Time and the Avon: Exploring Doctor Who’s Bristol connections

Suspension Bridge

Image Credit: James Ashworth – All Rights Reserved

Image Description: Clifton Suspension Bridge

By James Ashworth

The Doctor’s Earth shares many of our world’s landmarks, from the London Eye to the Sydney Opera House. Other places on the Doctor’s Earth are different from ours in ways which go beyond their remarkable similarities to Cardiff, London, or locations within easy travelling distance of the programme’s production bases. What similarities and differences can be found between the Doctor’s world and ours in, for example, Bristol?

In the real Bristol there are two universities. The first of these is the University of Bristol, which is common to both worlds. Bristol University was founded as University College, Bristol, in 1876, which, with the support of chocolate and tobacco (in the form of the Fry and Wills families respectively) eventually became Bristol University in 1909. It is a member of the Russell Group, and has produced alumni such as the mathematician Paul Dirac (after whom Doctor Who’s mathematical prodigy Adric was named), but also Doctor Who actors: David Walliams (Gibbis), Matt Lucas (Nardole) and Simon Pegg (the Editor). Doctor Who has also filmed inside briefly, using a stairwell in the Physics Department as part of New York’s Winter Quay from The Angels Take Manhattan, while the Institute for Advanced Studies is used for Amy’s photoshoot at the beginning of Asylum of the Daleks. Within the fiction of Doctor Who, the university appears in the novel Rags by Mick Lewis, in which a member of the Royal Family visits the Great Hall of the Wills Memorial Building. If the fictional university has a similar history to the real one, then the third chancellor of the university is a friend of the Doctor, being Winston Churchill himself! Just down the road from Bristol University is Bristol Grammar School. It is the school of ‘Bristol’ himself, Chris Parsons, in Shada. Outside the fiction, its alumni include Julian Glover of The Crusade and City of Death, and David Prowse of The Time Monster.

The other university of the real Bristol is the University of the West of England (UWE). Derived from the Merchant Venturers’ Navigation School, it became a technical college in 1894. Various subdivisions then occurred, including the separation of one college to become the University of Bath, before it was eventually granted university status in 1992. Its alumni include Bear Grylls and Miranda Hart. So far, it hasn’t been mentioned in the Whoniverse, and it’s tempting to imagine St Luke’s University taking its place. Based in Bristol (but filmed in Cardiff), St Luke’s is the place in which the Doctor decides to hide the Vault, for at least seventy years. While a detailed history of the university is unlikely to be forthcoming, it may be possible that the Doctor has been there for longer, gathering a group of academics around him who then founded the university, or at least contributed to its rise. The fact no one has queried the length of time he has been there may be, to adapt a line from Douglas Adams, ‘one of the delights of older universities. Everyone is so discreet’. Perhaps another reason for this discretion is that the Doctor is such a big draw. As Bill notes, everyone likes his lectures, and he draws people who don’t do his subject, including, in her case, those who aren’t even students. He may be a one- man outreach event St Luke’s can’t afford to let go, and why would they?

As part of Bill’s new life as a student of St Luke’s University, she, like many before her, grouped with others to rent a shared house. Of course, she ended up living at 11 Cardinal Road, with David Suchet’s Landlord, in Knock Knock. You are unlikely to find accommodation of that kind in the real Bristol (and not just because the location was in Cardiff), but there are other unique buildings for student accommodation, such as the former Roman Catholic Pro-Cathedral of the Holy Apostles (shown on the right). Another famous residence in Bristol, somewhat more upmarket than Bill’s accommodation, is Kings Weston House. In reality, it was built for Edward Southwell in the early 1700s, but is perhaps better known as Lord Sutcliffe’s mansion in Thin Ice, somewhat removed from that story’s London setting.

Another Bristol location referenced by Knock Knock is seen as Bill searched for a house through the agency Redcliffe Lettings. Redcliffe is an area of Bristol known for its large church, St Mary Redcliffe, but also for its underground cave system. Formerly mined for glass making, it now has a good line in doubling for other planets, appearing in Class as ‘the Underneath’, home of the Shadow Kin, and the red planet in Empress of Mars. Another Victorian episode, The Snowmen, made use of some of the older streets of Bristol, such as St Nicholas Market, to provide a backdrop for the adventure. Also in Redcliffe is Waring House, a block of flats which was the home of the Thompson family in Night Terrors.

Having discussed where people live, it naturally follows to mention where people go when they die. Arnos Vale is a historic cemetery, located in the Totterdown suburb of Bristol. It features in Rags, where it is a location for one of the gigs of the Unwashed and Unforgiving tour. In response to a series of murders, the novel’s villain the Ragman and his band are investigated by the third Doctor, Jo, and UNIT.

Bristol is also famed for its engineering, particularly the work of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Chief among this is the Clifton Suspension Bridge above the Avon Gorge, begun by Brunel in 1831, abandoned in 1843, but revived after Brunel’s death in 1859 and completed as a memorial in 1864 to an amended design. The Clifton Suspension Bridge has featured in two Doctor Who novels, both set in parallel timelines. In the novel Reckless Engineering by Nick Walters, the bridge’s construction is accelerated, being completed before 1843 due to the influence of the Eternines and Jared Malahyde, and presumably without the updated design. It is then converted into a fortress to defend Malahyde’s base at Ashton Court Mansion, with guards stationed in the towers, and a portcullis system to control access to the bridge. In Blood Heat by Jim Mortimore, Ace nearly falls from the ruins of the bridge in a world which diverged from Doctor Who’s conventional narrative by having the Doctor killed during the events of Doctor Who and the Silurians.

