Bristol – A Surprising City, A Great Tourist Destination

I've just spent a really enjoyable few days exploring Bristol – a city about which, perhaps like you, I thought I knew a great deal. Here's what I 'knew' before I visited. It used to have a busy harbour – now long decaying. It was bombed heavily during the Second World War and so is scarred by post-war rebuilding. People have lots of weird and wonderful accidents - just check out Casualty and Holby City on BBC1 if you don't believe me. The BBC's Natural History Unit and Aardman Animation – creators of Wallis & Gromit – are based there. It has a very large suspension bridge. And the modern artist Banksy hails from there. But it seems that most of my preconceptions were quite wrong. Well, the last few are accurate, and one of those was part of the reason I was in the city in the first place. And yet the Bristol I visited last weekend was a modern, trendy, classy city with a vibrant harbour lined with restaurants, modern office complexes and very swish-looking  apartment blocks. It's a city that's proud of its heritage and determined to make the most of it, while looking ever forward. Yes, the damage inflicted by the Bristol Blitz in the early 1940s was extensive. As an important harbour, and a major industrial city, Bristol was an important strategic target for the Luftwaffe. And it's taken many years to restore much of the city. 

Many old warehouses have been converted to modern apartments, whilst brand new blocks have also been built 

There are, it has to be said, some rather ugly early post-war buildings, as is the case in any city rebuilt or expanded during those years, but the wealth of modern architecture of more recent times really has given Bristol a very modern and clean feel.The once-abandoned harbour has been regenerated. Dozens of modern buildings sit alongside redeveloped old warehouses, sheds and other buildings providing homes, workplaces and leisure venues for Bristolians of all ages. I took a boat trip around the city's Floating Harbour. The Bristol Channel and the Avon Gorge experience the second largest tidal range on the planet - a difference of around 12 metres. While at high tide huge vessels can float up the river, come low tide they become stranded in mud and, literally, keel over. In 1809 a floating harbour was constructed, impounding some 80 acres of tidal river. Several dams and locks were built to keep the river in Bristol permanently at high tide levels. In its prime Bristol was one of the world's most important ports. Slaves from Africa and produce from America and the Caribbean were traded through the port. Only in the early 1970s did commercial activities all but cease in the city. These days Avonmouth, six miles away and straddling the coast, is home to most commercial shipping activity while Bristol itself is a centre for leisure boating and other water-related activities. And it's a lovely place to spend some time, both from the water and on foot.

I learned a few surprising things about Bristol during my time there. I knew that Cary Grant, then Archibald Leach, was born there but not Michael Redgrave. That Banksy is a Bristolian, but not Beryl Cook. That John Cabot had started the voyage that eventually saw him discover what became Newfoundland, but not that John Wesley had built the world's first Methodist Chapel there. And remembered that Tarmac was invented, and first used, in the city, but not that holiday camp pioneer Billy Butlin began his life there.

And while I knew that BBC dramas like Casualty were filmed in Bristol, I had no idea that it also served as the location for Nelson Mandela House in Only Fools & Horses.

Of course, it's the many fascinating and family-friendly visitor attractions that draw in the tourists. 


Bristol's waterfront is a popular place to live, whether alongside, or actually on the water. 

The SS Great Britain's hull as seen from below its artificial water-line. 

After all, that's why I was there in the first place.You see, I was on another of the brilliant Travel Editions' mini-breaks.This one centred on the achievements of Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Don't be thinking I know anything about engineering. I can just about understand that a car works when you fill it with petrol and turn the ignition. Anything else and I have to take it on trust. But I've always had a fascination for the Industrial Revolution, and the mass industrialisation that made Britain great. The 'star of the show', of course, is the SS Great Britain.  Brunel's huge ship was the world's first iron-hulled, screw propeller-driven, steam-powered passenger liner. It spent decades sailing across the globe. When first launched in July 1852 she served as a luxury transatlantic passenger liner, carrying 252 first and second class passengers as well as 130 crew. 

