From the new 2011 edition of my travel guide Daytrips From London, here's an easy one to the ancient port town of Bristol:
A Daytrip From London
Bristol is a delightful city to visit, especially in summer. Few places combine the serious with the lighthearted quite so well. Where else can you see the sights from a vintage steam train or a tiny ferryboat? Or for that matter, explore the innards of an early-19th-century transatlantic steamship? Not many English cities boast as many sidewalk cafés or outstanding restaurants. Culture is not overlooked, either. Bristol has its fair share of medieval buildings, superb museums, churches, two cathedrals, several arts centers, and a world-renowned theater.
A thriving port since Saxon times, Bristol's prosperity was founded on wool, wine, tobacco, and the slave trade. Its enterprising seamen sailed to the far corners of the known world, and in 1497 one of them, John Cabot, first braved the North Atlantic to discover Newfoundland. Its commerce with the New World expanded as did the size of its ships. Eventually the harbor became inadequate and a new one was built at nearby Avonmouth. Heavy bombing during World War II led to extensive reconstruction. Today, the old downtown harbor is used mostly for pleasure, an amenity that makes Bristol an attractive place to visit.
Trains leave London's Paddington Station at least hourly for Bristol's Temple Meads Station, a journey of about 1½ hours. Return trains run until mid-evening. Be certain that the train you board is not just going to Bristol Parkway, which is out in the suburbs. Service is somewhat reduced on Sundays and holidays. Schedules at W: railtrack.co.uk.
By Car, Bristol is 121 miles west of London. Take the M4 to Junction 19, then the M32 into the center of Bristol.
Bristol can be visited at any time in good weather. There is more activity, and more fun, on summer weekends. The local Visitor Information Centre, T: (0333) 321-0101 (toll call), W: visitbristol.co.uk, is in E Shed on Canon’s Road at Harbourside, a block east of Bristol Cathedral. Bristol has a population of about 408,000.
FOOD AND DRINK:
Out of a vast selection, some especially good places for lunch are:
Riverstation (The Grove, just south of Queen Square) Right on the river, an upstairs/downstairs place with lower prices below. T: (0117) 914-4434, W: riverstation.co.uk. ££ and £££
The Glass Boat (Welsh Back, just east of Queen Square) Lunch, tea, or dinner aboard a floating barge in the Floating Harbour) T: (0117) 0704, W: glassboat.co.uk. £ and ££
Brown's Restaurant (38 Queen's Road, near the City Museum) Large, fashionable, and very popular, this restaurant and bar features burgers, pasta, and all sorts of contemporary dishes. T: (0117) 930-4777, W: brownsrestaurants.co.uk. £ and ££
Arnolfini Café (Narrow Quay, at the south end of the quay) Casual meals in an arts center. T: (0117) 917-2335, W: arnolfini.org.uk. £
Boston Tea Party (75 Park St., near the Georgian House) Fabulous sandwiches, vegetarian dishes, and the like. Very popular. T: (0117) 929-8601. £
Numbers in parentheses correspond to numbers on the map.
Click on map to enlarge.
Leaving Temple Meads Station (1), cross Temple Gate and follow Redcliffe Way to *St. Mary Redcliffe (2), the massive parish church that Queen Elizabeth I called “the fairest and goodliest” in all the land. Rebuilt in the 14th century, parts of it date from the 12th. If you have time for only one church during your visit, it should be this one. Americans will be interested in the prominent tomb of Admiral Sir William Penn (1621–70), whose son William founded Pennsylvania in 1682. Outside, in the churchyard, look for the gravestone of Tom, the church cat who kept the mice at bay from 1912 to 1927, and was given a grand funeral as a reward. T: (0117) 929-1487, W: stmaryredcliffe.co.uk. Open Mon.-Fri., 8:30-5. Free, donation appreciated. Snack bar. Gift shop.
Continue across Redcliffe Bridge to Queen Square and turn right to King Street. One of the most colorful thoroughfares in town, this cobbled street is lined with old taverns as well as the Theatre Royal, home of the famous Bristol Old Vic repertory company.
Now follow the map to Narrow Quay (3), a lovely waterfront street where you'll find the Arnolfini Arts Centre, whose galleries comprise one of Europe’s leading venues for contemporary art. T: (0117) 917-2300, W: arnolfini.org.uk. Entry free, Café, bookshop.
From here you can either walk to the next destination, or take one of the small open ferries that operate daily from April through September. T: (0117) 927-3416, W: bristolferryboat.co.uk. Fares in harbour: Adult £1.60, seniors & children £1.30, and up.
However you get there, the Museum of Bristol (4) is worth a stop. Its displays cover the full range of Bristol's industries, past and present, including carriages, sports cars, trucks, a steam crane, and a full-scale mock-up of the locally built Concorde. Closed for renovation, should reopen in 2011.
Continue on by ferry, on foot, or — when it's running — an ancient steam train, to the:
*S.S. GREAT BRITAIN and the MATTHEW (5), Gas Ferry Rd., T: (0117) 926-0680, W: ss-great-britain.org. Open daily 10-6, closing at 4:30 in winter. Adults £11.95, seniors £9.50, children £5.95. Café. Gift shop. Museum.
