Clifton Suspension Bridge at Christmas
Clifton Suspension Bridge at Christmas

I was recently asked by my friends at Visit Bristol to promote things to do in the Bristol area during the festive period. While I was looking through the list of many events and places to visit, I started to reminisce about my childhood Christmases in the 1980s and 90s. And I realised how Christmas in Bristol has evolved during my lifetime.

One of my earliest memories of Christmas in Bristol is of the Carol Bus. During the early 1980s this open top bus toured every part of the city to raise money for the Lord Mayor’s Christmas Appeal. The bus was decked with festive lights and blasted Christmas carols through its loudspeakers. Father Christmas and the Lord Mayor were on the top deck to wave to the children eagerly waiting its arrival. I would wait excitedly in an upstairs window to catch my first glimpse of the bus making its way to our street. And this wasn’t the only illuminated vehicle to feature in Bristol Christmases of the 80s.

For many years Bristol was the final leg of the Somerset Carnival Circuit. The Bristol Carnival was typically on a Thursday night in late November, and was one of the few occasions my parents would take me into town after dark. My dad would park the car at Canon’s Marsh, a derelict area next to the harbour with no bars or apartments in sight! Full of excitement we’d walk on cobbled paving, over disused railway lines and past old warehouses to make our way to the centre to see a celebrity switch on the Christmas lights. In 1987 the Blue Peter presenter Caron Keating, who was appearing as Snow White at the Bristol Hippodrome, did the honours. Take a look at the BBC’s archive of the 1987 event. This was followed by a procession of bright colourful floats, dancers and music. I’m fairly sure the night usually ended with a fireworks display from the harbour. And sometimes a laser display too, which projected festive shapes on the large derelict bonded warehouses. As we entered the 90s the Bristol Carnival became something of the past. The Somerset Carnivals still happen without us, visiting the towns of Bridgwater, Burnham-on-Sea, Glastonbury, North Petherton, Shepton Mallet, Wells, and Weston-Super-Mare during November. It’s an impressive spectacle to see. So how did we mark the start of the festive season in Bristol without the carnival?

With tough economic times and ever growing competition from out-of-town retailers, the focus of Christmas in Bristol throughout the 90s rightly moved to Broadmead. The Galleries Shopping Centre opened in 1991 and became an exciting new place for Christmas shopping at Woolworths, Virgin Megastore and Our Price records! Funfair rides started to visit Broadmead during the festive period and it wasn’t long until our first open air ice rink arrived. Who can name the year? Of course this was long before Millennium Square was built, and with the focus on Broadmead the ice rink was situated outside St Peter’s Church at Castle Park.

It was during the 90s that I started ‘proper work’ for the first time, and like many students I worked part-time in retail. Now I was on the front line of Christmas! I’ve got fond memories of working in department stores, especially at Christmas. Some colleagues hated the Christmas music on repeat, but I rather liked it. Some colleagues hated the relentless queues and questions from customers, but I quite liked the buzz. But working in retail during Christmas means missing out on all of the city’s festive events. For a few years I had to make do with catching glimpses of the outside world through the window; like fireworks from Castle Park and brass bands playing Christmas carols. At the end of the 90s my time in retail was firmly behind me and I was about to start my journey into the world of communications. But that’s another story.

Throughout the 2000s Christmas markets, rides and other attractions had become a permanent feature of a Christmas in Bristol. For many years the ice rink and ferris wheel remained at Castle Park and Broadmead. The wooden Christmas market stalls would appear in the centre but found their rightful place in Broadmead. Since the redevelopment of the harbourside, the open-air ice rink, funfair rides and food and drink stalls found a new home at Millennium and Anchor Squares. We’ve also welcomed the Harbourside Market and, of course, our tourist attractions join the fun too.

Every year there’s magical lights to see at Longleat and Westonbirt Aboretum; Victorian Christmases at Tyntesfield and the SS Great Britain; and Santa Specials on the AvonValley Railway and Bristol Ferry Boats. The latest uniquely Bristol Christmas activity is to sing carols under Concorde at the Aerospace Museum. Nothing gets me in the Christmas mood like singing Christmas Carols, but I’ve yet to try this version! If you like a more traditional experience, there’s ‘Carols by Candlelight’ services at Bristol Cathedral and the New Room at John Wesley’s Chapel. And don’t forget St Mary Redcliffe Church, where festivities start in early December with Treefest and continue with events throughout advent.

See Visit Bristol for full details of events in the greater Bristol area this Christmas.

Whatever you do this December, I hope it includes a chance to rest, reflect on 2018 and plan for a happy 2019.

Leave a comment