto their main road is an upgrade over the unbroken string of diverse, bustling local businesses in historic premises that used to line Wells Road here. It’s not for me to say.

But in this corner of Totterdown, even if we look away from that horrible supermarket back door and towards the more overtly attractive parts of the townscape, like these small parks, we find they are bittersweet places. They bear the faintly dystopian names of Zone N, and Zone A, in remembrance of the callous, dehumanising fashion in which the council parcelled up this part of the town on a drawing board for destruction and rebuilding.

Zone A was later given to the community as an act of contrition from the council, with the intention for a community centre to be built here. Unfortunately the contrition didn’t extend to providing the funding, so a few decades on there is still no community building. We do, however, find some nice wildflowers, a big view, and this mosaic bearing the legend “In memory of the homes, shops, people and places lost for the 1960s road plan. Torn down but we rose up again”.

This seems a fitting place to end this video. If you want more stories of how 60s road-building fervour ruined and/or nearly ruined Bristol, then you can check out my videos on the regeneration of Spike Island, and the destruction of the Redcliffe Shot Tower.

If you want more detail on the Totterdown story, then you need to get hold of ‘Totterdown Rising’ by Kate Pollard. This video is basically a shortened paraphrasing of that one book, to a point I feel almost guilty. She also has lots of photos from the era that I couldn’t afford to licence, so fobbed you off with generic b-roll from 21st century Totterdown instead. Honestly, you should probably have just read her book instead of wasting your time watching this.

So thanks to her and everyone else whose work I used to make this. And thanks to you for watching. If you enjoyed the video, why not give it a like, and subscribe, in case I make any more. Cheers.