The Church in the Marsh

Street sign: Chapel Street

Dead in my tracks, I look up from the street sign and along the deserted industrial estate back street: what chapel?

St Philips in Bristol is industrial and has been industrial for a long time. Marshland reclaimed for railways and factories, now turned over to great sheds in corrugated metal and red brick – car dealerships, waste recycling plants, garage door salesrooms and the like.

There’s not much evidence that people ever lived here which is why Chapel Street, which I’ve never noticed before, grabs my attention.

Then, almost opposite, I notice Victoria Terrace, too, where there is no terrace – only brambles, vans and vicious anti-climb fencing.

Chapel Street.

Chapel. Terrace. Here?

In 2021, there’s no need to wonder. I take my phone and call up a map from 1902. It turns out I’m standing at the centre of a crowded neighbourhood. Short Street, the main artery, has terraced houses wedged together on either side.

Victoria Terrace has houses on one side, opposite the gates of the Saw Mill.

York Street and Aberdeen Street, are gone, homes and gardens lost beneath workshop buildings and car parks.

And, sure enough, there’s a church. St Silas’s. It once fronted onto the Feeder Road and was hugged by its own terraced streets – St Silas Street and Arthur Street. You can see it here in an aerial photo from 1926, round-tailed and imposing.

St Silas Street is sort of, just barely, still there, as the main entrance to Auto Choice, a huge dealership in a space-age box. Arthur Street, cut in half, is its side passage, with garages and parked vans.

St Silas’s wasn’t around long – it didn’t even make a century. Built on a bog in 1868, it was already falling down by 1872, and had to be rebuilt on new foundations. In 1941, it was blitzed, and never reconstructed. What remained was knocked down in 1959.

Although it was that street sign, Chapel Street, that led me to St Silas’s, it turns out the reference was… what’s the opposite of a red herring?

Chapel Street was diverted when the trading estate was built and didn’t originally run as far as Short Street. Its chapel is a Methodist one which, astonishingly, perhaps, is still there, in body at least. One of a handful of reminders of when this was a place, not a space.

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