Letter from the Chairman
Imagine you are looking across the river to Leigh Woods and seeing row upon row of mid-Victorian villas. Such a scheme very nearly succeeded but was thwarted by a concerned group of citizens of Clifton who clubbed together a considerable sum of money to buy and conserve most of the threatened land (now owned by the National Trust). We like to see those people as precursors of CHIS, which in 1968 was formed in order to stop extensive demolition and bad construction on the Bristol side of the Gorge.
To those who have known Clifton and Hotwells only in recent years, it is difficult to imagine the area as it was four decades ago.
In Bristol as a whole the City Engineer oversaw planning. Like much of Bristol, a quite a large area of Bristol 8 was scheduled for demolition to build the Outer Circuit Road, with its eleven interchanges. Hotwells had seen the demolition of houses when the Cumberland Basin was constructed in the early 60’s and many bomb-damaged properties, e.g. Granby Green had been taken down, others were under threat, while decision over future road plans caused planner’s blight to hinder development of the area.
Another grandiose plan was to culvert over the Floating Harbour to provide additional space for office development.
In 1989, local architect Michael Jenner wrote: “The Circuit Road was only one of the threats to Bristol and Clifton, most of them proposed by people who thought they were working for the common good, but were desperately out of touch with public opinion. Some of their proposals seem today so bizarre that people can’t believe them ... The 60s and 70s was the period when the planners and the commercial architects without discrimination ruled”.
Yet the picture of Clifton itself was of decaying Georgian terraces, many little better than slums, owned frequently by uninterested landlords, as in Notting Hill. In those few houses which were being repaired, after years of wartime and post-war neglect, original fittings such as fireplaces, mantelpieces, panelled doors, sash windows and shutters were being ripped out wholesale and plaster ceiling mouldings broken by internal sub-divisions. Balconies and their roofs hung precariously in many cases, peeling paint and broken rendering covered facades or, if the original stone had been retained, it was streaked with soot. Front railings and balconies displayed all the colours of the rainbow. The gardens in front of the major terraces had often lost their surrounding railings for scrap during the 1939-45 war. The trees and shrubs were neglected and lawns weed-infested.
Despite this, much of Clifton retained a raffish charm, which appealed across generations and classes. Indeed, the area was in many ways a much more representative and interesting cross-section of the community than it is today. There was a greater number of small retailers such as Ludowski’s, Sargeson’s, MacFisheries’ and Lipton’s and of friendly service shops within easy walking distance. The pubs, each with its own character, were essentially 'locals'. Parking was easy by day or night.
A handful of younger people with energy, attracted by the Georgian and Victorian architecture, the ease of shopping and convenience for commuting, began buying these houses and gradually restoring them. A group of these younger people and some older residents who cared for Clifton and Hotwells came together on 1 April 1968 at a house in Caledonia Place to discuss the problems and to try to find a way forward. These 30 pioneers had been fired up against the latest ‘improvement’. The Mall Gardens were scheduled to become a tarmacked car park, with a public lavatory and electricity sub-station to complete the effect.
By the end of the meeting it was agreed that Clifton and Hotwells needed a society to protect and especially to improve the area. A list of aims was drawn up and a committee elected. CHIS was born. Within half a dozen years membership had grown to 950. There was a registered constitution, charitable status, and a regular Newsletter. The programme of talks and summer walks gave members the opportunity to get to know each other and the committee. Talks were, and are, on a wide range of topics but try to have some connection to Clifton or Hotwells either in their content or the speakers being residents. For example there have been talks on local wildlife, local amenities such as the Water Board, history of the locality and history from further afield with experts talking on Egypt, Philip of Macedon and the Bristol Giant. In the early days of the restoration of The Lost Gardens of Heligan, Tim Smit came to talk about his work and hopes. In the summer local experts have led walks to see the plants of the Gorge, Georgian and Victorian Clifton, trees, and the building stones of the area. Inside visits have been made to see how the Bristol Guild was built up, the Masonic Hall, the Mansion House, the Merchant Venturers’ Hall and the Synagogue.
