Leigh Woods is the largest area of ancient woodland in the Bristol area. Given its proximity to the city, however, it is not surprising that its survival has sometimes seemed in doubt. In the 1830s, the wood’s owners, the Smyths of Ashton Court, leased 170 acres to William Watkins as a rabbit warren. He cleared large swathes of it, fenced other areas off and charged visitors a penny for admission to those parts still open to them.
Worse was to come, however. In the early 1860s it was announced that the Clifton Suspension Bridge, work on which had been abandoned in 1843, was to be completed. This meant that the undeveloped land on the west side of the gorge – hitherto accessible only by ferry from Hotwells or via a circuitous route through Bedminster – would be within walking distance of Clifton.
At around the same time, work started on a railway to Portishead, running along the west bank of the Avon and raising the prospect of a station at Leigh Woods. Sir Greville Smyth of Ashton Court, realising that Leigh Woods was now the most desirable piece of real estate in the area, announced that he was going to build on it. The plans, unveiled in June 1863, were for ‘a little town, comprising in all 435 houses’, with an iron bridge spanning Nightingale Valley, a church and ‘a hotel upon a scale of great magnitude and grandeur’ near the suspension bridge. Following numerous objections and ‘bitter letters’ in the newspapers, Smyth offered the council a short-term lease of the woods, but at such a high price that they turned it down.
In September 1864, the Bristol Times revealed that Smyth had sold Leigh Woods to a developer who planned to build ‘some 800 tenements, many of them of a poor character, several of them small shops ... on the romantic site, thereby of course making it an eyesore to Clifton’. Faced with this threat, a number of wealthy citizens got together to buy the developer out. His terms were so exorbitant, however, that they decided to play for time – very wisely, for, after failing to come up with the first instalment of his payment to Smyth, he disappeared.
The wealthy citizens could now deal with Smyth directly. They formed the Leigh Woods Land Company to undertake controlled development while preserving the view of the woods from Clifton and maintaining recreational access. Even this was too much for HA Palmer, a philanthropist, who argued that ‘no building scheme – however limited, however judiciously planned – can give to these woods ... the sublime and beautiful aspect they now present’. His attempt to raise enough money for a rival bid failed, however, and Smyth sold Leigh Woods to the Land Company for £40,000.