“Tales of Zion”

Tales of Zion

A number of linked events have triggered this, my latest blog. However I think it’s worth mentioning first that creation of this “blog” was in-part, an element of my retirement planning. I enjoy writing, and firmly believe that keeping yourself mentally active is as important as physical activity, as you put those years of continued employment behind you. So the blog provides me with an opportunity for me to recall events, to pass comment on a variety of topics, but more importantly keep my grey cells active. Anyway, back to the linked events:


As you will be aware (if you aren’t you soon will be) I was born and raised on Bedminster Down, at the time a reasonable sized largely Council Estate in South Bristol. Note the use of the words “on Bedminster Down”; you lived “on the Down” – not “In the Down”. You might live “in” Highridge or in Headley Park, but those brought up in my area were “Bemmy Downers”. I picked up from Facebook recently that there was a plan to look at the viability of starting a Historical Society for Bedminster Down – the route of this being the now vibrant Zion Community Café and Event Space, on Bishopsworth Road. This was once the Zion Methodist Chapel – many years ago frequented by yours truly, and the rest of the Lewis Family. Then, during last week I received a phone call from my good friend Barry Lovell, now a resident of the USA. Barry and I have known each other since we were five years of age. We spent ages on the phone yapping and recalling events from our past. One of those stories touched on our time together in the scouts, which leads me on to:

Zion, the former Chapel that served the needs of the Methodists on Bedminster Down, and it’s surrounding area. Not as grand as its  Church of England  counterpart St Oswald’s, that stands a half a mile down the road in Cheddar Grove – but nevertheless still a very important part of the community of Bedminster Down. John Wesley started the Methodist Church in the 18th Century in an attempt to being change to the Church of England, and ended up creating an autonomous Church instead.

Photo Courtesy of Zion Cafe

The Chapel sat proudly on the main Bishopworth Road, with just Brian Dyers Fruit & Veg shop separating it from its adjoining “School” Hall, where we all attended Sunday School, and where the 266th Zion Methodist Scout and Cub Group held its meetings. We went to Sunday school every Sunday afternoon, and often either a Morning or Evening Service in the Chapel on the same day. Once a month was “Sunday Parade” and a time for all the Scouts and Cubs to attend. Dressed in our uniforms we would line up before all trooping into the Chapel together, unless of course you had the honour of “carrying the flag”. Being a Flag bearer was a tremendous honour. The troop’s neckerchief was in two parts – the only one of that type in Bristol at that time. Two coloured triangular cloths of “Scarlet” and “Old Gold” (as they were called) folded together in such a way as to create a narrow band of colour down the edge. It was placed around your neck in such a way to present a triangle of cloth at the back of your neck with the apex pointing in a line down between your shoulder blades – and held together at the front with the traditional “Scout woggle”.

Generations of families attended Zion and were the stalwarts of the Chapel for years. The Steed’s, Lovell’s, Withers, Smith’s, Merryweather’s, Kews’ Hall’s, Hasell’s – with many of the families linked by marriage. On Sunday evenings in particular you could see a parade of people walking out of the surrounding roads of Ilchester Crescent, Lewis Road, Eastlyn Road and from either end of Bishopsworth at the time approached 6pm – all attending the Evening Service.  One of the most popular Ministers being the Rev Malcolm Beach. In those days there was a dedicated Minister for Zion. These weren’t “fire and brimstone” services – they were just ordinary Church Services similar to the thousands of others that occurred every Sunday during the period.  Many, many years later I attended couple of Sunday Services at the Counterslip Baptist Church, near my home. This wasn’t some “re-connection to God” on my part, more a case of a parent supporting his children who were members of the Boys Brigade at that Church. The Pastor at Counterslip was Nigel Coles, who I knew through our children. Unfortunately on the second occasion I went Nigel wasn’t in attendance and they had a lay-preacher there.  He ranted on in true “fire and brimstone” style, and when he then decided to pick on divorcee’s I fully expected that a flash of listening was going to shoot though the sky and strike me dead as a mortal sinner. I didn’t go back. Anyway, I digress from my memories of Zion.

I always thought the inside of Zion Church was impressive. Entering the front door you could go left or right, downstairs or even upstairs to the balcony that went around the complete inside of the church, joining together at the choir stalls at the far end, which sat above the pulpit. Entry to the choir stalls was from a side door at the back of the Church. Most Sunday evening the Church was packed – upstairs and downstairs. The more people that attended the longer the collection would take. The minister would announce “we will now sing “Hymn XXXX”, during which the collection or “offerings” would be taken”. At which the appointed people, (who did have an official name), would stand up and start passing these blue bags around. They would be passed up and down the aisles before being returned to the collector. As kids, when it passed through your hands you would drop in the coppers you had been given by your parents for the collection. The smart one’s managed to develop the art of sliding the bag from one hand to the other and on to the person next to them, clearly indicating that they were donating, but not releasing the money – which they then spent on sweets as Mrs Bryant’s (where Cardill Close now sits) opposite the Church, the following day. (No Sunday opening in those days). (I suspect the modern day equivalent is the passing around of a “contactless card facility” and you just swipe your card across the top)  I knew the words to “Oh Jesus I have Promised” and “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” off by heart – they were traditional Methodist Songs. The ultimate honour would be being asked to deliver a reading from The Bible, delivered from the pulpit at the front of the Church. You would walk, as the congregation hushed, up the aisle to the pulpit, climb the steps and then “deliver the Reading”.

