Market area that remains rich in heritage
OFTEN overlooked, Old Market is a unique part of the city, rich in heritage. What makes it so special is that, although the community has changed over the centuries, the area has kept its history and character intact.
The area grew up below Bristol castle, on the old main road out into Kingswood Forest and so to London.
This was where royalty, and other dignitaries, would be greeted with some ceremony before being escorted to their lodgings.
It was also, as both sides discovered during the Civil War, important defensively.
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The weekly market which was established here was dominated by travelling traders who would set up their tented stalls in the centre of this extra wide street.
Despite the recent changes (made to accommodate buses) you can still the classic cigar shape of this early market – narrowing at each end where there would once have been stout wooden gates.
The market sold everything, from livestock to vegetables, much of it coming from the market gardens and farms of East Bristol, as well as household goods and trinkets.
As trade developed so more elaborate, semi-permanent wooden shelters and coverings were built.
Because of the number of strangers arriving in town for market day, a Pie Poudre court (literally the court of the dusty feet) – originally held under a tree – was set up.
Here, people would be given on-the-spot fines and punishments for a variety of crimes – anything ranging from theft to fraud.
Over the centuries, houses, shops and inns were established on either side of the busy market.
Although many of these ancient dwellings fell into decay and were demolished in Georgian and Victorian times, a few are still standing today.
These buildings, many of which are older than they look, have undergone much restoration and/or alteration.
Despite the market's demise the middle of the street was, for some reason, never built upon and retains its original width.
In time, what had once been the city's main market became known as the Old Market.
Nevertheless the area continued to bustle with life.
Between the wars, in the 1920s and 30s, it was still a popular place to shop with a good mix of outlets.
On Saturdays, the shops, which would stay open late into the evening, were packed.
With no major road between Old Market and Broadmead, people could travel easily between the two.
By Victorian and Edwardian times the area had become a major centre for entertainment.
As the tram terminus for East Bristol, and with St Philips rail station nearby, people would pour into the area.
The Empire theatre, the Kings cinema and the Methodist Central Hall all became popular venues, catering for differing tastes.
There were also a dozen pubs or more available for refreshment, including the elaborate Gin Palace on the corner of West Street.
The bleak 1930s saw many of Bristol's unemployed making their way through Old Market to state their case for aid at the Council House.
But finding their way barred, the peaceful march soon developed into a street battle.
The police drew their batons and charged.
By the time it was all over 30 marchers had been hurt and several policemen cut by flying bricks and stones.
The incident remains an ugly blot on Old Market's history.
It was the loss of the Castle Street/Wine Street shopping area in the Blitz – plus the decision by the Corporation to re-build it anew in Broadmead – which started Old Market on a downward spiral.
Then, in the early 1960s, traders were dismayed to hear about plans for an inner city relief road which they were convinced would finally cut them off from the rest of the city.
But in those days motorists ruled the roost and their protests, many said, merely stood in the way of progress.
In 1964 the much loved Empire theatre, where a youthful Cary Grant had once entertained, became a victim of the demolition gangs.
The Temple Way roundabout and underpass arrived four years later.
This, plus the increase in traffic from East Bristol, hastened the loss of many long-established shops, businesses and pubs.
Even the seedy King's Cinema, something of a survivor, finally succumbed to the bulldozer.
A steep decline set in, and, as many premises remained empty and became derelict, so the council considered demolition as the only option.
But the growing conservation movement was slowly turning the tide and throughout the 1980s many of the area's attractive, but somewhat dilapidated, Georgian buildings were restored and let out to small businesses.
Old Market was finally designated a conservation area, a new status which meant not only meant protection from further demolition but the attraction of government grants.
But as opportunities to grasp the transport issue, and to downgrade Old Market to busy traffic, slipped by (especially with the opening of the M32), so traffic flow increased.
Now, as inner-city living becomes fashionable once more, people are returning to live to the area in droves.
The Methodist Central Hall has long been converted into apartments, and now the Drill Hall, opposite, has followed suit.
Other parts of Old Market, on both sides, are now also being sympathetically re-built to house yet more newcomers.
The area has spawned its own rebirth with a mix of specialised shops, clubs and pubs, a Gay Village and that ever popular venue, The Trinity Centre.
Old Market now has its own Community (and traders) Association to help focus people's minds on what still needs to be done to secure the area's future.
To find out more visit www.old marketquarter.co.uk.
Let's hope that, despite the changes, the area can retain its unique identity – it has, after all, been around a long, long, time.