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One of the things my wife and I have decided to put more effort into is travelling more to parts of Britain about which we know little; this interspersed with frequent foreign travel, in fact as much as budget/credit card limits and school holidays will allow.
This last Easter (and my birthday) weekend, it was Bristol's turn.
I'm not sure how Bristol has slipped through my fingers so easily before, after all, I live in west London, and it only takes me an hour to drive to Swindon, so Bristol should only take a further 40 minutes, I'd have thought.
I'd been to peripheral bits, like the Clifton Suspension Bridge (and the nearby Camera Obscura), and I'd even managed to visit the S.S Great Britain, Brunel's magnificent iron steam ship back in the 70s when it had first been towed home, but just don't ask me how it is I've missed the city itself.
Anyway, I've partially put that right now.
So here, in true BNibbles form, is not so much a travel guide as 'how we spent two nights in Bristol - the *expurgated version*. If this doesn't seem very comprehensive, bear in mind we were only there for what was effectively a day and an half.
*(The unexpurgated version would need a mention of dodging 18 year old girls throwing up outside wine bars and clubs - oops I HAVE mentioned it, sorry)
SATURDAY MORNING - PADDINGTON
09:58 We leave bang on time in a train that's practically loaded to the gunwales even leaving London, although having got there 30 minutes early we've got seats, unlike the well-to-do couple who got on with ten seconds to spare and spent the time on board bitching about the little fold-down seats they were perched on. Mercifully for all our sakes, they got off at Reading. Curiously, according to the terms of our ticket, we HAD to travel on this train but COULDN'T have reserved seats. Despite the final destination of Paignton, it half empties at Bath, which allows for the poor souls boarding at Reading, Didcot, Swindon and Chippenham to find a seat. No wonder they won't let Londoners book the whole train if most of them only want to go to Bath.
We arrive at Bristol Temple Meads about two hours later - I really like this station. It's got something of the romance of York about it, with its long gracefully curved train-shed** (OK, it's not AS long or AS graceful, but it's one of Brunel's so I love it anyway), and equally importantly, important trains pass this way or terminate here. To Brunel, this was Paddington's alter ego; the Great Western Railway's other reason for living. The landward far end of his 'big plan' to get you to America faster.
**(That's what real train-sp….errrr….rail enthusiasts call the roof)
It's actually difficult to think of Bristol without thinking of good old Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and they make sure you don't forget him once you're there, especially just now, as it was his 200th birthday a couple of weeks ago.
After establishing that we need to exit the station via 'the tradesman's entrance', i.e. through the car park, not the main doors, we find our hotel, the Bristol City Inn, only 400 yards away. Thank goodness for those airline cases with wheels and extending handles, although the current trend to put cobbles back at every decorative opportunity can be a nuisance.
CITY INN - I'm not a great fan of anything that smacks of a 'chain', with all that it promises/threatens in 'corporate' i.e. indifferent levels of service, and there's always that institutionalised same-at-every-branch food to look forward to, as well, all with some happy-go-lucky name to make you think it's unique, like 'The Cap'n's Table' or 'Tabitha's Bistro'!
(Joke Break - TV Ad Waitress. "Have you ever been to a Harvester before? Customer: "Why, does anyone come twice?")
However, the City Inn cracks the mould. For one thing, there's only 4 in the chain at the moment, Bristol (obviously), London, Glasgow and Birmingham; Manchester's pencilled-in for 2007. What a pleasant surprise - OK, yes, the hotel IS modern, but with expensive taste in décor. Rooms have flat screen TV, LAN internet access and a DVD player so you can hire movies from reception or play your own. There's also a half-decent mini-hifi for your
own CDs or listening to the Light Programme on the Wireless Telegraph . Our room only had a 'dry mini-bar', that is to say a wicker basket full of tit-bits that you have to pay for, although the complimentary tea and coffee with bickies was present too.
I measure a hotel by how quickly and efficiently it rectifies mistakes, rather than expecting everything to be perfect, which is usually only a fluke when it happens. We queried why all our tea bags were Earl Grey as it seemed an odd choice. Hardly had we got through our own room door when we were supplied with a more normal selection, including plain old 'builder's tea' (bum-crack extra) which is what we were after.
Bathrooms were well equipped with everything …..errrr….except a bath, there being a proper shower cubicle with acres of elbow room instead. Our room rate over Easter weekend for two night's bed and (full English) breakfast came to £140.
Add to that the £70 spent on dinner, so what gives? Did I acquiesce and eat there anyway? No, the restaurant came highly recommended, so we booked ahead for the Saturday evening, leaving Sunday for our favourite occupation, browsing for somewhere to eat later.
The food really was good, with friendly polite waiting staff. I had a layered terrine of bacon, black pudding and potatoes crowned with a poached egg for a starter, followed by venison in a raspberry vinegar and dark bitter chocolate sauce, which despite the description worked rather well. I do find that venison, with its strong flavour either needs leaving alone, or a sauce that can fight its own corner. This was definitely the latter
Sticky toffee pudding rounded off the 'solids', thus making damned sure I was going to blow away on our strolls around the docks.
