I parked up down the road from the Chapel – opposite where the Co-op Butcher used to be – the floor of which was somehow always covered in sawdust! The date had been in my diary for some weeks – a possible new “Historical Society for Bedminster Down”, or something similar along those lines. The last time I was in Zion was when the 266th Zion Scout Troop disbanded and the troops colours (their Flag) was handed back to the Church in a ceremony at the Chapel. It was a sombre occasion – the end of another uniformed organisation that had served its community for many years. Zion Chapel ceased being a place for religious worship in August 2008 and is now a Community Art Space & Café. I was about to find out what that actually meant.
It would have been in 1961 that I became a Cub. Whilst I can’t remember the occasion now I would have certainly been full of excitement at that prospect. The uniformed organisations would have been the only providers of activities for young people outside of school. Cubs met on a Wednesday 6.30-8pm I think. The 266th neckerchief was a complicated affair as it was in two parts, where most others were in one. I would have had to learn my Cub “promise”, before I could have been fully enrolled.
I crossed the road and waked towards Zion. Past the spot where Mr Searle and then Mr Smith who both owned the Hardware Shop and sold pink paraffin from a wooden garage. Then past the building that was Colin Jones’s shop. April 10th 1973, the date of the Swiss Air Disaster – Colin, his wife Shirley and his youngest son Andrew lost their lives in that tragic disaster that impacted many people in this area. Their funeral was the first I ever attended and took place at Zion. Then I passed the houses immediately adjacent to the Chapel – the first one was occupied by Toby Allen. He kept horses at the bottom of cockleshell lane (one of the lanes that join that back of Ilchester Crescent and Hartcliffe Way, and called so due to the volume of shells that made up the path at the bottom.) Toby’s horses were stabled at the bottom of the lane on the right hand side– and his daughter Barbara used to let us sit on them occasionally.
Entering the Chapel was exactly as I recalled it. A bit of a shiver as I remember that this was the place where I married my first wife – it didn’t last long! I turned right and then looked left through the small double doors that took you into the main hall of the Chapel. I could see the welcoming face of Robin Pine – we went to school together. The pews have all gone and have been replaced with small tables and chairs. Looking up to a spot above the altar to an area that used to be the choir stalls and house the church organ I see that it is blocked off. However, the balcony that was the upper seating area for the Chapel is still there.
I left School in June 1969 – nearly 49 years ago. That would have been the last time that Robin and I had any sort of conversation. We are both here at Zion due to our shared interest in the history of this South Bristol community. Robin’s grandparents owned a shop (Scagell’s) at the end of Lewis Road, next to what used to be Robbins Bakery. They have both since been replaced- first by Bristol Thermal Insulation Company and now the Doctors Surgery. When I lived on Bishopsworth Road our house backed onto these properties. No 143 – bought for a snip at £8400 in around 1978!
It’s odd what bits of useless information you remember at times isn’t it! Robin lived in Highridge when I first met him in 1964 at Bedminster Down School – No5 Costiland Drive. Why do I remember that – it’s a completely useless bit of information, especially when he moved into Eastlyn Road, on Bedminster Down a couple of years later, but it’s just stuck in my mind for some strange reason. So we sat and chatted – as if it was yesterday that we had both left school and were making arrangements for a “kick about” later with our mates. We were the generation of kids that existed before the world became over influenced by years of technology advances. A generation that went to school together, we played at break times in the playground together. We played competitive sports for the school together- we very much only had each other. We were all mates in a time when friendship was important – we had values. Whether we all knew it at that time is debateable I suppose, perhaps I should ask them all? I question today’s society where “friendships” are based largely around social media values – which let’s face it – are pretty much non-existent.
“You must be Andy?” the lady said – “I’m Jess”. And so the introduction to the owner of the building I was currently standing in was complete. People were sat in groups chatting. A group to my right were from Bishopsworh British Legion Ladies Group, and the one to my left were all former worshipers here at Zion, when it was a Chapel. To the right of where the altar was a counter that served food and drink – and cakes! There was a number of other individuals sat chatting.
Zion has always been a welcoming place and remains very much so. I chatted to some of the former parishioners. A lady called Jenny Coombes; her dad had been a Sunday School Teacher at Zion and thinks my brother Chris was in his Sunday school class. Yes, I have checked and my brother remembers him clearly. Another lady used to work at MAC (UBM) in Winterstoke Road with my sister – “My mum worked there”, pipes up Robin – another connection. Another lady from the legion said “you worked with my son”, and it turns out yes I did.
Stories were exchanged. The most bizarre being the one about having to remove some of the pews at the front as they couldn’t get the coffins in for funerals. I went for a walk, taking in the whole building and grounds. There is a community garden at the back and a safe place for young children to play. Jess and I natter again – I talk about my background, my “life on, and in “the Down”. She talks about her plans, her hopes and aspirations for the future of Zion.
Bedminster Down has always had a “community” feel about it. The schools, the two churches and their associated uniformed groups, local shops and of course the Boys’ Club. As society has changed over the last thirty years we have lost many of the focal points that existed in local communities. Some have been lost forever, whilst others struggle to survive in an ever changing world. However, some things don’t change – and they evolve around the needs of the people that live in those communities. We demand that our younger generation “get more exercise” but fail to provide any facilities within walking distance of their homes. We recognise that many of our senior citizens want to remain in their own homes – but fail to provide local facilities that they can get to.
I grew up in a time when front doors were actually left unlocked. When communities looked after each other – I was “delivered” into the world by our next door neighbour, May Blake. I was given her husband’s name Frederick, as my middle name. Communities looked after each other and supported one another. From the comments I have received and from my visit to Zion I see and feel something I haven’t felt for a long time – a sense of purpose within a community. Yes, perhaps it’s still in the embryonic stage – but the need has been recognised and the seed has been sown.
The community of Bedminster Down has a great opportunity, and it exists at Zion.