Now the Society was winning significant battles. The demolition of Boyce’s Buildings for replacement by a Fine Fare supermarket accessed through Boyce’s Avenue was rejected after a public enquiry. The Grand Spa Hotel (now The Avon Gorge) had been granted permission by Bristol City Council to erect a 126-bed hotel and multi-storey car park in the Gorge. CHIS, with other societies and backed by Sir John Betjeman, got the plan quashed after a nine-day public enquiry. This became national news and led to a unique rejection by the House of Lords (and large compensation to the developers). Demolition of 10-17 Park Place for a 150-bed hotel was also opposed successfully.
Cornwallis Crescent in 1967
The Society was developing practical procedures. A ‘Spare Parts’ store was established to save doors, shutters, mantelpieces etc. from destruction or disposal by builders. Sadly, the storage facility had to be closed in the early 1980s. Two hundred trees were planted in the “Plant a Tree in ‘73” and “Plant some more in ‘74” campaigns, for example in The Cherry Garden on White Hart Steps, Christchurch Green, Hinton Lane and Camden Terrace. CHIS members pleached the Lime Walk in St Andrew’s Churchyard annually; this continued until Health and Safety measures made it impossible. Nearly all the communal gardens were registered as Town Greens to maintain the pleasure of seeing trees and shrubs in an urban area and to prevent development over them. Some, for example the gardens in front of Vyvyan and Worcester Terraces and Dowry Place, were taken over by the residents. Victoria Square and The Mall Gardens are maintained by the City Council.
Committee members and others had a weekly rota to go to the Planning Office and scan all the plans for Bristol 8. Members were then informed of proposals likely to affect them. The Planning Group in the present Committee continues to scan all applications, but mercifully now the applications and outcomes are sent electronically.
In 1975 there began to be a welcome change in the attitude of the City Council. A Planning Officer was appointed for the first time and much of Clifton and part of Hotwells became designated Conservation Areas.
Gradually the Planning Group of CHIS began to be able work with rather than against the local authority. The Conservation Advisory Panel was set up by the City Council for citywide amenities groups to offer considered opinion on planning proposals. CHIS continues to act in the best interests of Bristol 8.
The potential of our area became more apparent and a new generation of owners, buying rather than renting, began to make Clifton and Hotwells their home. The Department of the Environment offered Town Scheme Grants, helped by City Council funding, to four of Clifton's major terraces (Royal York, West Mall, Caledonia Place and Cornwallis Crescent), which did much to restore them. Family accommodation was being sought. Play groups for young children started up throughout the area. A playground was installed (with financial aid from CHIS) below the Observatory, a ‘Keep Fit’ course was laid out on The Downs. During the hot, dry summers in the 1970s the open air Clifton Pool was a popular attraction for parents and children.
Residents' societies were formed to make improvements to their immediate areas. Most of those had a project and, once it was completed, became quiescent or turned into Neighbourhood Watch groups rather than resident societies. However, most of the terraces have retained their societies. Some areas, for example St John’s Road still have a very active society. Hotwells and Cliftonwood founded their Community Association at this time.
Affluent Clifton brought its problems. Boutiques, restaurants and wine bars serving the whole of Bristol and beyond rather than the local community priced out many of the small service shops. During this period central Clifton lost four small food stores, three butchers, two greengrocers, a Woolworth’s, baker’s, draper’s, ironmonger’s, tailor’s and fishmonger’s amongst others.
There were many development challenges. The Observatory, sold by the Merchant Venturers, was prevented from becoming a licensed restaurant. Clifton Down Congregational Chapel was preserved as were the rear façade of Dingles (with the frieze of Aesop’s fables); so were the facades of houses in Woodland Road behind which are university departments. CHIS was influential in the creation of welcomed designs for the BBC building in Whiteladies Road.
The range of activities extended with a members’ Open Garden Day that spawned the regular garden competition, summer reception and Christmas party, reciprocal visits to comparable societies in Bristol and beyond, and the planting on a rotating basis of bulbs in north Clifton, central Clifton, Cliftonwood and Hotwells. CHIS gave substantial support, financially and with practical help, to the creation of Hope Centre in Hotwells. Late-night and new licensing applications were challenged; refuse collection times were improved: where restaurant rubbish had sat on pavements from Saturday night to Monday morning. Two Town Trails, (annotated walks around the area), were produced for the use of our membership of 1,000 and others.
