Whitson Street, Bristol, BS1 3NZ (alongside the main bus station)
The Priory was founded c. 1129 and it is believed that the present church was completed by c. 1170.
No architects for the work at St James are known before the 19th century. The south porch was designed by James Foster (who also designed the porch to Ashton Court). The east end of the church was remodelled by Samuel C. Fripp, formerly an assistant to Brunel. The north aisle rebuilt by Thomas Shackleton Pope. The church was recently renovated by the architects Acanthus Ferguson Mann.
The core of the church is Romanesque, later work to the south aisle, tower, south porch and north aisle is Gothic. The remodelled east end is in a Neo-Romanesque style. The recent changes to the north and east of the church are of a modern design.
Early ashlar work, in particular the Romanesque work to the church, is in Dundry stone from the Mendips.
Pennant sandstone and Brandon Hill Grit have also been used extensively for less important walling.
The columns to the north aisle are of Aberdeen granite.
The roofs are of oak covered with Welsh slates.
The church was originally part of the St James Priory, which was established as a dependency of the Benedictine Abbey of Tewkesbury. The existing part of the church only survived the dissolution of the monasteries as it was used by the parish.
10am until 5pm from Monday to Friday and on selected Saturdays. Mass is celebrated every Sunday at 8am.
St James Priory church, true to its name, was once part of a larger church that was in turn part of St James Priory. The priory was founded around 1129 by Robert, First Earl of Gloucester, as a daughter house to the great Benedictine Abbey at Tewkesbury, and was at the heart of Bristol’s commercial development. Its monks were given the Earl’s ‘broad meadow’, which they developed and rented out and which is now known as Broadmead.
The main western frontage of this church features an ancient round ‘wheel’ window, probably from around 1160, and a striking series of interlacing Norman – or Romanesque – arches decorated with a chevron pattern. Inside, massive Norman arches are the most dramatic feature, decorated in typical Norman style with regular series of shapes, including lozenges (diamonds). The northern arcade (series of arches) has a substantial lean. The west front, and the arcades and clerestory (upper storey with windows) in the nave all date from the church’s original construction.
Substantial restoration and reordering work was completed in 2011. Today St James, the oldest Bristol building still in use, is active as a church and also houses the St James Priory Project, a charitable trust that treats those recovering from substance addiction in supported accommodation adjacent to the church.
The chancel was reroofed in the 14th century and tree rings in the roof timbers tell us that this is one of the earliest dated church roofs in the south west. In the 1370s St James became the church of a newly created parish and it is probably at this time that a tower was built for the parish bells and heightened during the following century. Like many Bristol churches, the tower distinctively features one pinnacle much larger and taller than the other three. With the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1500s, much of the priory and the eastern monastic church were lost. The church that remained at the west end was now used only as a parish church. Changes occurred over the centuries with a series of notable ones during the Victorian era, including creation of the Victorian Gothic outer north aisle (1864; by Bristol’s Popes and Bindon architectural practice), with its distinctive red Aberdeen granite columns.
The non-architectural history has also been interesting. A famous week-long fair was held annually in the churchyard from medieval times, packing the area all around with merchants meeting to make business deals and noisy amusement stalls. However, church elders decided that this was far from seemly and the last fair took place in 1837. St James remained within the Church of England until the 1980s.
In the 1990s, it became a Roman Catholic parish church and also a monastic church once again, as it had been so many centuries before, and remains so. It is now home to the order of the Little Brothers of Nazareth and the extensive 21st century remodelling project has brought new facilities including a café.
Photography: ©Frances Gard