Very fashionable Bristol

A stroll around the steep streets of an historic and hip city in the south-west of Britain.

The thing they don’t tell you about Bristol is how hilly it is.

Like San Francisco-type hilly. Perhaps a hint is in the name of the suburb I’m staying in, Totterdown; you totter down the hill and stagger back up.

Topography notwithstanding, it is a charming place, tucked into the south-west corner of Britain, only two hours on the motorway or train from London and within striking distance of Wales, Cornwall and the south coast.

A seafaring town for most of its history, it lies on the steep banks of the River Avon. The highest point, just above the famous Clifton Suspension Bridge, was an Iron Age fort before the Romans arrived. The river has the same kind of tide as Broome. So the Victorians re-engineered it to create what is still called the Floating Harbour. That is, ships floating at their moorings rather than periodically sitting high and dry on the sandy riverbed.

Shipping and shipbuilding have long since ceased, but the city has re-invented itself, with the docks redeveloped into apartments, cafes and bars.

A beautiful Grade II-listed 1830 tea warehouse, which now houses The Arnolfini Gallery, was one of the first of its kind in 1975 and is still a very popular venue for contemporary art. 

The arts have long had a home here, with the Bristol Old Vic having a stellar reputation in British theatre.

Aardman Animations, (there are lots of references to Wallace and Gromit around town) and of course Banksy, who lives here and whose work is the subject of walking tours, are based here.

A rather confusing layout around the network of waterways, harbours and canals makes exploring a rewarding experience, with the town only revealing its delights after a bit of teasing.

The town centre was probably once the old St Nicholas Market, but has lately shifted east to the massive new Broadmead Shopping Centre. St Nicks, a covered labyrinth of food and bric-a-brac stalls is the heart of the Old Town, the remains of the medieval walled city around Broad and Corn Streets. Bombing during World War II destroyed much, but has led to fascinating juxtapositions of ancient and contemporary architecture.

North of Broadmead is a funky and hip area centred on graffiti-encrusted Stokes Croft, with alternative arts venues and groovy shops and cafes.

Heading west from St Nicks you pass the Hippodrome Theatre and the cathedral, popping in to check out the crypt with its superb 11th century Chapter House. Then trudge up, and up, the steep and wide Park Street with its Banksy mural and great shops like The Guild featuring up-market local crafts. At the top is the ritzy Clifton area, but halfway up is the Georgian House.

This beautiful town house, now a free museum, is set up as it would have been in about 1780. The owner made his money in sugar plantations in Jamaica, and there are some appalling details of the lives of the slaves whose work paid for all this luxury.

Clifton, on the sunny southern side of the wide valley Bristol sits on, has always been the desirable place to live. Tree- lined streets with lovely old houses make this is a delightful place to stroll. The cappuccino strip along Whiteladies Road is a great spot for lunch. You might even see Fiona Bruce popping into the BBC headquarters of Antiques Roadshow. 

The elegant terraces are not unlike those in nearby Bath, and would no doubt have likewise been familiar to Jane Austen when she lived there.

At the apex is the Suspension Bridge, a masterpiece of Victorian engineering by the fabulously named Isambard Kingdom Brunel. From here you get spectacular views down into the town and surrounding countryside, and in the other direction, the even steeper banks of the gorge the river has carved. 

This area, too steep for even the Victorians to build on, has remained a wilderness and a haven for rare flora and fauna, hikers and rock climbers.

Back down in town on the south bank, another great piece of engineering history, Brunel’s SS Great Britain, is open for inspection. 

Once the biggest ship in the world and the first iron steamer to cross the Atlantic, she also carried thousands of immigrants to Australia in the 1850s.

Next to it, in the former dock buildings, the M Shed is a fascinating museum, concentrating on the the rich social history of Bristol.

Across the river again is the genteel Queen Square, its elegant town houses now corporate headquarters, and incongruously just behind it, an area near the docks which has been a sailors’ haunt for a couple of hundred years. The pubs along cobblestoned King Street still ring with boisterous rowdies on the hops.

But for a more sophisticated atmosphere raise a pint of Somerset cider in the Old Duke, known and loved as a jazz haunt since the 1950s, and toast this beguiling, hilly city.


You may also like