Monday, 24 August 2015

BRISTOL



Bristol is, strictly speaking, not actually on the coast, being some miles from the mouth of the River Avon.  There are no sandy beaches or towering cliffs, no watery horizons to gaze out at.  However, I felt I had to include it in my blog, partly because I love the place, and partly because the city has such a strong maritime heritage that it would seem wrong to leave it out.  Prior to the Norman conquest Bristol was a Saxon settlement, hence the origin of its name: Brycg stowe or 'place by the bridge'.  Then along came the Normans, who were responsible for the motte and bailey which formed the origins of the castle, the remains of which can be seen in Castle Park.  By the Middle Ages, the city had been transformed into the second most important port in the country after London.  Wool from the surrounding rolling meadows of the West Country was shipped out to the Low Countries, where it was turned into cloth to be shipped back over, then later it was home-produced cloth that made the city rich, whether being shipped out of the port or sold in the local shops and markets.

One of Bristol's major tourist attractions is the SS Great Britain, one of seven sites in the city associated with the greatest British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel.  The ship was launched in 1843 and after a varied and chequered career which included multiple trips around the globe she was abandoned in The Falklands.  Then, after a long campaign to bring her home, she was brought back to her original berth in 1970, watched by crowds of emotional onlookers.  Now she is fully restored and open to the public.  Another piece of transport history associated with Bristol is that of Concorde, since one of the two prototypes was built at BAC in Filton, Bristol. Concorde made its debut in 1969 and went into regular service several years later.  Unfortunately the dream of supersonic flight embodied by Concorde came to an end when, for various reasons, not least a devastating crash in 2000, Concorde was taken out of service.  The last Concorde came 'home' to Bristol in 2003, greeted by crowds of people lining the the Avon Gorge, where the plane made a spectacular fly-past.  Many of the local people looking on expressed great sorrow that they would never see the plane up in the air again.  Planning permission has recently been granted for a new Aviation Heritage Museum at Filton Airport, where the last Concorde will be on display. 

The SS Great Britain

One of the more regrettable facets of Bristol's past began at the end of the 17th century with the advent of the Slave Trade.  The city's merchants were granted the right to trade in slaves in 1698, and this human trafficking continued until the abolition of slavery in 1807.  During this period over 2,000 Bristol ships set sail on slaving voyages, an average of 20 per year, with captured African slaves changing hands for cash or bartered goods.  There is a concert hall in Bristol called Colston Hall; this, along with several streets and other buildings in the city, is named after Edward Colston, who made his fortune largely on the back of the Slave Trade.  Bristolians have agonised over the city's slaving past, to the point of debating whether to pull down the statue of him in Colston Avenue - in the end they decided against it.  Visitors can find out more about the city's role in the Slave Trade as well as other aspects of Bristol's past at the M Shed on Princes Wharf.

I could go on and on about Bristol's past, but let's move swiftly on to the present.  One of the things I love about Bristol is that it has made so much of its harbourside areas.  Parts of the city almost resemble Amsterdam, with a heady mix of waterside and floating bars and restaurants, and even a floating theatre called Thekla occupying a former cargo ship.  The waterfront is also home to two of the city's most popular arts venues, the Arnolfini and the Watershed, both of which also have excellent cafes.  The Arnolfini can be reached by a rather unusual bridge, Pero's bridge, a bascule bridge built for the Millennium with two huge horns as its centrepiece - it is sometimes referred as the 'Horned Bridge'.  Also near the waterfront is Millennium Square, home to the At Bristol Science Centre.

The Harbourside, with Pero's Bridge

You need to be fit to explore Bristol properly on foot because some of its most attractive areas are quite a way uphill, most notably Clifton, which is almost a town in itself.  To get there you have to make a steep ascent of Park Street, with the Cathedral at the bottom and the venerable Wills Memorial Tower of Bristol University at the top.  If you don't want to walk it, there is always the hop-on hop-off bus which tours the city's main areas of interest.  Once in Clifton, you have a choice of attractions: the attractive streets crammed full of shops, pubs and restaurants, Bristol Zoo, the vast green expanses of  The Downs or the Avon Gorge crossed by the Clifton Suspension Bridge - another Brunel triumph.  The bridge towers 300 feet over the Gorge, providing some impressive views along it.  However, on a more sombre note the bridge has also been the scene of many suicides over the years.

Not surprisingly for such a vibrant and varied city, Bristol has a rich cultural scene.  During the 1990s the city became known in music circles for what was commonly referred to as the Bristol Sound, characterised by bands such as the quirky Portishead and the dark, edgy but utterly magnificent Massive Attack.  As for the visual arts, it was Bristol that gave rise to the shadowy graffiti artist known as Banksy, who has managed to keep his real identity a secret in spite of the fact that his clever and often politically motivated works appear overnight in highly public urban spaces.  In 2009 a Banksy exhibition at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery had people queuing for up to six hours to gain entry.  Bristol is also home to the Oscar-winning creators of Wallace and Gromit, Aardman Animations.  This summer 70 different Shaun the Sheep sculptures have been distributed around the city, an event named Shaun in the City, a repeat of a similar event two years ago when 80 Gromit sculptures were scattered around the city's streets, all in different designs.  The sculptures have proved a magnet for children, who love having their picture taken hugging Shaun or secreting themselves in between his legs.  

