From the history behind a range of Bristol’s buildings to accounts of murders, mysterious happenings and even the tale of a group of university students kidnapping a taxidermy Gorilla in the 1950s –Weird Bristol, started by author Charlie Revelle-Smith in 2017, delves into the stranger side of the city. 

The Weird Bristol concept was fuelled by Charlie’s own fascination for the city and the stories that lie just beyond its surface. Every day, people walk past sites loaded with history, often involving a macabre or eccentric twist. Have you heard the story that Bristol Cathedral is haunted by the ghost of a grey monk? Or have you ever walked down Johnny Ball Lane – once the haunt of some of the city’s most notorious criminals, or heard the reports of a sea serpent spotted in the Bristol Channel?

Captivated by Bristol ever since he arrived here in the year 2000, Charlie soon got to work uncovering these stories and the more unusual histories of the area. This project became Weird Bristol, beginning life as a Twitter feed, allowing members of the public to learn quick curios of the city on a regular basis.

Author Charlie Revelle-Smith holding a copy of his book 'More Weird Bristol' - credit Charlie Revelle-Smith
Image: Charlie Revelle-Smith

Its rapid popularity led Charlie to write a Weird Bristol book – released in 2018 – followed by More Weird Bristol in 2019. Both are informed by Charlie’s notable eye for detail and a determination to go overground and underground in search of the city’s strange past.

As if that wasn’t all, Charlie is also a fiction author, still using Bristol as a key inspiration in his work. His murder mysteries series is based in Bristol (‘The Bristol Murders’), comprising of four books, with intriguing titles such as Beast in the City and The Debt of Blood.

We spoke to Charlie to find out more…

Hello Charlie. Weird Bristol started life as a Twitter feed – sharing fascinating facts about the strange and secret history of the city. What was the inspiration behind this, and why do you think there is such an appetite for the weird?

 “I’ve always been fascinated by local history, especially the kind of everyday, almost humdrum stories of how people once lived. I had very little time for history about kings and queens or ancient battles, but I loved finding tangible evidence of the past that could easily go unnoticed if you weren’t keeping an eye out for it – almost like a secret history of a place.

“I came to Bristol in the year 2000 and almost subconsciously started soaking up the history of this grand, old city. Weird Bristol didn’t begin as a Twitter feed until 2017 and by that time I’d accumulated a wealth of knowledge about the city’s past. One morning I just felt inspired to start tweeting out some of the more unusual trivia I’d gathered over the years.

"I had no real expectations for how popular Weird Bristol would become. My hopes, if any, were that I might become an offbeat source of quirky stories for a handful of followers – and maybe even publicise my series of novels, but the whole thing snowballed at an alarming rate. I had no idea there was such an appetite for unusual Bristol stories.

“As for why such an appetite exists, I’ve yet to figure that out. My definition of ‘weird’ is quite a broad one, so I think people have been able to find bits of trivia that appeal to them throughout my feed. There is a great love for Bristol among people who live here or just know the city well and I think hearing tales of the lesser-known history of the city has appealed to a great many people – far more than I ever imagined it would!”

Is there something particular about Bristol as a place, do you think, that makes it more of a haven for the mysterious, strange and Gothic?

“I do. Bristol’s story has been so densely packed with world-changing history that it seems almost every street has some unusual slice of strangeness waiting to be uncovered. In a relatively short space of time, Olde Brigstowe had transformed from a moderately sized town on the bend of a river, to strategic playing piece in the English Civil War, to a port of international importance, to an industrial powerhouse, to blitzed-out piles of rubble… and now one of the most diverse and progressive thinking cities in the country. It’s an ever-evolving story.

“As much as I love writing about heroic figures and incidences from our past, we also can’t shy away from the darkness – and Bristol has plenty. Aside from the plagues and witch burnings, we’ve had pirates and privateers, murderers and highwaymen but above all else, the shadow of the slave trade will forever be a shameful blight on Bristol’s history.”

  • Haunt Bristol: 4 alternative places to discover in Bristol

You then used your insight into all-things-unusual to create the first Weird Bristol book. How did you choose the stories that went in, your sources and can you tell us of some of your favourite Weird Bristol facts?

“The hardest aspect of writing the first Weird Bristol book was deciding what would go in and what I’d leave out. I managed to make this even harder by setting the book out as a series of guided walks, so if you wanted to, you could follow the book around on a kind of tour, spotting unusual landmarks or places with peculiar tales to tell.

“On top of that, I wanted to get a good mix of history. I really like ghost stories but they are not for everyone, so I had to sprinkle them through the book with care. True crime is very popular but I don’t like reporting on anything in the recent past as it can seem sensationalist or distasteful. In the end, I hope I managed a book that’s kind of a perfect blend of oddities and curios.

“Almost all of my favourite facts concern the kind of details you could easily walk past a dozen times in a week without ever really noticing, like the iron edging on our pavements or the large, flat stones which line a street in Clifton. Things like that become almost invisible with familiarity so it’s really fun to be able to point them out and say, ‘there’s actually a really fascinating story behind this thing!’”

Is it possible to pick the weirdest?

