Explore university’s shrine to industrialist
As a new season of tours of the Wills Memorial Building are launched in aid of sick children at Bristol Children's Hospital, David Clensy gets a sneak preview of the tour
AS head porter at the Wills Memorial Building, Gary Nott has picked up a thing or two about the history of the place in the past 14 years – you can see the enthusiasm light up in his eyes from the moment he starts talking.
We are standing in the lobby of the great neo-gothic building which was built in memory of tobacco magnate Henry Overton Wills III by his two sons, George and Henry Herbert Wills, after his death in 1911.
As the name testifies – this place is almost a shrine to one man's memory. It's certainly a building of which he would have approved.
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As Gary tells me, pointing towards a photograph of the sternly bearded Victorian gent, the late Mr Wills was, by anyone's standards a great supporter of Bristol University.
It was he who donated some £400,000, two years before his death – the equivalent of £6 million in today's money – in order to raise the college up to university status.
Like Bishop Percival before him – the Victorian Bishop of Bristol who had founded the original college in Park Row in the 1870s – Wills had great aspirations for the institution, and believed higher education should be open to all, not just the lucky few public schoolboys of Oxford and Cambridge.
But when it came to erecting a great monument at the heart of the new university in their father's memory, George and Henry Herbert directed architect Sir George Oatley to gather inspiration directly from the medieval college buildings of Oxford and Cambridge.
Which explains the general neo-gothic grandeur of the place – the fan-vaulted ceiling in the lobby, the cathedral-like windows and, above all, the collegiate-looking Great Hall, which wouldn't look out of place as one of the grand dining halls of Oxbridge.
You might be forgiven for thinking that Gary must be a professor of history, rather than head porter – for he recounts the history with all the tutorly enthusiasm of a member of the academic staff. But then, he's used to telling the building's story. The tours began 12 years ago with chief tour guide Dave Skelhome, his son Jim, and Gary , head porter at the building, leading them initially for students and university staff as a way of raising donations for the Bristol Children's Hospital.
But the funds really started being amassed after they opened the tours up to members of the public a couple of years ago, and started charging a set fee of £4 per person.
Money raised from the tours goes towards Wallace and Gromit's Grand Appeal, the Bristol Children's Hospital charity – a £3.5m campaign to provide pioneering new facilities for the care of sick infants.
Last November the team achieved a major milestone, when they reached the £10,000 landmark in the money raised from the tours so far.
"We were very pleased to hit £10,000," Gary says as we make our way through towards the Earth Sciences department, and the creaky old lift beyond.
"We enjoy giving the tours, because working here you pick up the knowledge anyway, and it's nice to pass it on. But it was always more about raising funds for the children."
Gary and the other two tour guides lead tours on the first Wednesday and first Saturday of each month, starting up again next month after the Christmas break.
"After our initial introduction to the history of the building, we then take people up in the lift, up five floors, before we start to ascend the spiral staircases that lead to the top of the tower.
"At 215ft, the tower is the third tallest building in the city," Gary informs, "after the Castlemead Tower and the St Mary Redcliffe steeple. But given that we're at the top of Park Street, and they are both down near the harbour, the top of our tower is effectively the highest point in the city."But before we make our way to the top, we can take a break halfway up, as we visit Great George – the tower's famous nine-and-a-half-tonne bell.
"When it was first installed in 1924, a year before the building was officially opened by George V, the bell actually weighed 11.5-tonnes," Gary explains, giving the 7ft bell an affectionate stroke as he talks.
"But the makers, Taylor's of Loughborough, were not happy with the tone of the bell – they wanted to raise it a few semi-tones, so they shaved off two tonnes to alter the sound it makes."
Today the bell is more famous than ever – given that it has its own Twitter account, with more than 500 followers keeping track of the bell's hourly witticisms.
"It's the seventh largest bell in the country," Gary says proudly.
"When it was built it was the fifth largest, after Great Paul in St Paul's, Big Ben at the Palace of Westminster, Great Peter at York Minster and Little John at Nottingham Council Exchange.
But then Liverpool Cathedral was built, with another Great George, which slotted in just after the St Paul's bell in second place.
"Then last year, the Olympic Bell was cast – which took the top slot from Great Paul, and pushed our bell back to seventh position.
"But it's still a powerful bell. When it's rung with the clapper, rather than the hammer – which is only for special occasions – it can be heard up to 12 miles away."
You can see further still once you reach the top of the tower – with spectacular views across the Severn Estuary to the Welsh hills beyond, and the city of Bath in the opposite direction – while all around you, Bristol is laid out like a map at your feet.
But the tour is far from complete after this literal high point.
"We still have the Great Hall to visit, complete with the marks on the floor where its charred roofing timbers landed after the building was struck by an incendiary bomb in 1940, as well as the oak-panelled reception room, which in its time has played host to the great and the good, from the Queen to Sir Winston Churchill.
Then there is a chance to see the elegant Earth Sciences library, complete with it elaborate plasterwork ceiling and classical oak gallery, before the tour reaches its conclusion at the heraldic Old Council Chamber – where the family shields of each of the university's founding benefactors grace the walls, with the Wills family crest prominently standing alongside the likes of the Fry family and the Colston family.
Cannily enough, a number of shields have been left blank – space for future benefactors to make their mark on the institution.
"I love working here, because there is so much history to the place," says Gary, who previously worked at Bristol Airport – he was one of those people you see directing planes in with high-tech table tennis bats, he tells me.
"But I have had a few shocks here over the years.
"The building has its share of ghosts," he adds. "I remember opening up at 4am on the day of the Queen's visit a few years back, security was very tight, so I was horrified to see a person up on the balcony from the Great Hall.
"But when I got up there the door was locked and there was nobody there.
"A few colleagues have also seen a pair of phantom students who sit at the front in the Great Hall, as if waiting for an exam that never comes."
A moment later, Gary gives a nod to the marble panels commemorating the lives of those staff and students who went off to World War I and II and never came back.
As we pass by, we are heading back towards the grand lobby.
"So many interesting people have walked through these doors, and doing this job I get to meet an awful lot of them," Gary says.
"There is a sense of being here for just a short part of the building's history, but the past is all around you wherever you look."
Tours of the Wills Memorial Building take place on the first Wednesday and first Saturday of every month, priced £4. To book a place, email firstname.lastname@example.org