Redcliffe Caves


Useful Information

Location: Bristol.
Behind warehouses adjacent to Floating Harbour. From Redcliffe Hill turn into Redcliffe Parade. Or from Bathurst Basin Ferry Landing/The Ostrich pub around the corner.
(51.448343, -2.592985)
Open: Currently closed.
Open on Bristol Doors Open Day in September.
[2022]
Fee: Currently closed.
[2022]
Classification: SubterraneaRock Mine SubterraneaCellar artificial sandstone caverns.
Light: none, bring torch.
Dimension:  
Guided tours: D=2 h (45 min surface, 75 min underground), Max=25.
Photography: allowed
Accessibility: no
Bibliography: Victoria Coules (2006): Lost Bristol Birlinn Limited. pp. 151–153. ISBN 9781841585338.
Penny Mellor (2013): Inside Bristol: Twenty Years of Open Doors Day Redcliffe Press. pp. 56–57. ISBN 978-1908326423.
S.J. Collins (1954): Surveying in Redcliffe Caves Caving Report — Bristol Exploration Club. 1. online
Sally Watson (2002): Secret Underground Bristol Broadcast Books. pp. 20–26. ISBN 978-1874092957.
Address: Mr. Richard Smith, City Docks Manager, Harbour Master's Office, Underfall Yard, Cumberland Road, Bristol BS1 6XG, Tel: +44-117-9031484. E-mail:
Axbridge Caving Group, E-mail: contact
Alan Gray, guide, Tel: +44-1761-452288, E-mail: contact
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.

History

1186 reference to St John's Hospital.
1346 hermit John Sparkes lives in the caves and prays for his benefactor Lord Thomas of Berkeley.
1665 Dutchmen held as prisoners in the crypt of St. Mary Redcliffe Church.
1741 Spanish prisoners held in the caves.
1744 French prisoners held in the caves.
1784 reference about using the caves for storage by the owner Glassworks - Vigors.
1938 small parts used as air raid shelters during the Second World War.
1995 first visited by the Axbridge Caving Group (ACG).
1997 start of tours by the Axbridge Caving Group (ACG)

Description

photography
Redcliffe Caves, Bristol, Great Britain. Public Domain.
photography
Redcliffe Caves, Bristol, Great Britain. Public Domain.
photography
Redcliffe Caves, Bristol, Great Britain. Public Domain.

A region near the river Avon, famous for its red sandstone cliffs, was called Redcliffe when this area became part of Bristol. This part of the river is called Floating Harbour. The name of Redcliffe Caves is derived from the name of the quarter.

The Triassic red sandstone was mined during the Middle Ages. It is soft enough, to allow rather easy mining, but hard enough to be stable. The quarried sandstone was used to manufacture cheap dark green bottles and to make a slip for glazing pottery. The production was dramatically increased during the mid 17th and early 19th century. So most of the cellars originate from these times. So during several centuries numerous caverns were excavated, several were reused as cellars, dungeons and subterranean storage rooms were built. The caves were used to store the goods which were traded in the Atlantic triangular slave trade. Goods like the local glass products were exchanged for captured slaves in west Africa, those were bartered for tobacco and sugar in the U.S.A., which was brought back to England. The story that slaves were imprisoned in the caves during the Bristol slave trade is nonsense, they were never transported to Bristol. During the French Revolutionary Wars or Napoleonic Wars prisoners were imprisoned in the caves, at least that's very likely. The main use was the mining for the glass factory, after it closed the caves were abandoned and became a rubbish dump.

In the 1970s the caves were first used as filming locations for movies and BBC tv productions. They were regularly used since then, even more since 2000. From then they were also used as a sort of underground gallery and for exhibitions and events like Film Festivals and Literary Festivals.

Between the 14th and 17th century the several hermits lived in the caves. Documented is the hermit John Sparkes, who lived in the caves and prayed for his benefactor Lord Thomas of Berkeley. The Hermitage of St John Redcliffe or St John’s Hermitage is located nearby at the roundabout in the Quaker Burial Ground. Lord Berkeley placed John Sparkes in the cave to pray for him and his family. It was still inhabited in 1648. According to a memorial tablet on the right-hand side of the hermitage Christopher Birrchhead who was known as Christopher the Monk was buried here. The cave was closed by a green door, which was replaced by an iron bar gate some years ago. It allows a look into the circular room with a diameter of 3.7 m and a height of 2.4 m, which has a rough seat carved into the red sandstone. Unfortunately it was partly destroyed by the construction of a pub on top in the late 1960’s. They built a foundation and concrete was running into the hermitage.

A section of the caves was used during the Second World War as Air Raid Shelters. In 1938 newspaper reports mention the caves were investigated for the possibility of using them. However, only a small cave at the bottom of the ramp that leads down from Redcliffe Parade, was used as an Air Raid Shelter. The main cave system was never used as shelters. The small shelter was big enough for about twenty to thirty people from the Redcliffe Area, It was fitted with bunk beds and paraffin heaters. According to descriptions the vicar of Redcliffe prayed with them, and they even had singers and entertainers. After 1942 when the major air raids on Bristol ceased the shelter was not needed any more. While the shelter worked well, a large bomb detonated in the other part of the caves. As a result the ceiling collapsed and a huge part of the caves is noww disconnected and is lost for good.

The sandstone quarries were built using the ancient and simple room and pillar technique. Unfortunately the miners were too greedy and the pillars they left to support the roof were too small. As a result the larger caverns are rather unstable and to avoid collapse, wall arches made of stone, brick, and more recently of concrete, were built. This is one of the reasons why the cave had to be closed for security reasons. The works cannot be financed by the entrance fees, they are normally paid by the Bristol City Council.

The owner of the Redcliffe Caves is the Bristol City Council, and there are no regular open hours despite the Bristol Doors Open Day. Since 1995 the Redcliffe Caves are open on this day every year in September. There are no guided tours, the visitors enter the caves self-guided on a 30 minutes one way trip. The Axbridge Caving Group provides explanations at several points. On one day the caves are open for six hours and are visited by some 3,500 people.

Since 1995, the Axbridge Caving Group (ACG) explored the caves and offered tours by special appointment. The times of the hurricane lamps - as described by Tony Oldham in 1972 (see below) - are over, everybody has to bring his own light! However, the caves have been closed for several times during the years and reopened again. The last time it was reopened was in 2016 and since 2019 it is closed again, currently due to Corona there is no chance to get a tour. We will leave this page as it is until the caves are reopened again. The caves have an official website which is maintained by a member of the Axbridge Caving Group, who also offered the tours in the last years. However, there are still events in the caves, so you could book a movie in the caves throuigh yuup.