There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Bristol: Boats, Bridges and Buildings

We travelled to Bristol for a family wedding. It was a joyous occasion and I wish Nick and Ann, who have appeared in this blog before (Up a Mountain Down Memory Lane), every happiness.

The ceremony was held at the cathedral, not the well-known semi-medieval Anglican cathedral on College Green but the Catholic Clifton Cathedral, less than a mile away.

Clifton Cathedral
 Opened in 1973 and built largely of concrete it was covered in scaffolding - builders are dealing with a leaky roof. Understandably it did not look its best, but even so the raw concrete walls and the narrow towers give it an oddly industrial look. Inside it is said to be innovative and impressive allowing every member of a congregation of a thousand a view of the altar, but large areas were curtained off because of the roof problems. I hope the happy couple will not take it amiss if I say that Clifton Cathedral, even allowing for the scaffolding, is not an easy building to like.

Inside Clifton Cathedral as the guests begin to gather
We have visited Bristol before but never in ‘tourist mode’ so we stayed an extra day. It is impossible to cover a city of this size in a single day; what follows is just a record of what we saw and does not pretend to be a complete inventory of what Bristol has to offer.

Sunday morning was quiet and few tourist attractions open before 10 or even 11, but the Cabot Tower on Brandon Hill is unlocked when the park is opened at the crack of dawn. Climbing a 105ft tower set on top of a hill seemed a good way to get our bearings.

Our hotel, in St Paul's Road next to the university area, was also on a high point, so we started by walking downhill, pausing in Queens Road to look at the splendidly dated Boer War memorial surrounded by some of the university's neo-classical buildings.
Boer War memorial, Queens Road, Bristol
(according to Google maps, Queen's Avenue and St Paul's Rd have apostrophes, Queens Rd does not!?)
Traversing one and a half sides of the Clifton Triangle brought us to a road leading to the bottom of Brandon Hill. The park was loud with birdsong as we toiled steeply upwards to the base of the tower which was built in 1897 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of John Cabot's voyage to the New World - of which more later. Another Cabot Tower was built the same year in St John's Newfoundland, his probable landing place.
The Cabot Tower, Brandon Hill, Bristol

The tower was closed in 2007 as it was unsafe, but reopened in 2011 after restoration. Unfortunately the planned lift was never installed so we wound our laborious way up the narrow spiral staircase to the lower viewing gallery and the even narrower, though mercifully shorter, staircase to the top where we encountered a family that had got up even earlier than us on a Sunday morning.

Looking northwest our view of Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge (of which more later) was spoiled by a crane.
Clifton Suspension bridge (and a crane) from the Cabot Tower

In the opposite direction is the SS Great Britain, another Brunel masterpiece, the largest ship in the world when it was launched in 1843 and the first ever propeller-driven iron ship. She left Bristol in 1845, when only the piers of the suspension bridge existed, and spent thirty years carrying passengers and cargo to and from Australia. Pensioned off in 1884, she was used as a floating warehouse in the Falkland Islands until scuttled in 1937. Eventually she was rescued and towed back to Bristol, Brunel’s great ship passing under Brunel's great bridge for the first and only time in 1970. Now restored as a museum ship, the SS Great Britain is one of Bristol’s premier tourist attractions; we visited her fifteen years ago and a revisit would be good, but there is not time for everything.

The SS Great Britain from the Cabot Tower
As we gazed downwards at the cathedral, the bells started ringing and our descent was accompanied by this traditional British Sunday morning sound.

Bristol Cathedral from the Cabot Tower
We crossed the park and descended to College Green, but with a service in progress we decided to visit the cathedral later.

We continued to the docks where shops and cafés have colonised many of the old dockside sheds, crossed the Pero Bridge and headed for the bridge to the M Shed Museum.
Cranes outside the M Shed Museum, Bristol
 John Cabot sits on the quay opposite the M Shed; the work of sculptor Stephen Joyce he has been staring pensively across the harbour since 1985.

