The Bearpit is a place with a long and chequered history.
The St James Barton area of Bristol previously marked the boundary of the mediaeval city. Looking back over historic maps it is obvious that the area has long been a place when many routes met, forming a large open space in that has remained a busy hub for incoming and outward traffic to this day.
This large open space provided the perfect setting for markets and from the mid-13th century the area was recognised for hosting one of Europe’s most popular trading fairs. From 1238 an annual fair held over fifteen days, was held in the space. Originally starting on July 25 (the feast day of St James) , the fair was regarded as an extremely important event both for social and economic reasons. By the 17th century the fair was so prominent that merchant ships sailing in to Bristol for it were frequently attacked by Turkish pirates in the Bristol Channel. The last fair was held in 1837, and are little more than a memory now, recalled only in street names like Horsefair and Haymarket.
During the second world war this area and its surroundings where left highly damaged. The rebuilding of the city started almost as soon as the Second World War, and St James Barton was changed forever. The area of the city was demolished in the late 1950s and in the 1960s a new plan for the site was designed and built when the future, it seemed, was all about the private
The scheme (now nicknamed “the bear pit”) formed a sunken pedestrian zone that reflected the perceived primacy of vehicles over pedestrians, with pedestrians having to walk below street level through often poorly-lit and scary subways. The Bearpit has become a kind of no man’s land between the commercial shopping districts of Broadmead and Cabot Circus, and the now-resurgent cultural areas of Stokes Croft and St. Pauls.
The area is now a widely discussed topic and groups have formed such as the Bearpit Improvement Group who are proactively working to improve and develop the area with many exciting proposals coming to light.