Castle Park and Bristol Bridge are where Bristol began but much of this story has been grassed over.
The city has a high visitor footfall to prominent physical assets from late mediaeval to Victorian times and later. But there is no exciting visitor experience telling the story of the beginnings of the heart of our city, how it grew and lived and almost died. Instead we have some visible and covered remains in an unfocused, unsafe park setting adjacent to dense residential, commercial and retail development.
This presents a symbiotic opportunity for digital engagement. An exciting way to attract an inclusive range of visitor would drive enhancement of the site and better circulation and also increase footfall for adjacent facilities. In time it could provide income to uncover more of the site’s history and so enhance the experience. Augmented Reality (AR) via Apps on handheld devices could recreate significant periods from the past alongside what may be seen today. This portable 4D experience could be a better source of ongoing funding than an entry fee to a fenced-off site or building. The city has a considerable archive of photographs, historical maps, drawings and documents, above- and below-ground physical remains with much still to be revealed. This is the source material for a new form of creative realisation of our history that could be developed by a single organisation or a team so to present base content in a way that suits a range of visitors.
The more recent realisations could take the form of walking down the original streets passing the recreated original buildings. The earliest visualisations would take the form of speculative recreation but would still be founded on archaeological evidence and informed reconstruction. The opportunity to create a multi-stage realisation app, perhaps with a time travelling guide developed with and for young people is challenging and exciting. Such advanced, guided, instructive reality is presently emerging and there is a potentially huge market with 5G presenting opportunities for Bristol’s creative That should attract software or games designers interested in developing this market and so invest in this scheme as individual organisations or co-designing groups with opportunities also for corporate sponsorship.
The blitzed shell of St Peter’s, the iconic parish church and likely the site of the oldest church in Bristol is the ideal base for the project. It was originally conceived that only the tower would be used for hiring AR kit but it is the ideal location and building to offer a wider experience, particularly in poor weather. With a conservation-enhancing separately-supported glazed roof over the nave and glazed panels over the traceried windows, the church could be the centre of a range of activities.
The church is not crucial to the first digital realisation stage but sustainable restoration of this building is a long-held Bristol ambition and it would be a strong symbol of the importance and rebirth of this area, especially if itself part of the digital experience. It would enable additional revenue-earning and provide a permanent home for some of the associated archaeological artefacts which presently cannot be exhibited. In summary the conservation of St Peter’s Church should not be seen as crucial, certainly initially, but without it the overall realisation project lacks a heart. As a pure building project St Peter’s would have to compete with many similar proposals. It would be more likely to succeed if it were to open up a creative realisation and regeneration opportunity with wider commercial and place-making benefits, so this delivering a more robust business case.
This proposal thus has two related components. Funding is sought to develop a feasibility study for for both together as this is the ideal commercially-sustainable model upon which could be developed further long-term benefits. Initial studies would be required to determine the feasibility, timescale and costs of designing software, probably working on 5G, that could deliver a sustainably dynamic safe experience for a small variety of needs. It will also consider how this work could be best delivered within a single organisation, built up collaboratively or by co-commissioned separate teams. Alongside this would be required a study of the condition of the church and the feasibility of adapting it, within conservation guidelines, to fulfil its new role. There are strong architectural and conservation skills within BBPT and members have had considerable dialogue with experts in the field of computer games and digital realisation. The VR/AR package might attract funding from the private sector but BBPT could not be involved with this unless a funding agency was prepared to separately fund a short sampler that could be put out to commercial sponsorship/investment?
First stage project development:
· Work with other bodies (*already contacted) to create a new visitor experience:
*Bristol City Council (culture, conservation, parks and commercialisation)
*Friends of Castle Park team
*Developers of Finzel’s Reach- and nearby land owners, including Channel 4, Cabot Circus and Broadmead traders
Bristol University (archaeology and other departments)
UWE (planning and architecture department)
West of England Combined Authority
Merchant Venturers and Chamber of Commerce
· Develop realisation and interpretation apps for hand-held devices to show the Castle Park area (including Bristol Bridge, high cross, castle remains) in five eras: C8th (origins); C12th (castle); late mediaeval, Victorian/Blitz and post-Blitz.
· Commission films and realisations of the covered moat and other ‘s associated underground waterways
· Develop an outline proposal for the conservation of St Peter’s church to create a permanent interpretation and archaeology centre for schoolchildren and visitors and for assisted heritage walks and archaeological experience.
Longer term development:
· Conserve Castle vaults
· Prepare proposals for further exposure of castle remains to support its scheduling as an ancient monument.
· Contribute to the production of a comprehensive plan for the future of this site and the surrounding historic heart of Bristol.
Market-test further opportunities for the development of the realisation software
The Bristol Buildings Preservation Trust was inaugurated 30 years ago with a fund provided by Bristol City Council. It no longer has any support from this source and so has been reconstituted. Heritage, place-making and interpretation in Bristol frame its activities and this Castle Park project was initially entirely a digital conception. It has widened to include an iconic building and even greater outcomes for the city because together the individual components make for a much more robust and bolder creative opportunity. If this can get off the ground other agencies and further sources of funding will get behind it resulting, possibly in just a few years, to another digital ‘first’ for our city/region, a boost to its tourist offer and so footfall benefit to nearby retail and commercial outlets and an incentive to investment in better place-making in this key area that has lost its way in the heart of a wonderful city.
Cllr. Anthony Negus, MSc Historic Buildings Conservation
Chair, Bristol Buildings Preservation Trust