Bristol: Surfing along the Avon
Image by brizzle born and bred
Led by his research on the internet, Richard Robinson spends a couple of days discovering Bristol
2002 I ALMOST missed Cinema Paradiso – a handful of film buffs had turned up for the start of the film, but the usherette had not. Would anyone volunteer to stand in for her? Hand me that flashlight, I said. The show must go on.
It had been an interesting couple of days in Bristol. What I did was this: I typed "Bristol" into my computer, clicked on "search" and released a landslide of websites, a jumble of sensible, unusual and outlandish ideas. I picked those that looked promising, opened them up and followed where they led.
Bristol Ki Akaido and Combat Karate were not really me, and I also skipped the Bristol Ravers Directory. Bristol Victim Aid was one I hoped I could do without, while the intriguing Bristol-Myers Squibb turned out to be a medical site, in Italian.
Something about improving and prolonging human life.
Fascinating, but outside the practical scope of my trip.
Hotel du Vin appeared persistently, under various headings.
A newly opened hotel converted from an 18th-century sugar mill, du Vin billed itself part of "The Alternative Hotel Company", which sounded just right for my purposes.
Cycling and cyclepaths also figured strongly under "Bristol", and I decided to cover at least some of the ground by bike. I ordered a street map from the specialist suppliers, CycleCity.
Accommodation and transport were now arranged.
The busy road opposite Hotel du Vin had been built over a river, where a century ago sailing boats berthed. I crossed over, walked between modern office blocks and went through the Gateway of Saint John.
The medieval city wall disappeared long ago, but the lone archway survives. Beyond is a quiet enclave and a pedestrian crossroads, at dead centre of the compact Old Bristol, where once stood an elaborately sculpted High Cross.
Along the way were alleys, yards and courts where merchants’ guilds once flourished. I learnt this from the internet, these bits of history embedded in the modern city.
Behind one antique frontage was something altogether of the present. The slick interior of the NetGates Internet Cafe was all curved lines, restful blues and recessed lighting. While sipping a cappuccino I surfed around a few Bristol sites.
I found an image of Ricart’s Plan of Bristol, 1479, showing the High Cross barely 50 yards from where I sat, towering above leaning, timber-framed houses. It was relocated centuries ago, when it became a hindrance to traffic – a problem which, like the poor, has always been with Bristol.
It was moved again before being given away as an estate ornament, but a replica had been installed in another part of the city. I would try to track it down later.
The Bristol I was rediscovering was quite different from the Bristol I remembered, and the improvement had been brought about largely by the regeneration of its docklands.
There were miles of quays and wharfs along Bristol’s "floating harbour", a five-mile tract of river isolated by locks and basins.
The bike proved useful, manoeuvring over old railway lines, clattering across old swing bridges and sinuous new ones of stainless steel.
Past the Industrial Museum and the collection of retired fireboats and tugs, the port installations of Spike Island extended to the fringes of the city. In a crumbling red-brick warehouse I saw the West Country Salvage Company ("We strip for you"), before crossing a disused railway bridge on to the Avon Gorge Walkway.
From the riverside walkway it looked insubstantial, almost wispy. The Clifton Suspension Bridge was now hundreds of feet overhead. A muddy climb through the wilderness of Leigh Woods – just a mile from the noise of the city – brought me to the dizzying bridge, whose twin towers appeared quite suddenly from among the trees.
On the stone tower was a thoughtful sign saying "The Samaritans Care", with a telephone number and directions to the nearest call-box. I set off on the slender crossing, 250 feet above the chasm.
The genteel Regency terraces of Clifton resounded to the smash and clatter of the bottle recycling bins as I cruised downhill to Hotwells, Clifton’s less prestigious neighbour.
In a steep amphitheatre facing the Avon, this was once a spa resort, where victims of pulmonary consumption came to take the warm waters. A colonnaded remnant of the old spa and the redundant funicular station were all that remained of the resort.
