It is fair to say that few other cities, have such a colourful history as that of Bristol. Here Maurice Fells explores some of the quirky stories that make Bristol such an interesting place and tells you about some things you may not have realised.

1. Brunel’s Bristol

Towards the end of this year Bristol will celebrate the 150th anniversary of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge. Brunel happened to be in Bristol recuperating when he heard of a competition to build a bridge spanning the Avon Gorge. He submitted not one but four designs and won the competition. Unfortunately, Brunel never saw his bridge completed; he died five years before it was opened to the public in December 1864. The bridge was finished as a monument to him.

2. First across the void

The first member of the public to cross the bridge was 21-year-old Mary Griffiths of Hanham.  She ran across the 702-foot span to make sure no one beat her.

3. Up-hill driving

It’s hard to believe that the bridge was built in the days of the horse and cart but now around four million vehicles cross it every year.  Many motorists who drive from the Leigh Woods side to Clifton are probably unaware that they are climbing up a gradient, albeit small.  Brunel designed the bridge so that it would be three feet higher at the Clifton end because of the topography of the Avon Gorge.

4. The other Brunel Bridge

Brunel built another bridge in Bristol which few people seem to be aware of. His first tubular wrought-iron swing bridge originally carried traffic over the south entrance lock of the Cumberland Basin.  It was decommissioned in 1968 and has ever since, unfortunately, been left abandoned to rot and rust on the dockside.

5. Bank Cherubs

If you stroll around Bristol’s streets you will find many curiosities like Brunel’s old bridge. However, you have to look upwards to see some of them.  For example, an intricate frieze can be seen along the top of the facade of the old Lloyds Bank building in Corn Street, in the city’s Old Quarter. It has carvings of cherubs depicting the activities of a bank including coining money, engraving and printing. The bank itself was designed in an opulent style, copying St. Mark’s Library in Venice.

6. Bristol Time

On the other side of the road at the top of The Exchange Building is a public clock which still tells Bristol Time, many years after Greenwich Mean Time came into use.

7.On the Nail

Outside The Exchange are four brass pillars, or columns, known as the Bristol Nails.  They were once used by merchants to seal their business deals and count their money.  The raised edge of each circular pillar prevents coins rolling on to the pavement.  It is said that the Bristol Nails led to the coining of the phrase ‘Pay on the Nail’.

8. Time in Seconds

Around the corner in Baldwin Street is the spire of St. Nicholas Church which has the only church clock in Britain with an inset dial showing seconds.

9. Statue Stirrups

Not far away is Queen Square with its equestrian statue of William III standing high on a plinth. The King is wearing Roman costume but is most unusually without stirrups.

10. Equal-sided

Queen Square, is believed to be the only perfect one with all sides equal, in Europe. Queen Square was laid out in 1702 and named after Queen Anne who visited Bristol the same year. She was welcomed by a 100-gun salute.

11. Lord Mayor’s Chapel

Just off the city centre on College Green is the only chapel owned and maintained in the country by a local authority. It is dedicated to St. Mark but is popularly known as the Lord Mayor’s Chapel. It is here that the Lord Mayor and the city councillors attend service before the full meetings of the council each month.

The background to the stories I’ve written about above, along with many others, are in my eighth Bristol book out just now. The A-Z of Curious Bristol is published by the History Press at £12.99 and is available at many bookshops.

By Maurice Fells

For more details on the book or to get in touch with Maurice, please contact him on


Clifton Suspension Bridge
Historic Site
Clouds over Clifton Suspension Bridge Bristol - CREDIT GARY NEWMAN

The world famous bridge and the iconic symbol of Bristol, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1831 and completed in 1864 after his death

Queen Square
Municipal Park
Queen Square - Copyright Destination Bristol

A magnificent Georgian park area in the heart of Bristol, surrounded by trees and cobbled streets.

The Lord Mayor's Chapel
The Lord Mayor's Chapel

Built in 1230, the only remaining part of the Hospital of Gaunt. The chapel has Tudor ceilings and glass from across Europe.