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Christmas Steps: Ghosts, myths and fish ‘n’ chips
By Philippa Jacks, website contributor
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.
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.
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 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.
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
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