Banjo Island: the close-knit community behind the reputation
Despite its fearsome reputation, we found a warm community and good living on Banjo Island estate in Cadbury Heath.
Photo essay: Alexander Parkyn-Smith
If I said to you “Banjo Island”, what would you think of? If you’re new to Bristol, probably not much. If you know Bristol, you might pull a face and say “Stay away from there!”
So, for those that don’t know: Banjo Island is another name given to the council estate built after the war on Cadbury Heath, which is on the very eastern edge of the city. This is the story of the area, as told to me by the people who live there.
First up, why ‘Banjo Island’? Steve sets us straight: “From an aerial view, you’ve got the [grassy] Island, and then Park Road looks like the neck of a banjo.”
Les and Mark have lived in Banjo since they were “knee high to a grasshopper” and still live there, as do Kerry and Jem, Paul, Nick and Helen, Steve, Dave, and Malcolm. Most of them follow Bristol Rovers, and all of them drink in the Lamb, the pub that sits right at the heart of the community.
“You’d get cars come round from Kingswood, Stockwood, Keynsham, looking for a big dust-up.”
A well-earned rep
So, what about this reputation that Banjo has with the rest of Bristol? “It used to have a bad reputation,” admits Steve, “back in the 60s”. Paul agrees: “I think it’s always been known as a difficult area….it’s got that stigma.”
Back in the day, Helen was a single mum looking for a council flat: “[They] told me that I could have the keys to a flat in Cadbury Heath. I can remember, I sat in his office and cried! I said I don’t want to live in Cadbury Heath… it had a really bad rep.”
The reputation was deserved, earned in violent rivalries with other areas. “When we was kids, we would come up and sit on the wall and protect the Island. You’d get cars come round from Kingswood, Stockwood, Keynsham, looking for a big dust-up,” remembers Les. “When you got old enough you would go to other areas, you would upset them, so they would have a go back, it was just a scuffle. You’d go over there and say ‘here we are, hello, come on, let’s have a go then.’ Then get back in the car and go home.”
Malcolm and Nick back that up: “Every weekend in the Lamb there was a punch-up. It got quite notorious. People used to come over from Keynsham and Lockleaze, on their Vespas. One time loads came up from St Pauls.”
Boredom led to a notorious incident in 2007 when a phone box was blown up on the Island.
Soft in the middle
So, to the outside world, Banjo put on a tough face. But on the inside there was a loving, close-knit community that would be the envy of most Bristolians.
Kerry remembers moving to Banjo in the ’90s: “It was like a Butlins holiday camp! Everyone knew everyone, you walk past people and they would say ‘Good Morning!’ They used to have Summer Fairs in the school, and it would go all down the street, and all the businesses would be involved, it was a massive community thing.
“On a summer’s evening everyone would be out and we’d all order pizzas, have a glass of wine. If the World Cup was on everyone would get their chairs out front, someone would get their telly out on a table.”
The Lamb pub was at the heart of it. “This is our hub. You come in here on a Sunday, it’s buzzing,” says Nick. Steve agrees, “Without this pub, there’d be nothing.” In many ways, as everyone has grown older and calmer, so has the Lamb. As Dave says, “You don’t get trouble in here anymore. You don’t get it anywhere, and if you do it stops straight away, get them out the door.”
“Years ago, someone would come in and it would be ‘pick a window,’” says Malcolm. “Whereas now you get Polish come in, you get all sorts. We got a Polish bloke in tonight, he’s just moved into the area, he’s fine.”
There’s a wall of pictures in the Lamb that remembers the regulars that have passed away. Les points at a framed bikers jacket: “Jamie England, he was abandoned when he was a kid, his nan took him in and brought him up, along with me and my brothers and sisters because our dad worked days and our mum worked nights.”
On the inside there was a loving, close-knit community that would be the envy of most Bristolians.
Today, Banjo is clearly changing. “On the Island, we used to have a big fete, have the quad bikes going round… but it died out. As people get older they don’t want to give their time up, people have families… that’s the way it is,” says Nick. Kerry agrees, “That generation has gone, the community thing has dwindled… there’s no kids out on the street anymore.”
Although everyone agrees that Banjo no longer deserves its bad reputation, there are problems related to drug addiction, and not much for youngsters to do. Les says, “I don’t think kids can be kids no more. We used to walk to Longwell Green to get a gallon of petrol, push the bike down to Oldlands and spend all day riding around the fields. Now that’s all housing estate. These young-uns, they go up to Barrs Court (Moated Park) and they’re a nuisance.”
Boredom led to a notorious incident in 2007 when a phone box was blown up on the Island. Malcolm remembers how “the whole place just shook. We’re two or three streets away, and we found bits of the telephone box in the front of our house. It was just a kids thing, messing about, but it all went pear-shaped.”
“We don’t often get a mention on Sky News!” laughs Nick. But he says it could have been a lot more serious: “If you look at the shop over there that Mahesh used to run, there’s a hole in the side where part of the phone box hit it. If someone had been walking past they would have been killed.”
Overall, despite the changes, life is still good down Banjo Island. “It’s our identity this is,” says Nick, “I’ve loved it, every minute of it.” Malcolm adds, “every year we get the pub up together, a load of us, and we go to Benidorm. That’s what we do.”
“I love it,” says Helen. “My kids have been brought up round here, my grandchildren are being brought up round here. My oldest grandson calls me ‘Nanny Banjo’. He goes to Kingswood school and they laughed and asked him, is that because she lives in Cadbury Heath? He said ‘No, it’s because her dog’s called Banjo!’”
“Down the Lamb up the Gas!”
The links between Bristol Rovers and Banjo Island have always been strong, and as always, the Lamb was at the heart of it. “The Lamb was always a Rovers pub, they put on coaches to go to away games. People got t-shirts made up saying “Banjo Gas, Up the Gas and Down the Lamb”, says Paul.
There used to be a wild side to following the Gas as well, explains Mark. “In the 70s there would be coaches that went to away games, they would go en-masse with Kingswood to places like Notts County. They would get in the home end then have a bit of fisticuffs. In the 70s, it was like a badge of honour, to get into the home team’s end.”
Malcolm smiles and adds, “Banjo Boot Boys! It was a long time ago. It was part of growing up, learning how to handle yourself, part of a family. You’d get beat up one week, then another week….. It didn’t matter.”
These days things are a lot calmer, but the Rovers connection is still strong, says Jem. “You can walk round in a Rovers top and someone will always chat to you or say ‘Up the Gas!’”