Tuesday, May 24th 2016
We have been to Bristol on numerous occasions, including a week’s stay in 2011 (see Bristol 2011), and we always find something new to admire or, wonder at. On this occasion, we had a specific destination in view and it turned out to be well worth a visit.
We had come to see Bristol’s Georgian House, once the private dwelling of a well-to-do citizen and now open to the public under the auspices of Bristol Museums. Admission is free and photography is allowed without flash. The visitor is free to explore the house and there is plenty of information available in the form of room guides and posters on the both house itself and the original owner and his family.
When you approach the house in Great George Street and and see the relatively small, 3-storey façade, it seems very modest for a wealthy family with servants. This, however, is only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, because the house is built on a steep hill and a view from the rear would show it comprises six storeys.
The house was built around 1790 for West India merchant and plantation owner, John Pinney (1740-1818), who became one of Bristol’s wealthiest citizens. As was common at the time, Pinney employed slaves on his plantations. In a letter he admits to being shocked at his first sight of ‘human flesh exposed for sale’ but goes on to justify their use by appeal to the deity: ‘But surely God ordained them for ye use and benefit of us; otherwise his Divine will would have been made manifest by some particular sign or token’. He also forbade use of the whip, but only in the presence of visitors, especially abolitionists. Though Pinney treated his slaves with relative humanity for the time, this was at least partly because he saw that this made the running of the plantation more efficient.
Despite his wealth, John Pinney lived relatively modestly. His interior is neither opulent nor showy but comfortable and elegant, imbued with that most Georgian of qualities, ‘taste’. The study, with its strong room for money and documents, all shows the same quiet elegance.
Most of the following photos of the interior of the house are composites (two or three separate photos stitched together) as this was the only way to obtain a broad sweep in a confined space. You may see an occasional misalignment or slight deformation of perspective but I think these are too minor to worry us.
At the rear of the house are two rooms, both for eating, that originally could be combined into one for the holding of receptions. This is one of the pair, known as the Breakfast Parlour. The family would have breakfasted on tea, coffee or chocolate and buttered rolls or bread around 10 am. To the right of the fireplace, you may be able to see two ways of summoning servants, a brass lever for ringing a bell in the kitchen and, above it, a speaking tube.
Next to the Breakfast Parlour is the Eating Room, used for dinner and formal meals with guests. To one side is an Irish sideboard with plates and ice cream pails. The table, with Bristol plates and Bristol blue glassware, is set for dessert. A main meal would consist of several courses or ‘removes’, and dessert would be an occasion for display, often with a complex and ornate centrepiece.
On the second floor is found the main bedroom. It contains a canopied bed behind which we can see a shaving table with a recess for the bowl and boxes for soap. It includes a cupboard wherein would be found a chamber pot. On the walls hang portraits, one of which (on the extreme right) is of John Pinney. As a bonus, there is also a portrait of the author of this blog (seen in the mirror)!
Communication between the floors was effected by means of a single staircase. This would have been used by both the family and the servants, unlike some more commodious dwellings where a whole separate system of passageways and stairs was in place for use by the servants. The staircase is of simple, practical design and would be equally at home in a school or office block.
The Library is dominated, on the left, by a long bookcase and, on the right, by a collector’s cabinet. In the middle of the room are two globes, terrestrial and celestial, respectively. This is a room where someone interested in science, nature and world events would come to study but also a room to which visitors might be brought to show them one’s collection of curious and interesting objects.
The Drawing Room is where guests would be received and entertained. In the Georgian period, such rooms were relatively sparsely furnished. All the accoutrements for serving tea to the guests are in place on a small table beside the sofa and a baize-topped table is ready for people to plays cards or other games. Note also the urn on its stand on the far end of the sofa so that the tea pot may be replenished as necessary.
From the entrance level, stairs go down to the realm of the servants.
Down here below, we find that important hub of activity, the kitchen. In most town houses, the servants’ area is in the basement and therefore lacks windows, leading to problems of overheating and lack of air. Because this house is built on a hill, the servants’ area, though at the bottom of the house, has external windows, making for pleasanter conditions than most domestic servants of the time would have known.
With even the first simple washing machines still far in the future, doing the household laundry was an important and physically demanding task. A special room had to be set aside for it. This laundry room contains an apparently extraneous feature, a cooking spit. There is, of course, an adequately sized spit in the kitchen but this one could be used either to supplement it or to replace it in case of breakdown. Laundry work was done to a weekly schedule, Saturday to Friday, and, as there was as yet no piped water supply, rainwater was collected and stored in a tank below the laundry and pumped up as required.