In just under twenty years the Society’s status ensured that its voice was heard in local and wider issues. A period of economic recession brought problems: the continuing closure of shops and lower maintenance of houses and flats as owners struggled to pay mortgages. Even so, parking and traffic management became so critical that CHIS gave major effort and finance to organizing data-collection for the compendious and far-sighted Clifton Traffic and Parking Survey of 1994. A practical effort was to monitor water-meter trials in Hotwells.
The enduringly invaluable achievement at this time was the Avon Gorge Look Out Project on Sion Hill, for which £40,000 was raised.
The Conservation Area also benefited from CHIS’s obtaining Listed Building status for Knee Brothers Furniture Repository (now the Clifton Arcade), thus making demolition virtually impossible. Support was given to many residents’ groups, including Bellevue, Dowry Square, Worcester Gardens, Vyvyan Terrace and York Gardens. Substantial donations were made for the restoration of the drinking fountains near the Suspension Bridge and in Hotwells
That accolade from the local press paid tribute to the first thirty years and membership of 1200. A party at the Chesterfield Hospital celebrated the event but the work had to go on. A surge of licensing applications absorbed much time and effort: by 1996 there were 44 licensed premises in Clifton and 52 in Whiteladies Road, which was becoming known as “The Strip”. 1996 saw CHIS objecting (with 130 other letters of opposition) to the granting of a licence catering for 500 people in the old Osmond Tricks’ building in Regent Street. This was refused and Pizza Express moved in.
Also in 1996 CHIS was worried that the third application for the old Antiques Market in The Mall (bistro/restaurant on the ground floor with retail unit and living accommodation over) would pave the way for a future pub. CHIS could not understand, having studied the Draft Bristol Local Plan, why the City Council seemed determined to make the Conservation Area into a vast pub-crawl. In 1997, however, the council had a new policy on food and drink outlets and as a result many controversial proposals against which CHIS objected strongly were either refused or withdrawn - six in Whiteladies Road and one for 40-42 Regent Street. Such opposition far from being negative was in the spirit of Improvement, which is our aim.
1998/1999 saw the first mention of the conversion of the old Hartwells Garage site (Merchants’ Road) into 98 flats with underground parking. CHIS had commissioned the architect George Ferguson to produce a feasibility study for the south side of Merchants Road in May 1998, which resulted in showing that 200-250 cars could be accommodated in a three-storey car park behind single-aspect apartments. Inspite of a response of 223 CHIS members on the standard objection letter and 23 pages of signatures in support of public parking, the developers of the site did not feel constrained to follow this reasoning. Even so, the final amendments to the plans for the North Side of the Hartwells Site included a replication of the Boyce’s Building façade, which transformed its appearance, especially from the Princess Victoria Street aspect. This was made possible by the acquisition of the Sarah Kenny building, something for which CHIS had been campaigning for some time.
CHIS was concerned over the Crest Nicholson proposals for the Harbourside and joined the Friends of Canons Marsh in order to present a united front together with the Civic Society and others over the development of this historic site. In 2001 CHIS supported the Civic Society’s request for a call-in of the application approved by the Central Planning Committee on 31 January 2001 for the development on the McArthur’s Warehouse site of such bulk and height as to obscure the dramatic outline of the ss Great Britain that is so clearly visible from Clifton Wood. 2004 also saw CHIS supporting the Civic Society against the new circumstances resulting from this redevelopment.