Now for the only downside - the coffee. What is it about drowning some soluble vegetable matter in water that people find so difficult to make it taste of anything? (I can almost see 'mattygroves' smile as [or if] she reads this!) Maybe it's because once you've gotten used to making your own filter, espresso whatever, no-one else's will do, so let's be charitable and call it that - after all, it happens to me wherever we go.
FIRST WANDERINGS - The City Inn is reasonably central, Temple Way (A4044), being only about half a mile from High Street, so a treatise on Bristol's public transport will NOT be following. We walked everywhere, as it transpired.
Having settled into our room, and unpacked, such as it was, we had a lot of afternoon left over. Time for drinky-poos methought, so we stumble into the first decent looking pub we come across and order drinks. Blow me down, it's a Fullers pub, the irony of which isn't lost on me as I live 4 miles from the brewery. I really like London Pride, but 120 miles from home? Still, having recently bought out Gales of Horndean, Gales HSB is on tap too, so that goes down rather nicely with a selection from the pub's (Thai) kitchen.
Having set ourselves the target of visiting some of Bristol's many 'industrial' exhibits with a heavy pinch of Brunel thrown in, there was no time to waste. Besides which, I couldn't stand to watch any more of the Bolton v. Chelsea match on the Sky telly in there.
Walking down the side of the Avon, which threads its way through the city, I was taken by how many of the vistas that have been opened up are starting to look quite 'Amsterdam-like'. For example, the cobbled quayside along Welsh Back is alive with open air eateries, some on dry land, some on boats. In fact the only thing missing from the Dutch illusion is a floating flower market.
Following the Avon downstream brings you into the docks proper, and here you can see a working swing bridge in fairly frequent action as Prince Street is put out of action for 20 minutes whilst a tall boat passes through. Just over the bridge, in a converted dock warehouse lays Bristol's Industrial Museum, which refreshingly does not charge for entry.
Most of the exhibits relate to Bristol's engineering past (there's not much 'present' on show). For example, Concorde having been co-built at nearby Filton, there's a mock-up of its nose cone, and one of its Olympus engines on show. Likewise, there's a Bristol helicopter, a 1966 Bristol 'Lodekka' bus, a 1955 Bristol sports car, and there's even a bare bones chassis of a more recent Bristol bus, complete with the plywood shed of weather protection for the hapless crash-helmeted driver. It was his job to drive it to Lowestoft to have Eastern Coach Works fit the bodywork! This was arguably the most ubiquitous partnership in UK bus design outside of London anyway; 'Bristol' on the radiator grille, and ECW coachwork.
Outside the museum, they've resurrected part of the dock-side railway lines, complete with steam locomotive to carry open air passengers the half mile or so down the quayside to what must be Bristol's highlight engineering exhibit (excluding the bits that are still used like the Clifton Bridge).
S.S GREAT BRITAIN
As I said earlier, I'd seen this grand old lady of metal ships when she was first towed back from the Falklands in the 1970 to be placed in the foetal position, i.e. back in the dock of her birth. At the time, the entrance money didn't feel well-spent, as there was literally nothing left of her interior, having been used by The Falkland Islands Company as a coal scuttle and one-time store for wool awaiting export. I remember thinking that this'd take about 30 years to put right, and I wasn't far wrong! I won't attempt to detail the ship to any extent, and if you really want the low-down, see Richada's superb opinion on subject.
Suffice it to say that the 'lady is back' almost in her former glory - there's still much to be done below decks at the bows end, but this is blocked off to hide work in progress so the illusion isn't marred to any great extent. The ship now appears to be floating on real water, but that's an illusion too - either that or I had the driest sub-aqua experience of my life.
Despite being surrounded by water, it's only inches deep over a ceiling of plate glass, below you which you are free to roam, to inspect the hull and the mighty propeller and rudder. You'll glean from this below decks peek that it'll never float, being holed in quite a few places (she was brought back ON a pontoon, if that answers your next question). In fact they are doing their darndest to keep even moisture away, let alone water. A huge desiccation plant extracts the damp from the air down here to delay corrosion hopefully almost indefinitely. On board, the process of renewal seems complete - the huge saloon for 'nobs' glitters, the meat locker has dummy carcasses in, a notice board announces births and deaths amongst the 'steerage' passengers and you can even see a scenario depicting the Captain arguing with the First Officer.
They'll hand you an electronic talking guide when you go in if you want one.
Maybe it all seemed a bit too new, as even the door knobs still had that 'fresh from Homebase' newly lacquered look to them, but no doubt a few years of the Great British public trying to turn them will 'patinate' them a trifle.
Having had its steam engines taken out fairly early on in its life, the owners of the day preferring to sacrifice speed for cargo capacity, she reverted to being a clipper ship. Now, of course, they are slowly but surely putting replica engines back in!
