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Perched on top of old St Michaels Hill on Colston Street, just inches away from the Christmas Steps, is Fosters Almshouses Bristol.
A curious gated community with spires, balconies, winding staircases, a planned garden, and an adjoining chapel dedicated to the Biblical Magi.
When you compare this red-bricked building with the likes of its surroundings made of Bristol Stone, it does make you wonder how such a place came to be here. It’s almost bizarre and it looks like something straight out of Europe.
Although I call it the cities answer to Hogwarts being a Harry Potter fan, Fosters Almshouses has a curious history that dates back well over 500 years. It’s an amazing find!
Here’s an essential guide that explores the story behind this peculiar historic house in the city centre of Bristol.
The history of Fosters Almshouses in Bristol
The Almshouses that can be found at the top of the Christmas Steps were founded by John Foster all the way back in 1483.
He was a wealthy merchant who would often travel overseas to Europe and became the High Sheriff of Bristol. As well as that role, he would also add the accolades of Mayor and a member of parliament throughout his life.
The first Almshouses were built in the UK around the 10th century. They were created to provide shelter for the poor and distressed in charity.
Years ago, these often would house societies outcasts like the ill, elderly, orphaned, and disabled.
They were called bede-houses and the residents were then known as bedesmen or bedeswomen. At the time, John Foster managed to endow 13 men and 13 women into his accommodation.
He had strict rules and stipulated that residents should be English, unmarried, and over the age of 50.
By the 16th century a Dr. George Owen, who was a physician to Henry VIII, further endowed the property for the poor.
This allowed for a further 10 “poor people” to live there.
The Chapel of the Three Kings of Cologne
John Foster often travelled overseas to trade with the Hanseatic League, which is now known as Germany.
He would often meet with the Hansa in Cologne and so he would have almost certainly seen the Shrine of the Three Kings in Cologne Cathedral.
This visit inspired him to create his own chapel on the site of the Almshouses for use of the residents. He named it The Chapel of the Three Kings of Cologne. John Foster would have been responsible for assigning a priest.
Although little is known of what’s inside as it’s always been a private building, there is a stained glass window that shows the Nativity of Jesus that can be seen from the Christmas Steps nearby.
Many people believe this is where the steps get their curious name!
Renovations in the 19th century
Of course, the building we see now is a far cry from the one that John Foster created.
It was owned by the Bristol Corporation until 1835 when it was taken over by Bristol Municipal Charities. They ordered huge renovation works to be carried out on the building and chapel in the late 19th century.
An architect of Foster and Wood, coincidentally called John Foster, was inspired by the Hotel Dieu in Beaune in Burgundy.
It was founded in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin, the chancellor of Burgundy at the time, as a charitable almshouse. It’s now a museum you can visit and it does look very similar.
John Foster made his complete reconstruction in the fanciful Burgundian Gothic revival style in 1861. He installed the turrets, brick chimneys and created a new roof. Again, in 1865 niche carvings were made.
At the same time the whole of the old dark and narrow Steep Street was made wider and changed to Colston Street we know now!
In the chapel, a small bell-cote was placed on top of the gable and the heads of the Three Kings were made by Ernest Pascoe in the 1960s.
Fosters Almshouses today
Today, English Heritage has classed this incredible building as Grade II listed which means it’s of considerable interest and is protected.
In 2007, Bristol Charities repurposed the rooms into residential housing for the elderly. But, it was deemed unfit for the infirm and it was sold at auction to fund the new ‘John Foster’s Almshouse’ in Bristol.
Today, it is still privately owned and has been made into private residential apartments. Looking online, these look fabulous! Imagine calling it home?!
Can you go inside Fosters Almshouses?
Unfortunately not and you also cannot go inside the gated garden either to explore as it’s residential property!
The chapel is also completely private and is only allowed to be used by the residents living here. Although you cannot go inside, you can still get some amazing photos through the gates of the architecture.
It is a shame as the church would make a great open space, even a museum, and is a testament to Bristol’s heritage.
Where is Fosters Almshouses Bristol?
Fosters Almshouses can be found on Colston Street at the very top of the Christmas Steps in Bristol, England.
It’s really easy to get here on foot from the likes of Park Street, or down by the lively Corn Street and the Waterfront.
The only thing I will say is that the walk from the Waterfront is incredibly steep and you’ll have to climb up the steps!
It’s definitely a hidden gem and, if you’re weren’t looking for it, you can easily miss it.
Don’t leave without visiting the Christmas Steps nearby – a real life Diagon Alley!
The Christmas Steps are truly a hidden gem in this city with an incredible past that now forms part of a vibrant Art Quarter!
As you wander down this curious shopping row, you’ll find a range of art galleries, boutiques, cosy pubs and even an independent cinema. But, if you turn back the hands of time, this spot has oodles of history to uncover.
You’ll find statues beheaded by Oliver Cromwell, Sedilia seats, plaques commemorating a colonel who died in the Civil War, and the original oil lamps that lit the streets.
As well as the main steps, the Art Quarter is a labyrinth of eight streets that have even more shops to explore plus an Artisan market that happens every month.
Why not check out a different street and see what you can find?! Click here to read my complete guide.
Looking for more free things to do in Bristol?
After you’ve finished exploring the Art Quarter, there are plenty of free things to see and do in Bristol.
You can find out what lies behind that curious red door in the Red Lodge Museum which is set in a historic family home.
Here you can discover 400 years of history. Park Street is also one of my favourite streets in Bristol.
You’ll find a wealth of vintage shops, second-hand books stores, Banksy, art shops, and vinyl. Plus, incredible bars like the Instagrammable Florist Café.
The Norman Bristol Cathedral on College Green, with its immense architecture, is also worth a look along with the Bristol Art Gallery Museum.
You can head down to Bristol Harbour Dock to enjoy one of the most scenic walks in the city and explore the colourful houses in Cliftonwood Crescent.
A visit to the Clifton Suspension Bridge is always an adventure. It’s free to cross and here you’ll get the best views of the Avon Gorge!
Or, why not head up to Cabot Tower?! This is the highest point in all of Bristol. From this lookout, you can see 360-degree views of the city and beyond. Click here to read my complete guide.