Monday, 24 August 2015


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.  

Displaying IMG_20150823_120701_693.jpg
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. 

Displaying IMG_20150823_120755_844.jpg
Rainbow city

Amsterdam? No, Bristol.

Saturday, 1 August 2015


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. 

File:A new addition to the skyline at Avonmouth Docks - - 575542.jpg
Avonmouth Docks. Photo by Sharon Loxton, via Wikimedia Commons.