Brandon Hill, Bristol

You probably didn’t know that Brandon Hill, off Park Street, is not just the oldest park in Bristol, it could be the oldest park in the world. It was given to the citizens of Bristol in 1174 by Robert Earl of Gloucester and has been public property ever since.

It was named after St Brandon, who is the patron saint of travellers, because he was an Irish saint who miraculously travelled across the Irish Sea on a tombstone. During the English Civil war in the seventeenth century it was a part of the outer defensive fortification of the city, with a gun emplacement at the bottom which ensured that enemy ships could not enter the harbour, a defensive wall, and a large gun emplacement on the top where the Brandon Tower is now, to prevent any attack from the Downs and Whiteladies Road. Another defensive wall ran down across Park Street to another key fort, where Royal Fort house now is. There are substantial remains of these defensive works, though they failed to prevent the royalists capturing the city in 1643, or the parliamentarians retaking in in 1645.

For years Brandon Hill was used by the citizens as a good place to beat their carpets, and this is shown on a map of 1688. Even fifty years ago there was a notice banning carpet beating before 9.00 am! And when the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America by John Cabot in 1497 came up in 1897 it became the focus of a major commemorative project, including the building of the tower, with a light on the top that flashed the word BRISTOL in morse code, and the creation of a complex garden. After the second world war a lot of unusual trees, mostly from North America were planted, though not all of them have survived. And when the Avon Wildlife Trust was founded in 1980 it established its headquarters in the 1836 Clifton Police Station at the foot of the hill, and rapidly got the parks department to accept that a section of Brandon Hill grass should not be mown until September, so that the native species that still existed in the ancient turf could flourish. They also dug out the site of a natural spring to create a wildlife pond.

So it is a biodiversity hotspot, a wildlife haven in the heart of the city. Next to the tower there is an amazing ancient oak tree, whose limbs spread over 32 metres, whose girth was measured at 5.0 metres, implying it was an acorn when the Americans declared their independence. From the tower you have a bird’s eye view of the nesting gulls on Park Street, and with luck see passing migrants high overhead. In spring warblers sing in the thick bushes which line the side of the hill above Jacobs Wells Road.

The trees are fascinating. There is a young Wellingtonia, planted in the ‘plant a tree in 1973’ campaign, which will one day over-top the tower itself. There is a veteran Ash and a veteran Holm Oak, avenues of limes, some old pear trees and an ancient Plane. There is a Sophora, a Sweet Gum, a Kentucky Coffee Tree, Black Birch, Caucasian Wingnut- there are about fifty in all.

In spring you will find the earliest Cowslips in bloom, stimulated by the street lamps lining the lower path. The wildlife meadow is at its best in July, when the Knapweed, Autumn Hawkbit, Betony and Carrot are in flower, and butterflies are swarming around them. The pond is alive with dragonflies, and damsel flies.

A park for all seasons.