I leave the rusted fencing behind me and return to cruise mode, following an easy right-hand curve beneath arching trees.

To my left, the woodland gets higher and steeper and then suddenly the first set of cliffs known as, Seawalls, announce themselves. A giant ramp of rock juts up towards the sky, joining a ragged vertical face that peaks at around 70 metres. I spot a couple of climbers, their bright vests and stretched limbs marking them out like strange crabs against the limestone.

I hop off my bike and balance on the kerb, waiting for a gap in the traffic, when there is movement in the air. I double take as what I can only assume to be a Peregrine Falcon, swoops lazily across the road and disappears behind the trees. ‘Tis the season I am soon to discover (see photos).

Across the road is a grassy bank and I trudge over it, losing sight of the road. Then the cliffs are all about me, magnificent and daunting.

I spy more climbers attached to the rock at impossible angles while others teeter about near the bottom. Towards the far end of the area is a gravel car park with a few cars and a mini-bus parked there. Ropes are strung up next to it, leading youngsters with mandarin-coloured helmets up and down the shorter part of the cliffs.

My eyes wander and come to a stop at a large black hole covered by a grill, midway up the centre of the cliffs. It looks suitably uninviting.

Five minutes later I am standing inside it, trying to distinguish whether anything is lurking amongst the bricks and blackened debris that covers the floor. My eyes adjust to the darkness and something takes shape at the end of the passage. An empty brick doorway frames an impenetrable darkness from which comes a constant breeze. I push into it, my hands clutching the sides of the doorway and the end of a train tunnel blinks into view.

Back on the Portway, I find another enclave, labelled with the less adventurous title of Main Wall. However, this one appears much less tamed than the first. A Co-operative lorry and a line of cars are parked in a lay-by, all driverless. Behind them a mound of earth lies where a red barrier has long since been raised and left for dead.

I clamber over the earth and find myself in the remains of another car park. White lines painted on the tarmac get lost in fantastic carpets of orange moss while greater heaps of vegetation create corridors down which I wander.

There are odd remnants of human activity scattered about; a crash-landed radio controlled plane, a wildlife research project and a memorial of lanterns and flowers at the foot of the cliffs. I stop here a minute for some cool reflection and look up at the rock. It glares back at me unrelentingly, with a face even more extreme than the last in its concave shape.

 

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I make a quick stop at the viewpoint on the Downs and join the tourists and lunchtime strollers as they gaze into the hollow of the mighty Avon Gorge. It’s an epic sight, not least because of the majestic limestone cliffs and wooded banks that rear up from the riverside, but also due to its location right around the corner from Bristol city centre. In fact, I’m fairly sure that within ten minutes of passing under the Clifton Suspension Bridge that hangs across the mouth, it’s possible to find yourself in a pub with a nice harbourside view.

I keep that thought in mind as I ride off, turning down Seawalls Road into the genteel neighbourhood of Sneyd Park. Here is a land of pristine hedgerows and perfect driveways and more than a few properties that border on the castle variety. There also seems to be a distinct lack of traffic, which might have something to do with there being no obvious way to the river and I follow any road leading downwards in the hope of eventually finding it.

Then all of a sudden, secluded wealth is swept aside and replaced by gritty 1960′s housing before the Portway makes itself known; a fast and furious carriageway that runs/ruins the entire length of the gorge. Being a Sunday, however, the traffic is relatively calm and I’m able to get to the other side unscathed where a cycleway runs adjacent to the river. There’s also a rather picturesque scene of blossoms and bungalows while over yonder, freshly ploughed fields spread out towards Pill and Shirehampton.

I start riding and find the pavement wide enough (just) for two cyclists to pass each other without getting sucked into the tailwind of a freight lorry or toppling over the fence and into the mud, but it’s no less a humbling experience. Everything about the surroundings makes me feel small, from the huge expanse of water flowing past to the banks of trees that start to rise up on either side.

Nevertheless, there’s nothing particularly eye-catching on this initial stretch until my urban decay radar picks up something across the road. A rusted fence lies half-collapsed and mangled, opening the way to what appears to be an abandoned sports ground.

I chain up my bike and make a dash across the road. There is a barrier that stands between a gate and the fence, but I easily push it aside and squeeze through. A ramp leads down to an area of bare concrete where some long-extinguished fireworks waste away in the sun. To my right is a stripped out hut full of rubbish while to the left are two basketball courts. In the first, masonry lies strewn about like broken slabs of chocolate while the second is empty all but for a sorry-looking bike ramp made of chipboard. The only thing keeping the place alive seems to be the fresh-looking graffiti that decorates the walls.

