Exploring the West Country cities – Part Two: Scratching Bristol’s surface

We rolled back into Bristol Temple Meads train station after a lovely day of exploring Bath and its ‘Christmas Market’, now we turned our gaze towards the vibrant nightlife and historic sights of Bristol.

For an inland city Bristol has had a tremendous impact on the world, both in the past and in the modern world.

John Cabot sailed from Bristol in 1497 and was the first European to land in North America, Newfoundland to be exact, since the Vikings.

Cabot's Tower, looming, Bristol

Bristol went on to take part in the far less salubrious Triangular Slave Trade.  Ships laden with goods headed to West Africa, there they would trade with local leaders for fellow Africans they captured through local wars. Rammed full of human cargo these same ships would braved the Atlantic crossing and filled New World plantations with enslaved workers, whose resultant products were taken back across the Atlantic to ports like Bristol or Liverpool.  This cycle continued for hundreds of years, changing the demographic of the Americas forever.

In the nineteenth Century the Great Engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel (what a name!) became linked to Bristol forever when he designed the Clifton Suspension Bridge across the River Avon, the unfortunate SS Great Britain, and the Great Western Railway from London to Bristol.

The SS Great Britain, 800 yards away, seen from Cabot Tower

These days the university churns out a vast number of aeronautics and medicine graduates, thus the city continues to change the face of the world, and beyond.

When our train pulled into Bristol our minds were focused on far more base desires – food and booze.  Or more accurately – ‘my mind’.  We have several friends living in Bristol so we met up and started a small bar crawl. With so many students here it’s easy to see why there so many pubs continue to survive despite the harsh rent and stock price rises nationally.

We popped into a neat little place on the nicely renovated Watershed part of Bristol harbour and indulged in some local cider whilst watching other tables eating tasty-looking piles of lamb chops.

Inside the restaurant, BristolAfter greasing our chatterglands with a starter pint we went in search of food and piled into a pub-cum-pizzeria which I think was called Restaurant La Taverna Dell Artista, but forgive me if that’s not quite right…  The food was beautiful.  Really delicious pizzas, of which I could have stuffed myself with at least two whole ones.  Anyway, it was somewhere just east of the Broad Quay road and north of Queen’s Square, King Street I think.

The ‘binary star’ of pubs, if you will, just down the same road proved to be far busier.  The Llandoger Trow and the Old Duke stand opposite each other across a cobbled area of picnic tables and vulture-like bouncers, hovering around the drinking groups with beady eyes.  The Old Duke was heaving with thirty Bristolians so we couldn’t even get to the bar, and there was some God-awful covers band playing a racket so we fled across to The Llandoger Trow.  This pub and its punters of yore were, according to things on the wall inside, used as the basis of locations and characters in Robinson Crusoe.  Which is quite cool if that’s true. We supped there for a single round in pleasant surroundings before attempting to go back to the Duke.

This time the crowd had thinned so we managed to get a table in a quieter area.  The band continued to ruin some of my favourite tracks for the next 45 minutes.  My impressions of Bristols pubs was now quite rounded and they all appeared in a happy memory glow for me. They have their slight niggles, as do all British towns with a high venue:drinker ratio but this was a nicer feeling than drinking in my home town of Croydon at least.  My friend is a manager at another city centre pub so we crashed on sofas there for an hour or so trying to throw cigarettes into somebody’s mouth before giving up for the night.  Previously my only experience of Bristol’s drinking venues had been houseparties or backstreet pubs but from this new vantage point observing the pre-club crowd I’d recommend it.

