A space for recreation and fun

What could set a city apart from others more, than having a 441-acre green open space at its heart that is dedicated to recreation and the enjoyment of its residents?

That’s exactly what Bristol can feel proud of, the Downs being a space that’s dedicated to recreation, wellbeing and conservation. Events play a big part in providing recreation and entertainment to those who visit. From Funderworld to Breaking Bread, from Bristol Pride to the Downs Concerts, there’s an event for everyone on the Downs in Bristol.

Events that are held on the Downs need to be agreed not just by Bristol City Council’s events team, who have a policy and process for the consideration of applications, but also by the Downs Committee, the guardians of the Downs. Jonathon Baker, who has been a member of the Downs Committee for the last five years says, “It’s important that the events programme balances the interests of residents and organisations, ensuring a varied, vibrant and interesting offer. It must integrate the leisure, cultural and wellbeing needs of the community.”

“Access to the Downs makes holding an event there really sustainable,” says Tom Paine of Team Love, organisers of events such as the Downs Concerts and Breaking Bread. “To attend events on the Downs, the vast majority of visitors walk, but great use is made of public transport too. As event organisers we work closely with First Bus, and for the Downs Concerts we provide secure cycle parking.”

When Team Love first suggested holding concerts on the Downs, it was met with some nervousness from stakeholders, including local residents. “Having now put on four concerts, the Downs Committee, the Council and local residents trust us to deliver what we say we are going to,” says Tom. The first show was a big one. Back in 2016 Team Love staged Massive Attack for their first gig in Bristol for years. This was also the first big event to be held on the Downs for many years too, so all eyes were fixed firmly on them.

“The space is incredible,” says Tom. “Not only do we have the backdrop of the Gorge and Sea Walls, we have a huge space – not just for the audience, but for production and back of house. When we were planning our first event, we simply couldn’t understand why the Downs hadn’t been used for this type of event before and we were delighted to be given the go-ahead. Of course, events are only taking up a very small fraction of the total 441 acres. In other parks, events can take up at least half, if not all of the area.

“The way we see it, we’re facilitating more people to come and use the Downs, encouraging people from all over the city to come and enjoy entertainment in this iconic place. “Working with neighbours and local residents has been incredibly important. From day one we’ve held consultation meetings to allow neighbours to air any concerns. We always seal off the adjoining roads to help residents and we also offer a ticket scheme for residents too. “The one thing we can’t avoid is sound – but working with our national acoustic team, it’s very well managed according to the terms of our licence.

“The Massive Attack concert was special for so many reasons. It was abysmal weather – the hardest it’s rained at any event we’ve organised – but actually it made it very special. People still talk about it!

“Our relationship with the Downs Committee has really developed and we have a very positive working association with them. When we approached them in 2020 to bring our pop-up restaurant event, Breaking Bread, they were very supportive, and we were able to move quickly to set it all up.”

Breaking Bread is a socially distanced pop-up environment housing some of Bristol’s most highly regarded restaurants and bars. One of the few positives for the city’s hospitality industry in 2020, Breaking Bread received fantastic support from the city. The event directly employed over 100 people across the project, as well as hundreds more across its supply chains and producers.

What’s more, as a direct result of Breaking Bread on the Downs during 2020, the team responded to an urgent need to feed school children during the 2020 October half term by producing packed lunches and pre-prepared meals that were distributed through the Feeding Bristol network. With an ongoing need, and thanks to donations from Breaking Bread customers, other small pots of funding and staff volunteering their time, the team continued to produce meals on a weekly basis, setting up Team Canteen CIC as a social enterprise for positive change. Not surprisingly, Breaking Bread made a successful return in 2021.

Events on the Downs importantly generate income that can be reinvested into the management and improvement of the space. Tom continues, “The Downs Committee really understands the balance between protecting the Downs and commercial realities. They know that events such as Breaking Bread and the Downs Concerts are not just providing the people of Bristol with top quality entertainment and enjoyment but providing an essential income stream to help pay for the upkeep of the Downs.”

Groups wishing to enquire about holding events on the Downs first have to talk to the events team at Bristol City Council, who then put forward applications to the Downs Committee, comprising members of Bristol City Council and the Society of Merchant Venturers (the two legal owners of the Downs, who jointly dedicated their land to the public back in 1861).

Jonathon Baker says, “All the groups we work with understand that they’re operating in a very special place. We need to be aware that the Downs is here for everyone. So when groups or events apply to use the Downs, each application is given very careful consideration, ensuring that those that are successful each play a role in providing a service to the community.”

An event of a different type is Cycle Sunday, a community organisation founded by Vicki Cracknell and run by a group of volunteers. It ran its first Cycle Sunday back in 2015, attracting some 3,000 people to the event in 2018.

With roads across and around the Downs closed for the duration of the family friendly event, it provides a really safe environment not just for children to learn to ride their bikes and to enjoy wide open space, but also for those adults who relish the safe environment. Bristol City Council and Life Cycle UK provide adapted bikes for the event.

“From 2016, Sustrans South became involved in the event,” explains Vicki. “We’ve had really fantastic support from them locally, with amazing input and know-how. A big thank you to James Cleeton and his team!”

“The Downs is an amazing place to hold Cycle Sunday,” says Vicki. “It’s over 400 acres of flat space, in the middle of a hilly city. The event is really special.” Vicki has also been working to improve all year-round cycle facilities with the potential introduction of the Downs Loop. Currently in its planning stages, it’s hoped the initiative will improve the Downs experience for all users, whether cyclists, walkers or runners, by creating a shared three-metre-wide path around the perimeter.

“Lockdown demonstrated how popular the Downs is for cyclists, runners and walkers, in fact for everyone! Anyone who visited the Downs in January and February this year can’t have failed to notice how eroded the paths became, not just because of the increased number of visitors but the continuous rain. As people get more active, we hope everyone can enjoy this amazing space. Hugging the route around the edge of the Downs, we’re hoping that the Downs Loop will be an amazing addition.”

(This article was first published in 2021.)

Find out more about Cycle Sunday:
For more information about Breaking Bread:

Find out more about Team Love:

For more information about Funderworld:

Find out about organising events on the Downs

Credit: Cycle Sunday

Credit: Brett Symes

Credit: Jonathan Duckworth

Credit: Jonathan Duckworth

Credit: TeamLove