In front of the hotel is a statue by David Backhouse, entitled, The Cloaked Horseman. He gazes across the road towards the newly razed buildings of Nelson St, no doubt wondering what it’s all about and I pat his steed in sympathy, before wondering if really he is staring in longing at the city wall that runs along it and the old town beyond. This strip doesn’t seem to suit him very well.

I turn right and head into a red-brick tunnel that’s lined with scratched one-way glass. It dares me to check my reflection, but I wonder how many office workers might be laughing at me on the other side if I do.

The tunnel opens out and I find myself in a mini set-piece of old England. Cobbled street is afoot tumbledown buildings, with narrow turnings leading off left and right. At the corner of one of these, leans a timber-framed building that is said to date back to the 13th century. For the best part of the 20th it’s been a fish and chip shop and its present day incarnation as Bobby’s Fish Bar continues this tradition, with photos of Che Guevara and Castro on the walls, adding a Latin twist.

Next to this is St Bartholomew’s Court, a series of courtyards and corridors that once housed Bristol Grammar School in the 1500’s followed by Queen Elizabeth Hospital in 1767. A list of companies displayed at the gate implies it’s now an office complex, if a modest one. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Centre Gate, an uncompromising corporate block that was somehow allowed to be dumped right at the foot of the Christmas Steps, blocking all view of it from the road. The building’s only redeeming feature seems to be that it offers another tunnel that leads to the centre, thereby helping to retain the intimate atmosphere of this microcosm.

Cynicisms aside, I finally take a walk up the famous steps, my soles adding their bit to the 300 years of friction that has carved them into gently rippling shapes.

I see doors beneath doors, sealed up with decades of cobweb while poky windows look out from above rows of signage that dangles into the street. Beneath these are myriad buildings, all jostling together to stand out from the crowd. In fact, there are so many different shops here that its difficult to take them all in while watching my feet on the buckled steps and cobbled pavement. The fact that they are particularly niche also means that it takes more than a passing glance to figure out just what they’re all about and I’m forced to balance on a step as I take each one in.

The steamy windows of Harry Blades and Angry Daves, a hairdresser clothing store combo, sit opposite a vintage emporium simply entitled SHOP. Further on, a wine merchant waves to his neighbourly cider makers over at Bristol Cider Shop and a man deals in stamp collections by lamplight, next to the premises of a master bowmaker.

As I gaze into each window, I get the feeling that these places are as much hidey-holes for the shopkeepers to pursue their passions as they are for the public to buy goods and as an afterthought, I wonder if maybe that’s what sums up the nature of a true independent business.

Towards the top of the steps I find a series of stone alcoves known as the Almsgatherers Niches, where the poor from almshouses in the area would come to beg. Above them is a plaque stating how the steps were ‘steppered done and finished September 1669.’

Then I’m on Colston St again with Foster’s Almshouses on my left and an even steeper set of steps that run up past Zero Degrees to Perry Road. From the top, the view is a unique one, with quaint rooftops and little windows giving way to the grey stacks of town and the occasional church spire all framed by a curving iron arch that announces ‘To Christmas Steps’ in gold lettering.

Across the road and the trajectory of the steps seems to continue, with a short path that slices between the two art galleries on Perry Road. It brings me to Lower Church Lane, a narrow one-way road that meanders its way past back gardens, while immediately opposite are a set of blistered stone steps with black bollards sticking out like partially uprooted trees. I dodge past them and suddenly feel as though I’ve ambled out to the countryside.

Before me is the church of St Michael’s on the Mount Without (so called because it was built outside of the city wall), which lies quietly abandoned and half covered in ivy. A small garden and cemetery forms a triangle in front of it, creating two paths. I take the left and follow it to a carved cross in the wall of the church, framed by winter trees and wide angled steps. Only the tags scrawled on the cross give it away, an infallible signature of the city and a confirmation of the church’s demise.

Around the corner, flaking steps lead to a boarded up front door. A beer can sits by the side.

The path continues round the church, opening out for a view up to its spire. Then I arrive full circle, looking back down to where I had started and a picturesque scene that is both charming and melancholic. Gothic spiked fencing curves round the church garden and under yellowed lime trees, which cast shadows across the ground and on orange fallen leaves. A red house in the background adds to the spectrum of colour.

Behind me the path joins on to St Michaels Hill and snakes its way up the rest of the ‘mount’ to the heady heights of Cotham and out of the quarter.

