Two At Large in midsummer Bristol


We obviously couldn't even begin to explore Bristol properly in a mere couple of days, so our visit was more a taste than anything really deep.

We arrived on a wonderfully hot midsummer's Saturday. Having negotiated Bristol's tortuous one-way system, we dumped our stuff at the Youth Hostel, which is wonderfully situated in an old warehouse right next to the Floating Harbour, then left the car up a steep hill and a mile or so from the city centre in a residential street in Clifton (to avoid some 24 in parking charges).

Walking back into town took us along the north side of the Floating Harbour (so called because it is non-tidal, the water being trapped by locks) and gave us our first glimpse of the SS Great Britain, which Ralph had last seen in 1976 when it was still mostly a rusty hulk.

Bristol is a grand city. It has suffered greatly over the past 60 years through wartime bombing, insensitive "slum" clearance and the demolition of most of its dockside buildings, which has resulted in remaining heritage buildings being isolated rather like mossy old teeth amongst grey-stained brutalist 60s and 70s architecture and the often over-fussy designs of the 90s. Tower cranes stalk the skyline like the aliens from war of the worlds, and you regularly bump into construction sites.

But fortunately enough survives to give the city plenty of atmosphere. There are many terraces, streets, crescents and squares of Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian houses, ranging from the posh and expensive up in Clifton, to the run-down but equally handsome down in St Pauls. What followed was basically a gentle wander along main streets and back lanes, parks and grassy patches.

The Saturday afternoon streets were awash with pretty young women in tiny skirts (Ralph claims that Bristol women are the best-looking he's seen for a while — better even than Nottingham), navels winked everywhere, and, as they did throughout the weekend, trios of people dressed in black trotted sweatily past, taking part in a form of sponsored masochism called the Rat Race Urban Adventure.

We lunched on splendid, freshly-made and moist falafels from Falafel King, just along from the Youth Hostel. We walked beside the floating harbour, then into the city centre, which is raddled by modern but decaying shopping arcades and creeping traffic, though Corn Street is OK, if a little tourist-twee.

We walked on into St Pauls, which is a fine Georgian/Victorian/Edwardian suburb sadly neglected but nevertheless obviously lively and hopefully on the way up... Back through the centre we headed to the Floating Harbour and a hour or two sipping beer, reading the newspaper and people-watching.

Our meal that evening was at the Colston Street Bodukan, which was good but a little lacking in comfortable atmosphere. Back again to a bar next to the Arnolfini, and more gentle people-watching in the midsummer late evening.

Rails and flowersNext day we began by visiting the SS Great Britain. Ralph is usually pretty critical of museums, but felt pretty satisfied with this experience, which isn't too focussed on the ubiquitous 15-year-old. It is of course internally mostly a reconstruction, but a pretty interesting one nevertheless. The audio guides are useful, and you get to choose an approach relevant to your interests, rather than a catch-all. After having our fill of nautical history, we wandered northwards. We visited the Red Lodge and Georgian House museums, the first perhaps the most fascinating, the second eerily tainted by the fact that it was built by someone who made his fortune from trading in slaves. Then onwards and upwards to the top of the Cabot Tower and its panoramic views.

We picnicked in the park. before heading down to the Industrial Museum. This museum is closing in a couple if months, to be replaced by a £10million Museum of Bristol that will open in 2009. It therefore had a rather gloomy, fusty air. In truth, not being terribly into road or air transport, or the history of printing, it was the harbour sections that were the most interesting for Ralph, but here he was frustrated by the lack of information about the many fascinating photographs. He has an awful feeing that the new museum is going to the other extreme, with plans for loads of audio-visual interactions...

We strolled westwards to the Avon, where the disused Harbour Railway branch was covered in wild flowers. Heading back eastwards, Ralph wanted to glimpse Temple Meads before we returned to the city centre. Our eating venue that evening was Krishna's Inn.

It was one of those visits that left you wanting to return soon...

Next day we set of for South Wales.