At the top of Main Street, just across from the Town Hall, is one of Bray’s finest pubs, Frank Duff’s. It’s my local, being closest to my house, exactly 1.3 km to be precise. That’s a fifteen minute walk, though longer returning.
The name bears no relation to the Frank Duff who founded the Legion of Mary and championed the destruction of Monto Town, Dublin’s red light district in the 1920s. The reference is to the Frank Duff who set up shop here with wife Sheila in the 1940s. Their son, Ken, inherited the business in the late seventies. When Ken died in 2017, his sister Madeleine, ran the business for four years. Covid effectively shut the pub down. As a food free zone it didn’t qualify for the restricted opening of other premises over the lockdown period. The Duggans, owners of several premises in Bray, including the Harbour Bar and the Martello, took over in 2021.
During the Duff years the pub ignored such unnecessary distractions as food, piped music and television. It was all for a few drinks and a chat. The ideal local, so. More eccentrically, the pub rejoiced in a cycling theme, from the time the Tour de France came to Bray in 1998.
Shay Elliott was the focus of commemoration for the Wicklow cycling fraternity. Elliott was born and raised in Crumlin, in Dublin 12, and was a cycling pioneer in Ireland. He was the first Irishman to particiate in the Tour, and in 1963 became the first English speaker to wear the Yellow Jersey of race leader, which he held over three stages. He returned to Ireland, and became involved in Bray Wheelers, coaching new talent in the sport. He died in May 1971, from shotgun wounds, and was buried at St Mochonog’s Church, Kilmacanogue, near Bray. A monument to him was erected in Glenmalure, just south of Glendalough. It is a glorious spot to contemplate Wicklow’s mountain scenery.
Refurbished for its reopening, the premises has been divided along traditional bar and lounge lines. Television made its first appearance at Duffs in the old style, dark wood bar, while the lounge kept to the ancient tradition of banning the haunted fishtank. I am more often found in the lounge, to the rear of the premises where there’s a fire and high stools.
That’s the setting for this acrylic. It captures a moment in time, as friends debate the finerpoints of music, art, philosophy and football. A modest amount of drink has been consumed, though more may follow. We sit at the high table, while other clients are arrayed on armchairs and couches, bathing in the glow of warm lamps and an open fire. I am looking towards Main Street, hoping to catch the eye of a friendly staff member, more than likely, and let my comrades solve the problems of the world.
This acrylic shows the interior of Eddie Rocket’s diner in Naas, County Kildare. Naas is taken from the Gaelic Nás na Rí, meaning the meeting place of the kings. It was a walled market town in medieval times and became the civic centre for County Kildare. The modern town has a population of over twenty thousand.
Naas to me is synonymous with road travel. I frequently passed through on my journeys to the south west until the town itself was bypassed by the N7/M7. Lawlor’s Hotel at the northern end of Main street was an occasional stop for refreshments and entertainment. In the seventies we followed the band Horslips who played there. It was fifteen miles from Walkinstown, about an hour’s round trip.
Eddie Rocket’s is just around the corner. It’s an Irish restaurant chain founded in 1989. the Naas branch, one of forty outlets across Ireland, is an extensive two storey premises. A splash of Americana, with chrome and neon and red, red leatherette, you’re stepping back into rock and roll days but in a safe bubble of twenty first century comfort. The burgers are great and the service too.
On a recent visit, I took my reference from reflections in the plate glass window by the entrance. There’s a dreamlike quality to the scene, a sense of being in a projection of a period film. There are two worlds on the canvas, our real world beside the imaginary or ephemeral. The viewer may sense that beyond that beautiful vision of the film of our lives, lies the vast blackness of night.
I was thinking of Edward Hopper, the American painter who recorded city and motorway diners, gas stations, motels and more across the USA. An inveterate traveller by car and train, he criss-crossed the vast country to research new subjects. His paintings are more than simple realistic compositions, evoking as they do humanity and often loneliness amidst crowds and buildings, and the splendid isolation of travel. Born in 1882 he died in 1967 in New York.
Safely back on terra firma, I begin my descent to the quayside via Se cathedral, proud on its promintory above the Duoro. Porto’s Cathedral, Se Do Porto, was begun in the 12th century, with many additions over the centuries. It is stern, but impressive, having the appearance of a fortress atop a hill. Two square towers, topped by cupolas, frame the crenallated entrance. The giant rose window above the porch is its most ornamental flourish.
