In 2020, Bristol was in the news quite a bit, but not for the right reasons. The toppling of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue during a Black Lives Matter protest kicked off a huge debate about how the UK should deal with its history of profiting from the slave trade. The furore still continues in 2021 and has certainly not enhanced the reputation of the city.
Unfortunately for England’s sixth largest city, the history of Bristol is distinctly murky. As always, it’s down to location. Founded in the 10th century, Bristol’s strategic position where the rivers Avon and Frome meet and then flow towards the sea saw it become the second most important port in the country and also gave it the Old English name Brycgstow – the place at the bridge.
The city’s position on the west coast of England meant that it was well placed for trade with Ireland, Spain and then the Americas. Yes, voyages of discovery were launched here but the city is better known for first smuggling and then slavery. The slave trade in particular was lucrative, and the profits literally laid the foundations for much of Bristol’s glorious architecture. Ships left here bound for Africa, laden with locally produced goods which were traded for slaves. The slaves were transported to America and exchanged for cotton, tobacco and sugar, which had a ready market in Europe. Bristol’s merchants got rich and the city thrived. It’s not a pretty picture, is it?
If the links to slavery are putting you off, don’t let them. It all happened a long time ago, after all, and Bristol has so much more to offer than its somewhat dodgy history. With a population of almost half a million, the south-west’s largest city often scores highly in ‘best place to live’ type surveys due to its restaurants, cultural events and community spirit. Personally, Bristol makes me think of sherry – John Hervey started blending his distinctive ‘cream’ here in the 19th century – so I had positive impressions even before visiting. It may not be trendy, but I’m quite partial to a sherry!
I visited Bristol for the first time in 2019 and loved it. Today I’m going back there to tell you why I, and more importantly the husband, liked it so much. He is much more picky than I am, after all. It’s July so we’re expecting nice weather, although you can never quite rely on that in the UK. We’re travelling by train, ahhh, so civilised. Unfortunately our first impressions on arrival at the rather lovely Temple Meads station are marred by huge roadworks to improve the approach to the city. Never mind, it’s only a 15 minute walk to our hotel in the city centre.
We’ve chosen to stay at the Bristol Hotel because it has the perfect location right on the water in the Old City. It’s not a pretty building by any reckoning, but for a short stay convenience is king in my book. Check-in is straightforward, our room is perfectly satisfactory, and we’re soon having lunch in a nearby pub. It’s a promising start.
On to exploration. The Old City, centred on the green expanse of Regency era Queen Square, has some interesting streets and lovely old buildings. We pass the pubs of King Street where alfresco drinking is the order of the day. It’s tempting, but we resist. Along Corn Street a flea market is in full swing, although unfortunately the historic St Nicholas Market is closed. In Castle Park, locals laze on the grass in the sunshine. Bristol Castle was one of England’s greatest in the 12th century, but not much remains today, much to the husband’s relief – he would be dragged around it otherwise. This area is the site of the old medieval city, once enclosed by walls and still the busy, beating heart of Bristol.
We walk back along the waterside pathway to Wapping Wharf, on the banks of the so-called Floating Harbour. Water from the nearby River Avon was enclosed here to allow ships to be safely loaded and unloaded away from the tidal drag. It’s now largely recreational, but the vibe remains industrial. Bristol’s history is explained at the M Shed Museum, housed in a 1950s transit shed. Behind the museum, Cargo is a collection of shipping containers converted into independant restaurants and shops.
As you know, walking is a vital element of a successful city break for me, and Bristol does not disappoint. Riverside strolls are always a treat, and the city centre wharves are the starting point for footpaths that stretch for miles. After a quick snifter at one of the many bars in the converted warehouses along the Waterfront, we head west towards the suburb of Hotwells.
There’s lots to admire along the way – attractive apartment blocks both modern and heritage in converted warehouses, some characterful and very busy pubs (this was in the good old days when they were always open, remember!) and boats of all shapes and sizes. At Merchants Road we cross over the bridge to Spike Island, home to art studios and galleries since the 1970s, and turn east back towards the centre.
We pass Underfall Yard, a Victorian working boatyard and museum, and Bristol Marina, previously the Albion Dockyard, where some of Bristol’s biggest shipbuilders were based. And talking of ships, as we turn a corner we come face to face with a particularly famous one – Brunel’s SS Great Britain, billed as the ship that changed the world. Launched in 1843, the Great Britain was the largest ship afloat at the time, and revolutionary in design. Unfortunately this also made her expensive to build and prone to operational issues, bankrupting her original owners.
Originally built for the transatlantic route, the Great Britain ended up taking emigrants and gold seekers to Australia for almost 30 years. Her longtime captain, John Grey, mysteriously disappeared one night on a voyage home from Melbourne. The ship sadly ended up transporting goal before being abandoned in the Falkland Islands. Thanks to some rich benefactors, her story ended happily with a rescue operation bringing the Great Britain back to her birthplace in Bristol. You can now visit and explore the ship for £18. Well not right now, obviously, but soon…hopefully!
After dashing around all day, we are more than ready for evening refreshments. I’ve pre-booked dinner, of course, I like to be organised, but we fancy a few drinks beforehand. We start with traditional at the King William Ale House on King Street, before progressing to something a bit more funky at The Wild Beer Company down by the harbour. Yes, we are probably the oldest people in there but what the heck! Dinner at The Olive Shed is lovely, lovely tapas. We look quite content afterwards, don’t we?
The next morning doesn’t start well – there’s a queue for breakfast in the hotel. For someone who generally wakes up starving, this is a major drama! Fill your boots, I advise the husband when we finally get seated – I have another walk in mind, this time to Clifton, home of the famous suspension bridge. Past the impressive Cathedral and City Council building, through Brandon Hill Park and up Constitution Hill we go to the village-like suburb where everyone wants to live.
Unsurprisingly, we think, as it is rather fetching with streets and crescents of handsome Georgian townhouses, quirky shops and arcades and cosy little pubs and restaurants. The husband starts to look in estate agent windows, which usually means he’s impressed.
And then there’s the crowning glory – Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge is Bristol’s most recognisable landmark. Completed in 1864 and spanning the Avon Gorge for over 2 kilometres, this was the site of the first modern bungee jump in 1979. It’s also been the site of many suicide jumps, although in 1885 one lady was saved by her petticoats, which billowed out like a parachute. She subsequently lived into her 80s. Bring back voluminous skirts, I say!
Back in the town centre, there’s just time for lunch before our train departs. Horts on historic Broad Street in the Old City looks promising from the outside, and they’re serving Sunday roasts – who are we to resist? In the end we’re lucky to make it to the station on time – huge Yorkshire puddings and copious amounts of veg (oh, and a few vinos to celebrate another successful trip) mean that we struggle to get out of our chairs, never mind cart our luggage a mile up the road. Collapsing into our train seats, a nap may be in order…it’s been an energetic and satisfying weekend.