The Bearpit

A free and creative commons

“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.

UPDATES

In 2016, the food traders working in the Bearpit set up a breakaway group “Bearpit Bristol” and have effectively worked to push out the community-based BIG. Bristol City Council and Bristol Waste have seemingly backed the traders over the community. Following a campaign of fear-mongering in the media by the traders, Bristol City Council announced that the social experiment was a failure. In early 2018 the Council, amid much confusion, said they would take back control of the Bearpit from the community group (BIG).

Since then Bristol Waste have painted the inner walls in monotonous grey and brown, removing artworks such as “Bridges not Walls” and “Deeds not Words”, works painted for Journey to Justice in late 2017. Inevitably this has provoked a response from graffiti artists and the grey walls are tagged constantly. Since this oppressive move by the Council, artists have been harassed and threatened with arrest by the police. No clear guidance has been issued or communicated to the community. The Cube sculpture in the Bearpit has been removed without consultation or proper process. Read more about this suppression of a bold community experiment in common public space and cultural expression.

Below is a radio interview on BCFM from 2nd August 2018, where Bearpit art curator Lisa Furness and Councillor Asher Craig talk about the Bearpit as an art space. Listen to an excerpt of the BCFM interview below, or find the complete session here.

The discussion about the Bearpit was followed on 8th August by a discussion of the legalities of taking down the Bearpit Cube, the iconic non-commercial billboard in Bristol. Councillor and ex-planning chair Martin Fodor, and AdBlock Bristol campaigner Robbie Gillet discuss billboard planning permissions and the seemingly random approach by Bristol City Council to help or trash developments as they please. Listen to an excerpt of the BCFM interview below, or find the complete session here.

 

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.

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 hosted the ‘Voice of the Past’ exhibition, 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’.

While you're here...

We have come a long way together but there is still a lot to do. The hard won freedoms we have fought for in the Bearpit are under threat of change from a free and creative commons to yet another corporate shell. The Carriageworks in Stokes Croft needs the community’s input to make this landmark development work for us all.

Bristol risks being swamped by over 50 digital billboards throughout the city centre (and counting).

We are currently working on community ownership of property in Stokes Croft, and will need your support. We’d love to keep you updated, and would love you to continue to be involved in any way you can.