My journey here is done.

Herbal tinctures and hairspray waft out of doorways as I wander past the shops that occupy the top half of Colston Street. Coins blink at me from a jampacked window display, ready to test the keen eye of an antique hunter and Super 8 cameras and film reels rest in a darkened shopfront, viewable by appointment only.
Then I find a shop that speaks my language.

An air of friendly dust and smoky varnish greets me as I enter Bloom and Curll’s bookshop. I start to browse the books, but find myself just admiring the fine detail of the cabinets, rows of yellowed pages and myriad corners that surprisingly fit into this cosy space.
The owner sits by the window, nursing a book, laptop and cup of tea. I tell him what I’m up to and he points out a black and white photo above the door. It’s of George, the old bookseller that I first heard about from Jeanette at the Joke shop. I draw a mental line between here and there and witness another layer of time gently adding itself to the fabric of the street.
Across the way, lonely chairs look down from the balcony of Zero Degrees, a steely bar restaurant on the site of the old tramshed. The ramp, which once rolled up double-decker trams, now rolls in the clientele, a blend of uptown workers and Park Street layabouts.

I join on to Upper Maudlin St, where four lanes of traffic charge up and down. But I’ve eyed an escape route in the form of a fissure on the map that meanders its way between the buildings.
I don’t come across it, however, until I’m almost level with the Royal Infirmary. At this point, the buildings fall away to reveal Johnny Ball Lane, a sinister thoroughfare that drops into a narrow conduit leading to a graffiti-ridden corner. I start down the steps, leaving the bustle behind me and regret previously reading that in 1757, a piece of ground next to the lane was granted as a place of burial for the dead of the hospital. It got so packed with bodies that it became a graverobbers delight before being moved to a new location.

I turn the corner into silence. Up ahead, giant arched walls of red brick rise up 40ft to the workshops of Colston Yard, while the lane curves away uneasily to the left.
I find debris from ‘the night before’ littering the ground and follow its trail to a derelict backyard, heaped with rubbish and flourishing weeds. Further down, an out of control bush sprawls across the way, plunging the final section into darkness. A lamppost and a CCTV camera are camped out amongst the vegetation. Then from the darkness comes light and I emerge on to Lewins Mead, outside the Hotel du Vin with its fountain gushing affluently in the courtyard.

I drain the foam from my cappuccino and bid a silent farewell to the officeless professionals and solitary thinkers with whom I’ve shared the Colston Hall foyer for the last 20 minutes.
Outside, the sky threatens a change in the weather, so I set off at a caffeine-fuelled pace, passing by the worn, sand-coloured columns of the old Colston Hall entrance. These are followed by the dark, brooding courtyard of the Unicorn Studios, which looks like a backstreet out of Victorian London, albeit for the fire escapes hanging overhead.

Then I’m almost back where I was before, at the junction to Trenchard Street, this time outside The Gryphon pub. I feel the rumble of metal music as it permeates the windows, reiterating the pub’s transformation not so long ago, from a gay bar into a rockers den. But instead of a pint and a hard rock session, I opt for the main attraction over the road that is Foster’s Almshouse.
Founded by JOhn Foster in the 1400’s, the house has been twice rebuilt and its present form is the stuff of dreams, with black beamed balconies and a spiral staircase leading to turret rooms with spires straight out of Prague.
Looking down from a chapel in the grounds are three wind-worn figures, smiling contentedly. These are The Three Kings of Cologne, chosen as a dedication by John Foster, supposedly inspired by frequent visits to Cologne where the Shrine of the Three Kings resides.

Before moving on, I spy an open door in a tumbledown building, across the street. The name, Pastimes, belies the specialist interest of the shop, which looks to be the art of war. Helmets hang from the ceiling like stalactites while mounds of clothing and shoulder bags cover the floor. Any available wall space is filled with books and bayonets and other odds and ends.
I venture inside and discover a gentleman behind the counter, hidden behind drawers of medals. He chats sporadically with a man, leaning on the side, while his dog stares at me from the dimness.
I blurt out an introduction, at once feeling as if I’ve stumbled into someone’s front room as well as into their private conversation. I am met by the serious blue eyes of Andy, the owner, and I scribble down his pithy answers to my questions, learning that the shop has been trading there since 1974. Before that, the building was an engineering yard for a model shop that was next door, now a left-leaning café.
Going by his reticent manner, I am somewhat surprised when Andy agrees to show me the yard around the back of the shop, where I’m told a medieval building lies.

