An almost spur-of-the-moment adventure: Bristol! Day One

In which we drive to Bristol, find a parking spot and survey the possibilities

Normally we’re quite active over Christmas and the New Year (walking and cycling burn calories so we can eat All The Things), but I pulled a muscle in my back and then I caught an evil cold and then he caught it from me, the end result being we spent almost the entire holiday season at home. By the time he had returned to work, I was noticing that the walls of the house appeared to be slowly moving inward: I concluded it had been far too long since we’d been out. Why Bristol? Because it’s there and on separate occasions we’d both driven through it or, in his case, stayed for a conference and saw almost nothing of it. So I booked a hotel as near the docks as affordable, researched restaurants – life is so much easier with a hungry husband if I know where and when we’ll be eating – and told him to book Friday off. He has a hard life …

Over dinner on Thursday night we waffled about timing. Leave *really* early, as in 0500, and we’d be there in time to see a 3-star Severn Bore! My tentative suggestion failed at the first hurdle (getting up at 0400 on a day off). We opted instead for leaving by about 0930 to allow a leisurely drive and time to see something of the city that afternoon. After dinner we waffled about packing. It would be cold, but we’ll be walking, so we’ll be warm. But it might not be *that* cold and we’ll be walking, so we’ll be too hot! As always, the conclusion was: layers. And leather jackets to block the wind.

It was a gorgeous morning. Crisp and cold with frost white on the grass under clear skies. He drove, I knitted and gazed and navigated.


We’d thought of looping south to Glastonbury first, but heavy traffic delayed us so, armed with internet access to maps and GPS on my phone we plunged straight down the M32 into the heart of Bristol. The internet said there was a carpark at the M Shed and lo! there was a carpark. Three cheers for flawless navigation (so often taken for granted). Just before 1300 we piled out of the car and straight into the M Dock building for toilets and lunch. Both were excellent! The M Shed displays are geared for somewhat younger visitors; we wished for more in-depth information, but thought often of the Brisuanodon as we wandered around the city.


The M Shed is on the waterfront. Step outside and admire the cranes! On Saturday they were speaking, or rather concealed speakers made it seem as though they were discussing the things they’d seen.


Just west of the cranes is the Matthew, a replica of the ship in which John Cabot sailed to Newfoundland in 1497. For some reason Cabot’s voyage has stayed in my memory since I learned about it at school in Canada, nearly 50 years ago; the Matthew was one of my reasons for coming to Bristol. She’s tiny, far smaller than I’d realised. Packed with supplies for the voyage and spare spars and rigging for repairs, the 18 or so crew had to sleep on deck regardless of the weather. Sadly she wasn’t open to visitors, so we kept walking west along the waterfront.


The water is Bristol’s ‘Floating Harbour’, which I at first assumed meant there were pontoons or other floating docks. Instead it describes the reason it was constructed: to allow ships to remain afloat (safe and easy to access) at all states of the tide on the Avon. I wish there was more interpretation about this on the waterfront; I spent much of Friday evening online, reading about it, and even so almost missed the implications for the Frome, the other river of Bristol. More about that tomorrow.

There’s a man aloft in the Kaskalot, applying dressing to the shrouds. Built in 1948 for the Greenland trade, she’s one of the largest wooden ships still in commission.


We continued to walk west. Past the SS Great Britain, into the Underfall Yard, a working boatyard.

On the wall of the harbormaster’s office are three flashing red lights and a sign warning of the sluice for which the yard is named, the Underfall designed by Brunel in 1830 to dispose of the silt clogging the Floating Harbour.

We stayed on the marked path, peering into the various buildings to see what we could see. Boats! Being renovated! The green-hulled beauty below was built by one man over five years. Her mast is unsupported – no shrouds – which must be very significant (physics), but I haven’t researched the details.


The small stretch of clear water to the left leads into the historic restored working slipway.


Around the corner is the chimney serving the boilers and hydraulic engines that once powered the work of the yard.


And still we walked west, past Cumberland Basin and out to see the locks that allow boats to enter and leave the Floating Harbour.

Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge floats high above the Avon Gorge in the background. What you can’t see because I foolishly neglected to take a picture, is ‘Brunel’s Other Bridge’, the original swing bridge over the lock, which awaits restoration and fame beside the lock. I was far too enamoured of the mud. “Mud, mud, glorious mud! Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood…” I sang under my breath as I admired the gloss, the feathered rivulets, the air of slippery doom that pervaded the mud exposed by low tide. At high tide the Avon, just visible at the left in this photo, must cover all of this and more.


West! The start of the Avon Gorge, and the entrance to the Clifton Rocks Railway, a 19th-century funicular running in a tunnel constructed to minimised its impact on the scenic gorge, can be seen on the other side of the river. Apparently a hot spring flows out of those rocks visible at the bottom of the expanse of mud exposed at low tide, one of several that give the name ‘Hotwells‘ to this part of Bristol.


And still we walked. Under the famous suspension bridge, and finally the path I was promised by Google Earth appeared, running under the railway and up through Leigh Woods. Much narrower and muddier than in those pictures. We picked our way along it, slipping and sliding, beginning to worry a bit about the time; we wanted to get the car into the NCP carpark and check into the hotel before dark! Walking through the grass beside the road to remove the worst of the mud from our shoes, we arrived on the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Pedestrians are greeted by a small plaque reminding us that the Samaritans are always ready to listen; this is one of the world’s suicide bridges. Who would have thought that would be a Wikipedia entry?


The suspension bridge cables … aren’t. The bridge is held by a set of iron plates that look a bit like cables and act like cables.


And then we walked east! I should have taken a photo of the path that plummets down the precipitous side of the gorge. We spent all our time walking down it talking about how hard it would be to cycle up it, trying to decide which of the famous climbs included stretches like this. We walked past the Rock Railway on what was very nearly an imaginary footway beside the extremely busy road, over the lock and back onto the quiet side of the Floating Harbour. Which gave the opportunity to admire the sort of thing that inspired Brisuanodon:


That red barge at right is the Grain Barge, where I’d booked a table for dinner. Good to know it existed in real life! We walked briskly back to the car and successfully negotiated the one-way streets to find the carpark and our hotel. Spartan but central and, given the number of bars and grills and other drinking establishments in the area, probably rather noisy on a warm summer night. But this was January, so we were alright. After a shower and a rest, we headed west on the other side of the harbour, a well-lit path that took us straight to dinner (excellent beer! excellent hamburger!) and back to the hotel afterward. Bristol was living up to its promise; what would Saturday bring?


About sarahw

A zoologist who draws, a spinner who weaves, a person who thinks.
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