 “I tend to lean towards the darker, more macabre stories of our past, so I find the story of John Horwood endlessly fascinating and disturbing. He was a young man who was convicted of murdering a woman in 1821, and after his hanging his trial notes were bound in his own skin. The book is on display in M Shed and is a truly harrowing relic from our past.

“The case is interesting not just because we have this tangible object from a more barbaric time, but because the more you look into the murder you realise what a vulnerable man Horwood was – and how he may not actually have been a murderer at all. It’s a rather sobering, sad tale.

“I also think Temple Church (‘The Leaning Tower of Bristol’) deserves a mention too, as it’s one of the strangest locations in the city and has been kind of a fountain of weirdness for many centuries. Its steeple has a lean on it which is only slightly less than that of its Pisa counterpart. In the late 18th century, it hosted an exorcism in which seven holy men were required to cleanse the soul of a ‘possessed’ man. It was built on the grounds of a truly ancient Knights Templar Church and is now a blitzed-out shell of a church said to be the haunt of some rather eerie ghosts.”

Temple Church in central Bristol - credit Visit West
Image: Temple Church, Bristol 

 Why is learning about the weird side of Bristol still important today, in your view?

“For two reasons, really. The first being that it’s just quite fun! Many other people seem to enjoy learning about our quirkier history just as much as I do, which is why I always like to write quite lightly, sometimes even comically in my books, to capture that sense of excitement there is in learning something a bit odd about the place we call home.

“Secondly, and more importantly, cities can sometimes feel quite isolating and lonely. Learning about the past not only makes us aware of the history of Bristol, it also shines a bit of light on who the ordinary people throughout our history were and how they lived – and in doing so (and as ambitious as it may sound) I like to think I’m saying how we’re all part of this huge story and in that way, kind of part of a big, strange family. We’re Bristol, not Bath. We’re not London, we’re Bristol – and this is all of our weird stuff!”

Weird Bristol has expanded into another book – More Weird Bristol. Was your approach similar for this book, and how were you finding people’s responses to the Weird Bristol concept?

“My approach was very much the same, insofar as I wanted it once again to be a series of walking tours the reader could get out and do if they wanted, only this time it has a bit of a Choose Your Own Adventure format with optional, smaller walks branching off from a larger one. Of course, none of the walks are mandatory and most people seem to have enjoyed simply dipping in and out of chapters… but on one occasion I did actually encounter a group of friends out doing one of the walks and I was absolutely thrilled. I don’t know if they were more surprised or I was!

Weird Bristol walking tour map - credit Charlie Revelle-Smith
Image: Charlie Revelle-Smith

“The trickiest part was selecting the areas I wanted to focus on. About half the walks are based on locations in the city centre, but I’ve gone further afield to uncover some truly extraordinary stories. The actual process of writing was quite straightforward. The bigger struggle for me (in both books) was the illustrations and maps! Initially I was going to try using photographs but they looked very inky and dark in the trial prints of the book, so I opted for illustrations. I’ve always struggled a bit with visual arts but I managed to cobble together a style which feels unique to the books and I hope adds a kind of charm.

“As for feedback, I could not have asked for a better reception. Both Weird Bristol and More Weird Bristol came out in advance of Christmas and both times it was an absolute joy to see people tweeting photos of themselves having received my books as gifts. I’ve loved hearing all of the positive responses to them, and I’ve felt especially proud when I’ve managed to surprise lifelong Bristolians who thought they knew all there was to know about the city!”

You are also a novelist, with your works including a series of murder mysteries set in Bristol. Can you tell us more about this and why you were drawn to creatively use the inspiration of the city in this way?

“The first book in The Bristol Murders series came out in 2015 and it was one of those things I had been toying with for years before. In so many works of detective fiction the investigator is closely tied to the city he or she is operating in. Oxford has Morse, Edinburgh has Rebus, Brighton has Grace. I wanted to create a sleuth who solved mysteries in contemporary Bristol.

“As soon as I knew my protagonist was a funeral director, everything else fell into place. Franklin Gallow may act as the main protagonist of the series, but his young assistant Rowan Kaplan is kind of the heart of the story. Aside from the mysteries themselves, the interplay between him and her was so much fun to write – and I really enjoyed creating a male/female duo where there isn’t even a hint of ‘will they, won’t they’ chemistry. They’re friends – best friends really, and I don’t think you see that often enough in fiction.

“The Bristol Murders is currently a four-book series which delves into the darker parts of Bristol and its history. Each book stands alone as a mystery but over the course of the novels there is one over-arching mystery which unfolds in the background. At the moment, Franklin and Rowan are taking a well-earned rest but they’ve never really left me – I’m quite sure they’ll be back with more adventures sometime in the future!”

What’s next for Weird Bristol? 

“There is a third Weird Bristol book out in late November, Further Weird Bristol, and I’m tentatively starting work on a book for young adults. It’s quite different to anything I’ve ever written before as it has a kind of sci-fi edge involving time travel and the Bristol Blitz. Aside from that, I shall be doing what I love most of all – wandering the streets of Bristol in search of new mysteries and revelations to uncover!”

Check out Charlie’s Weird Bristol blog posts: