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24 September 2014

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You are in: Bristol > History > Historic Places > Christmas Steps: Ghosts, myths and fish ‘n’ chips

View from top of Christmas Steps

Christmas Steps: Ghosts, myths and fish ‘n’ chips

Christmas Steps is one of the oldest and most charming parts of Bristol, but how much do you really know about it?

It is so tucked away that many seem to walk straight past without realising it is there.

I went down (and partly up) to find out more about this intriguing little pocket of Bristol.

It is an area steeped (no pun intended!) in history, and nobody can say for sure how the street acquired its unusual name. 

Its medieval title was Queene Street, then it became known as Knyfesmyth Street, after those who traded there. This name may gradually have been corrupted into the ‘Christmas’ of today. 

Stained glass window in Christmas Steps

Sacred and profane co-exist on the steps

Others suggest that the name may be derived from the nativity scene found in a stained glass window of The Chapel of the Three Kings of Cologne, which lies at the top of the steps.

It is also believed to have been called Lonsford’s Stairs for a short time, in honour of a Royalist officer of that name who was killed at the top of the steps during the siege of Bristol in the English Civil War of the 1640s. 

Until recently, there stood outside the chip shop a statue of the Madonna and child, which Oliver Cromwell is said to have beheaded in an iconoclastic attack during the same period. 

The statue, with feet rubbed smooth by generations of people hoping to gain good luck, can now be seen just inside St Bartholomew’s Court.

A ghostly presence

Rumours of ghosts in the Christmas Steps area also abound. 

Arlene and Susan, who own Steps to Recruitment at number 17, suspect that the houses on the south side of the street may have been built on top of an old cemetery. 

They have seen the ghost of a young Victorian girl, and also been joined at their kitchen table by a ghostly lady (whom they assure me is very friendly) dressed all in black.   
Originally, the River Frome came almost to the end of the steep hill and, until the 17th Century, barrels were rolled down the hill to be loaded onto ships. 

Fish and chip shop in Christmas Steps

The chippy is one of England's oldest

A stone plaque commemorates how the street was ‘steppered done and finished in September 1669’, to create the cobbled slopes and steps which remain today.

Being so close to the water, it is suspected that most of the buildings on the street at one time housed bars and brothels. 

Today, however, there remains just one pub - The Three Sugar Loaves - at the base of the steps, with not a single brothel in sight.

Christmas Steps now boasts several rather unique traders: including a clock-maker, a wedding and posh gown designer and a shoe-maker.

Further up the steps are yet more specialised traders, such as a bow-making establishment, a stamp collector and dealer, and the brass and woodwind shop.

‘Goddamn fish and chips’

At the very bottom of the steps lies a building thought to date back to the 13th Century, which has housed a fish and chip shop for well over 100 years. 

One of the first ever ‘chippies’ to open in England, this shop won a Best in Britain award whilst under the management of the inimitable Grace and Robert. 

After taking over the restaurant in 1964, the couple remained there for the next 28 years. Grace has entertaining stories to tell about American tourists determined to lay their hands on some genuine ‘goddamn fish and chips’. 

She recalls embellishing the truth on some occasions, leading Americans to believe she had a bed upstairs upon which Queen Anne herself had slept (which is not completely accurate!). 

The tourists’ fascination with antiques and memorabilia would often prompt them to make Grace an offer on anything which could be removed from the premises. 

She also has fond memories of the street parties that have been held on Christmas Steps, including ‘4th of July’ parties and even a Christmas party in the middle of summer for underprivileged children (during which, I am told, Father Christmas abseiled down the side of the building).

Decline in tourism

However, the more traders I spoke to, the more apparent it became that Christmas Steps has been gradually losing the charm and atmosphere that it once enjoyed. 

Not so long ago, the street was full of quirky antique shops and book shops, which attracted tourists and browsing shoppers from all around. 

But today, the street is much quieter and several buildings now lie empty or have been converted into student accommodation. 

A large office building now obscures much of the view of the steps from the bottom, which perhaps partly explains the decline in tourists to the area in recent years. 

There is certainly a sense amongst the majority of those who trade here that the council has not done enough to preserve and promote this unique part of the city. 

The tourist signpost at the top of the steps, for example, makes no mention of Christmas Steps, and tourist websites rarely list Christmas Steps as an attraction.

It is a vicious circle from which it will be hard to escape: with so few tourists being attracted to the steps, new traders are unwilling to take the chance of setting up shop here. 

It seems a shame that one of the most historic and delightful parts of the city should be allowed to dwindle in this way. 

The buildings themselves are all listed properties, and yet the council is reluctant to put any money into the maintenance of the street, or to ensure that traders which will attract the tourists are actively encouraged.

Charity fun

But there is some hope for the future. 

The Steps to Recruitment ladies are planning a fun-filled street party for the start of October, with music and stalls, and hopefully with the involvement of all the other traders from Christmas Steps. 

The day is being held to raise money for Basic (the Brain And Spinal Injury Charity), which helps to provide much needed aftercare for people who suffer brain haemorrhages. 

Perhaps the party will go some way to breathing fresh life into this very special, irreplaceable little corner of Bristol. 

