We visit Bristol’s enduring ‘garden suburb’ where the community remains strong a century later
Residents in Sea Mills want to see their community centre back open and local tennis courts restored
and live on Freeview channel 276
The first thing I notice as I get off the bus in Sea Mills is just how green it is. With tree-lined streets and verdant community spaces, I can see immediately why they call the north-west Bristol neighbourhood a ‘garden suburb’.
I meet local leader Mary Milton at the Cafe on the Square, a converted 1950s toilet block which is now the centre of community activity.
Inside, it’s full of older people who are talking across tables and shows just how close-knit this community is.
Mary and I walk over the road to the ‘Sea Mills Museum’ she runs, which is a repurposed telephone box. Looming over the postbox is a 104-year-old oak tree. Called Addison’s Oak, it was planted to mark the start of work on the Sea Mills housing estate in 1919.
“We drove into Sea Mills and it just looked like a little village,” Mary tells me, explaining why she decided to move to the area with her partner around six years ago.
“We saw the letterbox, church and tree and it just looked like you were out in the countryside. I’m proud to live here,” she adds. "There’s very little that would tempt me to live somewhere else; it's the community, getting to know people and being part of that support network.”
A Conservation Area, there has not been much development in Sea Mills over the last 100 years or so. Its housing stock is mainly three and four-bedroom council properties.
The area was built as a designed 'garden suburb' on land gifted and sold by the nearby Kingsweston estate, to meet the housing crisis following the First World War.
As well as the cafe, Sea Mills includes facilities such as three churches, a primary school and a 1930s library. But like all communities, it is not without its challenges.
A community centre has stood derelict since 2019 and community tennis courts are in need of repair.
“Anti-social behaviour is not as bad at the moment as it was a few months ago but occasionally you get one angry kid or a few groups,” Mary tells me. “I do think there’s not enough for that age to do. What they want is a skatepark but that costs a lot of money.”
Sea Mills Community Centre was built in the 1950s but was closed in 2019 and is now in a poor condition. The exterior was done up and used for Stephen Merchant’s acclaimed TV series The Outlaws, which was filmed in the area a couple of years ago, but it's now locked up and out of use again.
“Everyone got excited, but they didn’t do anything to the interior of the building,” says Mary, who says it could cost up to £1m to restore the facility.
“The thing that is really missing is the community centre which is really apparent that we used to have one and now we don’t. I would like to see it back, but as a community centre we deserve for the modern era.”
Mary would also like to see the neglected tennis courts be somewhere for recreation. The council is currently consulting on proposals to restore the facilities which could also see them become pay-to-play.
Back in the cafe, some of the older residents tell me how Sea Mills has changed over the years.
“It’s shabby compared to how it used to be,” is the opinion of Anne Bragg, 80, who was born in the area.
“It was a lovely place to live and grow up, right on the corner of Blaise Castle. They were all independent shops around the square, it just looks tired and not very nice now.”
Brenda Davis, 79, who lives in Stoke Bishop, visits the cafe most days. “It’s friendly, there’s always somebody to talk to,” she said. “It has been a lifesaver because I have lost family members.”
She thinks the community centre should be reopened: “They used to have lovely flower shows, keep-fit activities and pantomimes in there. There is nowhere for any of the kids to play, if there was more, maybe they might not get into trouble.”
But 101-year-old Sea Mills resident Ethel Lloyd says the area is a very good place to live as a whole.
“It’s very good now, since this cafe has been put up. Before then there was nothing, it gives us somewhere to stop and eat.
“Some of the shops have been taken away - the ironmongers has gone - so we haven’t got many shops left so we have to go to Shirehampton."
Mary Milton concluded: “Sea Mills is a massive 100-year experiment on how to create a community and mostly it has been functioning as it was intended.
“But there were things in the initial plan we didn’t get but came very late and those are the things we need to hold on to in order to keep this community healthy.”