Bristol, not at all what I’d expected – first published 7 August 2014

The morning after Commando Senior’s funeral I was up at the ungodly hour of five getting ready to catch a train to Bristol. It’s a city I’ve never visited and, from the bit of Googling I’d done, it seemed there would be lots to interest a history freak like me. After all it was founded at some time before the end of the first millennium and left Gloucestershire to become a county in its own right as long ago as 1373. There was a Norman Castle, one of the strongest in Southern England and parts of this, along with the medieval walls, and churches remain today.

7 August 2014

Heading for Bristol yesterday morning I was slightly excited at the prospect of the mid nineteenth century architectural style called a Bristol Byzantine, the Tudor mansions the Georgian squares. Then there was the arty side of things, the famous Banksy graffiti, The Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery with its collection of natural history, archaeology, local glassware, Chinese ceramics and art. What I’d forgotten was, this was not an educational visit of the kind I led when I worked at Dream Factory. What I actually saw that first day was the station and the bus depot, the latter mostly from behind a desk on the inside.

Don’t get me wrong, it was interesting to meet the people I deal with and I learned a great deal that will make my job easier. Hopefully they learned a little something from me too. It would have been nice to be able to show you photographs of some of those things though. Still I did get a drive through the most congested city in the country just before rush hour began. It was pretty busy and rush hour doesn’t really bear thinking about. No wonder we have so many complaints about late buses, they’re all permanently stuck in traffic. Then again, you’d think living in Bristol people would understand that and make allowances.

The hotel was nice, with an Apple Mac, desk and very comfortable office chair in the room. There was even free wifi which was nice thank you very much and the art on the wall above my bed was just my kind of thing too. Once we’d checked in and dumped our bags we sat on the terrace in the sun having a post work drink and mulling over the day. This was when I met my first Bristol seagull. He decided to join us for our drinks, probably in the hope of some food to follow. He hopped up into the railings and watched, eagle eyed, for any signs that we were about to order from the bar menu. When we didn’t he hopped back down and strolled up and down the street in front of us looking a bit wistful, even using the pedestrian crossings as he marched up and down the street. Jess and I got the feeling he was way too fat to actually fly and begging and left-over eating was his main source of nourishment.

Later, after we’d freshened up and unpacked we did go back to the terrace for a snack in the evening sunshine. Of course Mr Seagull was there waiting for us, he seemed to be watching every mouthful and, once we’d had our fill, we did throw him some bread scraps. This was probably a mistake because he sat on the railing eyeing us after that until the waitress came out and chased him away. Truth to tell it’s probably soft touches like us that have made him so fat and so bold.

After we’d eaten it was early to bed because we had another early start in the morning. It had been a busy day of travelling and I sank onto the soft bed with a sigh of relief, wondering if I would actually get to see any of the historic buildings I’d been reading about and thinking probably not.

Today began after a restful night in our very comfortable hotel. By the time I packed up my meagre possessions and locked the door to go down to breakfast I was suffering from a massive and probably incurable case of Apple Mac and fancy chair envy. Sitting to go through my emails the night before I’d discovered that the chair in my room was not only rather attractive to look at but also the most comfortable of office type chairs I’d ever sat in and I’ve sat in quite a few in my time. Turns out this was a designer chair called Sayl by Herman Miller and, at about £400, well out of my price range. Oh well, I can dream.

Jess and I went down to breakfast together and, as the sun was up, decided to eat on the terrace again. Drinking my orange juice I was intrigued to spot what looked very much like a ruined church peeking through the trees opposite. Sadly, by this time it was too late to explore further as I’d have loved to have taken some photos and found out a little more. Turns out this was Temple Church, built on the site of the oval church of the Knights Templar, around 1312. Much like my own Holyrood it was bombed on 24 and 25 of November 1940 during the Bristol blitz and is now preserved as an empty shell. More recently the church has been excavated and the oval outline of the former Templars’ church is laid out in turf. To say I’m kicking myself that I didn’t go out for a little walk on that first evening and discover it is an understatement.

Mr Seagull put in an appearance just then, strutting past, the king of his domain, eyes darting about on the lookout for food. While Jess was getting her food from the buffet the waitress came out to fill my coffee cup.
“He’s been here as long as I can remember,” she said, smiling fondly at the seagull “whenever anyone finishes their food and leaves he’s up on the table feeding off the scraps. He’s like an old friend. Mind you, if someone leaves their breakfast to get another glass of juice, they’re likely to come back to an empty plate.”
Jess and I decided he was probably the luckiest seagull in Bristol, even if obesity probably made him too fat to fly.
“He’s living like a king here,” Jess said. “I think we should call him King Seagull.