Launched in 1843, the S.S. Great Britain was the first large steamer to be made of iron and the first to be driven by a screw propeller. Used for a while on the transatlantic run to New York, she proved unprofitable and was later put on the Australian service. Finally reduced to hauling coal to San Francisco, she was abandoned in the Falkland Islands after suffering damage during a hurricane in 1886. There she remained until 1937, when the hull was sunk off Port Stanley. In 1970 the S.S. Great Britain was refloated and towed all the way back to the very same dry dock in Bristol in which she was built.
This indomitable ship, along with other sights in Bristol such as Temple Meads Station and the Clifton Suspension Bridge, were all the work of the great 19th-century engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who also built the Great Western Railway. You traveled over this line if you came from London by train. Visitors may climb all over the ship, now restored to its original 1843 appearance (interior photo, below).
Adjacent to the S.S. Great Britain is the Matthew, a replica of the 15th-century sailing ship used by John Cabot to discover Newfoundland in 1497, an historic journey that was re-enacted five centuries later in 1997. Harbour cruises are offered at times, T: (0117) 927-6868, W: matthew.co.uk. Adults £9, seniors and children £7.
While visiting these two famous ships, make a stop at the adjacent Great Western Dockyard, where the story of shipbuilding in Bristol is told. Meals and refreshments are available on the site.
From here you can take the ferry back to the town center and then board a bus to Clifton, or you can just walk there. The route shown on the map takes you past the locks of the Floating Harbour, a section of the River Avon in which boats are kept afloat during low tide. From there it is uphill, going by some elegant Georgian houses near the top.
The *Clifton Suspension Bridge (6), another creation of Brunel's, is among the most outstanding in Britain. Poised 245 feet above the Avon Gorge, it offers spectacular views to pedestrians who cross it. Return and climb the mound to the left for another superb vista, possibly stopping at the Clifton Observatory. Don’t miss the nearby Clifton Suspension Bridge Visitor Centre in Sion Place. Here you’ll discover just how this fantastic bridge was built and maintained. W: Clifton-suspension-bridge.org.uk. Free tours on Sudays at 3 from Easter to mid-Sept. 11-5. Gift shop.
There is bus service back to town from the corner of Suspension Bridge Road and Clifton Down Road. You may be interested, however, in strolling over a few blocks to see the very contemporary Clifton Cathedral (7) on Pembroke Road. Consecrated in 1973, this Roman Catholic cathedral is a striking piece of modern architecture designed to meet the new forms of worship.
By bus or on foot, the next destination is the City Museum and Art Gallery (8) on Queen's Road. The collections include items of local archaeology, history, ceramics, and glass, as well as the fine and applied arts. With its unusual mixture of displays, this is really a fun place to visit. T: (0117) 922-3571, W: Bristol-city.gov.uk. Open daily 10-5. Free. Café. Gift shop.
Just a short distance away is the Cabot Tower (9) on Brandon Hill, built in 1897 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of John Cabot's voyage to the New World. There are good views of the city and harbor from its 100-foot-high top. Presently closed for structural repairs.
Great George Street is a pleasant way to return to the town center. Along it is the Georgian House (10), an 18th-century merchant's home that's been lovingly restored to its original elegance by the City Museum. T: (0117) 921-1362. Open April-Oct., Sat.-Wed. 10-5. Closed Thurs. and Fri. Free.
Park Street leads to College Green and the Bristol Cathedral (11). A mixture of many styles including Norman, Early English, Gothic, and Victorian, its construction spanned a period of over 700 years. The most interesting parts are the choir, which has wonderful misericords, the eastern Lady Chapel, and the Norman Chapter House, dating from 1160. W: bristol-cathedral.co.uk. Open Mon.-Sat. 8-6, Sun. 7:20-5. Suggested donation £. Café. Gift shop.
Continue up Baldwin Street and Corn Street to the intersection with Broad, Wine, and High streets. This was the old medieval heart (12) of the city. In front of the Corn Exchange of 1743 are four short pillars of bronze known as “nails,” on which merchants completed their cash transactions. From these came the expression “paying on the nail.” Make a right on High Street, cross Bristol Bridge, and follow Victoria Street back to Temple Meads Station.
*@ BRISTOL (13), Harbourside, south of the Cathedral, across the harbour from the Museum of Bristol. T: (0845) 345-1235 (toll call), W: at-bristol.org.uk. Open Mon.-Fri. 10-5, Sat.-Sun., holidays, 10-6. Closed Dec. 24-26. Adults ₤10.80, seniors ₤9, children ₤7; late entry ₤4, ₤3. Family tickets available. Café. Gift shop.
Bristol’s newest attraction, @ Bristol is a place where science, nature and art come together to stretch visitors’ minds through discovery and participation.
Copyright © 2010 Earl Steinbicker
NEW FOR 2011: DAYTRIPS FROM LONDON