In the 17th century several alterations in the baroque style added some finesse , including a new portal and with cupolas added to the towers. The Baroque loggia on the northern facade is by Nicolau Nasoni, an Italian architect who was a major figure in the architecture of Porto. He also contributed much to the interior of the cathedral in the decoration of the new Baroque apse. Nasoni designed the Episcopal Palace, adjacent to the Cathedral, in 1734, although he didn’t live to see its completion. Vast as it is up close, it looms even larger when viewed from the river or the far quays. He also designed the Clerigos church tower, soaring above the rooftops of Porto and was buried in the crypt there in 1773.
Facing Nasoni’s loggia, is a figure on horseback. The statue commemorates Vimara Pires, a warrior who led the liberation of the city from the Moors in 868. The main square in front of the cathedral offers fabulous views of the city, and the perfect place to hang out in the embrace of the cathedral. It has provided historic settings to. It was on this spot in 1142 the Bishop persuaded some passing Crusaders, English, German and Flemsh, to help free the city from the Moors, again.
Below the cathedral lies the oldest quarter of the city, a warren of cobbled alleyways. I follow the quaint, winding lanes, down and down and down.The area is reminiscent of a Greek island village, and I feel suddenly remote from the hectic modern city with even the music of pneumatic drills absent. At the base of this steep descent, the Ribeira quayside is lined with crowded bars. Rising almost vertically above are the coloured houses. The terrace umbrellas might usually function as parasols, but today their function is more in the Irish context. I find a vacant table at last at the very end of the quay in the shadow of the bridge.
It’s Champions League night, and the local heroes of Porto take on, of all people, FC Bruges. My last European adventure had taken me to that most beautiful Belgian city. That was also a European night three years ago when FC Bruges beat an Austrian side and I caught the late second half for a famous home victory. Jovial Belgians take up most available seats but this small bar is less magnetic for crowds. One man at the adjacent table makes up for it with a stream of consciousness commentary on all events in Flemish, and occasianally English. I try to pretend he’s a pneumatic drill. Every time it rains, the same joke caption booms: Come to Oporto for the sunshine! Sunny Oporto! And, once seated safely under my umbrella, it does rain a lot, and very heavily. A few inches from my shoulder a cascade of water forms a solid sheet, as Ribeira’s gutters jam. I pull up my hood and gather my anarok about me. My Flemish friend leaps unexpectadly to the aid of a fellow countryman in a wheelschair, helping him to a sheltered table. So, a nice man, I think.
I have booked the Six Bridges Cruise on the Duoro and have long ago decided that today’s not the day. But, downing my beer, the sun hoves into view, and a large window of blue with it. I make my way to the kiosk to redeem my online booking for an actual ticket. I fish the form out of my shoulder bag. Quite literally fish it, because the water has got in through the drawstrings and the sheet is a sodden mess. The young lad at the kiosk is unfazed, all I need is the number he says, and somehow deciphers the smudged characters. The boat arrives in ten minutes and I’m on.
The cruise does what it says on the tin. Taking us under the six bridges that span the river. Heading inland at first, then turning and making our way to the end of the estuary where Foz meets the Atlantic. The narrow boat sits low in the water and its timber benches give it a pleasantly antique feel. You can imagine, if you wish, that you are skating along on the traditional craft, the rabelo, used in the portwine trade. However you see yourself, the shifting views from the river will quickly grab your atention. The deck is not too crowded, as you would want to be mad to go on the river on a day like this. But it’s the madness of Wonderland, with magic in the air.
From the Ribeira quayside we head inland under the Dom Luis I Bridge and on to the Infante Dom Henrique Bridge,This carries motor traffic, and pedestrians, and is the most recent bridge. Completed in 2003, its shallow arch seems to float magically above the river with no visible means of support. A little further upriver is the Maria Pia Railway Bridge, similar in style to Dom Luis I but with a single deck. It was also built by Seyrig in 1877. Railway traffic ceased in 1991 but has been wisely retained as a city landmark. The plain white modernist Sao Joao now carries the railway. It was designed by Edgar Cardoso, a local engineer and professor. Ponte de Freixo is another concrete bridge. It has eight spans and was built in 1995. This is where we turn to head once more through the city which crowds the steep river banks, jostling with a friendly flotilla of tour boats and pleasure craft.
The Duoro widens as we approach the Atlantic and is spanned by the modern Ponte de Arrabida. also designed by Edgar Cardoso. This is a sleek modernist arch carrying a six lane highway. The elegant concrete arch forms the portal to Porto for the Atlantic traveller. We turn as the prow tips the bay, bathed in welcome sunshine, with the resort town of Foz appearing at the eastern edge of the city.