We’ll bring you more news of the street party nearer the time, so keep your eyes peeled!

last updated: 24/06/2008 at 12:11
created: 20/07/2004

Have Your Say

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sally cox
just to say i love the pink florist at the bottom of the steps. its super to see shops re-opening

John Wright
Sad to see the steps as it is now. passed it only today. Fifty years ago I bought my wife a pearl ring from a small second hand shop near the bottom of the steps.She is still wearing it daily despite having it repaired a couple of times. I hope the city council can be pursuaded treat the steps sympathetically.

John Moody
You have omitted the fact that the building next to the fish and chip shop was at one time the Bristol Grammer School and following them Queen Elizabeth's Hospital, who used the building as a school untill 1847.

mr stodgell
this is a sweet little part of bristol with a lott of history. me & my partner will be joining the traders of the christmas steps very soon. no'19 a nice spot next to the chippy. keep your eyes peeled.

The Last Bristolian
I used to live at the top of the steps. Christmas Steps trade bellied out when "The Mall" at Cribbs Causeway opened in 1998 and John Lewis moved away, pulling the smartest money way from town. Before that many people from Redland/Clifton/Cotham walked down the steps to get to the shopping centre. There was rarely a vacant shop unit!

Ian...straightforward,really1669 refers to completion[not beginning] of the steps as they are now.Seems to me the implication is that there were steps of some sort on this site before this date.Reasonable assumption,as the difference in height between top and bottom would presumably have existed before 1669.May well have been steps here to satisfy the basic need to get from top to bottom and vice versa for a long time before 1669.

I was there couple weeks ago as a tourist. What a shamed that I didn't know the story of the steps before I was there. What a lovely and story-full place to be properly reserved.The John Foster Almshouse and Three Kings Chapel should be taken by the council and open as a museum.

my aunt peg owned the antigue shop at the top os chritmas steps my dad used to take me there to visit and i ws allowed behind the counter i loved it ,what special memoreys,aboy 1973

I love the Steps despite its bad vibe. I dont think its from slavery its just got a lot of ghosts. I used to frequent the old second hand book shop until it closed and the stamp place too. The council should help traders to move in here on low fixed term rents like St Nicks Market.

dave knowles
my grandparents operated a pub, the Gaiety on Christmas steps for many years at the turn of the 19th/20th Cent. There was also, when I "were a lad" a famous Button Shop the contents of which were utterly amazing and quite unique. I believe, they were auctioned off on the death of the owner. Such gems as Christmas Steps would be cherished by any other city Council, just look at the appalling architecture around Bristol centre, what a heritage!!!

i am currently invovled in the refurbishment of st barts court at the bottom of christmas steps and think it is sad to see such a bristolian landmark going to waste

I was told by my father that when he was a youngster he used to work up Christmas steps with my grandfather who was a cabinet maker. They would walk from Brislington and back every day. That would have been in the late 1920's early 1930's.

My grandmother (Rose Gingell) had a wool shop on the Steps. There used to be a joke shop there too, which was great fun. I also remember fish and chips and Tizer! It does seem a shame that the council are allowing the place to be neglected, when it could be a feather in their cap.

The Christmas Steps could be a great tourist pull if the antique, book shops or even a tourist information centre could be located in that area. It is interesting to hear the history of the steps

How could someone be killed on the top of the steps in the seige of Bristol in the 1640's if they weren't put in until 1669?!

W. Lee
@ Bee, as with most Bristol/slave legends this one is higly unlikely. Bristol did not see many slaves at all. Ships would set out to Africa to trade for slaves, take the slaves to America and bring cotton and tobacco back.

Angela Johnson
Was there in 2004 on a visit from Australia. Used to walk up them everyday on my way to school in the 50's. How disappointed I was at the state of repair and neglected aura, and what potential for a great tourist attraction going to waste. It appears that the City Council let many old buildings die of neglect. The Chuch of St Michaels on the Mount Without, dating back to the 15th Century is a case in point.

I lived in Bristol in the late 60's/early 70's and often used Christmas Steps from the University down to the Centre. Sad to hear it has been masked by office buildings. Am using the history aspect as part of a Quiz!

very good report about the christmas steps but you hav not added why it was called the christmas stepos

Marion Brooks.
Today, I found a picture of Christmas Steps in a charity shop in Gloucester. It is hand-drawn, and greatly appealed to me. I have never heard of 'Christmas Steps' before,so decided to look it up on the 'web'. Quite an eye-opener. It's lovely to read about it, and it's a pity it is falling into decline. Old quirky sites such as these should be maintained, the charm is in my picture, and I am fascinated by it. It is signed Griffin '71. can anyone shed any light on this artist?

I was at Redland Teacher Training College in the sixties and loved the antique shops in Christmas Steps. But my visits were very brief because of the dreadful 'atmosphere'. The only story I ever heard to explain this was that slaves were chained up here during Bristol's period as a part of the slave-trade. It is interesting to read that I am not alone in experiencing this bad 'atmosphere'.

david rowe
as a kid in the early 70s i loved eating fish and chips in the chip shop and washing it down with a can of it seems so long ago. Christmas steps a great part of bristol

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