John Cabot on Bristol quay
After one unsuccessful voyage, John Cabot, a native of Venice, or possibly Genoa, but an adopted Bristolian, set sail in May 1497 in the Matthew, with a crew of around 20. His one-ship expedition landed on the North American continent in June and was back in Bristol in August, having claimed most of North America for Henry VII – not that he consulted with any of the existing residents. His success allowed him to equip a far larger expedition the following year. They set off, but there is no record of them returning - nor is there any record to suggest they were lost. Like much of the Cabot story it is obscure. His son Sebastian, who accompanied him in 1497, made many more voyages of discovery in the years that followed.

The Matthew, Bristol docks
If Stephen Joyce’s Cabot was looking just a little further right he would be staring at the modern Matthew, a speculative reconstruction of Cabot's ship built in Bristol to celebrate the 500th anniversary of his voyage. Launched in 1996, it sailed to Newfoundland in 1997 but made no territorial claims.  Now restricted to occasional trips round the harbour, it is owned by a charitable trust and is manned (and womanned) by knowledgeable and enthusiastic volunteers. It is tiny and to my untrained and perhaps wimpish eye far too small to cross an ocean.
Aboard the Matthew, Bristol Docks

Behind some preserved dockside cranes, the M Shed houses a museum of Bristol. With many interactive displays to catch the imagination of children, there is also plenty to interest adults. It is free, but the main attraction for us was the exhibition of the finalists in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, for which there was a small charge. Some of the images were too ‘arty’ for my taste - I prefer photography to be reportage rather than the deliberate construction of often abstract images - but there was much to admire and plenty that made me feel like throwing away my camera and giving up. If you travel around and shoot off enough pictures, you will occasionally strike lucky, but with all the luck in the world I will never be able to produce images like these.

Looking back at the Cabot Tower from outside the M Shed Museum
It was lunchtime when we left and the dock offered plenty of options. Pitcher and Piano is not a chain we have encountered before though they apparently have 18 bar/restaurants across the country. The youthful staff were well trained and cheerful and we were impressed by the 'grazing' plates; we enjoyed genuinely spicy chicken wings and some fritters - crisp shells with a soft interior of leek, spinach and chestnuts. The food was good and reasonably priced, though the beer was expensive and its range hardly ventured beyond fizzy lagers.
Part of the docks with some typically Bristolian painted townhouses

We returned to the cathedral where most of what can be seen is 19th century although the building was consecrated in 1138. Like many churches in the west of England the original priory had a perpendicular make-over in the 14th century, the transept and central tower were added in the 15th century, but the nave remained unfinished at the dissolution of the monasteries in 1530s and was demolished. The current nave, opened in 1877, is the work of George Edward Street, though he used much of the original design. The towers on the western end, designed by John Loughborough Pearson, were added in 1888 .

Bristol Cathedral
It is a handsome building inside and out, but its chequered past has left it like an ageing film actor after too many face lifts - incapable of expression and with a glazed mask hiding the personality beneath.

Inside Bristol Cathedral
 I did, though, particularly like one artefact that has survived from the 12th century. The carving of the Harrowing of Hell may show its age, but is full of charm. It depicts Jesus descending into Hell standing on the head of Satan and lifting Adam by the hand out of torment.

The Harrowing of Hell
Bristol Cathedral
Leaving the cathedral we headed back up the hill and stopped in the appropriately named Great George Street at the Georgian House Museum. It looks a relatively modest dwelling from the outside, but it is set on a hillside and is actually a six storey building.

The Georgian House Museum, Bristol
The House was built in 1790 for John Pinney who lived here in some style and elegance. His rooms are tastefully furnished…

Reception room, Georgian House Museum, Bristol
…and you can visit below stairs where the copper utensils in his kitchen were polished until they gleamed.

Gleaming kitchen utensils, Georgian House Museum, Bristol
Unusually there is also a plunge pool in the lower storey where Mr Pinney regularly immersed himself in cold water. It is a characterful and delightful house and Mr Pinney was undoubtedly a charming gentleman, but one upstairs room is dedicated to his darker side.