The CHIS Millennium Project, to restore St Andrew’s Churchyard, raised £20,000 locally; its work continues to this day. After 14 years of lobbying, roundabouts were installed at the junction of Queen’s, Pembroke and St. Paul’s Roads. A wall in Princess Victoria Street, scaffolded for six years, was finally repaired after pressure from CHIS and a pavement was laid on the edge of Bobby’s Field at the bottom of Regent Street so that pedestrians could walk safely without having to cross to a pavement on Clifton Road. A new head of Queen Victoria was commissioned to replace the rapidly eroding one on the arch between Boyce’s Avenue and Victoria Square. Clifton Garden Society and CHIS planted six species of oak tree by the central path across Victoria Square. The desperately needed pedestrian crossing from Clifton Road to Lansdowne Place was constructed and integrated as part of the Safe Roads to School scheme. A far more aesthetically pleasing scheme had been proposed by CHIS and discussed with the City Council several times in the previous 12 years and we very much regretted that it was not implemented. CHIS made donations to more groups of residents, Hotwells and Christchurch schools, the Hope Centre, Hotwells Living Memories Group, the Rocks Railway Group and the Hotwells Local History Group.
In 2003 the new licensing laws received royal assent, which meant that every premise with a licence had to make a new application. A 24 hour licence could be asked for. The consultation period for comment on this draft licensing policy produced by the Council was lamentably short. It had already been agreed that wisely the societies in Cotham and Redland, St John’s Road, Aberdeen Road, High Kingsdown, Clifton and Hotwells and any others in the area should send in one document of comments on the draft and a separate letter if there were particular matters, which affected only a certain area. This was done, but it could not have been achieved without the hours of painstaking work and collaboration put in by Redland and Cotham Amenity Society and St John’s Road Resident’s Association. The result was a list of well-reasoned comments, suggestions and praise that undoubtedly helped when applications were being heard.
Two public awards to former CHIS Chairmen brought great pleasure: the MBE to RoseMary Musgrave for services to the community and, to Michael Pascoe, the Lord Mayor’s Medal for all he had done for Clifton and Bristol over many years.
In addition to the now established regular tasks of the Society came many notable involvements. For the first time CHIS appeared at the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand to challenge the Secretary of State for Transport, Bristol City Council and the Suspension Bridge Trust upon the plan to bring about a dangerous road alteration as a result of the erection of a new Visitor Centre on the site of the 1920s public conveniences.
The plan was later suspended
We supported Hotwells residents in their (vain) battle to save Granby Green from building. We were consulted extensively on contentious plans for the development of the Avon Gorge Hotel, its terraces, the Clifton Spa Pump Room and the Rocks Railway (whose restoration society we supported). Help and advice were given to the group fighting to restore the Brunel Swivel Bridge, unused for 40 years at Cumberland Basin, but likely to benefit from People’s Lottery funding.
We achieved a considerable aim by attending quarterly meetings of the Planning Group with the Leader of Bristol City Council, the Chief Planning Officer and other departmental heads. Topics included the pedestrianisation of Boyce’s Avenue and Kings Road, the removal of obtrusive pavement advertising boards, proper conservation area lamps and pavements along with enforcement of conservation rules and a better Legible City signage. As something of a matter of course CHIS’s opinion was sought on important forthcoming developments, such as the proper restoration of the by then derelict and roofless Observatory, the Pro-Cathedral site, the Bristol University “precinct” plans, the Zoo Gardens Parking and Landscape scheme, the Mall garage site and the challenges of Studentification. The Suspension Bridgemaster asked our views on the closures at the time of the Balloon Fiesta and Pop Concerts at Ashton Park, on the new Bridge Lighting Scheme and on the new toll charges
Smaller things still mattered: the erection (after two years’ wait for various planning permissions) of an elegant handrail on the steep corner of Harley Place and Canynge Road (the Barbara Thorne bequest); landscaping outside Clifton Hill House (the Brazier bequest); the placing of seats at the top of Clifton Vale in memory of Professor Bob Savage; between the Lookout and the Bridge in memory of Adrian Wright (whose bequest brings in a substantial annual sum for CHIS) and outside the Library in Princess Victoria Street; the successful lobbying for two-hour parking in central Clifton and the planting of 1,000 British bluebells by the childrens’ playground and daffodils in Victoria Square.
We supported Bristol in Bloom, painted the badly eroded Victorian railings outside Clifton Library and joined the great Bristol campaigner, Dorothy Brown, in the same attention to the St Andrew’s Churchyard railings. We obtained improvements in bus services and bus directional indicators. We long advocated a Farmer’s Market in Boyce’s Avenue and welcomed the now regular one in Whiteladies Road.
