City 5: Bristol


The Royal York Crescent.

The Royal York Crescent.

Southward Bound

Okay, so ten cities in and 50 Cities is finally falling into place. I like the 9-point format but I also feel that larger questions are forming. It is important to connect with friends and family through these continuing journeys but also to reach beyond them to connect with a wider community.   

My travelling companion for this trip is Esther Epstein, a clerk for Lichfield City Council. She likes reading and has attended a few of my Gothic Lectures. I also bumped into her at a Jewellery Party where I was frying crepes and pancakes for the assembled browsers. Over a drink she casually mentioned she hails from Bristol and I quickly suggested a visit briefly explaining the Walk and Talk concept. We set a date and few weeks later we are in my car heading south.

It’s 112 Miles from Lichfield to Bristol, so sayeth the Satnav and the winds do howl and the rain doth fall.  She comes up with her plan fully formed. Nine points clearly identified and ready for the off.

Bristol, I know only by association, in the sense that it was always where I stopped off on my way to Bath when I was a student there from 1991-1994. It’s been twenty years since I was last here. My associations are preciously few. I remember the inside of the National Express Coach Station, the Crusties begging for change by the café and the fact it was a drag I had to wait 45 minutes for a connection.

Don't Jump!

Don't Jump!

Location 1: Clifton Suspension Bridge

We set off promptly at 9.15 and arrive sometime around 11.30. The car is eight years old and a bit of a crate. It doesn’t exactly let me down but it groans like a woman going into labour when you task it. The doors rattle and the windscreen wipers makes some kind of grating noise that after a while has the same effect as Chinese Water Torture. I apologise to Esther as we crawl down the M5,a little to slowly for her liking perhaps.

At 11.30 we park up in a free bay by the Zoo Gardens and head for our first location, Clifton Suspension Bridge ,via Clifton Downs. The bridge is a Victorian Confection that spans the Avon Gorge, linking Clifton with Leigh Woods in North Somerset. Designed by that cigar-chomping, mutton-chopped, stove-hat wearing genius Isenbard Kingdom Brunel, at least in the early stages, it took years to bring to conclusion. Hawkshaw and Barlow took over after Brunel's death in 1859 and the bridge, all 412 metres of it was finally opened in 1864.

I always think of Clifton as a jumper’s bridge and a sign carrying the Samaritans Number bears grim testimony to this.It also reminds me of the Bridge of Khazad Dum in Lord of The Rings, the one where Gandalf falls into the abyss and latterly slays the Balrog. Its pehaps best viewed from a distance for those who don't really like heights but it is a thing of beauty. A testament to great engineering minds, vision and finnace. 

Those magnificent men in their flying machines...forgive the sexist pronoun, if you can. This is a 1963 biplane replica used in the movie.

Those magnificent men in their flying machines...forgive the sexist pronoun, if you can. This is a 1963 biplane replica used in the movie.

Location 2: Bristol Museum

Bristol is Esther’s City and she knows it well. She also has a connoisseur’s eye so the tour is wide ranging and designed to appeal to the eye and the mind, not just the legs. It's nice to travel with someone who has a plan. That after all was the original idea for Walk and Talk with Stu. Hand over to the companion, let them fly the plane, record their and your impressions.

Moving off the Clifton Suspension Bridge is a gratifying experience. I don't mind heights but niether do I like them, not really. I once abseilled off a bridge into a speed boat but that was in Norway years ago. I'm older now and more cowardly. From the Bridge we head south down Wellington Terrace, named after the famous Duke I suppose and onto the Royal York Crescent.

With its white stone and, black iron railing and paved way it is a thing of beauty. It helps that there is no one else around and that we get it all to ourselves. Begun in 1791 and finished in 1820, it is a little later than many of the Bath crescents but no less lovely. Georgian elegance bewitches me and I'm happy that they have been preserved, if only as residences for the rich and famous.

From West to East, scudding past the Chesterfield Hospital, we canter, then down various streets and alleys to the Bristol Museum, which we both decide is a nice place to stop for lunch. Established in 1821 it has had numeorus makeovers and additions and in its current incarnatio is described as a fine example of Edwardian baroque. My middle name being Edward i am pleased with this.

There is much to enjoy, too much really but I love the suspended biplane, the Assyrian reliefs and the egyptain sarcophagi. I also love the fact that Bansky, alledgedly Bristolian, exhibeted here in 2009.