In 1765 Pinney inherited sugar estates on the island of Nevis and immediately set off for the Caribbean. He remained there for 15 years, grew rich and constructed his Bristol house on the proceeds of slavery. Sadly, much of Bristol's early wealth, not just John Pinney's came from slavery. It is easy to condemn Pinney from the standpoint of 21st century morality - though slavery still exists, less institutionalised maybe, but no less real - but Pinney condemns himself from his own mouth. He wrote that when he first arrived he was uneasy about buying and selling human beings, but reasoned that if God had not intended these people to have been used as slaves then surely he would send a sign. Might I suggest, Mr Pinney, that had you been a little less blinded by the prospect of wealth beyond imagining, you might have spotted the signs. As we left, a small party of Brazilian tourists arrived. Several of them, it is probably safe to surmise the descendants of slaves. A pity Mr Pinney was not here to see it.
Bedroom, Georgian House Museum, Bristol

From the Georgian House we crossed Park Street and took the short walk to the Tudor Red Lodge Museum. An unassuming building from the street, it is entered from the rear through a knot garden.

Red  Lodge Museum, Bristol
The house was built in 1579 as a lodge to the Great House of St Augustine's Back, long ago demolished.  It doubled in size when it was a family home in the 18th century and changed again in the 19th when it was used as a Reform School for girls, but three rooms, including the magnificent great oak room, claimed to be the only complete Elizabethan room in England, are much as they were in the 16th century.
The Great Oak Room, Red Lodge Museum, Bristol

Walking back up towards the hotel we passed the Wills Tower which currently houses several departments of the University of Bristol. Built between 1915 and1925 as a memorial to H O Wills III by his sons it was one of the last great buildings of the Gothic Revival. It is also a reminder that much of Bristol's wealth that did not come from slavery came from tobacco. WD and HO Wills were once well-known names - they produced Woodbines among other brands - but later became part of Imperial Tobacco and then British American Tobacco (BAT).

Wills Tower,
Yesterday we had walked from our hotel through Clifton Village, a suburb full of cafés, restaurants and craft shops to the wedding reception in a hotel overlooking the suspension bridge. This time we drove, crossed the bridge paying the £1 toll and stopped at the visitor centre on the far side. The story of the bridge is told well and in great detail, but my hope that the centre would give us a fine view of the bridge was in vain - it was best seen from the Avon Gorge Hotel during Nick and Ann’s reception.

Clifton Suspension Bridge from the Avon Gorge Hotel
The Clifton Suspension Bridge - a chain suspension bridge with a 215m (700ft) span - is always described as Brunel's bridge, but construction, which started in 1831, ran out of money several times and was abandoned in 1851 with just the piers built. Brunel died in 1859.

Clifton Susoension Bridge, the Eastern Pier and the Avon Gorge below

Work restarted in 1862 using a modified design by William Barlow and Sir John Hawkshaw. The bridge was completed as a memorial to Brunel, but the new design was sufficiently different for some to argue that the credit should be given to Barlow and Hawkshaw. The deck was wider and sturdier than Brunel's original and although designed to carry nothing heavier than a horse and cart it now copes with almost 9,000 vehicles daily.

On the Clifton Suspension Bridge
Clifton is an attractive area and it is not just the bridge that is worth photographing.
Clifton near the bridge

We drove back to the hotel and later walked to Clifton Village in search of dinner. Sunday lunch is popular, but finding somewhere to eat on a Sunday evening can prove difficult. We spotted an open Indian restaurant, which is best left nameless. To follow the inevitable poppadums and chutney we chose Chicken Channa Dal and Methi Lamb. What we got was two bowls of meat in brown gloop. We identified the chicken dish from the chick peas, otherwise they were almost identical. After our recent visit to southern India, our palates were anticipating the variety and subtlety of spicing we had become used to, the firm smack of cumin, the sudden bursts of cardamom, the subtle hints of methi, the punch of chilli. All these things were missing. Sadly, Indian restaurants in England almost always dumb down to please the native palate, but this was dumbed down beyond kindergarten.

Despite the misfiring curry we thoroughly enjoyed our two days in Bristol, the wedding was a family affair and in a public blog it is inappropriate to say anything more than it was a happy day, as weddings should be. Our pedestrian exploration of central Bristol found much of interest. The city is big enough and interesting enough to support several blog posts, and should we return.....

1 comment:

  1. We've never made it to Bristol. I now know more about it!