We disembark on the Gaia side, which makes a quiet contrast to the full voiced choire of Bruges supporters on the far bank. There’s a modern bar on the waterfront for lunch and a long drawn out pint, where I can absorb more of the river view of which no one could grow tired.
Next door is the cable car which I take to the top of the hill in high good spirits. Be a bird, or a superhero for a few minutes, drifting above the orange tiled roofs, floating further and further above the mighty river.
If life is a river and your heart is a boat
And just like a water baby, baby born to float
And if life is a wild wind that blows way on high
Then your heart is Amelia dying to fly
Heaven knows no frontiers
And I’ve seen heaven in your eyes
No Frontiers is a song by Jimmy McCarthy, most famously the title song from Mary Black’s 1989 album.
Oporto, or Porto, is Portugal’s second city, three hundred kilometres up the coast north of Lisbon. It is set on the estuary of the River Duoro, and is, as the name suggests, a port city and also, the city of Port Wine. I had booked my trip to Porto in 2020, but without perfect vision. As you know, we entered near two years of lockdown and all trips were off. I wrote a poem a year back called Europe After the Rain. The title is nicked from a Max Ernst painting which alludes to a distant dawn after the Nazis embraced the continent in war. My Europe After the Rain looked forward to a time when lockdown would cease and we could resume our lives and the sublime pleasures of life, of contact, social interaction and travel. I would travel to Europe, after the rain. And so I did. And then it rained. Man, it poured.
My Ryanair flight touches down an hour or so late. Not just evening is falling on the city, but torrential rain, making everything darker still. I wonder at the optimistic name of my apartment, Sunny Apartment, Trindade Balcony. Sou’westers and turf fires would seem more in order than balconies. My host, Jose, brightens things up with a welcome, including a bottle of red wine. The apartment is sunny in atmosphere, and indeed the balcony is sufficiently sheltered to allow me sit there over a glass of wine as veils of rain drape the city, I’m home at last. In Europe
It’s late, but I must dip my toe in the ocean, so to speak. The road outside is on two levels. The central thoroughfare passes overhead on stilts. I duck beneath, and grab a seat at a bright restaurant across the road. I order Franseschina, a selection of meat in a sandwich, toasted and drowned in melted cheese and, here’s the thing, gfloating in bowl of red soup. I’m examining this in anticipation and some suspicion, when the fries arive. I can’t actually finish the thing. Although I have eaten little on my travels, it is very filling. The waiter assures me he would have no problem with it, and he’s thinner than me.
My street is just ten minutes from the city centre. The principal street, Aliedos Avenue, is just a couple of blocks downhill. I breakfast nearby on scrambled egg and bacon with toast. It’s raining again so I put up the hood on my anorak and head downtown. Halfway down Aliados there’s a problem. The city fathers have decided to transform the urban paradise into hell. An excessive fortification of machinery and metal barriers is strung across the bottom half of the principal throroughfare and encompasses several streets off, including much of the area around Sao Bento Station. Negociating the city centre is well nigh impossible as walkways run into dead ends. What were they thinking of to close down the historic city centre?
Liberty Plaza is entirely obliterated and there is no egress to the western end of the city centre from here. It’s like a bomb site. There’s nothing I can do save soldier on. I pick my way through scaffolding and debris to the railway station. San Bento is central to Porto, both as a point of arrival, and departure, and as a visitor attraction in its own right. Outside, the station is an imposing public building of the Belle Epoque, within, the entrance hall is a glorious palace of illustrative art. The building was designed by Jose Marquez da Silva in 1904 in the Beaux Arts style on a plinth overlooking Almeida Garret Plaza. Grand though it is, step inside for a truly awesome spectacle. The ticket hall is a wrap around mural, illustrating the sweep of Portugal’s history and heritage. It was made by Jorge Colaco in the blue ceramic tiles known as azulejos. These are a distinctive feature of Portugese architecture, and those of Sao Bento represent the artform at its best. It took a dozen years for the entire project to be completed and Sao Bento was officially opened in 1916. The platform itself forms its own spectacle. The Batalha area forms a steep ridge immediately east of the platform, and here the trains plunge underground, or emerge magically from the bowels of the earth. In a city of giddy views, this view of a teetering hillside barrio floating above the angular lines of the railway station is outstanding, and the perfect introduction, or adeos, to the city of Oporto.
