Bristol Zoo RIP

Yesterday I went to Bristol Zoo. It was a revelation.

When I booked my slot online I was astounded at how many spaces were left: for some time slots there were up to 600. But when the bus dropped me off I was met by a long queue, though it moved fast enough. Most visitors just turned up, like they did when they and their parents before them were small.

I was forced to leave Bristol a decade ago, and it was a joy to hear so many local accents, so many stories being shared with children of visits when their parents and grandparents were young. There were queues at some of the displays, but they were patient and well mannered as they struggled to see illusive beasts. Doors were held open, space was made.“When I was your age, this was for …. do you remember when we came with…..” The remaining animals seemed to sense the mood. A solitary fur seal immobile on a rock. Penguins standing motionless watching the passing visitors.

Despite the sadness, it was an utter joy to be in the presence of these people, saying farewell to a place that had played such an important role in their histories. By the time I left, I was close to tears to witness the end of this important social space. Though the site has been sold for development, I thought there were plans to preserve some of the historic buildings, the pavilion where dances were held, the landscaped gardens, but no. It will all be flattened for environmentally sound housing but I can’t imagine anyone saying their farewells will be able to afford to live there. Bristol has lost a huge part of its history, but most of those final visitors are accustomed to this.

The city was badly bombed during the last war, but instead of rebuilding the inner suburbs, their leaders planned a brave new world. They wanted the inner city to become a business centre, focused on cars with pedestrians relegated to overhead walkways, some of which survive. It was to be accessed by a huge ringroad that would have ploughed through what is now the wealthy slopes of Clifton. To the south, Bedminster City Farm was later built on an area of cleared terrace housing, as was the slope above the junction of Bath Road. The clearances were so badly organised that houses had had gas installed within weeks of being flattened.

But a campaign against it was led by the architect and now former mayor George Ferguson. The money ran out and only a small stretch of this monstrosity was built in Eastville whilst communities were broken up and relocated into large houses on estates on the city’s outskirts that many could not afford to heat or the busfares to find new jobs. Many of these areas are to the south, an area that continues to struggle whilst investment pours into the centre and the north. The new Zoo will be close to the M4 so again, a long way from where many people live.

Rundown Georgian houses that had been earmarked for the road demolition became cheap accommodation for students and squats; artists & musicians began their careers then. The inner city became a magnet for young incomers and Bristol became a trendy destination for the young whilst people on the new estates were often unable to afford the bus fares to find work in the centre. This north-south divide continues.

That’s why my trip to the zoo was so important, and why the loss of it is so tragic. I queued with families to see illusive insects and reptiles. I looked in bemusement at the pole that was part of the old bearpit. To me, the bearpit is the area below the big roundabout near the bus station. Silly Me! “You must remember the old bearpit!” a man explained. “You must have seen the bears climbing this pole in the middle of it!” Alas, dear reader I wasn’t in Bristol then. Did he not hear my non-local accent, or did it not matter? We were of similar age, I must have seen it. I must have known.

We were all there together, remembering and grieving for something that held such human value but which wasn’t enough to stop the inexorable march of so-called progress. Dan Cruikshank wrote of how important it is to defend old buildings because they cannot defend themselves. But buildings tell stories, they are places of remembrance, of continuity. They matter. They will always matter. Even when they’re gone, the stories will be told.

Update: as of December 2022 animals are still in the closed zoo. Plans for its development are still unclear and there are calls for it to be reopened.

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