None of my traveler friends had ever visited Bristol, so naturally I had to go. For visitors to Great Britain this city in the south west corner of the island is a little hard to get to, it is officially ‘off the beaten track’, a perfect destination for me. I was feeling quite smug about my choice until I began to research the city who’s river Shakespeare had set into history, the River Avon, where he lived at Stratford on Avon. But long before that, some 60,000 years before, people have been known to have inhabited the area. I set out to find out why.
My plan was to settle in for a two week stay, long enough to get a feel for the comings and goings of the place. I always like to meet the area residents wherever I go so as to find out what their lives are like. This is part of the travel experience I enjoy the best. Over the many years I have traveled I have seen more than enough ruined piles of stone to have shifted my interest to the people who live in these places. I find that when shopkeepers and publicans, grocery clerks and post official countermen have seen your face on a regular basis they open up and don’t mind telling their stories. As I usually do when I hunker down in a single location for an extended period of time I book an intermediate stay apartment with a corporate provider. I found a fantastic period architectural place fronting the River Avon and one of the many bridge crossings in the heart of town called the West India House.
The first thing I noted were the numbers of young people in town. The University of Bristol is a popular place for foreign students coming to Britain to study. The campus is quite illustrious and looks as if it has stood for a thousand years, but looks are deceiving in the case of Bristol. Although the entire city appears to be original and ancient it is in fact a reproduction in it’s entirety. Bristol was heavily bombed during the second world war and lay in ruins for the better part of the period after Nazi bombers attacked the area because of the aircraft manufacturing facilities and airstrips. In fact one fine Sunday morning while we were having coffee in the High Street we were fortunate enough to set into conversation with an older gentleman who lived through that horrible time. He told us a very sad story of how his best friend had been killed by a bomb that had landed with only meters between them. How fickle is fate in times of war?
The faithful architectural reproductions are remarkable. As with the rest of Europe that had to rebuilt after that great war, it is almost unnoticeable to the naked eye that this rebuilding of thousands of buildings isn’t original. St Mary Redcliffe church is remarkable in that it’s many 13th century fittings of medieval knights and dignitaries buried for centuries under stone sarcophagi have been preserved. I happened in while choir practice was underway and the atmosphere was heavenly. The Georgian Period Queens Square has been so lovingly rebuilt that it almost seems as if the first bricks of the 17th century were painted only yesterday. Many of the cobblestones streets are lined with modern shops and coffee houses but you don’t have to look very far before finding an unaltered gem like the Llandoger Trow, an ancient public house in the center of the old city or The Nails in Corn Street where deals were made over shipping concerns that spanned the globe during days of empire and the term ‘cash on the nail’ was coined due to the requirements that Sterling be laid on the top of the brass topped tables.
Bristol had been a famous shipping port for exports and imports from around the globe through the Elizabethan to the Victorian ages. The port was also a wooden shipbuilding mecca for square rigged sailing traders who sought commerce on the far reaches of what was then unknown territory in the dangerous competition of the day. The term ‘Bristol Fit’ described a ship that was rigged to take any sort of challenge including armed confrontation. Much of the trade was legitimate but Bristol was also the main port in Great Britain for the African slave trade which saw millions of black Africans captured and enslaved by Arabs , West African man hunters and tribal chieftains selling their own people , finally to European ‘Blackbirders’ who transported the slaves to colonies as labour, particularly the newly established sugar plantations of the America’s, French, British , Spanish Caribbean and west coast of Portuguese Brazil. The slave trade was outlawed in Britain in 1833 but is still unfortunately an active practice amongst certain Arab and African nations.
One famous legacy in the City of Bristol is the home of a slave ship captain that was built upon his rich return to England after years at sea as a ‘Blackbirder’. This ships captain, John Newton, wrote the original hymn ‘Amazing Grace’. The house he built is a time capsule of all the mod cons a rich man could buy at the time, including a plunge pool on the lowest level of the six floor residence. On his return to England his guilt may have gotten the better of him and he became an Anglican minister.
It’s always best to walk around a new city, this is how the place will reveal it’s personality and it’s secrets to you. Bristol is punctuated by open pedestrian squares and green parks that appear as if by magic. The first walk-about I took led me past the ruined keep of a Norman tower, there since the first occupation by William the Conqueror in 1066 in the famous battle of Hastings. Plain functional buildings from the 1960’s abut Shakespearean row houses laced with odd graffiti scratched in the stone, the meanings of which have long been forgotten and covered with ivy sprouting from the cracks. Narrow lanes abound through the core of Bristol’s original founding. Lively pubs are raucous and carousing well into the night. The sound of ebullient laughter pours down the cobblestones stairwells like rushing water. One Sunday morning constitutional led me straight into an all morning jazz blast where the street performers were wildly costumed and in riotous makeup. The occasion seemed to be lost on anyone I asked.
I was in love with Bristol within hours of arriving and the attraction has continued to grow in my absence . The lively boathouse restaurants lining the river offered an array of entertainment steps from my door. The streets all seemed to lead me around in a fascinating circle hemmed by river water and locks. I spent several hours in the area around the railway station as it seemed so perfectly decrepit that I would not have wanted to change a single line of red brick and wrought iron left over from the restoration after the war.
Though I am a staunch budget traveler I found myself being drawn in to the many welcoming public house establishments for a quick drink and conversation. Travelers are unusual fare for the cosmopolitan denizens of Bristol who all seem to come from somewhere else. The city is full of tech workers on contract, visiting professors and students sharing this comfortable space. I was welcomed with interest and courtesy as a tourist as if I were something truly unique to the social mix. If you ever get the chance you should certainly give this rare city a visit, you might fall in love, as I did, forever.