A cheery, colourful mural with ‘welcome to Church Road’ covers the front of the old social club opposite the boarded up St George’s Hall Wetherspoon pub. Both derelict sites in Redfield are earmarked for development.
The social club is subject to a planning application to turn it into a Lebanese grill restaurant. The old Wetherspoon pub was a cinema for the best part of a century but local property developers want to turn it into 44 bedsits. There is a well supported and vocal campaign to save the much-missed Art Deco cinema, with actor Stephen Merchant among those putting their name to it.
A few years ago, such changes of use to local buildings might not have been a talking point on Church Road, but Redfield is now one of those east Bristol areas where gentrification has transformed it into a place people care about and a high street residents want to see thrive.
A 20-minute bus journey to the city centre, Redfield is desirable for first-time buyers. A three-bedroom, three-storey terraced house on Leonard Road is currently on the market for £375,000. The estate agents describe this ‘perfect property’ as ‘located on a very sought after road in the centre of Redfield, just a short walk to the bustling Church Road high street with its wonderful range of independent shops, cafes, wine bars, parks and schools’.
Not that pub owner Dave Smeaton needs to be reminded of the charms of Redfield. He opened The Red Church pub and restaurant in the former Lloyds bank building on Church Road in 2020. Although the pandemic and lockdowns means The Red Church has only really been trading properly for a year, it has quickly established itself as one of the area’s go-to community venues.
Opposite the award-winning Victorian-built St George Park, the pub occupies a prime spot on the junction where Redfield meets St George. Dave says: “We love the location and saw the potential in the area many years ago, just as it was becoming a popular spot for younger people to move to in Bristol.
“It has all the elements needed for a great community with a busy high street and nice Victorian houses plus that amazing park. Right now it feels like the area is starting to come into its own as a few other new businesses have opened which is always good.
“We try to appeal to all of the locals, alongside our a la carte menu we always have our amazing pizzas available. We also encourage people to come in just for a drink as we are a bar as well as a restaurant.
“We have DJs every weekend playing relaxed music on vinyl though our vintage Pinewood Studios sound system and this is free entry. So far trade has been good for us and we can only see it getting better as more people are drawn to the area and what it has to offer.”
Further down Church Road, next to the under-threat St George’s Hall, is Born in Bristol, a locally-themed gift shop opened by BS5 residents George Pring and Lisa Turner five years ago.
George says they opened at that time because they could see more people moving into the area and this has continued ever since. “We’ve seen a change in the people living around here in that time and a lot of people we speak to have moved here from London.
“I think they like the fact it’s closer to town than places like Kingswood or Fishponds and they like the feel of the area - people actually say it’s like a ‘little London’ with all the delis, independent shops and cafes.
“People like the cards and artwork made by local artists and makers, and they buy lots of our own Born in Bristol merchandise and clothes. We also get a lot of tourists here because of our brand name.”
Being next to the former cinema, George and Lisa also hear lots of local talk about the campaign to save it and they are watching it closely. Lisa says: “I’d love to see it back as the cinema it was. It being all boarded up makes the high street look horrible. Personally, I think there’s no way they can get 44 apartments in there as there’s no parking around here.”
George adds: “If it was in Clifton, it would be saved but we always seem to suffer - why can’t we be heard? It’s not fair.”
A few doors from Born in Bristol is The Small City Bookshop, which opened last week. It’s the newest business on Church Road and occupies what was previously a branch of pawnbrokers Jack’s Cash. A bookshop with plans to host storytelling and literary events, it’s the first business from Christie Cluett and Sarah Balfour who met at work and became friends over their love of books.
Sarah used to work in bookshops including Waterstones and Christie ran literary events and short story groups for adults. Christie says: “We had been looking for the right space for a long time and we targeted Church Road because there are bookshops opening in other parts of the city but it was lacking in east Bristol.
“Redfield is definitely an up-and-coming area and when we did some surveys, there was a lot of interest in us opening a bookshop that ran events. People want to support local businesses and we’ve had a really great response in our first week, with some people coming in every day so far.
“Since the pandemic, more people are reading books and we’re not going to compete with the likes of Amazon as it’s a different market. People want to see books and feel them before they buy, it’s a different experience than buying online.”
Sam Lovejoy co-owns Preserve, a family-run zero waste shop that sells loose organic wholefoods and cleaning product refills. It’s one of four shops the family have in Bristol and the Church Road site opened in 2019.
As a Redfield resident for the past eight years, Sam says he has seen plenty of changes in and around Church Road. “It has been up and down to be honest,” says Sam. “We used to have a brilliant greengrocer but that closed and that’s what the street is still crying out for. We haven’t got a butcher or fishmonger either. I think the pandemic slowed things down a bit.
“There are also lots of empty units but it’s hard to find out who owns some of them. Maybe it’s people who know the area’s on the way up and they’re sitting on them a bit longer.”
Sam says footfall at Preserve is still strong and he has his regulars but the past few months have been unpredictable. He says: “Business is good but we’ve had our first dip this year, the way people shop has changed. People used to be here once a week but now they come every two weeks.
“We do try to keep the prices down as much as possible because we’re a Bristol family and we’re just trying to make sure what we sell is accessible to everybody because shops like this can often turn into a middle-class pursuit.
“Our two main things are organic if we can and accessibility - we want everybody to have the chance to shop here but it’s hard to get that message across sometimes because there are shops that are expensive and people then assume we all are.”
Kevin Jackson - or Key Man as the locals know him - has run his key-cutting and locksmith service on Church Road for 28 years. Kevin trained as a locksmith when he left school in the 1970s and then worked as a welder and fabricator. As well as keys and locks, he repairs other things in his shop and has built up a strong reputation over the past three decades.
“It’s younger people moving into Redfield now and gentrifying it,” says Kevin. “They’re mostly very friendly but they call this a store, not a shop. They phone and say ‘is that the key store’ and I tell them ‘no, it’s the key shop’!
“I own this shop and live here so I have no plans to go anywhere at the moment but people are clearly still looking at sites around here. A bloke came in the other day and said he wanted to open a greengrocers in the area.
“I’m sure a greengrocers would be popular but what you really want to do is open a vegan takeaway, that’s how you’ll make a fortune around here! There was a butcher here but it closed down and there were two banks, half a dozen hardware and bric-a-brac shops - they’ve all gone, most of them are cafes now.”
But it’s the parking and the Clean Air Zone (CAZ) that are the main issues in Redfield, according to Kevin, who also restores classics cars and bikes in his spare time. He says: “Parking is a problem because all these people are moving into the area but they just can’t park. But the CAZ is going to affect this road because we’re not going to get the passing traffic.
“A lot of people with cheap cars won’t be able to go through town, they’ll be using the rat runs and backstreets. Not everybody can afford electric cars. There will be lots of people taking vans and cars down side roads and a lot of wing mirrors will be taken off.
“It’s ironic that I have a 6.4 litre Cadillac and I can drive that through the CAZ because it’s a classic car but I can’t drive my 1.2 litre VW Polo into town. I also have a restored 1949 Land Rover - I can drive that through the CAZ, too. It’s ridiculous.”
But for Kevin, the changing face of Redfield has also meant that the locals who were living there when he first opened his shop are going as more people from out of town move in. He adds: “There used to be a lot of old Bristolians living here but you don’t see old people anymore, I miss that. I miss seeing them walking up and down the road.”