Unbuilt Bristol – buy the book, walk the walk

14Apr13

Unbuilt-Bristol1My latest local book, Unbuilt Bristol is to be published on May 18. Most families will probably be able to get by with just three copies (one for the coffee table, one for reading in bed, one for the guest room) but don’t let that put you off buying more if you need to.

Unbuilt Bristol: The city that might have been 1750-2050 looks at around 50 of the buildings, monuments and other structures that have been proposed for Bristol at one time or another, but which were never actually built. While all your old favourites are there (all the other proposals for a bridge over the Avon Gorge, the insane 1960s/70s plan to fill in the Floating Harbour and cover it in roads etc.) there are plenty more which you won’t have heard of. Like the Victorian scheme to put Bristol’s main railway station in Queen Square, or a visionary 19th century plan to run the city’s street lighting using power generated by the rise and fall of the river Avon.

Some things were easier to research than others. It’s very difficult, for instance, to keep track of several decades’ worth of failed plans to build new grounds for City and Rovers, as these schemes seem to change with every season. Or all the schemes for generating tidal power from the Severn; these are hard to follow as some of them are serious plans put forward by bodies which could, theoretically, find the money to do it. Others are more, ah, speculative. Talk of a dam across the Severn goes back to the 1840s, though the notion of using it to generate electricity only goes back to a piece of paper put in the staff suggestions box at the Great Western Railway’s Paddington offices in 1918.

And as for the blasted trams… We’ve been talking seriously about trams now since the early 1980s, and we are still talking. Now it is true to say that there are all sorts of complicated topographical problems if you’re trying to put a tram system into Bristol. Not to mention all the complexities of the planning process itself, and trying to square the needs and wants of a very dense population. One of the most telling things that everyone needs to know about Bristol’s original tram system, which ran between the 1860s and 1940, was that the firm was run, from its early days by a man who was not an engineer or architect or builder. Sir George White was a lawyer. The first thing you need to put a tram system in place is not technology and it’s not even money; it’s a route and the permission and build it.

These problems aside, a person of a cynical frame of mind might also conclude that talking about a tram system suits some people better than actually building it. There are council officers in Bristol and the neighbouring authorities who have spent entire careers not building us a tram. And then there are all the lavishly-remunerated consultants…

So then, Unbuilt Bristol: The city that might have been 1750-2050 (to remind you of the title once more) has trams (or rather it doesn’t) and loads more besides. Anyone remember the 1990s plan to make a pyramid of bottles on top of the Create Centre? Or (for older readers) the amazing 1960s vision of streets in the sky? We were all going to be walking around on pedestrian decks and even a plaza suspended over the Centre while the traffic thundered by at ground level.

All this and more in (that title again) Unbuilt Bristol: The city that might have been 1750-2050, published by Redcliffe Press on May 18 at a very reasonable fifteen quid. More here.

I’ll be doing a few events around the book over the spring and summer, including a gig at Arnolfini with Mayor Ferguson in June (more details as and). But the first, on May 18, will be a guided walk for Bristol Festival of Ideas. Yes, a walk looking at non-existent things. Last I heard it was almost fully booked, but if there’s enuff demand we’ll do another one. Details here.

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8 Responses to “Unbuilt Bristol – buy the book, walk the walk”

  1. We will definitely need 17 copies, one for each room in the house (that was never built).

  2. …a visionary 19th century plan to run the city’s street lighting using power generated by the rise and fall of the river Avon.

    Would the power generated be based on the figures from Mr T. Howard quoted in Charles Wells’ A Short History of the Port Of Bristol published in 1909?

    • You’re got me there as it’s a while since I researched it. Think it is mentioned in the book. It was proposed in 1881 after early experiments in newfangled electric street lighting were a disappointment because generators were unreliable. Main mover was businessman and Clifton councillor William Smith. Local scientist Sylvanus Thompson made initial calculations of tidal energy, but project failed because the river’s tidal and thus energy not constant.

  3. I once made a crack about management consultants and how much HS1 had cost without a single scrap of real work being done on Twitter got loads of angry (not to mention grammatically poor and badly spelt) responses back from angry management consultants claiming that they were not parasites. Methinks the ladies do protest too much


  1. 1 Eugene Byrne on his new book on unbuilt Bristol…. | Bristol Festival of Ideas
  2. 2 New Anthology – Airship Shape & Bristol Fashion | Cheryl's Mewsings
  3. 3 Steve Woods | Lamplight from tides

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