Why Bristol research?
Why not? It’s my home town so a research trip really appealed! It’s the city where I spent the first decades of my life. I am currently writing a book, set in the Regency, with scenes around the docks and in what was then South Gloucestershire, now just outside the city centre…
But more about the book at a later date
For today’s blog, I want to share with you my delight in a Bristol research trip where I discovered an area of the city that I only knew by name. Montpelier.
Not what you’d expect, huh? I certainly didn’t! Described as more Bronx than Bristol, it’s a million miles from the place I knew as a child. Apparently more than 80% of building surfaces in Montpelier are covered with graffiti – some of it I loved. Some….well, looking at all the coverage I found online, it has certainly divided opinion.
When I grew up in Bristol, Montpelier was just one of the railway stations en route to my aunt’s house. It has always been so much more than that, only I didn’t know it.
OK, it doesn’t have the grandeur of Clifton, or Cheltenham, or Bath, but it has a charm and energy all of its own, and LOTS of interesting history!
Let’s start with the name
The earliest mention of Montpelier is in Matthews Bristol Guide of 1793 – “a beautiful view of Bristol and the country can be obtained from Montpelier.” Bristol has expanded a great deal since then and this is about all that is left of that “beautiful view”, a few rooftops through the trees of what is left of the public park.
Apparently in the 18th and early 19th centuries many places with pretensions to becoming a health resort took the name, copying the French spa town of Montpellier, although sometimes changing the spelling to just one “l”. One can find areas called “Montpel(l)ier in Brighton, Cheltenham, Harrogate and even in London.
Bristol research? Where to start?
It makes sense, when planning a research trip, to find someone who knows the area well, if you can. I have family living in and around Bristol and arranged to meet up with my ideal guide, one who knows the area and also has an interest in the history.
My book begins in 1816, when Stoke’s Croft was at the edge of the city. What better way to start our tour than with refreshments at the Full Moon? It has been serving customers since the early 18th century, when it was a busy coaching inn on the road north to Gloucester.
Perfect, since I had already decided my hero will stay here when he arrives in Bristol.
The Full Moon is now advertised as a backpackers’ hostel but it still has many original features inside.
Not quite what the Georgians would expect, but it’s a lively welcoming place and I loved it. And, let’s face it, given the amount of painting going on around the place, maybe it’s best to do your own?
It was when we left the Full Moon and made our way to Montpelier that I realised just how much street art there was in my old town. It’s everywhere.
And not just painted on the walls!Not surprising, when you think that Banksy started his career in Bristol.
Art aside (for now), Montpelier has a rich and varied history. In 1645, General Fairfax made his headquarters at Montpelier Farm (demolished 1872) on the nearby Ashley Hill, and Cromwell stayed there in September 1645 before leading the attack on nearby Bristol. In the 18th century, Montpelier had its own Grand Pleasure Baths. There is still a Bath Street, but a medical centre now sits next to the Old England, the 18th century tavern.
Which brings me to Cricket
They are still in use by members of the Old England Cricket Club.
In Victorian times W G Grace came here to enjoy his favourite pastimes of beer and cricket, and he is depicted in all his glory on the front of the pub.
Fairfax isn’t the only general associated with Montpelier. This street named after General Picton, who died at Waterloo. This was the centre of a Regency shopping area and still has its original houses, although not all of them are shops now. As someone who grew up in the centre of Bristol during the 50’s, I remember lines of small plain terraced houses, perhaps with a polished brass doorstep and the odd painted door (usually some dark colour). A bit drab, to be honest. Nothing like the explosion of colour that I saw as we made our way along Picton Street!
And what about Cary Grant? More Bristol research
There has been quite a lot of media interest in Cary Grant this winter. Or Archibald Leach, as he was christened. Possibly because a new TV drama “Archie”, was released in November 2023. Also, at least one of his films is usually being shown somewhere on tv. He was born on 18th January 1904, so belated birthday wishes, Archie.
What you might not know is that he was born in Bristol and lived with his grandmother in Picton Street for a while before leaving home at 14 to seek his fortune on the stage.
Bear with me… No 9 Picton Street bears a plaque for the noted actor/manager, Sir Henry Irving (~1838-1905).
Bram Stoker was his business manager for many years and it is believed that Stoker used Irving as the model for Dracula.
Irving is described on the Irving Society website thus: “…tall, slender figure—about 6′ 2″—with hair worn longer than was customary, a clean-shaven chin—again unusual for the times—a long, strikingly sensitive face and a dominant, rather sardonic, presence which both fascinated and intimidated.”
Perfect for Dracula, then. Many have said this was Stoker’s tribute to his friend and “guv-nor”. However, Irving was also described as “Pompous and insufferable, sucking all the life out of his employees”.
Stoker wanted Irving to play the lead in the stage play of Dracula, but when Irving read Stoker’s work, he declared it “dreadful”.
So, was it perhaps not such a tribute after all….?
So you see, my Bristol research trip threw up such a lot of surprises. I have plenty of information and inspiration for my Regency novel and I am now busily writing it! Almost none of the above will feature, for obvious reasons (and you will have to wait for another blog to discover my 18th century nuggets of research). Writers amongst you will know the pitfalls of research, the rabbit-holes waiting to drag you in. This trip was a positive warren!
So, next time you are walking through a city, why not take a moment to just stop and stare….
Happy reading (or researching)