Outside, rain is beginning and Andy, with jacket over head, tells me that when he started here, the area was run down, with a lot of shops on Colston Street empty and derelict. Indeed, long before that, the area was a slum with city officials advising pedestrians not to wander round these parts.
Then he ducks under an arch beneath the café and unlocks the padlock of a gate, before leaving me to my own devices. I swing it open and pass into a yard, overlooked by the rear of various buildings from all walks of life. The boldest of these – painted red with blue paper-chain figures – contrasts fantastically with the centre piece of the show, a timber building with a 1700’s facade that was originally the Gryphon pub, before it moved to its present location in 1870.
I try and take in this strange space, almost protected from time by its own enclosure of shoprears, before the rain drives me out. I pass through the gate and back to present reality, reeling a little at the effects of time travel, but pleased at my little adventure.

Inside, is a surprisingly empty space from which, to view the fancy dress items that line the walls of the shop. I am also pleased to discover that they’ve got a traditional range of schoolboy classics on offer such as sneezing powder and fake cigarettes.
I introduce myself to the lady at the counter and it so happens that she is the owner, whose uncle opened the store in 1954. I enquire about a little history and she tells me about some of the shops that used to be in the area, including a store that specialised in buttons and a second-hand bookshop that was so full with books that you had to follow a one-way system in order to get out again. At this point, Dan arrives, an odd job man who has worked in the area for 30 years. He insists he is not much of a source of history on the area, but suggests that I pay a visit to the Bristol County Sports Club (also known as Sportsman) over the road, an institution in the area for well over 100 years.

I admit I’m tentative in my approach, as I spot some hardy looking clientele supping pints outside, but it turns out they couldn’t be more forthcoming. I’m shown inside by a member of the club, where I’m hit by the musty aroma of a yesteryear establishment that has only recently undergone major refurbishment. He shows me a collection of framed certificates and photographs on the wall, including one that heralds the opening of the club in 1895 by WG Grace, a Bristolian and world renowned cricketer.
While I’m studying the frames a moustachioed member of the club leaps behind a computer and prints me off an article from the Club’s website about the days when no women were allowed to enter. The rule doesn’t apply today, of course, although it still appears to be a male dominated institution.

Before they can tempt me into membership, however, I make my escape down Zed Alley, an atmospheric lane that cuts steeply down the side of the club. Its bowed steps and mossy bricks are a reminder of a pre-war Bristol when the centre would have been criss-crossed with narrow streets and alleys. But this daydream is short lived, however, as Zed Alley crosses Host St and lands me abruptly end in the city centre, where I am confronted by juddering buses and streams of cars.
I falter, caught in the headlights of pedestrians who behave much like the traffic, weaving in and out of each other on their way to somewhere else. The only ones standing still are the bus drivers, adding nicotine to the noxious air.

It seems an unlikely location for my next destination and indeed, I almost pass it by as its greyed front merges with the anonymous offices and job agencies that occupy this stretch. Only by glancing up, do I notice a set of imposing classical columns that belong to St Mary’s on the Quay, a Catholic church built in 1840. Its name stems from a time when the River Frome ran openly into the city centre and boats were able to moor right outside. The idea seems a far cry from what surrounds it now, although ironically, it seems the best view to have of the church is probably from the top floor of a bus.
I head up the steps, into the sanctuary that the columns provide and find that the door to the church is open. It is all but empty inside except for a priest doing the rounds. The interior of the church seems modest compared to outside, although there is a fairly dramatic, golden-columned altar at the far end, topped by the words ‘Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriem’ – to the greater glory of God.

I travel hastily along the remainder of Colston Avenue, turning the corner at Flavourz restaurant where I hear its possible to have curry, pizza and ice cream all on one plate. Then the sparkling new foyer of the Colston Hall presents itself and I take the opportunity for a refresher, before heading up the hill.

I feel my breath start to quicken as the world closes up around me. The sound of the road fades into the background and even the sky momentarily disappears from view, replaced by the underside of the exit ramp to the car park.
I approach a corner and prepare to meet some low-life who has made this discarded thoroughfare his own, but instead I come face to face with a jungle. Trees and foliage burst through fencing, while to the left a view opens out over brambles to Frogmore St. The path, meanwhile, continues down steps, following the wall of the car park that seemingly doubles up as a gallery for graffiti artists.
I follow the path down, my senses still on alert, until I emerge on to the top of an open-air, concrete stairwell that spirals down to a gaping empty space between the car park and the old Bristol Ice Rink. It’s an odd sight, not least for the dated chunky features of this structure, but to find such a wide open space in the centre of town. I can only guess that the uneven gradient on which it stretches out has prevented it from being pounced on by frenzied developers.

