Joe Banks

Writer & Actor

St James Priory: 900 years of refuge and healing

This article was first published by The Bristol Cable on 4 August, 2021. Photograph by Aphra Evans.

Tucked away between the coach station and the busy shopping streets of Broadmead, St James Priory is Bristol’s oldest building; a fragment of the city’s medieval past that is easy to pass by without noticing.

Founded in 1129, the black-hooded monks who once lived there have been gone since Henry VIII’s day, but it survived as the local parish church. By 1984, however, the fabric of the building was deemed to be in such a poor state of repair that the doors were finally closed and it was left abandoned.

The fact that today those doors are open once again, the church has been restored and the priory functions as an important hub of community support services, is largely down to the tenacity of one woman.

In the early 1990s, Susan Jotcham was working as a primary school teacher in Kingswood when she joined forces with three monks from a Catholic community in Scotland who had come to Bristol with a mission to help the homeless. They were offered the damp, redundant priory as a base by the local diocese and Susan increasingly dedicated her time to the project.

The early days at St James Priory were focused on feeding the homeless on Sunday nights, but the team wanted to go further and tackle the underlying issues of those who were coming to them. Plans were made for a 16-bed residential treatment centre for people with drug and alcohol addictions, and after a long fundraising campaign, Walsingham House was built next to the priory and opened in 1996.

“If somebody wanted to come into rehab they literally knocked on the door… I’d say, try not to use and come back tomorrow. So it was self-referrals, most times with just a carrier bag or nothing. And people got well.”

Initially, they operated outside the local authority funding and referral system.

“If somebody wanted to come into rehab they literally knocked on the door,” Susan tells me. “I would welcome them in. Sit them down. Hear their story. Try and suss if they were genuine or not and wanting to get clean or sober.

“And I’d say, try not to use and come back tomorrow. So it was self-referrals, most times with just a carrier bag or nothing. And people got well.”

When an almshouse on the site was put up for sale by its owners, another big fundraising drive saw St James House established in 1999 as a 10-bed supported house for people in recovery from addiction.

And then attention turned to the church itself. It was clear the crumbling structure needed major restoration work or it would have to close again forever. A successful application to the National Heritage Lottery Fund resulted in a large-scale conservation project that finally repaired the rotten roof and restored the 12th century Norman stone.

It seemed like the culmination of the original vision for the priory, but the joy was short-lived. The following year in 2012, crisis hit when the Supporting People programme – an initiative introduced by the Labour government that was helping to fund Walsingham House – was slashed as part of the coalition government’s austerity drive.

“Our revenue was dip-diving and we had to make the decision,” Susan explains. “We couldn’t make ends meet, so we had to close. We had to make 18 people redundant.” Her voice cracks at the memory of it. “I can’t even go in the building, it’s just so heartbreaking.”

But all was not lost. The homeless charity St Mungo’s took over the lease and now provide a men’s mental health crisis centre.

But the loss of the residential rehab was an early sign of a trend repeated across Bristol and beyond over the last decade. Nationwide, a third of publicly funded residential addiction services were forced to close between 2013 and 2019. In Bristol, Chandos House was the last of this kind to go in 2018.

Meanwhile, drug-related deaths in England and Wales last year were at their highest since records began in 1993. The UK accounts for over a third of all drug-related deaths in the whole of Europe. On top of this, early signs suggest that the impacts of alcohol abuse have been sharply exacerbated by the pandemic, with a recent report by Public Health England stating that alcohol-related deaths increased by 20% in 2020.

There can be few people who feel the tragic waste of this more keenly than Sean Dennedy, who not only manages the sheltered accommodation at St James House, but also got clean himself at Walsingham House.

He has no doubt that going through the rehab programme there in the early 2000s saved his life. Originally from the Afan Valley in south Wales, he came of age in the 1980s as the closure of the coal mines and the decline of manufacturing industries wrought havoc on his local community. Drug and alcohol abuse became endemic in the villages of the Valleys, he says.

His own problems with addiction had led to a chaotic, self-destructive life that had seen him repeatedly in trouble with the police. On arrival at Walsingham House he immediately felt something he’d never felt before: “That sense of being safe. You’re all in the same boat.”

The situation for drugs services in Bristol has “changed dramatically”, he says, an undertone of anger entering his otherwise gentle demeanour. “It’s just a shambles, it’s a mess… There was a raft of all kinds of services. There was always something to fall back on. But all these are gone now.”

“It ends up costing more money,” he continues. “It’s incredibly short-sighted.” He lists the knock-on effects for wider society – shoplifting, courts, prisons, medical care. “Rehabs are recognised by evidence-based research to work. I don’t know why they don’t just open their eyes.”

Community-based rehabilitation services, such as day centres, are important but are not thought to be as effective as residential services. This chronic need for publicly funded residential rehabs is immediately visible when you step out of St James Priory and into the former churchyard that runs down to the Haymarket.

Yards from Bristol’s shopping quarter, there are people sleeping in tents, injecting on the benches, and passing out on the grass. It’s a scene that feels as if it has become a depressingly accepted part of the backdrop of towns and cities across the country.

The church itself continues to be a refuge for quiet reflection and has stayed open for several hours a day throughout the lockdowns. Both Susan and Sean tell me about the people that come in now and have always come in: people from the nearby hospitals, the recently bereaved, those diagnosed with terminal illnesses, nurses and doctors in their lunch breaks, bus drivers from the coach station next door.

As we emerge from the pandemic, somewhere like St James Priory should be at the heart of the recovery. For nearly a millennium people have found succour there, and while it’s central government funding that can make or break such community assets, the building is a living heritage that the city might support and cherish too.

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