Social events have long been a feature. The annual reception for new members and representatives of friendly groups, the Summer Supper with music and readings, and the Christmas Party come and go depending on members’ support. Visits to and from our sister-CHIS (the Chislehurst Society), and a pre-public opening tour of Tyntesfield, a tour of Bletchley Park and attendance at the annual Royal Marines Beating the Retreat show a range of interest. In 2006, The Brunel 200 celebrations included invitations for CHIS representatives to attend the opening of the Garden of Avon Gorge plants by the Suspension Bridge and to the magnificent party at the Avon Gorge Hotel with its fireworks display and switching on of the new lights. We entertained to dinner the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress at the Rodney Hotel, and thanked our Treasurer, Roger Snary, for his commitment to the Society over 25 years. It was also appropriate to celebrate the improvement of Rodney Place garden and restored railings, to which we had made a significant donation. Most impressively, we were privileged when HRH The Duke of Edinburgh planted a tree on the Downs at Christchurch Green with which CHIS commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation.
Imaginative and energetic committee members were in the group which helped Clifton Village achieve third place nationally in the competition held by the Academy of Urbanism in 2006. With comparable expertise and industry a handy and informative booklet, Brunel’s Clifton, was produced. The Georgian tone was maintained by our repair and re-erection of the Clifton Road street nameplate. Support was given to the restoration of the Clifton Pool and, less successfully, to the campaign to save Whiteladies Cinema. Development of the former Chamber of Commerce building in Clifton Park was successfully modified. Objectionable plans for the Aruba/W.H. Smith piazza and for 29 Sion Hill site were withdrawn after great resistance from CHIS in aid of local residents’ groups. Similarly the plans to build on the Rifle Range and Squash Courts site in Canynge Road were rejected at appeal for the third time. Most recently, a scheme for erecting dwellings for 70 or more students at the site of the former Edwards Garage and a substantial Victorian Villa in Alma Road has been withdrawn after opposition from numerous residents and amenity organizations. The pedestrianisation of Boyce’s Avenue is being actively considered at our instigation.
On the other hand we have been glad to give money to the Snake-Path, built by local residents, which links Constitution Hill and Bellevue Side and to congratulate Clifton Hill House upon winning the annual Georgian Group prize for the best restored country house. Subsequently, and with the complete blessing of the Warden, we complained bitterly at the shocking style of the enforced alterations for disabled access that afflict the interior.
A happy idea for 2007 was the celebration of John Betjeman’s centenary with a competition for a Betjemanesque poem on the Clifton for which he did so much in his writings and broadcasts. The entertaining entries from young and old would have pleased him. In a way we continue his sense of past and present by means of our plaques, now nearly 30 of them. Recently at 7 Richmond Hill we commemorated Sarah Guppy, who in 1811 proposed a scheme for a type of suspension bridge, which pre-dated the works of both Thomas Telford and Brunel. Yet her name does not appear in the histories of engineering and bridge-building. Also, a plaque to her son Thomas (Brunel's friend and investor in the Great Western ship and the GWR) at 8 Berkeley Square was unveiled by Adam Hart Davis. A memorial, unveiled by the wife of the vice-chancellor of Bristol University, recorded the date - September 11, 1645. This was when Prince Rupert surrendered Bristol to Parliament's army in the Civil War. Bristol was the country's second city after London at the time and a Royalist stronghold loyal to King Charles. Prince Rupert, King Charles's illustrious cavalry commander, agreed a treaty with Fairfax and surrendered the city from his castle, where the Royal Fort now stands. Currently we are recording Empress Eugenie’s schooling in the house of her name in Royal York Crescent and, with a renovated plaque, Francis Greenway, architect of what became the Clifton Club and later known as the “Father” of Australian architecture.
CHIS holds an interesting archive of newspaper cuttings painstakingly put into albums, photographs and postcards kindly donated. In 2007 a photographic register of all types of lamp posts in the area was made and every street in the conservation area was recorded photographically.