I stopped for a bacon sandwich and a cup of Earl Grey at the Hope Centre, a Congregational Chapel saved by the local community in the 1970s. Lady Hope financed the building of the chapel, before she succumbed to consumption, and was buried in a vault beneath the floor.
The curative waters business enjoyed only brief success – too few clients survived their stay – but Hotwells has regenerated itself as an arty, semi-gentrified neighbourhood.
Over a footbridge, on a strip of ground between the muddy river and the thundering traffic, I located the bust of "The seaman’s friend". Samuel Plimsoll of Bristol saved more lives than the lifejacket – his line eliminated the lethal overloading of ships, which used to be commonplace.
Back uphill, along terraces of bright-coloured houses, I regained the heights of Clifton. I visited the Triangle Second-hand Bookshop, a cinematic exhibition at the Museum and Art Gallery and another, on fairgrounds, at the Architecture Centre. I also discovered the descendant of the city’s original High Cross – a risible miniature, tucked into an insignificant corner of a square and overlooked by lawyers’ offices.
A patchy array of options for evening entertainment had suggested themselves on the Net: wrestling at the Colston Hall; Bristol Morris Men’s practice night (I don’t think so) . . . I opted for the film Cinema Paradiso (in Italian, with subtitles) at the Arnolfini, in a converted tea warehouse on Narrow Quay – and my career as a cinema usher briefly bloomed. It came as a relief not to be called upon to sell ice creams in the interval.
Afterwards I tracked down the nearby Llandoger Trow, a Jacobean pub with ship’s figureheads and flashing gaming machines inside, where Daniel Defoe reputedly met his inspiration for Robinson Crusoe. I enjoyed a pint here, then another across the water at The Ostrich which, oddly for a pub, had a cave in one corner.
Next morning, I went to look for The Violin Shop, also on the Net, and near my hotel. Where would my short journey lead me? Past a modern office woven into the ruined gothic arches of Saint Bartholomew’s Hospital; up 17th-century Christmas Steps, past map, stamp, and musical instrument shops to the road above, where a magic and joke shop came before a micro-brewery, which was followed by the violin-maker. I had walked into a small world of specialities reminiscent of medieval times.
Here was a city where successive generations had built over the ruins of the last, the architectural deck well and truly shuffled.
Church towers and spires, despite the attentions of Luftwaffe and developers, were still prominent on the skyline, particularly from my viewpoint on the mounds of Castle Park. Turning through 360 degrees, I could see the history of the built environment.
Castle foundations and sally ports pushed through the turf. St Peter’s Church stood open to the sky, as it has since the bombing of 1940. There was the floating harbour, the old brewery, the wharves and the quays against a backdrop of ugly modern hotels and offices.
I followed the waterfront along a street called Welsh Back. I had to find a gap between buildings, cross gangplanks and stamp on a cabin roof to keep my next appointment, with the Bristol Ferry Boat Company.
Ian and Allison have operated a waterbus service between Hotwells and Temple Meads for 22 years. This being the quiet season, I found them at the Dutch Barge Tempora. Inside the steel hull was a second, much smaller boat, being repainted in the yellow-and-blue livery of the company.
"Welcome to the Mother Ship," said a boiler-suited Allison as Ian showed me round. It so happened that mine was the first e-mail they had received, which earned me an unofficial tour.
I didn’t manage to visit Brunel’s SS Great Britain, Cabot’s sailing ship, Harveys Wine Cellars or Bristol Zoo.
My through-the-Net approach had, though, uncovered a tantalising slice of "alternative" Bristol.
Before I left NetGates, I came up with a site called "The 35 Bristol’s". It seems most of them are in the USA. I leaned close and gazed into the screen. I could foresee the start of another, much longer journey.
Where to stay
Hotel du Vin & Bistro (0117 925 5577), Sugar House, Narrow Lewin’s Mead, Bristol BS1 2NU. A city-centre oasis, stylish and relaxing, with one of the best restaurants in town.
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