They've fitted lifts for wheelchair access both to the below decks of the ship and to the 'underwater' gallery - even Brunel hadn't thought of that! Sadly, on the day we were there, the 'tween-decks lift was out of order with a note saying that the engineers were aware, so phone ahead if this is important.
Whilst the ship itself is quite definitely the star attraction, you are gently led through an exhibition hall first, plotting the history of the S.S. Great Britain. This also has a life-size mock up of the mechanism to disengage the propeller and raise it to be more 'slippery' in water when using sails alone. Over the years, the S.S. G.B. seems to have fallen from Brunel's original grace. Designed to be a steam ship with the ability to save coal by hoisting sails when conditions permitted, she was re-engined with more compact engines. Then the emphasis was placed on 'sailing ship with auxiliary engines' - just in case the wind dropped, and finally she was stripped of engines altogether to become a clipper; her successive
Pictures of Bristol in General
S.S. Great Britain - Stern View
owners clearly being more interested in payload than speed. During this period, the ship was steadily 'demoted' from luxury 'liner' on the trans-Atlantic route to Australian-migrant ship to cargo vessel, so this was to be expected I suppose
Adult entry to the S.S. Great Britain exhibits costs £8.95, but remains valid for repeat visits for the subsequent year. It currently includes entry to the "Nine Lives of IK Brunel" exhibition which runs from April to October 2006 in the adjacent Maritime Heritage centre, where more of the great man's work is on show, including displays relating to the Thames Tunnel project he inherited from his father Marc and a non-working replica of one of his 7'¼" gauge locomotives. Understandably, broad gauge hardware is thin on the ground, what with there being no track to run them on these days. (You can see a working steam locomotive on this gauge at the Didcot Great Western Railway Centre, running on its own short length of non-standard track - even then, it's a recently-built replica).
THE NON-BRUNEL BITS
If you're now feeling entirely 'Brunelled-out', don't say I didn't warn you. We had 1½ days here, and being my birthday treat the agenda was all mine (well nearly!).
Of course, I couldn't be somewhere new without my darling wife wanting some retail therapy, but since most cities are becoming clones of each other, comparing M&Ss at the nearest mall seems futile. What we did discover was a rather nice open-air market on the Saturday in Saint Nicholas Street, just off High Street and therefore very central. I distinguished myself here by talking to Italian stall holders in German, which, being South Tyroleans, was in fact their native language, albeit with a rather odd accent. Not being able to buttonhole my accent either, they assumed I was from The Netherlands. Anyway, their fresh Parmesan was a delight, and I've still got a bit left, although it's slowly becoming a lot of rind around very little cheese! The fantastic taste certainly puts that powdered stuff from a drum in the shade, and makes you realise what a waste it is to grate it and put it on pizzas.
Such is the eclectic mix of stalls and shops in this area, that I found myself fascinated by the Bong Shop, with all its 'smoking paraphernalia' from bulk offers on 'Rizlas' to Turkish hubble-bubbles
Side streets off the trendy cobbled waterfront of Welsh Back reveal a decent haul of 'proper' pubs; the ones with real beer (without a slice of lime in the neck of the bottle - in fact not from a bottle at all), and with the occasional tear in the benches nearest the dart board; pubs that serve up a decent Sunday lunch, with not a hint of "Focaccia with Sun-Dried Tomatoes" to be seen.
I think that this highlights the main problem with any up-market urban regeneration - it always seems to revolve around 'café life', and the doubtful practice of sitting outside in the three days of a British summer! No wonder they always use those rust-proof aluminium chairs.
Still, if it preserves Bristol's superb and varied architecture, then it's not all bad. The Loch Fyne Restaurant on Welsh Back is now housed in what looks like a Byzantine warehouse, with striped brick arches, redolent of London's Catholic Westminster Cathedral. At least the old place is getting a scrub up. Pizza Express is in what seems to have been an old bank, if the ceiling height is anything to go by.
TIME TO GO HOME
Sadly this came round all too early, and I feel I can't possibly have done anything apart from scratch at the surface of Bristol, but then, with a day and a half what did I expect - at least I'd already been to Clifton in a 'previous life'.
Waiting on Temple Meads Station for the London train having got there far too early, we were at least able to admire the building in a little more detail than on arrival, when all is 'now then, where's the map - which door do we need to exit by?'
I have to say that the First Great Western train despatcher patrolling the platforms that morning was a credit both to the company and probably Bristol, judging by his accent.
Obviously a fan of the building himself, he was a pleasure to talk to, and it was with some regret that we had to part company when we found that our train was coming in on one of the more open air outlying platforms.
A great review. I live in Bristol and have experienced the highs and lows of the city.
Bigbaz 04.06.2006 22:39
Baz hates Templemeads after spending 6 hours on a regular basis on long gone Sunday evenings patroling it's windswept platforms while waiting for a Warship back to Plymouth..Bet that confuses some..Baz
Digbycat 04.06.2006 20:05
Nah, Brunel doesn't do it for me, best bit about Bristol is the violin and music shops! but I'm guessing these weren't high on your agenda M xx