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The history of Leigh Woods

Leigh Woods, Bristol
Leigh Woods has a fascinating history dating back hundreds of years | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Located to the west of Bristol’s Avon Gorge, Leigh Woods is the largest area of ancient woodland in the city. But what do we know about its history? Here, we highlight some of the major developments that have helped shape the woods and their surrounding area.

Ice-age beginnings

While little is known about how Leigh Woods came to be, we do know that the Avon Gorge was formed during the last ice age, when the original river channel to the south was blocked, forcing it to cut its way through an anticline of carboniferous limestone and old red sandstone.

For a long time, it was unclear what caused the Avon to cut through the limestone ridge rather than run south-west through Ashton Vale towards Weston-Super-Mare. But whatever the reason, the resulting Gorge provides a stunning vista for those who venture to the eastern edge of Leigh Woods.

Vincent and Goram

Over the centuries, there have been a number of alternative theories about how the Avon Gorge was formed. According to one legend, it came about as a result of two giant brothers, Vincent and Goram, vying for the affections of a Wiltshire woman called Avona.

The story goes that Avona instructed the brothers to drain a lake that stretched from Rownham Hill to Bradford-on-Avon (i.e. the Avon valley). Goram began digging the nearby Hazel Brook Gorge in the Blaise Castle estate, but consumed too much beer and fell asleep. So, Vincent dug the Avon Gorge and drained the lake, winning the affection of Avona.

Upon waking, Goram stamped his foot – creating 'The Giant's Footprint' in the Blaise Castle estate – and threw himself into the Bristol Channel, turning to stone and leaving his head and shoulder above water as the islands of Flat Holm and Steep Holm.

Stokeleigh Camp

A hillfort located within Leigh Woods gives us some idea of the area’s early history. Located on the north flank of the Nightingale Valley, the 7.5-acre Stokeleigh Camp has been the subject of numerous archaeological digs over the years. Items found – which include Durotrige-influenced pottery, a coin bearing the face of Roman Emperor Gallienus, and a La Tene II brooch – suggest that the site was occupied from the third century BC to the first century AD, and again during the Middle Ages.

Inscriptions on the stone at Stokeleigh Camp, Leigh Woods, Bristol
Evidence suggests that Stokeleigh Camp was inhabited from the third century BC | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Celestine quarrying

To the north of Stokeleigh Camp, there are a number of disused quarries overlooking the River Avon. In the late 19th century, the Leigh Woods estate was found to contain celestine, a mineral known for its attractive, crystal-like appearance and pale blue colour. Cue a hive of activity as efforts were made to meet the global demand for this precious stone. It’s reckoned that between 1880 and 1920, Bristol was producing 90 per cent of the world's celestine, with each batch from the Leigh Woods quarry being transported to a dock on the Avon by a (now defunct) tramway.

Rabbit warren

In the 1830s, then-owners of Leigh Woods the Smyth family of Ashton Court leased 170 acres of the site to William Watkins, who wanted to create a rabbit warren. Watkins cleared large parts of the woodland, erected fences and charged visitors a penny to explore the area.

The Clifton Suspension Bridge

In 1864, the Clifton Suspension Bridge was finally completed, 21 years after work on the structure had been abandoned for financial reasons. With Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s bridge enabling easy passage across the River Avon from Leigh Woods to the desirable suburb of Clifton, the former suddenly became highly sought-after.

A little while later, the Bristol Times announced that Sir Greville Smyth of Ashton Court had sold the land to a property developer who intended to build ‘some 800 tenements, many of them of a poor character… on the romantic site, thereby making it an eyesore to Clifton’. When a group of wealthy Bristolians calling themselves the Leigh Woods Land Company opposed the move, the sale fell through and eventually Smyth sold the land to them.

Historical picture of Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol
The completion of the Clifton Suspension Bridge provided an enticing opportunity for property developers | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

Destruction of Leigh Woods

From there on in, the building of houses was limited to attractive villas in the western part of the site. Their construction still had an impact on the area, though, with stone being taken from Leigh Woods’ historic Stoneleigh Camp, as well as quarries along the Avon Gorge that were now becoming an eyesore.

In 1886, English Illustrated magazine decried the destruction of the ‘waving forest that had been the nursery of art to WJ Muller, Danby, Pyne and Turner, and the scenery that has given character to Clifton’, and its transformation into ‘a record of a utilitarian age, whose sordid spirit could convert so choice a piece of landscape into crumbling stones for the sake of their value in money’.

Donated to the National Trust

In 1909, shortly after a group of leading local figures had pleaded with the council to stop the destruction of Leigh Woods, the head of an eminent Bristol family, George Alfred Wills, made the decision to donate 80 acres of the site to the National Trust. However, since the quarries were not part of the donation, stone excavation continued for some time after.

Indeed, it wasn’t until 1936, when George Alfred Wills’ brother Walter Alfred handed the Trust another 60 acres – including the last quarry in operation – that the practice finally ground to a halt.

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