In this 40th anniversary year we are revising the Society’s constitution to meet changed expectations and reviewing membership forms, the Newsletter and Website. The website was started in about 2000 and has expanded to meet the ever-increasing demand. It has grown into an integral part of the Society’s communications.
Special events include a Clifton and Hotwells Observed members’ evening and a reception in September for members at Engineers’ House. The events will conclude with our hosting a section of the West Bristol Art Trail at Clifton Club in October and a Great Bristol 8 Quiz with mulled wine and mince pies in December.
Soon the long-debated residents’ parking scheme will have a major impact (in an area where a garage has been sold for £132,000). Perhaps there will be fewer conversions of gardens to parking places, so unwise as the threat of flooding increases. Perhaps Bristol will establish widely effective public transport services.
We will keep trying to obtain long-requested community rooms or even a Community Centre for Clifton and our opposition to the “infill” of so-called Brownfield Sites (i.e. attractive gardens) will continue. The problems posed by Studentification will very likely increase. Vigilance in assessing developers’ schemes will remain our watchword
The reward for maintaining our unique blend of townscape and greenery, lauded by Betjeman, is a cause that must inspire its beneficiaries to continue another forty years of CHIS.
What was the environment like in Clifton in 1968? What is the balance sheet of change? Even the notion that Clifton had an environment was alien in 1968; it would be eight years before the Bristol Ecology Party was founded, in a pub on Blackboy Hill, to further the ideas of Schumacher, and to foster the notion that there were Limits to Growth. Three decades later, neighbouring Wildlife Trusts had been established; urban parks were to become wild spaces and Bristol Zoo came to foster native wildlife on its Clifton site instead of elephants, polar bears and white tigers.
Globally the climate was changing too. After the ever-increasing warmth that culminated in 1960, the climate was getting colder. Predictions of a new ice age were made as temperatures fell steadily. Patterns of rainfall changed significantly too. Between 1960 and 1990 there were only three years with a rainfall of over 1000mm, compared with eight since. This pattern was to be reversed only in the 1990s.
Population changes in animals in towns are affected by a huge variety of complex factors. Pollution was the perceived problem in 1968. The impact of the persistent poisons such as DDT and more powerful poisons such as Dieldrin and Heptachlor used in the late 1950s was becoming clear as records of Peregrines became fewer and fewer. But no-one then foresaw the far greater impact that the switch from spring to autumn sowing would have on a huge range of farmland bird species, which in turn affected urban populations especially in winter. The collapse of House Sparrow numbers, in 1968 so common in Clifton that they could not be counted, may have been underway, and was to be followed by the that of Starlings. But in contrast set the startling increase in Collared Doves, which in 1968 used the Zoo as a base from which to conquer Bristol. Control of the use of persistent chemicals allowed the expansion of Sparrowhawks, and, in the 1990s, the return of the Peregrine to the Gorge, for the first time since 1940.
The Clean Air act of 1955 led to a huge expansion in Gull populations, first on Steep Holm, and then from 1970 in Bristol, feeding on the rubbish which we no longer burn, but left out in thin black plastic bags. The urban Fox population expanded, with litters being raised in out of the way sites across Clifton, and was only to be checked by a combination of the advent of the Wheelie Bin, and Mange in the mid 1990s. In a fierce Darwinian struggle to become the top scavenger of the city Starlings and Sparrows were driven out by feral Pigeons, which in their turn are being reduced by Gulls.
It is hard to explain the other changes in Clifton’s avifauna, such as the rise of the Magpie and Greenfinch, the decline of the Song Thrush after a succession of bitter winters, or the wonderful increase in Buzzards, Ravens and Cormorants. Once shy woodland birds, Woodpigeons are present in every garden.
The world of plants has changed too. The Elm trees that both dominated Clifton Green, and the great avenues on the Downs, were struck down by Dutch Elm Disease in the 1970s, and with them went the old Rookery on Clifton Green. Their replacements, Lime trees of several species, and, on Clifton Green, an alien Elm, allegedly immune, are doing very well. Yet in time our great grandchildren should once again see the great Elms of the past, their suckers, clones of the originals, live on in their millions, being eternally replaced.
