Bristol’s Pirate Walks Tour: History with an Edge

There’s nothing like a walking tour to immerse yourself in a city, but being guided by a pirate is an added incentive. During my recent stay in Bristol I finally got to try out the famous Pirate Walk, led by Pirate Pete, which covers swashbucklers, slavery and 18th century life. Pete is a lively entertainer, with his eye-catching costume and Jolly Roger flag, and you can tell he loves his job – after all, he’s been offering tours for 15 years, and has even given lectures in Florida about the famous Blackbeard.

To whet your appetite, here are some of the weird and wonderful questions you can expect to be raised during the tour (though I’ll leave it to Pete to reveal the answers):

  • How long does it take to drown a pirate the old-fashioned way?
  • Which local pub has access to a Roman cave complex?
  • What does a supermarket have to do with lepers?
  • Why do we use the expression ‘happy as a sandboy’?
  • What was used as an insurance policy to ensure John Cabot brought his ship back?

Basically the tour turns you into a walking encyclopaedia of Bristolian facts, and these are the main areas you’ll be able to swot up on as you walk around the harbour and the Old City…

Floating harbour with view of the Matthew ship
The Jolly Roger flag, as used by pirate Bartholomew Rogers, was put to good use.

Finding Blackbeard, Long John Silver and Robert Louis Stevenson

Blackbeard was born in Redcliffe, Bristol (c. 1680), as the ordinary-sounding Edward Teach. He joined a boat of privateers and was soon leading his own ship, quickly establishing a fearsome reputation for piracy (though the Daily Mail has recently suggested he was a bit of a softie – if he was alive today, I think he’d get a lot of coverage on its celebrity-focused ‘sidebar of shame’). Pirate Pete painted a colourful mental image of the man who collected wives with as much efficiency as he plundered ships, and was said to have had 14 children before dying in a battle off the coast of Key West.

Up to 3,000 pirates lived in Bristol, so it’s hardly surprising that Robert Louis Stevenson found much of the inspiration for Treasure Island, and its larger-than-life character Long John Silver, in the city’s streets. The fictional Spyglass Inn, where Long John Silver was based, is thought to have been modelled on The Hole in the Wall pub, found on the quayside. The name comes from a tiny window at the side of the pub, used to spot press gangs operating in the area.

Stevenson also spent time at the Llandoger Trow, on King Street. This pub, established by a retired sea captain, became a meeting place for mariners (and also actors, once the Old Vic Theatre was opened opposite), and it’s where fellow author Daniel Defoe was introduced to the real-life inspiration for Robinson Crusoe – Alexander Selkirk.

British slavery legacy in footbridge named after Pero Jones
Pero’s Bridge remembers one of the victims of the Bristolian slave trade.

Confronting the Slave Trade

The tour doesn’t shy away from Bristol’s role in the slave trade, and I’m glad it wasn’t glossed over. Slavery is a shameful part of Britain’s past, but it can’t be brushed under the carpet, and we need to face up to the truth. Horrifically, an estimated 2,000 Bristolian ships trafficked 500,000 slaves over the years, and the practice only slowed in the city when Liverpool took the dubious honour of being the main British slaving port. An easy reminder of the legacy is Pero’s Bridge, beside the Arnolfini – this footbridge got its name from a slave, Pero Jones, who was bought by plantation owner John Pinney. Pero served John in Nevis, then in Bristol’s Georgian House (now a museum).

Slaves were clearly just another commodity to the merchants, especially when you could trade a signature Bristol blue glass bottle for an African child. Pirate Pete has a strong interest in the whole topic as he’s written a book called Bristol Slavers, which identifies the famous local families, including the Smyths of Ashton Court, who profited from slavery between 1668-1807. After doing some serious research he discovered precisely what happened to their captives, deposited in various plantations with a bleak existence ahead of them.

Away from the well known scenes of ships heading to Africa and onto America, the origins of slavery in the city are much older. Pete explained that the Vikings were the first to be involved in the trade here, capturing local people, selling them at the Horsefair and sending them on to Ireland.

Statue in floating harbour of Bristol remembering famous adventurer who discovered Newfoundland
The John Cabot statue looks out towards the harbour.

Chasing Cabot and Woodes Rogers

John Cabot isn’t Bristolian by birth, but he’s one of the city’s most recognisable figures from its chequered history. Born Giovanni Caboto in Italy, he studied navigation alongside Christopher Columbus, before moving to Bristol and developing a plan to find a new route to Asia.

Having set sail with King Henry VII’s blessing, he discovered a ‘New-found-land’ (erm, Newfoundland), instead of Asia. A replica of Cabot’s ship, the Matthew, was built to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the 1497 voyage. Find it in the floating harbour, just along from the M Shed Museum.

In Queen Square we were shown the plaque dedicated to Woodes Rogers, an explorer, pirate, privateer and Governor of the Bahamas, who met Alexander Selkirk on a remote island off the coast of Chile. Pete described how Rogers lifted a huge amount of treasure on his travels, including Peruvian silver, and brought it back to Britain.

Mansion houses in residential square
Many of the houses on Queen Square were built on the profits of slavery. Just along the street was the first American Embassy, a sign of trade between Britain and the USA.

Further Reading

If you’re particularly interested in one of the topics covered on the walk, you might want to browse these links:

I really enjoyed taking the Pirate Walk – it was accessible, honest and genuinely fun. Whilst Bristol has some great museums, the walking tour is a worthy alternative that brings history to life.

Historic pub for mariners and writers in King Street, Bristol
I’d recommend popping into the Llandoger Trow for a drink after the tour finishes.

Visiting Notes

The tour costs £5 for children and £10 for adults, with a £25 family ticket available, and discounts for carers, translators and large groups. It begins at 2pm every Saturday and Sunday throughout the year, meeting at the black beetle statue outside the aquarium in Anchor Square. Contact Pirate Pete beforehand to confirm, then just pay on the day.

You’ll want to wear sensible shoes, as some of the streets are cobbled, and a warm coat is a must in winter. Expect to be out and about for just over an hour.