“The Bear Pit”, formerly known as St. James Barton Roundabout
Culturally, St. James Barton Roundabout and Stokes Croft have similar roots. Known colloquially as “The Bear Pit” because of its fearsome reputation, this site has been a no man’s land since its creation. This area played host to the famous St. James Fair from the 12th Century. Traders traveled to the Fair from across the known world until it was closed down in the 1830s. The Fair was viewed by Corporation Authorities as a haven for ragamuffins and vagabonds, and, perhaps more importantly, it was extremely difficult to tax given the nature of the commercial activity that took place here.
The Bearpit is now a site of extraordinary experiment. In 2012 enlightened Council officials, in particular Graeme Sims who was then Deputy Chief Executive, declared the space a “Community Action Zone”, further adding that they had no clear idea what that meant! From these interesting beginnings has emerged the Bearpit Improvement Group, a broad based group of locals who have taken on the space, and presided over a refurbishment in conjunction with Bristol City Council. PRSC has been deeply involved in the process: The space is truly experimental, a cultural “commons”, where we can experiment different, incremental and gentle approaches to public space.
Over the years the Bearpit gained a number of refurbishments. This includes its own mascot Ursa; an Outdoor Gallery and Community Cube, and an Open Air Theatre.
The Bearpit seen from the Open Air Theatre. In the far corner Ursa looks out over the traffic coming into Bristol, with on the right the Bearpit Cube.
‘The Bear’ Ursa
“Ursa”, a major work by Jamie Gillman, unveiled in the Bearpit on 10 May 2013. Symbolic of the Bottom up approach to regeneration for which Stokes Croft is increasingly renowned, the bear stands on the roof of the men’s toilets in the Bearpit, a potent emblem for the Bearpit and the City. Read about the unveiling here and here.
The Bearpit Outdoor Gallery
By gentle incremental change in our public spaces, curated by and involving local people, the Bearpit Outdoor Gallery opened with its first art exhibition in October 2011. In opening up the tunnels for artists and decriminalising the Bearpit as a paint zone, the tunnels become a gallery and a resource. The Bearpit Outdoor Gallery has hosted exhibitions such as ‘How Does an Activist Eat Potatoes?’ in 2013 and ‘Resiste’ in 2016. In 2017 it will be hosting the ‘Voice of the Past’ exhibition in October, organised by PRSC in collaboration with Journey to Justice Bristol and the Creative Youth Network.
The Bearpit Cube
The Bearpit Cube in the heart of Bristol is about Voice: It is seen by all who pass through. Where public space is continually eroded, the relative freedom of the Bearpit, which is hard-won, offers hope. The Cube is sometimes part of an exhibition in the Bearpit Outdoor Gallery, sometimes it is a standalone message. Its messages have been inspired by the NHS, TTIP, climate change, electoral reform, AdBlock and more.
The Bearpit Open Air Theatre
The Bearpit Open Air Theatre is our latest addition to the Bearpit as a community space. The Open Air Theatre boast a unique urban backdrop which makes it a stunning location for performances, concerts, exhibitions and other events. Read more about its origins and installation here. The Open Air Theatre opened in June 2017 with the performance ‘Things We Do Not Know’.