By Alex Berry, Third Year Ancient History
Fairy lights, listed buildings and historical conspiracy; whether you are a visitor to Bristol, a fresher venturing down into the city centre and Cabot Circus for the first time, or a finalist looking to escape the stress of dissertation writing, exams and lockdown, there are few more picturesque and festive places to visit in Bristol than our beloved Christmas Steps.
A personal favourite spot of mine, this famous stairway sits cosily on a narrow alley between Colston Street and Colston Avenue, taking you quickly from the heights of Park Row and the Clifton campus down into the busy and exciting consumer hub of the city.
It also lies just a short walk from The Bearpit, Stokes Croft, and the shopping quarter. However, it is not the convenient location of the Christmas Steps that brings such appeal to students, Bristolians and visitors alike.
Rather its unique charm coupled with the adjacent listed buildings, quaint shops, and tourist spots that bring a sense of community and life to the Steps.The iconic hanging fairy lights which, combined with the simple yet striking lampposts, guide the way up the steep steps and transform this street into a scene from a picture book or a Victorian novel.
Once you get to the top of the steep Christmas Steps, the view behind you is stunning.
Coined ‘a real life Diagon Alley’, the Christmas Steps is not only beautiful to look at but also holds a massive amount of historical value; beguiling us with tales of Bristol merchants, traders, slaves, and politicians.
While you may be familiar the Steps themselves and the local businesses that thrive there, the name of this cute, historical corner of Bristol appears to be a mystery to many. Just what is the meaning behind the name, and just how Christmassy are the Christmas Steps?
Sadly, there are no universally accepted links between the Steps and Christmastime. The most common view on how this street got its name is from hundreds of years of language corruption and mispronunciation, eventually mutating from its medieval-era name of ‘Knyfesmyth Street,’ to ‘Christmas’. Its original name recognised the traders who worked in the area.
There is also evidence to suggest the Steps were previously called ‘Lonsford’s Stairs’, named after a Royalist officer killed at the top of the steps during the English Civil War.
A sweet escape from the excitement and noise of the shopping quarter, the Christmas Steps invites its visitors to admire its history.
However, if we’re looking for a link to match these charming steps to the warmth and joy of Christmas, the stained glass nativity scene in the Three Kings of Cologne Chapel at the top of the steps fits a much more festive narrative.
While the street is one of the oldest and most historically protected parts of Bristol, with the actual Steps themselves being grade II listed, there are several fascinating nuggets of history, from the beheaded statue of Madonna and Child, to the 120 year old fish and chip shop at the bottom of the steps.
If history is not for you then there are still plenty of unique and endearing qualities to the Christmas Steps, such as the businesses that preside there; a friendly barbershop, beautiful art galleries, a retro-style DVD, a small cinema shop, among many others.
All were established on a street which used to be home to brothels, bars, fancy-dress shops, tobacconists, tailors, and many other little industries that have existed and evolved throughout the generations since its completion in 1669.
A sweet escape from the excitement and noise of the shopping quarter, the Christmas Steps invites its visitors to admire its history, browse around the small intimate businesses, and generally enjoy this pleasant, understated Bristol landmark.
It is certainly worth a visit, whether you’ve been before or not. Once you get to the top of the steep Christmas Steps, the view behind you is stunning, not in the way that the Clifton Observatory viewpoint is, but in a much less impressive, much more intimate, Bristolian way.
Featured Image: Flickr / Ubaian