Location 3: Brandon Hill/ Cabot Tower

To the south of the museum is St Brandon's Hill with its red brick Cabot Tower. Used as a grazing space until 1625 it has become somewhere you can chill and reflect or just eat your lunch as Ester used to do. Chartists have gathered here and Skins was filmed here but its real owners are the birds.

We ascend the Cabot Tower, Grade II and listed and survey the city arrayed before us. I love elevation points. One feels God like, in command, even if one is not. The British often use architecture to either celebrate or commemorate significant hitorical events. This tower, raised in the 1890's to celebrate the 400th anniversary of navigator John Cabot's journey from Bristol to Newfoundland is no exception.

I like it but I'm not wowed.I much prefer the Banksy in Frogmore Street entitled Well Hung Lover. A great pun and a wonderful appropriation of space. Artist equals terrorist. At least in my head.

Location 4: Central Library

Backtracking from Frogmore Street into Frog Lane, we slide behind the cathedral and down College Street into Deanery Row. The Bristol Central Library, built in 1906 by Charles Holden is another Edwardian delicacy full of creamy English charm. It has chandeliers and a vaulted green ceiling and a reading room with an ornate, oak overmantel designed by Grinling Gibbons. What a name to conjure with.

We both love books, Ester and I, and so this is an obvious sanctuary away from the whirl and the rush of humanity. It would be so easy to plonk ourselves down in a pew or a sealed booth and read the rest of the day away but we don't, we can't. 

There are other things to see. 

Mirrored Planetarium Sphere and Ice Rink. Watch those fingers.

Mirrored Planetarium Sphere and Ice Rink. Watch those fingers.

Location 5: Church or State?

Church or state? Cathedral or Museum? Choices, choices, choices. Our lives are defined by them. To be, or not to be, to buy or not to buy. The cathedral's doors are open. We pop our heads round the door and gawp. Nice enough but we've both seen plenty and Ester isn't really churchy. We head south, through back alleys and down side streets to land in Millenium Square, built, or rather renamed, to celebrate Jesus Christ's 2000th birthday.

I love this space. You can sprawl or sit, lounge and laugh, participate or observe. One of the waterways has been turned into a temporary skating rink and people zip round it like professional figure skaters. I have an irrational fear of falling on ice and having my fingers sliced off by a passing skater so i watch from the sidelines.

At night the space is illuminated by blues and silvers, oranges and reds. A song of ice and fire no less. My favourite thing though is the mirrored planetarium sphere that reminds me a little of the death star. Some one is always watching us, looking out whilst we cannot see in. 

Arnolfini fact sheet name checking great authors and quoting from RL Stevenson whose French Mule Trail I walked in 2018 with Mother Teresa Forbes. A travel writer of genius he is also a model and inspiration for me. He pops up everywhere in print and as statues. In London, Edinburgh and of course the South of France.

Arnolfini fact sheet name checking great authors and quoting from RL Stevenson whose French Mule Trail I walked in 2018 with Mother Teresa Forbes. A travel writer of genius he is also a model and inspiration for me. He pops up everywhere in print and as statues. In London, Edinburgh and of course the South of France.

Location 6: The Docks and the Arnolfini

East out of Millenium Square we stride, past the neon lit global restaurant that is the Za Za Bazaar and over Pero's Bridge. Pero Jones, whom the bridge honours, came to Bristol as the slave of John Pinney, in whose service he distinguisned himself. Like Liverpool, Bristol has its shame and much of the wealth upon which the city was built came from the slave trade. Until Mr Wilberforce got his way that is.

The bridge allows us to pass over the water to the far bank where we make our way to the Arnolfini. Not only does it contain a spiffing cafe, it is also an international arts centre and gallery of some reknown. Opened in 1961 by Jeremy Rees it was originally housed in Clifton, not far from the bridge, before moving to Queen's Square and from thence to its current location in Bush House circa 1975.

Named after Van Eyck's 15th Century Masterpiece the 'Arnolfini Portrait' (1434) the gallery has grown in size, stature and reputation over the ensuing decades banging the drum for the best in contemporary art. Bankrolled by the National Lottery and Bristol Council it caters for the best in the arts and contains spaces dedicated to dance, theatre, cinema and besides its cafe it has a fantastic book shop.