The morning’s itinerary involved a bus ride and a visit to another depot. Both proved interesting for different reasons. We walked to the bus stop at Temple Meads and I had a chance to look at the ruined church from a distance as we passed. I also got to look at the train station properly from the outside for the first time. Being whisked off in a car when I arrived I’d not noticed what a marvellous old building it was. It even has a tower. While we waited for our bus to arrive I managed to sneak a photo or two. Sadly these were not from the best angle or very good but you get the idea. The station building was opened in 1840, the first one designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. In the 1870’s it was expanded by Francis Fox and added to again in the 1930’s by PE Culverhouse. These days the original Brunel terminus is no longer in use but the whole thing is now a listed building.

Of course, the bus ride gave me a good look at the city, although, not necessarily the parts I would choose to see like the Iron Age hill forts near the city at Leigh Woods, Clifton down or Kings Weston Hill near Henbury. There was also no chance to take pictures. What it did tell me that I didn’t already know what just how hilly a place it is. This and narrow streets crowded with parked cars must make the bus driver’s jobs difficult, never mind the traffic. There seemed to be a lot of interesting looking old buildings cheek by jowl with modern ones.

The second depot was more modern than the first but still not as modern as our own. Again there was an insight into how things worked there, the particular problems of the depot and a chance to put faces to names. There was also a little view envy when I looked out of the depot managers office window and, over the tops of the buses, saw the rolling hills behind which planes came into land from time to time.

On the way back to depot number one for our last meeting of the day we had to change buses. This gave me a chance to see some of the amazing graffiti Bristol is so famous for. On the side of one building, behind some barriers was the most beautiful squirrel. This was part of “See No Evil” a collection of works of public art by multiple graffiti artists created in August 2011 and 2012 as one of Europe’s largest street art festivals. The event was organised by Bristol street artist Inkie, otherwise known as Tom Bingle. I’m pretty sure none of them were painted by Banksy but they were good. In fact they were so good I wished I had time to stroll about taking photos.

Whole tower blocks were covered in wonderful artwork, brightening what would otherwise have been a rather depressing and run down area. Before our bus came I snapped what photos I could. I even managed to squeeze in a snap of St John the Baptist Church, although I didn’t know it was called that at the time. It is actually the sole survivor of the five gate churches of Bristol’s Saxon town walls. These churches were used by travellers to pray for a safe journey when they left the city and there is, apparently, a rather interesting crypt within.

Sadly, after our final meeting there was no time left for any sightseeing. We had to make a dash for Temple Meads to catch our train home. There wasn’t even time to grab a bite to eat and we found ourselves standing on the platform with seconds to spare. Another friendly and fearless Bristol seagull joined us. The pickings on the station are obviously nowhere near as good as those at the Hilton Garden Hotel as this chap was far slimmer than King Seagull. He was just as bold though and he strutted up and down the platform looking imploringly at the waiting passengers.

When we’d arrived the announcement told us our train was on time and leaving from platform eleven, meaning we couldn’t even grab a takeaway coffee or a sandwich. Time passed and no train appeared. A series of announcements followed. “Due to signal problems at the east end of the station the Southampton train will be two minutes late.” With each announcement another few minutes was added until, finally, “due to signalling problems at the east end of the station the Southampton train will be thirty minutes late and will now be leaving from platform three.”

There was a mass exodus down the stairs and through the station against the tide of people going the other way. Platform three had a sandwich shop and a coffee shop but our train was now on the platform. If only we’d known what was going to happen we could have eaten and drunk our fill. As it was, we spent the next couple of hours on a crowded train with no buffet trolley in sight dreaming of hot coffee and food of some kind.

When we finally crawled, exhausted and hungry, out of Southampton Central, Costa Coffee across the road was far more enticing than the row of waiting taxis. For once the calories in the giant Jaffa cakes Philo has been raving about didn’t seem too much of a worry. Breakfast with King Seagull seemed an awful long time ago and those giant Jaffa cakes are amazing.

Bristol was not a place I’d ever thought of visiting before. It wasn’t at all what I expected. With any luck I will have a chance to return and spend a little more time exploring with my camera. In fact I’ve added it to my list.

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Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

2 thoughts on “Bristol, not at all what I’d expected – first published 7 August 2014”

  1. blimey, never mind the history (sorry, but just this once allow me) that hotel is not like any one I’ve ever stayed in. Well, Youth Hostels and caravans are more my style. But blimey, what do people pay for that sort of thing?

    Loved the graffiti. Is Bristol still famed for it? I’ll google. I have an uncle who works on the refurbished pier, a volunteer, he travels there on his motorised scooter. He gets very excited at the visits of famous boats like the Waverley.

    1. The hotel was lovely. It was a business type hotel and, thankfully, paid for by my company. There is still lots of amazing graffiti in Bristol. Well worth a visit.

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