This influx of food naturally led to the increased desire for more alcohol and genial conversation so we crossed the road to the Royal Navy Volunteer pub.  The bouncer greeted us with ‘It’s karaoke night tonight, okay?’ but that didn’t deter us and in we went.  It’s a nice enough place but it felt like the karaoke was sapping the life out of all of us and the venue.  When we stepped outside we were struck with awe as we observed the Most-Triangular-Man-In-The-World™

.  He was one of these body-builder types with a waspish waist and huge shoulders.  The obligatory ‘douche-neck’ white T-Shirt and gelled hair finished the look as he walked just ahead of us, unaware of our sniggers.  Dear Lord I wish I’d taken a photo of this monstrosity.  I can’t quite remember why but we named him Rainbow Boss. The booze was taking hold.  As the amusement of a sign on a broken telephone proves.  The next morning was another of anger at the shoddy clientèle of Travelodges.  They are almost all scumbags it seems.  I’m all for a drunken happy time but I have consideration for other people, especially at 4am.  Lousy gits and their screeching.  Clearly too much grease in their chatterglands.

Once we woke up enough to check out we headed towards Clifton for some sightseeing.  Browns Brasserie and Bar was at the top of Park Street and on our way to Cabot’s Tower so we stopped for breakfast there on the sunny balcony.  When nobody came to serve us I went into the gloriously posh interior to find staff.  I found a man who seemed to be a manager and he took my order but it didn’t show up for another 30 minutes or so.  He suddenly rushed over to us offering profuse apologies and announced that our drinks and Kristina’s bacon sandwich was on the house, that made us both mightily pleased!  I had the Eggs Royale – poached egg and smoked salmon on a toasted muffin with hollandaise sauce and by Gods it was magnificent.  I can taste it now.  A freshly made pain au chocolat for pudding got me raring to go climbing towers and hills in Clifton.  It took a while but the wait was worth it for the taste and besides, I don’t get ANY sunlight in the job I do so this was healthy as well.

My breakfast at Browns Bar & Brasserie, Bristol

Cabot Tower commemorates the 400 year anniversary of his sailing from Bristol to Newfoundland.  It is a large and pretty brick tower in a park on the top a hill and the views are beautiful from the top.  I had been up here once before in about 1997 and the whole place was steaming with tramp piss and graffiti.  It has been cleaned thoroughly now and is a delight of the city.  It’s also hilarious when you’re trying to get back down the hundreds of steps and fat people are wheezing past you trying to get up to the top.  Not hilarious because of their poor health but because of the facial expressions of everyone involved when they realise they have to rub against each other in ways not even the London Underground permits.

The view from the top of Cabot Tower, Bristol

An undulating walk north-east of Cabot Tower, via a circuitous route, is Clifton proper.  This quiet suburb is positively gentile compared to the nightlife of the centre.  Quaint cafes, craft shops, restaurants, workshops fill the neat streets as the street furniture guides you inexorably towards the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

It really is quite a magnificent setting.  You approach the bridge across a grassy area and now, in winter, you can see the structure through the trees easily.  The Avon Gorge is a significant space to span and Brunel’s design just fits so well.  It looks better now than before it was built, so long as you overlook the A-road running underneath, as there are information boards with paintings of the original vista.  There’s a terrace attached to a hotel and pub just south of the bridge which apparently provides great views but after the previous night’s drink and lack of sleep neither of us really dug the idea of more booze yet, but bear it in mind if you visit.  We strolled around the ‘observatory’ above the bridge which was flying a Jolly Roger flag for some reason, and then crossed the bridge twice to take in views of the gorge itself.  All in all it’s a mighty pleasant place to visit in the November sunshine.

Exaggerating the geology of the Avon Gorge

Our time in Bristol was coming to an end and we had explored well enough but still had much more we didn’t see.  The SS Great Britain and the various museums immediately come to mind.  But Bristol ain’t going anywhere is it.  On our way out towards the train station we found Bristol’s German Christmas Market to be far nicer than Bath’s and I devoured currywurst with a giant smile on my face.  These two cities make a brilliant weekend away and I think we accomplished it for less than £150 each which is good going for travel, accommodation, eating out 5 times, drinking lots of cider, and entering expensive attractions like the Roman Baths.  If you’re coming to London then make a point of spending an easy weekend out West too.

Rays of sunlight through the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol

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