Sunday school was very much “as it say’s on the tin”. Bible study – accompanied with the traditional hymn singing for the young, “How did Moses cross the Red Sea” and “Bringing in the Sheaths”.  How did Moses cross the Red Sea? Well apparently he stood at the banks and spread his arms and the sea’s parted  – allowing him and thousands of other Israelites to cross (very much like James Corden does in his  current TV advert to  move the sheep blocking his path.!)  before returning the sea to normal drowning the Egyptians that were following. You see – I did pay attention at Sunday school! Of course there was the annual Sunday school outing to Weymouth. This could be your only “holiday” as a kid. One day out to the seaside with everyone from the church – two coaches full of parents and kids hoping and “praying” it didn’t rain. There were no motorways or dual carriageways – it was a three hour journey. The return journey at 6pm from the Swan Car Park, which  hosted at that time the Weymouth Amusement Park. If you got back to the car park early enough there might be time for a ride on The Wild Mouse (pre Alton Towers) if your parents had any spare money. The return journey was very often interrupted with a toilet stop at Castle Carey, where you could get Fish ‘n Chips. Little sister Deb suffered from travel sickness and would spend the journey both ways with a bucket lined with a plastic bag on her lap. Apparently sitting on newspapers was a good cure for travel sickness at that time – but it didn’t work in our Deb’s case. The School Hall would be used for the standard fund-raising functions for many years – Jumble Sales, Christmas and Easter Fare’s.

I attended Cubs on a Wednesday night at 6.30pm if we were lucky Dyers would still be open and Brian would bombard you with his squashed tomatoes from over the wall. If the Hall wasn’t open one of us would run down to the Caretaker, Mrs Hall to get the key. Akela was Joyce Blackmore, her husband John ran the Scouts. We went camping, I had a whole host of “Badges” that wee sewn on to my green cub uniform – I became a “seconder”, a “sixer” in the Cubs, and yes eventually the Leader of Hound Patrol in the Scouts. We only had two patrols Hounds and Squirrels (that’s where my later life obsession of squirrels comes from) – we weren’t a large Troop – but we were dedicated. At The World Jamboree in Torquay in 1966 all attending Troops had to build an ornamental gatehouse to their site – we built a perfectly sized replica of Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge in bamboo – and won of course. This was the same jamboree when the parents of the attending lads were invited for the day. Why do I remember it so clearly? Well, when a number of mums turn up, including  Edna Osbourne, Bett Hall and my mum, and cook everyone a roast dinner using a metal biscuit tin  on a camp fire  as an oven it’s something to remember ! (Metal Biscuit tins – this was a world when biscuits were often bought loose. They were sold on shelves behind the counter a bit lick “pick and mix”. As a kid you could buy a “bag of broken biscuits cheaply). When chatting to Barry he reminded me of the Camp we did at Woodhouse Park. It was a competition – destined to fail. We had to make the custard – we produced what we have referred to since as “shit and sugar”, and it was despatched over the adjoining fence.

Weddings were regular events at the Chapel – if you attend there, you usually got married there. The only other option was the Bristol Registry Office in Quaker Friars, which is now a Raymond Blonc restraint. Yes, and of course there were funerals. I attended my first ever funeral at Zion – that of Colin, Shirley and Andrew Jones, who tragically died in the Swiss Air Disaster of 1973. If you know Zion Chapel I’m sure you can imagine the difficulties of a triple funeral taking place there.

The Churches of Zion and St Oswald’s both had Youth Clubs for years – this was the period before the establishment of the Boy’s Club in its new premises. Both Scouts troops were impacted by the Boys Club. When the Zion Scouts/Cubs closed many years ago I attended a service in the Church where the Troops Standards (Flag) were handed back – for good. It was the last time I visited the place that had provided myself and many others years of “spiritual guidance”.

Sadly the Church Hall was turned into flats years ago but Zion, whilst no longer a place of religious worship, is a vibrant Community Event Venue and Café. Zion was originally an ancient Jebusite fortress in the ancient City of Jerusalem.  It seems to me that Bedminster Down’s own “Zion” is doing what it has always done – proving a service to the community it resides in.


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