With lockdown rules easing slightly, the parks in urban Bristol are going to be packed with people enjoying the new freedoms of lying on the grass and sunbathing, or sitting in family groups with one other person, or whatever the rules have been clarified to now.
The city is blessed with lots of lovely municipal parks, areas left green as the city expanded in the last half of the 19th and first half of the 20th century.
But if you don’t fancy sharing a large patch of grass criss-crossed with some paths, now is the time to get back out and explore some thing else Bristol is blessed with – countryside in the heart of the city.
For there are many parts of Bristol that have never been developed, bombed and turned into parks, or carefully laid out by urban planners a square of green amid the terraces.
These are more than just parks – they are rural oases in the urban sprawl, which let the countryside, with woods and hedges, coombes and rivers, heaths and scrubland, that are throwbacks to when most of what we now know as Bristol was open countryside and a few villages.
Many of these countryside havens are the old country estates of Bristol’s aristocracy and rich elite – with the grounds they once tried to tame and landscape now open to the public.
Others are nature reserves or old farms, commons and woods. And they are all over Bristol – there’s bound to be one within walking distance, so you don’t even have to drive to it.
And here are 11 of the best
Many of the open, countryside spaces in the heart of Bristol have survived because the city is covered with rivers. The closer you get to the city, the more likely it is that those rivers have been covered over and built on, but here, between Southmead and Westbury-on-Trym, Badock’s Wood is an ancient land.
It’s a designated nature reserve, with woods and the River Trym running through it. In one corner of a space known as the Mill Toot Field, there’s a Bronze Age barrow, a grave monument dating from 3,500 years ago.
The first of our country estates that have been turned into wild or semi-wild open space for all the public to enjoy.
The estate was mentioned in the Domesday book, and was one of many large mansions owned by the rich and powerful of Bristol for hundreds of years.
The estate itself was laid out by landscape gardener Humphry Repton at the end of the 1700s.
There was a mansion, built in 1600, but long since demolished. It’s known as Vassall’s Park locally, because by the time it was surrounded by the urban growth of Fishponds in 1937, it had been bought and sold several times and was with the Vassall family. They sold it to the Bristol Corporation. As well as a standard municipal-style park, there’s woods and lakes and the River Frome.
Lawrence Weston Moor
An 11.9 hectare nature reserve on the wetlands as the land gradually becomes the Severn Estuary. Down the side of St Bede’s Catholic College, it’s a range of habitats that you can walk through, from wildflower hay meadows to wetter, marshier fields with rhynes – Bristol’s own version of the Somerset Levels.
One of the most famous parts of Bristol, this is the mini-forest on the other side of the Clifton Suspension Bridge from the city.
It’s very popular, but large enough to take yourself off into the woods and not see a soul.
This may well be one to visit later this summer, when it’s safer to do so, as the Forestry Commission have advised they still aren’t at the point where they can open the car parks.
There are long circular paths that run from the little village of Leigh Woods at the top by the bridge, down to the Pill path by the River Avon, and steep-sided coombes like Paradise Bottom and Nightingale Valley. The view from Stokeleigh Camp, an Iron Age hillfort, across the bridge to the city are stunning.
Blaise Castle Estate
There’s Blaise Castle House, an 18th century mansion, and the castle itself, built as a folly.
But it’s the estate we’re interested in – again laid out by Humphry Repton, it takes advantage of the topography – the Hazel Brook cuts a gorge through the limestone down towards the Avon Gorge.
There’s 650 acres of woods and paths, rivers and steep-sided cliffs here to avoid people.
In theory it’s part of the Oldbury Court Estate, but Snuff Mills has its own history and character.
A river valley space along the banks of the Frome, it’s part of the long, green wildlife corridor that brings the open countryside of South Gloucestershire into the heart of the city, through Oldbury Court, Snuff Mills and on to Eastville Park.
Perhaps Bristol’s most famous country estate, it is effectively the city’s collective back garden, the place where everyone gathers to have a good time, from the 1990s Ashton Court Festival to the balloon fiesta now.
Based around the yellow-fronted Ashton Court Mansion, the estate beyond rises up behind and through steep-sided woods and bowl-like valleys, to a plateau of windswept open space at the top that affords stunning views across the city.
It’s 850 acres to get lost in.
Rodway Hill Common
Out in the east of Bristol, the countryside slips in unnoticed to the suburban roads of Mangotsfield.
With wide open spaces, hedges, fields and woods, this is another bit of urban countryside based around a river – the Siston Brook – and is the start of a string of woods, nature reserves and publicly open bits of countryside that includes Siston Common, Cadbury Heath and the Willsbridge Valley.
Stoke Park Estate
The grand yellow building is probably a more famous landmark than Ashton Court’s mansion, as it stands atop a prominent hill, Purdown, overlooking the east of Bristol and the M32.
But while you can’t really go into the famous Dower House unless you live there, the estate and the neighbouring Purdown itself, are rolling hills of green open space and woodland. It’s a little wildlife haven of 270 acres, between Lockleaze and the motorway.
The post-war estate of Broomhill might be the ‘most disconnected place in Bristol’, but at least they’ve got a lovely nature reserve on their doorstep.
Down the steep hill towards the River Avon just as it enters the city, it’s an old farm that has gradually been turned back to nature.
A quirky one this, as Troopers Hill is not somewhere that was once a rich man’s country estate, nor is it a river valley that has never been tamed.
Instead, Troopers Hill is a place left after the industrial revolution, a place of mines and quarries, for coal and fireclay, with the old industries down by the river below.
The great chimney was built to serve a copper smelting works in the 1700s, and for 250 years Troopers Hill would have been a dirty, smelly place, sullied by poisonous industry.
So it was left, the closest thing Bristol has to the Chernobyl zone, to return to nature. And by 1995, nature had taken it back so much it was designated a nature reserve. There’s flora and fauna found there that aren’t found anywhere else in Bristol. Coming from the level ground of St George, the first bit is a municipal park, but out onto the hill itself, it’s a wildlife haven now.