Brunel’s work also included maritime vessels, including designing the SS Great Britain, launched in Bristol in 1843. Then the largest ship in the world, it was stranded for a year until Brunel had finished widening the locks in the city’s floating harbour to allow the ship to pass. In Reckless Engineering, the SS Great Britain’s launch is the date of the Cleansing, where life was aged by forty years in mere seconds as the Eternines tried to extract energy from our universe to grow their own. Later, in this timeline’s 2003, the Eighth Doctor and his companions, Fitz and Anji, are pursued through the floating harbour by the Wildren, the warped feral humans created by the Cleansing.
Railways are a further part of Bristol’s engineering heritage, something that forms the setting of the Series Eight episode Flatline. One of the many railways in Bristol was the Port and Pier line, which connected to the docks at Avonmouth. When it was partly demolished to make way for the Portway road in the 1920s, its tunnels in the Avon Gorge remained. These tunnels, after being abandoned, were used first as an air raid shelter during WW2, and later as a rifle range for the Bristol Gun Club, before being filled in during 2011 after subsidence. Presuming that the infilling did not take place, or the episode occurred at an earlier time than broadcast in our world, this tunnel is likely to be where the Boneless pursue Clara and Rigsy in Flatline, as it lies close to the still used Clifton Down tunnel, thereby allowing the escape of Clara and Rigsy onto the active railway in the episode. Just south of this area, adjacent to the former Hotwells Railway Station, lies the Clifton Rocks Railway, a steep funicular that used to take passengers from the base to the top of the Avon Gorge. During the Second World War, part of it was converted into an air raid shelter, and another section became an emergency broadcasting station for the BBC if Broadcasting House was destroyed. In order to test the acoustics, the BBC even sent a symphony orchestra to play in it! One can only hope that its library would be equipped with a supply of Doctor Who audios if it were constructed today.

Rigsy becomes involved in the events of Flatline as he had been sentenced to community service in connection with his graffiti. Bristol is renowned for graffiti, especially the art of Banksy. Recently voted the United Kingdom’s favourite artist, Banksy is an pseudonymous street artist who uses stencils to create their art, a mix of humour and political commentary. Originally based in Bristol, their works have later appeared across the UK, and then the world. If their work came to life, as in Flatline, then you would be being pursued, amongst others, by rats wielding paintbrushes, Samuel L Jackson and John Travolta armed with bananas, and teddy bears holding Molotov cocktails!

A dramatic landmark in Bristol is the Theatre Royal, more commonly known as the Old Vic. It opened in 1766, making it the oldest continually operating theatre in the English-speaking world. Its theatre school has educated many Doctor Who alumni, including Ian Marter, who played the Fourth Doctor’s companion Harry Sullivan, and Brian Blessed, who played King Yrcanos in The Trial of a Time Lord parts five to eight. Other actors trained at Bristol Old Vic include Olivia Colman, who played Prisoner Zero in The Eleventh Hour and Ellie Miller in Broadchurch, which increasingly looks like a Doctor Who spinoff. Most recently, Pearl Mackie graduated in 2010, and went on to play Bill in Series Ten. The theatre was also the scene of the British premiere of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in 1954, which was attended by the first Doctor, Susan, Barbara and Ian in the novel The Witch Hunters by Steve Lyons (1998).

A further link between Doctor Who and Bristol is its writers. Perhaps one of the more prominent is Bob Baker, one half with Dave Martin of the ‘Bristol Boys’. In the 1960s Baker and Martin contributed to BBC Bristol’s long-running television series with hearing-impaired children in mind, Vision On, which in the 1970s featured Sylvester McCoy. They then moved on to other series including Doctor Who, for which they wrote several serials in the 1970s, including The Three Doctors and The Hand of Fear. Their most notable contribution to the show is the introduction of everyone’s favourite robot dog, K9, in The Invisible Enemy. Baker and Martin built a distinguished list of credits including the children’s science-fiction series Sky (1975) and the urban fantasy King of the Castle (1977) for the Bristol division of ITV franchise-holder HTV, as well as episodes of BBC detective series Target and Shoestring. They ended their writing partnership in 1979 and Baker contributed his last Doctor Who story, Nightmare of Eden, as a solo project. In Bristol, Baker has co-written several Wallace and Gromit films for Aardman Animations, who also produce Shawn the Sheep and Morph amongst their other film and television projects. Toby Whithouse, writer of School Reunion and other episodes, set his series Being Human in Bristol, returning to possibly the Doctor’s favourite suburb of Bristol, Totterdown, as seen in the novels Reckless Engineering and Rags.

Not far from Bristol are the towns of Thornbury and Oldbury. While they are unlikely to be immediately familiar, they may be more recognisable as ‘South Croydon’ (later identified as Aberdeen) and the Nunton Experimental Complex from The Hand of Fear. Sarah Jane is dropped off on Stokefield Close, a cul-de-sac near the town centre, while Nunton Experimental Complex is actually Oldbury Power Station, which sits on the banks of the River Severn and has distinctive blue and white reactor buildings. As well as Doctor Who, it has also played host to Blakes 7 on three occasions and has hosted the British Monopoly Championships in 1977, where 240 players took part on top of the reactor pile cap! Another classic Doctor Who serial, The Sun Makers, was also filmed in Bristol, at the former headquarters of the Imperial Tobacco Company. It is seen as the rooftop on Pluto on which the TARDIS lands at the start of part one.

When I first had the idea for this article, I believed that Bristol was not a regular haunt of the Doctor and his friends. As my research began, I became more and more aware of the number of appearances it had made, with a mention here and an establishing shot there. It has made me appreciate just how much of Doctor Who is out there, mostly unknown and forgotten about. Maybe there’s a piece of Doctor Who history near you…

The rest of Tides 40 can be found online here

Other Who on Earth? articles




Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s