Unfortunately, while the fastest, and largest liner in service, she did not prove a commercial success. When she ran aground off Northern Ireland the expense of re-floating her proved financially draining. But under new ownership SS Great Britain flourished. For 25 years, during the height of the Australian Gold Rush, she took hundreds of Britons to their new lives in the Antipodes. During both the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny she served as a troop ship. From 1886 Great Britain was put to work transporting Welsh coal to San Francisco. On one such voyage she became damaged and was forced to seek shelter at Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands. Too costly to effect repairs, it was decided to abandon her there, where she was put to use as a floating coal and wool warehouse. 

The kitchens of the SS Great Britain 

The glorious First Class Dining Saloon on the SS Great Britain 

During the First World War coal from her hold was used to replenish the Royal Navy's battle cruisers, HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible. In 1937, no longer watertight she was beached and during the Second World War iron from her hull was used to patch HMS Exeter after the Battle of the River Plate.

In 1970 it was decided to salvage SS Great Britain and bring her back to the UK. On 19th July of that year, precisely 118 years to the day after she launched SS Great Britain floated up the Avon and back to the town of her creation. After 35 years of painstaking conservation and renovation, the ship now appears as it did on the day of its first launch.It stands in a dry dock, the hull sealed into a humidity-free environment at a constant temperature to prevent further corrosion of the now fragile hull. A glass ceiling is covered in three inches of water so, from above at least, it appears the ship is floating. 

Brunel's famous Clifton Suspension Bridge 

Another of Brunel's great achievements is the Clifton Suspension Bridge that spans the spectacular Avon Gorge. Measuring 9.5 metres wide, 214 metres from pier to pier and suspended some 76 metres above the water, it is a spectacular sight. Crossing by foot can be a little disconcerting because the bridge does sway and bounce slightly. You can see just how much by stopping in the middle and fixing your gaze on a stationary object on the horizon. The cables and chains that hold the bridge will move up and down in relation to that point by a surprising amount. You can take a guided tour, and there is a small visitor centre at the far side of the bridge. But, for me, it was all about the spectacular view of the gorge and over the city of Bristol. 

One of the city's newest attractions is M Shed. Costing some £27 million of Bristol City Council and Heritage Lottery Fund money this new museum opened in mid-June 2011 on the site of a former industrial museum and inside one of Bristol's old dock sheds. Outside stand huge working cranes and a steam railway transports visitors from M Shed to the Great Western Dock beside the SS Great Britain. On the water float two tugboats (one reputedly the oldest surviving example) and a fireboat. Inside is divided into three main sections devoted to Bristol People, Bristol Life & Bristol Places. Within each are a wealth of exhibits, from the fabulous to the fascinating, but each with its own significance to the history of Bristol and, for that matter, to British life in general. 

The fabulous M Shed is the epitome of a modern museum. 

Because M Shed is arranged by theme, rather than chronology, ancient artefacts nestle quite comfortably alongside items from the 1980s. One particularly fascinating exhibit has an ordinary wooden dining table laid out with four place settings. One is medieval – a jug, a  beaker & a knife. Opposite is a Tudor plate, cup & proper cutlery. Next is a Victorian porcelain set and finally a 1950s utilitarian green pottery set. By placing these exhibits side by side M Shed reminds us that they are real objects, that had an everyday purpose. They were not designed purely for beauty or to be locked away in a cabinet. And there are countless examples of this kind of display. But what struck me most was the unshirking way that M Shed discusses the reality of slavery –  trade which contributed greatly to the wealth of the city. There is a discussion, too, on ethnic diversity, on racism, on riots and so on. The section on wartime Bristol is particularly well laid out. And I was surprised to learn that the restaurant in which I'd been eating my breakfast (at the Ramada Plaza Hotel in Redcliffe) was inside an old glass kiln dated from the 17th century! It being one of very few buildings in the area that survived the heavy bombing raids. On the top floor of M Shed is a large gallery for temporary exhibitions which are well worth a visit, if only for the fabulous view over the city from the outside deck. 

All in all, I was surprised by Bristol. And delighted. I've already decided that the city warrants another visit. Perhaps I'll see you there?