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 – The Bearpit

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. Read more about this suppression of a bold community experiment in common public space and cultural expression.

UPDATE – The Cube Sculpture

Who has control over the visual realm of the City? And what does it say about Bristol City Council when it goes out of its way to remove the most significant non-corporate billboard in the City whilst it tolerates many corporate billboards that have no planning permission.

Just before Whitsun in 2018, The Cube sculpture in the Bearpit was pulled down by Bristol Waste, under the instruction of Deputy Mayor, Asher Craig. This was carried out without consultation or proper process.

A number of people, including Asher Craig (Bristol Labour Councillor), Martin Fodor (Bristol Green Party Councillor) and Robbie Gillett (AdBlock Bristol) have since then discussed the issue of the Cube on BCFM Radio, presented by Tony Gosling.

Normal procedure for pulling down a structure in a public space, would be to serve an enforcement notice to the owners of the structure, in this case PRSC.

Martin Fodor, former chair of several Bristol planning committees, agrees that this did not happen. He adds that this is quite unusual; Bristol City Council usually goes out of its way to enable someone to gain permission for a development.

Craig: “On the one hand people say you can’t have advertising in the City but hey, allow us to have our own advertising space.” Recently there were over 50 planning applications for digital billboards in Bristol city centre alone (read here and here), and this is not counting the existing hoardings. It is an understatement that the ratio of corporate vs. non-corporate hoardings is unbalanced.

To repress one dissenting community voice does beg the question who the Council favours. With a track record featuring art (Tom Sledgemore, UWE student), protest (dangerous air pollution), community support (Save the NHS), and exhibitions (Journey to Justice, Resiste) the Council is actively repressing the voice of the people and organisations without corporate money.

Read more on our update about the Cube Sculpture in our post “BCC, where is the Cube Sculpture?”

UPDATE – ‘The Bear’ Ursa 

In October 2018, without prior discussion of any kind, Bristol City council served legal papers on The Bearpit Improvement Group (BIG) and Peoples republic of Stokes Croft (PRSC) for removal of all assets from the Bearpit.

A petition was set up to “SAVE OUR BEAR”. The sculpture has become an important symbol, well loved by the City’s residents. The petition got more than 3500 signatures, and is discussed by Bristol City Council on 15th January 2019.

While the statue is clearly a significant artwork, the ideas that the Bear represents are crucially important. These ideas must be regarded as vital to the wellbeing of a city that likes to think of itself as progressive.

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.

We need your support

We have come a long way together but there is still a lot to do.

We run small art and community projects in Stokes Croft, often for free. We collaborate with other art and community groups, who benefit from our facilities and resources. We’re entirely self funded, and sometimes that’s hard.

If you like what we do, please consider donating. Because we’re not done. PRSC is at the forefront of defending public spaces, cultural freedoms, and an alternative voice from the city.

With your help, we can develop our printscreen workshop, community radio, School of Activism; our protest banner workshops and city-wide projects.

Yes, I support an alternative voice for the city.