Page 7, 16th September 1988

16th September 1988
Page 7
Page 7, 16th September 1988 — In the shadow of Brunel's bridge

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Locations: Clifton, Bath, Bristol


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In the shadow of Brunel's bridge

Travel Time

ONE of Bristol's main tourist attractions is Brunel's splendid Suspension Bridge. It is approached, on the Clifton side, by an attractive stretch of treestudded grass. The inland end of that grassy approach is dominated by two churches. One is the large Anglican church of Christ Church, finished in 1859 with a tall spire, whose top is one of the highest points in the whole of Bristol. The other was once a Congregational chapel; it is no longer used for worship and has been horizontally divided into 17 flats for elderly people, now going under the name of Guardian Court. The unusual tower and spire planned for it were never, for financial reasons, put up. But the chapel was, at the time of its building in 1867-68, of note as a rare example of a Nonconformist chapel designed by a Catholic architect.

For over 100 years the church was known as the Clifton Down Chapel. The congregation had moved from a site close to the middle of Bristol, assuming that more worshippers would come to a new building in a favoured residential part of the city. The time came, in 1866, to choose an architect for a building which could, in part, be financed by the sale of the older site, and by donations, including some firm the tobacco family of the Willses who were active Congregationalists. The choice, without a competition, was made in favour of Charles Hansom, who lived in Clifton, and was well known, not only for his Catholic buildings, of which the church of St John the Evangelist at Bath was among the most recent, but for other work which included the main buildings of Clifton College a short distance away.

The Congregationalists included the social and intellectual elite of Bristol Nonconformity, with many members likely, in the choice of an architect for a "prestige" chapel, to be liberal-minded. The Methodists and the Baptists would have been less likely to favour such a choice. The result was a building of striking and unusual character for any midVictorian Nonconformists place of worship.

Clifton Down Chapel was an ornate French Gothic building, with an apse once screened by a trio of internal arches, and with a steeply pitched roof; an elaborate parapet just below that roof was never carried out. At one side a projection, which still contains a stairway, has a roof of an even steeper pitch. The whole exterior has now been well cleaned to reveal its architectural and sculptural quality.

The "West" window with geometrical tracery, consists of six lights. Similar tracery is in the smaller side windows. The building has a profusion of grypho shaped corbels. The entrance lies under an elaborate three-bay vaulted porch, whose bosses are foliate. Sculptured scenes above the three doors show Christ and seven disciples over an inscription "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life", some more disciples over "Behold the Lamb of God", and a group of early Christians above the words "We Preach Christ Crucified". All this sculpture was by the firm of Boulton in Cheltenham.

It was reckoned, in the 1860s that here was a Non-conformist chapel of rare character and quality. A local paper described it, when the foundation stone was laid, as a "cathedral-like edifice" and considered that it would be "one of the most beautiful of its kind in the West of England". The idea was "to produce something as beautiful as Christ Church but not clashing with it." In later years the Congregationalists built other Gothic chapels in Bristol, but this was, and still is, a remarkable structure on several counts.

Bryan Little

Clifton is on the western side of Bristol, and can be reached via the M32, which branches off from the M4 at exit 19.

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