The first thing to do in Oporto is get to the bridge. The Dom Luis I Bridge is the abiding symbol of the city. Putting the station behind me, I keep to the high road where a busy pedestrian street on my right descends towars the Ribeira quayside. A little further on the ancient Cathedral perches on high, but the bridge is only a few yards further on, so I keep to my route. I am rewarded with sunshine, and suddenly the flower of Porto opens before me. The River Duoro is blue, and far, far below. I step from solid land and onto the swaying embrace of the metal bridge. I’m making a habit of this highwire for beginners. From Bristol to San Fran and now the coast of Portugal. A teetering walk, heel to heel and toe to toe, without the aid of a safety net, mad tourist with vertigo once more steps onto the wire above a bottomless chasm.
Dom Luis I Bridge was built in 1886 with a span of 170 metres. It connects two steep rocky crags that pinch the estuary of the Duoro. The city of Porto is on the north bank, Vila Nova de Gaia on the south bank. It is built on two levels. The top level carries a tram service with pedestrian sidewalks, the bottom level is pedestrian. Gustave Eiffel first proposed a design with a single deck but this was rejected. A disciple of Eiffels, Theophile Seyrig, developed Eiffel’s proposal and this was accepted. The project was carried out by a Belgian construction company. Ironically, it is Eiffel for whom the roadway on the Porto side is named.
The bridge is shared with a lot of tourists and a frequent tram service. There is, of course, a dizzying array of photo opportunities. The rain has relented, allowing the sun to bathe the panorama in light. Sunny Oporto, slung across the highest slopes of paradise. On the far bank, the monastery of Serra do Pilar is perched above Vila Nove de Gaia. This was originally a 17th century monastery but has long been a military barracks. That dashing Dubliner, Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, occupied the monastery in 1809 during the Peninsular War. From here he launched his blitzkrieg assault in the Battle of the Duoro where he routed French forces to secure Portugal. Shortly afterwards, Wellesley was elevated to the perrage as Viscount Wellington, and later Duke of Wellington after the defeat of Napoleon
There’s a cable car service down to the south bank quays, but today I’m going to retrace my steps and do the north bank, Ribeira. I returnwith more confidence, narrowly avoiding getting run over by a tram. Listen for the bells, the bells! There’s beauty and there’s danger, and a lot more to see in the sunshine and the rain of Oporto.
This acrylic on board is based on a photograph. The photo was taken by M on a trip, many moons ago, to Skerries in North Dublin. Four of us found ourselves in Joe Mays which is located on the harbourfront and dates back to 1865. The upstairs lounge has fine views over the harbour. It was empty and dark, but strangely flooded with sunlight. We disported ourselves in the bay window and thought, in high spirits, to enact some Renaissance tableau, as you do. M arranged the scene with myself and our friend J. We were thinking of Venus and Mars. M is also known as Mars, which shuffles the roles slightly. Since we were having fun there’s no point in being too interpretative. The shoot would have called up a few references but this was the shot that worked best. Almost fifty years later the main thing it conjures up for me is our youth, and all that entails.
Sandro Botticelli painted Venus and Mars in the late fifteeenth century, c 1485. Botticelli was born in Florence in 1445 and lived there all his life. His Birth of Venus and Primavera reside at the Uffizzi, but this painting has found its way to the National Gallery in London. It is often seen as an allegory of sensuous love, or might be read as love conquers war. It is also funny, playful; all of which fit the mood of our carry on. Manet’s Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe, which I alluded to in my last post on Raheny, and Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam also get a look in; as do Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma and Led Zeppelin’s Presence. As a music theme however, I’ll go for This Wheels on Fire, the title being a pun which only the protagonists in our scenario will get.
If your memory serves you well, we were going to meet again and wait
So I’m going to unpack all my things and sit before it gets too late
No matter what, we’ll come to you with another tale to tell
And you know that we shall meet again if your memory serves you well
The song was written by Bob Dylan and Rick Danko and would eventually surface on the Basement Tapes in 1975, but first appeared on the Band’s album Music from Big Pink in 1968. It was a hit for Julie Driscoll and the Brian Augur Trinity in 1968 which was the first I heard it. The use of Hammond organ and electronic distortion gave it a very psychedelic feel. This aspect made it ideal as the theme song for the tv series Absolutely Fabulous in the early nineties. And there we are, young hippies of the seventies, frozen forever on the event horizon. Still friends and lovers.
After Dollymount’s wooden bridge, the coast road has a more inland feel about it. The sandy Bull Island traps a narrow lagoon within its five kilometre span, and midway along a causeway connects with the mainland. Here we reach the borders of Raheny, five miles from Dublin city centre. The name derives from the Gaelic for an ancient ring fort, or rath, and here signifies the fort in the marsh. The old centre of Raheny is further inland and can be reached via St Anne’s Park or Watermill Road. Alternatively, it can be reached directly from the city by Dart.
