I hardly know Bristol. I did stay there for the night, maybe 40 years ago, with friends who lived near the zoo. It was thrilling to be woken in the morning by the lions roaring as they rose from sleep to greet the day. But our South Gloucestershire stay included a day-trip to the city. With no chance at all of doing such a big place justice, we decided we’d spend the whole day exploring the harbourside area. If I’d gone there during my first visit to Bristol I’d have found an industrial zone, its glory days over, unkempt and unwelcoming to the casual visitor. Now the harbour is a vibrant, shipshape and attractive area, busy with locals and tourists alike.
We planned to go to Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s SS Great Britain, an early passenger steamship, the first to cross the Atlantic, back in 1845. But it’s so worth an extended visit we decided instead we’d spend a whole day there, next time. Because there will be a next time.
Instead we climbed aboard a replica of the Matthew, a caravel in which John Cabot sailed to America with a crew of some 20 men, in 1497. It’s unbelievably small. With little space for the men, no privacy, uncertain kitchen and sanitary arrangements and positively no computer-assisted stabilisers, it’s hard to believe that there were sailors willing and able to undertake the voyage. But they sailed forth, and reached land – perhaps Newfoundland – some five weeks later. They got home too, though somewhat confusingly via Brittany. Their travellers’ tales are unrecorded.
Besides boats and ships of all kinds, there were the working trains of Bristol Harbour Railway shunting back and forth, trailing unlikely trucks of what looked like scrap and jumble There were museums, to most of which we gave a reluctant miss . We did visit, though far too briefly, M shed, which gives a lively account of the history of Bristol and its role in the slave trade. I don’t quite know how we managed to avoid visiting the Arnolfini gallery: probably because we know we must go back.
There’s something very exciting about being near a working waterway: because we did see boatbuilding and other water trades going on, despite its being a Saturday. And we saw Nick Park’s place too, Aardman Animations, and peered through the windows in hopes of catching a glimpse of Wallace – or Gromit.
And we had coffee stops, and lunch stops, and afternoon tea stops. Because it was that sort of lazy day. But having failed to visit SS Great Britain, we felt it only right to finish the day by allowing ourselves to be astonished by Clifton Suspension Bridge, which Isambard Kingdom Brunel designed when he was only 24, though it still wasn’t completed when he died almost 30 years later.
Now however, it’s used daily by more than 11.000 vehicles daily: rather different from the light horse-drawn traffic he had in mind when he made his design. Our day was complete when we spotted another form of transport drifting lazily over the bridge: a hot air balloon. Bristol, you did us proud.
Why ‘Shipshape and Bristol fashion’? Here’s why