Trees have been toppled by great storms, such as those of January 1990 and 1992, and trees dating back to the 1840s have been felled in such places as Clifton Zoo, St Andrew’s churchyard and Victoria Square, because they became dangerous. They have been replaced, often with generous help from CHIS. In particular the magnificent Cedars, a tree every decent mansion had to have in the Victorian era, have suffered either disease or substantial collapse from wet snow, and very few now remain. Another great Victorian symbol, the Wellingtonia, is also dying. The cause is obscure, as this species is happy to live for 5000 years in the Sierra Nevada; one was felled at the top of Bridge Valley road a decade ago, and another is in a desperate state in Pembroke Vale.
More insidious is the march of the Holm Oak, a Mediterranean evergreen tree present in Britain as a garden specimen since the 17th century. Several are certainly 200 years old in Clifton. Now a pernicious weed, they are very tough, grow fast, and cast a dense shade under which nothing else can thrive. In recent years Jays and Squirrels burying the acorns in every nook and cranny, in walls, on the vertical cliffs of the gorge, and in gardens have spread them. The native English Oak now very rarely produces viable acorns because of attacks from a new Gall Wasp which destroys the acorn.
Another feature changing the structure of plant life in Clifton is the escape of plants from gardens into the wild. Every wood now has Laurel growing in it. Roadside verges, and parts of the Gorge are dominated by Winter Heliotrope; a varied host of Cotoneaster species clothe walls, and turn parts of the Gorge red every autumn, Japanese Knotweed has appeared on the Downs, and is a menace along railway lines. Snowberry has taken over part of St Andrew’s churchyard, and suckers of both Staghorn Sumach and Tree of Heaven are quietly spreading in unlikely places. Buddleia has long been closely associated with Bristol because of its fondness for growing in walls, and chimneybreasts. The delightful pair of Bellflowers, Adria and Trailing, long-established in gardens, have dominated garden walls, inside and out, for many years.
The human environment has also changed. Cars not only dominate the roads, but also destroy the front gardens that used to be the pride of every household. “Permitted development”, whether the blight of tarmac or concrete, or the marginally less offensive use of pavers or bricks, has led not merely to visual environmental damage (and largely failed to increase parking space at all), but also to actual or potential flooding problems as Victorian storm drains are asked to take double their design load. Front hedges or walls have vanished, and worm-laden grass lawns been dug up – a huge loss of bio-diversity.
Perhaps more disastrous has been the constant increase in the price of houses. Some are now in theory worth over one hundred times as much as in 1968, without changing in any significant way whatever. This has encouraged the greed that has led to garden after garden being delivered over to the “developer”, a process actively encouraged by the “planners”, who do not recognise that it is only the mature gardens that the Victorians created as a frame for their buildings that prevent Clifton being something of a slum.
Even so, we remain exceptionally fortunate, both in our green inheritance, and in the ways it is being imaginatively sustained in many places. Clifton perfected the Communal Garden, framed by the terraces around it, a form of civilised high density living unequalled since. The Mall Gardens, and Royal York Crescent and its gardens, represent a type of urban development that, very belatedly, is now being seen to provide essential high housing density combined with a recognition that the natural world is not merely an add-on to human activity, but the essential core of it. In many ways, one detached and semi-detached house built just a hundred years ago, meant a fatal break with that tradition and led on to the disastrous 20th century obsession with private gardens and semi-detached living.
“The past is a foreign country”: the provoking first line of LP Hartley’s The Go Between, is profoundly true, and, as any historian will tell you, the past can never be repeated or recreated. That is also true of the future, which is always more different from the past than the past ever predicted. And yet the tracks that become streets and roads, the boundary lines between common land and farmers’ fields, the buildings and the stone they are built from, the trees that never really die, the rare plants that live on in their niche generation after generation, the insects, mammals and birds that rely on them, all form a continuous chain of being that links straight back over 2000 years to the men who built the camp on Clifton Down, and on into a future that our decisions, for better or worse, will help to mould. It is our privilege to be a simple, but aware, part of this process.
Main text by RoseMary Musgrave, Michael Pascoe and Brian Worthington
The Green Side of Bristol 8 by Richard Bland