I’m staying at the Clifton Hotel on St Pauls Road and Sunderland Place. The latter is a short cul de sac at the back of the Victoria Rooms accessible by gate during daylight hours. The Victoria Rooms were built in 1838 and named for Queen Vic on whose nineteenth birthday the foudation stone was laid. She had been coronated the previous year. The building, designed by Charles Dyer, is in the Greek Revival style. Its Corinthian portico frames a forecourt which features an impressive array of art deco fountains, with crouching beasts and statuary about a curved pool with steps and balustrades. It functioned as assembly rooms, hosting concerts, lectures and exhibtions. Still does today, although the building became part of Bristol University in 1920 and houses the Department of Music.
Below the Victoria Rooms is Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. This is part of a set of imposing buildings at the top of Park Street, a main city artery set on an impressively steep incline. The building was designed by Frederick Wills in the Edwardian Baroque style, in 1905. Permanent exhibitions include local art, oriental art, geology, archaeology, natural history and local history.
The current exhibition features Grayson Perry whose lockdown era show I have been following on television. To be close to Grayson is to be close to the coalface of art and so it happens here, with all the delirium of variety brought by open access art. Perry’s imprimature is populist; if everybody else is doing it, why can’t you. But dont be deceived into thinking that such immediacy lacks merit, there’s fine stuff here.
Adjoining the Museum, the Wills Memorial Tower is a significant landmark crowning the top of Park Street. A stunning neo Gothic tower rising over two hundred feet, it was designed by George Oatley as an exclamation mark of perpendicular gothic, mimicking the ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge. It was built between 1915 and 1925.
The University College itself was established in 1876. University of Bristol, chartered in 1909, received generous funding from Henry Overton Wills III, who became the first Chancellor. The Wills Tobacco business was founded in Bristol in the late eighteenth century. Family members became prominent in building Victorian and late Edwardian Bristol. The Museum was funded by Sir William Wills, another tobacco baron and cousin of Henry. Architect, Frederick, was Henry’s younger brother. It is Henry who is commemorated by the tower.
While the Museum has also hosted Banksy, the city’s home grown art hero, or anti-hero, Banksy’s natural milieu is outside the confines of a gallery’s walls. Banksy was born in Bristol in 1974. He took to the shadowy world of the Graffitti artist in his teens. There are trails to follow or you can be prepared for ambush. Well Hung Lover is a startling example on a gable at Frogmore Street where it passes beneath Park Street. It’s a sleazy film noir tableau of the suited cuckold glaring out the window as his wife, deshabille, pouts wounded innocence behind him. The well hung lover himself clings to the window sill by his fingertips. Another, Girl with the Pierced Eardrum is in the Harbourside. Painted in 2014, it tips a wink to Vermeer, the pearl being replaced with an alarm box.
At the bottom of Park Street is College Green, a traditional civic park flanked by its ancient Cathedral and the Town Hall. City Hall is an impressive redbrick behind a crescent pond. It was designed in the 1930s though had to wait till after the end of WWII for its completion, eventually opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1956.
Bristol Cathedral, the Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, was founded in 1140 and was for four centuries St Augustine’s Abbey. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries it became a cathedral for the city. It is always growing. The most recent addition is the west front with its twin towers added in the nineteenth century. In the Gothic revival style then popular, it makes a good fit with the older parts from the fourteenth century with their ornamental pinnacles, and the decorated gothic of the central tower from the fifteenth century. The coffee shop, through the cloisters, has a lovely garden, a good place to reflect over a hot brew
Ultimately I must do the thing to do in Bristol, which is float. And, of course, visit the top of all recommendations which I received on my first day in St Mary Radcliffe, top of my list to begin with. I take a ride in a small ferry boat that plies the Avon. The water is just an arms length away. We skate into this bustling thoroughfare out to the SS Great Britain. Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s ship launched in 1843 as the largest vessel in the world, and the most innovative. Both iron hulled and powered by screw propellor, she crossed the Atlantic as the first steamship in 1845. The transatlantic route wasn’t longlasting and the ship instead ferried thousands of emigrants to Australia until 1881 when she became a coal ship. Five years later her last voyage saw her marooned in the Falklands as a coal storage bunker. Scuttled in the Falklands in 1937, it seemed she was to be no more than a rusting hulk, but thirty three years later she was raised and returned home to Bristol and fitted out to recreate her historical existence in lucid detail.
Within the exhibition, the ship is suspended in time. The underwater entry is both airy and eerie and I felt strangely elated walking beneath the ship’s enormous hull. The deck is vast with only funnel and masts protruding and all accommodation below. I was happy to be alone on dack, allowing that dreamtime of immagination which is so rare in a public exhibit. The accommodation varied according to social status. Amongst the great and the good there was the illusion of the grand hotel, which is impressive in the flesh, though being a time capsule gave some weird prompts of the Shining. Farther down the scale things became more cramped. Cabins gave way to bunks, with models glimpsed in boozy punch ups while smoke and unhealthy coughing spiced the atmosphere. I even began to feel sympathetically seasick.
Leaving the vessel, there’s a large exhibition on Brunel, presided over by a larger than life Brunel. Being Brunel, opened in 2018, provides a detailed account of his achievements and idiosyncracies, including Brunel’s drawing office and his dining room. Finally leaving by the shop, I wondered would I enquire after a souvenir box of cigars (my imagination) but instead made for the fridge magnets. It’s a fine shop for souvenirs, don’t mind me.
The return along the quayside takes you past the MShed, another outpost of the Bristol Museum. Moored outside is another significant ship. The model of the Matthew remembers Bristol’s early entry in the golden years of European maritime exploration. It was on such a small ship, the original Matthew, that John Cabot sailed to the shores of North America in 1497.
I have a pint outside the Arnolfini Gallery in a beergarden by the river. I have ticked a fair number of boxes, but there’s only so much you can do of a city over three days. Evening will be a time to feed the appetites. Returning to Clifton, it’s time to contemplate my last night on the town. Clifton floats serenely above the teeming city, not far from the city centre. For eating out it’s a handy roll down the hill. I’ve decided on Indian tonight, without doing any recce, but hey, it’s England, can’t be too far.
It’s raining and I shelter in Browne’s, a large and long established bistro at the top of Park Street. Brown’s Brasserie is adjacent to the University tower and was originally part of the University. I’d eaten at Browne’s another evening, plumping for the Beef Pie which seemed appropriately English fare to begin with. An extravagant puff pastry top is pierced to explore the dark joys beneath. Tonight, I take a drink on the patio and wait for the shower to sweep on by. English rain is more occasional than Irish, but no less wet. After my drink the shower has passed and I continue my exploration along Park Row. This goes past the Synagogue and King David’s Hotel, where at last I reach the promised land. The Christmas Steps are shining with new rain. They make for an old world antique descent from the heights to depths of the city.
I stumble across the Haveli Bar, The Yard, on Maudlin Street, at the top of the Christmas Steps. I am looking for Indian quisine and this is it. I am alone but for the gentleman serving me; the manager I think. So he has time to hover and we both surf the waves of ethnic music that is part of the ambience. Outside it’s raining again. Inside we talk Bollywood over an evil Vindaloo. Most excellent.
I roll downhill to the Centre, and sit along the boardwalk of the Floating Harbour. Cities at night are particularly good by the waterside, you get two for the price of one with reflections plunging into the harbour water, while above the lights of soaring buildings merge with starlight. The solace of a swirling world. I’m well fortified for my second assault on the slopes of Park Street on my return to base camp. The Will’s Memorial Tower is now an illuminated sentinel over the City, a stone flame within a million rods of late evening rain.