However the gallery faces an uncertain future as of 2017. Feasability studies revealed that its financial model simply wasn't viable and it became another victim to austerity with its Arts Council funding slashed and notice served. Like Sacre Coeur, it needs a ruddy big fire and some billionaire charity if it to find life and expression beyond 2020.

Cranes in Dockland. Like AT-ATs in Star Wars.

Cranes in Dockland. Like AT-ATs in Star Wars.

Location 7: M Shed

Just down the way the four great cranes of the dockyard loom, tall and black and ominous. They form part of the M Shed, a museum located on Princes Wharf beside the floating harbour. To my eyes, they look like machines out of a Star Wars Movie but in truth they were built in 1951 by  Stothert and Pitt to serve more prosaic ends.

Gallery-packed the M Shed is a reworking of the Bristol Industrial Museum. Not a terribly sexy title that, which was probably why it was rethemed and reworked in 2006 into its present incarnation. Again, like the Cavary in an old western, the Heritage Lottery Fund rode to the rescue with skip loads of wonga and a pledge to plug any future, financial gaps.

I thought initially that M Shed was a reworking of S Club... S Club 7 that is, but they are long gone although Rachel Stevens done well with Sweet Dreams My La X. Artists Palmer and Council are the artistic visionaries behind a huge graffiti-esque dinosaur window said to represent the City of Bristol. 

Spray Painted decks from Massive Attack and Wallace and Gromit cast offs can be found amongst the bric a brac.What's not to like? 

Location 8: The Bristol Old Vic

The light is fading as we head over the Wapping Street Bridge and then North up Prince's Street. We're en route to the Bristol Old Vic, at whose theatre school Daniel Day Lewis  and also a Brummie Actor, Pal Aron, with whom I worked briefly in the early nineties trained. Super motivated and always super energised Pal was recently in a stage version of A Thousand Splendid Suns at the Birmingham Rep. The show biz memorabilia in the Old Vic reminds me of the painted legends of past shows in the wings at Bath College of Higher Education and I wonder if they are still there.

It's over twenty years ago and I raise an imaginary G and T to my former friends and my former self.

Mock or Authentic Tudor? You decide. Anyway its called the Llandoger Trow. It is Bristol's Oldest pub and the inspiration for the Benbow Pub in RL Stevenson's Classic Novel Treasure Island. Here Blackbeard aka Edward Teach boozed and caroused.

Mock or Authentic Tudor? You decide. Anyway its called the Llandoger Trow. It is Bristol's Oldest pub and the inspiration for the Benbow Pub in RL Stevenson's Classic Novel Treasure Island. Here Blackbeard aka Edward Teach boozed and caroused.

Location 9: Queen Square

And that folks is almost it.

We finish our drinks and head for the exit down the Grand Escalier. I'd love to shop to see a show but its getting late. From there we head out into Queen's Square by way of the Llandoger Trow, a famous ale house which dates from 1664. The QS was trashed by the 1831 riots but restored by Lottery Cash (like just about everything else) in 1999.

The Queen in Question is Anne (r, 1702-1714) who had a dozen or so children, none of whom survived. There's an equestrian statue of William III and the grass is well-mown which explains why there is a petanque league. 1.6 million people come here per annum, but at this time of night and year it's empty. I love it, standing here in the rain as the lights flicker on and the sky turns its dimmer switch, oh so very slowly.

This is the perfection of cities. The changing light states, the filling and emptying of spaces. Phases of tireness, phases of boredom, and phases of beauty. That, like so many other cities already walked is Bristol's salvation.

Life at its best is a string of beautiful moments.

And I have just one more to recall.

Latest comments

14.10 | 16:13

I know. I see that it's all over but concealed. Not part of a cities authorised biography or daily propaganda.

14.10 | 16:09

Ah thia latter letter reminds me of a man Iknew in Lichfield - now departed totally - he too was being hounded and oppressed and taken to court for nothing. See it isn't just Leeds!!

14.09 | 02:52

A joy to read Stu. Not only an expert tour guide (I have walked the Scottish Highlands with you twice) but a masterful storyteller who merges time and place into a kaleidoscope of imagery & metaphor.

13.09 | 17:29

Its so lovely to hear from you Mike and Jan. Your offer is very kind as are your memories of the trip we shared.

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