A rather curious installation in the basement is the cold-water bath, presumably also fed by rainwater. (It must have rained a lot in Bristol in the 18th century!) It seems that John Pinney acquired the habit of a daily plunge in cold water while still an apprentice in London (1750s or 1760s) and continued the habit at least until middle age. The bath is quite deep, suggesting total immersion, and is accessed by steps that you can perhaps glimpse in the bottom left corner.
As fans of Downton Abbey will know, the world of the servants was ruled by the Butler (male) and the Housekeeper (female). It seems that the Pinneys did not employ a butler and therefore the housekeeper performed the tasks of both, directing the work of the servants, buying supplies of food and other materials, controlling access to the pantry and crockery store and, to all intents and purposes, running the household, answering only to John Pinney himself. Her parlour was sited in the servants’ area where she could supervise all their activities. It was modestly furnished but comfortable, as befitted her status. In addition, she would have had a bedroom in the attic beside those of the other live-in servants.
The Georgian House is well kept and visitors are made welcome but allowed to move about as they wish. There is plenty of information available on the history of John Pinney and his family, on the room settings and furnishings and on the running of the household. One gets a very good impression of an affluent Georgian home and its daily life. Careful investigative work has been done in order to present as authentic a picture as possible.
Opposite the Georgian House is this handsome building in Greek Revival style, designed by Sir Robert Smirke and built 1821-3. At its inception it was known as the Church of St George Brandon Hill but since 1999 it has operated as a concert hall under the name of St George, Bristol. It is fine enough to have been given a Grade II* listing.
We walked on down towards the centre of town, renewing acquaintance with familiar sights and discovering new ones. On a warm day like today it was not surprising to see so many people sitting out on College Green, enjoying the sunshine.
We said hello to the statue of Queen Victoria on the edge of the Green. It was done by Sir Joseph Boehm in 1888. She looks a little severe in this representation but I think the sculpture stands out nicely against the green foliage of the trees.
We didn’t see a lot of street art in Bristol, either because there isn’t a lot or because we didn’t go where most of it is. I collected these three examples. I don’t know who painted the sword fight but the two figures on the tower are recognizably by Stik and the fantasy quadruped by Pixel Pancho.
We passed through Cabot Circus and, of course, started taking photos. Well, we did until a security guard came and told us photography was not allowed. Of course, though he had the authority to tell us to cease and desist, he had no jurisdiction over the photos we had already taken, which include the one above.
We now had the pleasure of making a new discovery. We spied the church tower from the street and decided to go closer for a better look. It turned out to be Temple Church, now known as a result of wartime damage as the Bombed Church. I will retail a couple of paragraphs from the information board that stands near the building:
Temple Church was bombed during the Second World War in the Bristol Blitz of 1940. After the war many damaged buildings in the city were demolished, but Temple Church was too important to Bristol’s history to be knocked down.
During the Medieval period, Temple was where cloth workers lived and worked. In 1299 the Guild of Weavers built their own chapel dedicated to St Catherine in the north corner of the church. Temple Church was one of Bristol’s largest and most important churches, partly due to the wealth of the weavers.
This is a view from what was once the churchyard, where a few tombs have been left in place. Low on the right is a tent which I assume to be the dwelling of a homeless person.
So, there you are in Bristol, it is late afternoon and you are thinking that it would be nice to go to the station and board a train for home. Then your partner says she wants to go to the beach. Eh? The beach? In Bristol? Well, yes, actually, there is a beach, not exactly in the town itself but quite near. You do have to go on a short train ride to reach it but that’s a mere detail.
Severn Beach is its name, and this designates both the beach and the hamlet or village beside it. In the name lies the clue to its nature: the Severn is of course a river and no ordinary river at that. It is Britain’s longest, rising in mid-Wales, winding its way through Shropshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire, to run into the sea in a large estuary. Severn Beach is about half-way down the estuary across which you can see Wales. (In fact, there was an item in the local paper about a rave that took place near Severn Beach to which the police were called as a result of people complaining about the noise…in Wales!)
With the declining sun glinting off the water (and mud), it seemed a magical place and one that begs to be photographed in panoramas. So that’s what I did. (Click to see larger versions.)
This photo shows a road bridge, the lowest one to cross the estuary, which bears the practical if unpoetic name of Second Severn Crossing. A little further upstream is the Severn Bridge. Both carry traffic between two countries, Wales and England.
We did not stay here very long so I was unable to gather more than a brief impression of the village but my impressions were favourable. It seems a peaceful place.
There is a regular train service between Severn Beach and Bristol Temple Meads Station, with several stops in between. It seems that the area is fast developing into a commuter suburb for those who work in Bristol. Severn Beach itself impressed me as quiet and relatively unspoilt and I hope it remains so.