As one of Britain’s oldest and most established cities, Bristol has a great wealth of architectural heritage, from its grand cathedral to the natural stone paving which lines many of its oldest thoroughfares. An area of continuous settlement since the stone age, relics of bygone times are to be spotted all around when out and about in the city. Ancient flint tools found in the area are of great interest to archaeologists, and at least two iron age hill forts are known to have existed nearby.
The Romans, famously, were great builders of infrastructure and of settlements, and it was in the Roman Britain era that Bristol started to achieve national importance. Roman roads with natural stone paving gave inhabitants of cities like Bristol easy access to other local settlements such as Bath, to the interior of the country in general, and most importantly, to London. During Roman times, trade of all kinds was boosted by improved transport links and the relative security ushered in by Roman rule. Some reminders of Bristol’s Roman past are still visible today.
During the middle ages, Bristol (or Brycgstow as it was then known) became an important trading port, situated as it is near the confluence of the navigable rivers Avon and Frome. The first Bristol bridge was a stone structure built across the river Avon in the 13th century, to allow merchants to transport their wares across the river on paving rather than the existing natural ford. In such an important trading centre, good communication and transport infrastructure was vital.
As time went on, trade with the new American colonies increased and Bristol was ideally situated to reap the benefits of this increased activity. Extensive dock complexes were built for the use of trading ships and their owners. It was natural that traders would prefer the convenience of unloading their cargo onto the stone paving of Bristol rather than shipping goods ashore in a less well equipped harbour. Much of the city’s nautical heritage remains in evidence today, although the old docks are no longer large enough for modern ocean going ships, and are now a tourist attraction and centre of the local leisure industry. Its place in maritime history is assured due to its central role in the story of the earliest American voyages, and more recently as home of Samuel Plimsoll, inventor of the Plimsoll line.
There are many organizations committed to preserving the historical monuments of Bristol. With over 4,000 listed buildings from all architectural periods, the city is a treasure trove for those who study and appreciate these links to our history. Some buildings have been fully restored, and have found a new lease of life as tourist attractions and in other roles. At other sites around Bristol, only a stretch of stone paving stands out from the natural environment as a clue to what may have stood there in years gone by. But in any case, exploring the city of Bristol is always an exciting and rewarding experience.