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Shaun in suspension!

There are many festivals held in Bristol throughout the year, too many to list here.  However, one festival which deserves a special mention is the International BristolBalloon Fiesta, a fitting event for the city which gave rise to the first modern hot-air balloon in Western Europe, the creation of members of the Bristol Gliding Club.  This year's Fiesta was so popular that the traffic volumes caused chaos throughout the city, prompting the organisers to rethink how future events will be organised.  For a list of events in the city see here.

Map of the area. 

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Rainbow city

Amsterdam? No, Bristol.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

AVONMOUTH



If you find yourself barrelling down the M5 on the way, perhaps, to a holiday in the West Country, you will be carried high above the mouth of the River Avon by a long motorway bridge, giving extensive views of Avonmouth on the east bank and The Royal Portbury Dock on the west bank, the latter characterised by rows of brand new vehicles as far as the eye can see in the Dock's huge car storage compounds.  The scene laid out below the motorway bridge is overwhelmingly industrial, however there are people living in the area, and they sometimes suffer from their surroundings.  Last summer the local inhabitants were driven mad by a fly infestation caused by inappropriate handling of large amounts of waste material being held at a nearby facility.  Some were driven to adorning their houses with fly-catching adhesive strips in a desperate attempt to kill off the winged invaders.  Surprisingly, in amongst all this industrial landscape there is a nature reserve, the Avonmouth Pools Reserve at the Sewage Works, which provides an unlikely haven for birds and ducks including pochard, tufted duck, teal and shoveler.

Map of the area. 

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Avonmouth Docks. Photo by Sharon Loxton, via Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

SEVERN BEACH



This small village on the English shore of the Bristol Channel at the mouth of the River Severn nestles near the foot of the Second Severn Crossing, opened in 1996 (in addition to the original Severn Bridge which was opened 30 years earlier).  A path leads under the bridge, and this forms part of the Severn Way, over 220 miles in length.  The village used to be the end point of the trail, but it was recently extended into Bristol.  Casting an eye around this quiet spot today, it is hard to believe that in the 1920s the village was developed as a seaside resort with a swimming pool called The Blue Lagoon, a boating lake and even a strip club.  All that is now gone and what is left is little more than a commuter village for people working in Bristol.  However, this forgotten corner of the Bristol Channel made the news recently when a huge swordfish washed up on the riverbank.  The fish, 6 feet long and a very rare sight in Britain, is thought to have made its way there from the Mediterranean.  This part of the mouth of the Severn is popular with birdwatchers, and a list of sightings over the years can be found on the Severnside Birds website.

Map of the area.

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The Second Severn Crossing from Severn Beach. Photo by Linda Bailey, via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

NEWPORT



Newport is one of those places I tend to go through rather than to, more often than not in my rush to get to Cardiff.  However, that is not to say that there is nothing to see in this university city, which has a cathedral and the remains of a castle among its  points of interest.  Probably the most interesting sight of all is the Transporter Bridge, one of only two in the country - the other one being in Middlesbrough.  The bridge was built as an alternative to the original ferry, which suffered from the extreme rise and fall of the tides.  It opened in 1906 and it is still open to the public, ferrying passengers and vehicles across the River Usk by  means of a suspended gondola, offering splendid views along the way. 

Newport Cathedral, or to give it its full name Newport Cathedral of St. Woolos, King & Confessor, lies in an elevated position on Stow Hill, overlooking the city.  St. Woolos (or Gwynllyw) reputedly founded the cathedral around 500 AD, the year of his death.  The cathedral's subsequent history was a turbulent one with successive plunderings, by Irish pirates and by Danes in the 9th century, then by Earl Harold's men in 1060.  One of its most attractive features are the Norman pillars running along the nave.  The castle was built in the 14th century, and only the east side remains, occupying a position on the river bank next to the Town Bridge.  The Riverfront, a striking angular white building on the River Usk, houses a theatre and arts centre.  The city's Museum and Art Gallery tells the story of the city from prehistoric times.

Further afield to the north-east is Caerleon, a must for enthusiasts of Roman remains.  The legionary fortress Isca Augusta once held sway here, and the site includes an amphitheatre where gladiatorial contests used to take place.  Near Isca Augusta are the National RomanLegion Museum and the Roman Baths Museum.  There is also an Iron Age Hill Fort.  For nature enthusiasts, the Newport WetlandsRSPB reserve at Nash, on the east bank of the river mouth, is free to enter and includes a visitor centre and cafe.    

Map of the area. 

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Newport Transporter Bridge and gondola. Photo by Hywel Williams, via Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, 6 July 2015

CARDIFF



Where in the country can you see all the following in one evening: Superman, a bevy of nurses and rival groups of cowboys and indians? Answer: Cardiff.  In the Welsh capital the great British tradition of hens and stags is alive and well, and the result is a considerably enlivened Saturday evening.  The first time my husband and I went to Cardiff for the weekend we spent a pleasant hour having an alfresco drink outside one of the city's bars while watching the increasingly surreal passing scene.  My own personal favourite was the female 'army' of soldiers marching along the street, led by a whistle-blowing 'sergeant-major'. 