I make my way down, examining the moss-lined edges and faded graffiti that decorates this 80’s relic, before I reach ground level. The wide open space takes me on to Trenchard St and I turn left up a sharp incline, passing the car park for a third and final time.
Now its the rear of the Colston Hall that dominates the scene, bearing down on me with a million red bricks.
Opposite, is a seemingly featureless grey façade. However, all is not as it seems as I pass by an archway that speaks of former grandeur. Through the bars of a security gate, I see post boxes for flats and another arch that looks like the entrance to some enchanted garden. This is what remains of St Joseph’s Trenchard Street Chapel, the first Catholic Church to be built in Bristol after the Reformation.
I step back into the road and admire it full, noticing now, the elegant windows that stretch the full length of the building.

A little further along I find some butterflies by Bristol artist Nick Walker. They bring a welcome splash of colour to the street, which helps to ease the oppressive glare of the Colston Hall.
Then all of a sudden, I am on Colston St and in the centre of the Quarter, characterised by the entrance to the Christmas Steps themselves, not to mention several other points of interest all within a stone’s throw of each other. I look about me, wondering which way to turn, when I get the feeling that I’m being watched. I glance over my shoulder and meet the gaze of several costumed women eyeing me up through a shop window. Sadly, they’re not real, but I’m intrigued nevertheless and discover that I’m standing outside a joke shop, The Joke Shop, in fact, which has been in the area since 1954. It might not be your ordinary port of call, but then, this is no ordinary investigation, so I venture inside to see what I can uncover.

There’s a shift in the air as I make my way past the Bristol Royal Infirmary towards Perry Road. It seems to start round about where the old iron railing separates Perry Road from Colston St. It’s not much to look at, but its flaking charm acts as a marker that I’m on the right track.
I’m heading for a part of town known as the Christmas Steps Arts Quarter (CSAQ), a curious network of independent businesses and historical nooks and crannies where more than a glimmer of the old city can still be found.

I choose to start my investigation at the Red Lodge museum, a restored Tudor house situated on the corner of Park Row and Lodge St. It’s difficult not to get sidetracked on the way as I pass by a number of intriguing shops selling wares as diverse as violins and woodworking tools, while crooked streets and stairways lead off to secret destinations. But I press on and soon arrive at the bright red door of an otherwise, unassuming building. What I find inside couldn’t be more of a contrast, however.

The Red Lodge was built in 1580 as a ‘garden lodge’ to John Young, a courtier to Henry VIII who lived in a mansion at the foot of the hill where the Colston Hall now stands. On the ground floor, a parlour room spans out to the left, while in the centre of the hall, a spiralling staircase with thick oak banisters and deep red carpet leads me up to a number of oak-panelled rooms, the grandest being the Great Oak Room with an incredible carved doorway and Bath stone fireplace.
From the windows, I can see down into the garden, arranged in a Tudor-style knot, which takes its design from one of the Lodge’s ceiling panels. But what really rouses my curiosity is the barn-like building that sits next to it, grimly overshadowed by a giant multi-storey car park.

The building is known as the ‘Wigwam’ and is home to the Bristol Savages, a group of artists who have been meeting there since the 1920s to show off their talents. It’s normally closed to the public, but with the help of some contacts on the inside, I’m able to take a quick look. What I find resembles something like a hunter’s hall of fame, with a myriad of weaponry, stuffed animal heads and other weird and wonderful things adorning its walls, most of which is said to pertain to the group’s founding ideal of the ‘noble savage.’

If that’s not enough to take in, I am informed of darker secrets lurking in the cellar of the Lodge. It’s not clear how they came to be there, but down a narrow corridor beneath the floor, lie four cramped cells. Some stories point to their belonging to the Carmelite Friary who occupied the site prior to the Lodge being built. But other stories say they may have been created when the building became a reform school for girls in the 1850s, seeing as those who attended might otherwise have been in jail.

I leave with a head full of images and impressions forged by the rich and diverse nature of the building. This was merely the beginning of my investigation and already I had discovered enough to warrant a whole day’s wandering in a single place.
As I ponder which direction to take from here, my attention is caught by an altogether grittier scene lurking at the bottom of a foothpath that runs along the front of the lodge and adjacent car park. It may take me a little off course, but intrigue gets the better of me and I set off to investigate.