Cardiff is a city of two distinct parts.  For the shoppers who want to mix some retail therapy with a wide variety of restaurants and some lively bar hopping the city centre is the part to head for.  The St Davids shopping centre dominates this part of the city, while for the more historically inclined there is Cardiff Castle, surrounded by the green and pleasant spaces of Bute Park. Alongside the modern chain-dominated St David's centre there are several atmospheric arcades with interesting individual shops.  This is also the part of town for the sports fans, since the Millennium Stadium, scene of many a thrilling rugby match, is very close to the shops and also to the main railway station.  The Castle has a fascinating history, with excavations revealing occupation going back to the Romans.  The present-day castle is surrounded by walls including the Animal Wall, designed by architect William Burges, which, as its name suggests, includes carvings of animals. There are two cathedrals within the greater city area, Cardiff Metropolitan Cathedral of St Davids and the much older Llandaff Cathedral, reachable via a pleasant walk along the River Taff.

The other distinct part of the city is Cardiff Bay, where the focal point is Mermaid Quay, a complex of restaurants, bars and shops.  The Wales Millennium Centre is also to be found in the bay, along with the Senedd, or National Assembly Building.  There is also a rather sweet little Norwegian church which has been transformed into an Arts Centre and cafe.  The nicest way to travel between the two areas is to get the shuttle boat service which plies between Mermaid Quay and Bute Park, via the River Taff with its reed beds and associated wildlife.  Other boat trips available from Mermaid Quay include trips out to Flat Holm Island with its wildlife and historic buildings.  As I mentioned in my previous post on Penarth, the Cardiff Bay Barrage is open to walkers who want to cross the mouth of the bay between Cardiff Bay and Penarth, a pleasant alternative to the considerable detour that the bus journey entails.     

As one would expect from such a city, Cardiff has a wealth of events throughout the year, especially in summer.  From the Food and Drink Festival in Summer to the Winter Wonderland and Christmas Market in the run up to Christmas there is something for everyone in the vibrant Welsh capital.  Follow this link for a list of events. 

Map of the area. 

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Cardiff Bay

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

PENARTH



You need to be fit to live in Penarth, since it's all up and down.  The town centre is at the top of the hill, and there is a steep descent from there to the promenade in one direction and the Cardiff Bay Barrage in the other.  The nicest route down to the seafront is via Alexandra Park, a steeply sloping Edwardian park with an aviary and a bandstand.  The promenade is quiet and unspoilt, with a pier and 1930s pavilion offering views across the Bristol Channel.  Another pleasant green space open to the public can be found in the grounds of The Kymin, one of the oldest buildings in Penarth, built between 1790 and 1810.  The area formerly occupied by docks in the 19th century is now a marina, and the entrance to the barrage is nearby, from where you can walk across to Cardiff Bay, enjoying views out to sea on one side and across the bay to the Wales Millennium Centre and other attractions on the other side.  

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The pier.

Penarth got into the news recently when an extraordinary discovery was made by two brothers on Lavernock Beach to the south of Penarth: a 200 million years old fossil of a cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex.  The find is believed to be the earliest specimen of a Jurassic era dinosaur to be found in the world.  The creature is described as a meat-eating, fierce hunter that walked on two legs with a fuzzy body.

Map of the area. 

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The seafront.


Saturday, 27 June 2015

BARRY ISLAND



Heading east from Llantwit Major we come to Summerhouse Point with cliff top walks reached by a lane from the village of Boverton.  There is a Seawatch Centre here with displays of weather-forecasting equipment and radar.  Further along, Limpert Bay marks the end of the Glamorgan Heritage Coast Walk which started at Porthcawl.  Further along still, the village of Rhoose nudges the southern end of Cardiff Airport.  After the quiet of the clifftops and the series of small towns and villages, the much larger settlement of Barry represents quite a contrast with its docks forming an alternative to the congested and expensive Cardiff Docks.

Barry Island, which is not actually an island, being accessible from the mainland via the A4055, has long been a family tourist destination.  There used to be a Butlins Holiday Camp here, but this closed in 1996.  However, the 'island' continued to be a magnet for tourists, and it also came to the attention of the Dr Who team during the filming of the series 'Delta and the Bannermen', in which it played the part of the Shangri-La Holiday Camp.  It also featured in 'The Empty Child' and 'The Doctor Dances'.  In the past Barry Island has had something of an image problem, being considered down at heel by many, however there are signs of attempts at an uplift.  A recent online review described the beach as beautiful and clean and pointed out that the dining options are no longer all fish and chips and burgers.  The main attraction on the island is the Pleasure Park, a traditional array of fairground rides and amusement arcades which recently changed ownership and boasts "brand new rides never seen in Barry before".  

Map of the area. 

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Photo by Derek Jones, via Wikimedia Commons