The Dart stop is just north of the main road linking Dublin and Howth. The Howth Road now ploughs straight past what was once a small village remote from the city. Previously the road headed sharply seawards here, as Main Street still does. Then, in the early nineteenth century, the Telford Engineering Company were commissioned to construct the new Howth Road along its modern lines. William Dargan, having worked with Scottish Englineer Thomas Telford on the London to Holyhead Road from 1819, was placed in charge of the project in 1824. Dargan would soon graduate to the building of railways. From 1834, for two decades, the land of Ireland was well ironed, much of it thanks to Dargan. The Dublin to Drogheda railway was completed in 1844 and would ultimately connect to Belfast. Daniel O’Connell was on the first train to stop at Raheny railway station which dates from 1844. The Liberator would have been nearing seventy at the time, but still at the height of his powers as a nationalist and abolitionist. But he only had three years left to live, dying in Genoa in 1847, while on pilgrimage to Rome.
Coming from the Dart station, on the left eight cottages arranged in a crescent are Raheny’s oldest surviving dwellings. They were built in 1790 for the estate workers of Samuel Dick. He was a wealthy linen merchant who became governor of the Bank of Ireland. He also built a school, Dick’s Charity School, in 1787 for the poor children of the parish, located a little further on at the rath in the centre of the village. It is now a Pakistani Restaurant, the Mint Cottage.
At the Manhattan pub, you reach the Howth Road. If you follow the Howth Road northwards, it soon merges into a stylish streetscape. The houses are white, Art Deco, particularly suited to a seaside environment, even one as bracing as North Dublin, There’s just a hint of Miami in the air, giving the area a vaguely exotic twist.
The village plaza is on the seaward side. This is centred on what remains of the ancient rath, consisting largely of old church ruins. Raheny is first noted with the establishment of Christianity in the area in 570AD. By 1179 Pope Alexander III granted ownership of the local chapel to Christchurch Cathedral. A church, dedicated to St Assam, was erected in 1609 after the Protestant Reformation and rebuilt in 1712. In 1889 the Church of Ireland decided to abandon the old church, and moved south along the Howth Road where a new church was built. The ruins of the old church remain.
The Roman Catholic church, completed in 1864, was also called St Assam’s and lies just across Main Street from the rath. Designed by Patrick Byrne, a prominent church architect of the time, who died the year it opened. In 1962 it was replaced by the huge modernist hulk, the church of Our Lady, Mother of Divine Grace across the main road. The old church continued to function as a parish social centre und was only recently deconsecrated and earmarked for office development.
The new Church of Ireland venue, All Saint’s Church, is further south along the Howth Road. It was designed by Irish architect George Coppinger Ashlin. It is cruciform, built in the modern gothic style in Wicklow granite with limestone dressings and an octagonal spire. It is where Bono and Ali Stewart were married in 1982, with Adam Clayton as best man. The church is set within its own narrow parkland which connects to St Anne’s Park. I note a crossing road is called All Saints Drive, but not all drivers are saints.
Arthur Guinness, Baron Ardilaun, sponsored the building of All Saints. He was the great grandson of Arthur Guinness who founded the brewing company in 1759. Ardilaun owned extensive lands throughout the country including Muckross in Killarney and Ashford Castle in County Galway. Raheny was his Dublin residence. It had been purchased in 1837 by his father Benjamin who changed the name from Thornhill to St Anne’s. Arthur became renowned as a philanthropist and patron of the arts. Having bought St Stephen’s Green, he landscaped it and donated it to the citizens of Dublin in 1880. His statue stands, or sits, on the southwestern side. When approached by Sir Hugh Land to have a modern municipal gallery built there he stormed: “Are you mad? I will not have myself stand sentry to a picture palace like some giddy huckster!” The gallery eventually was established in Parnell Square, and Ardilaun was pilloried by Yeats. He died in 1915 and is buried at All Saints. The estate was eventually acquired by Dublin Corporation in 1939 and developed as St Anne’s Park. The big house itself burned down in 1943. The Guinness estate in total measured some 500 acre of which about half 240 acres has been used for St Anne’s.
I stop for a coffee in the village, at Perky’s coffee house with its pleasant little garden at the rere. Perked up, I then turn onto Watermill Road at the bottom of Main Street and stroll towards the park. From this entrance, a long, straight, pleasantly gloomy avenue of trees bisects the playing fields. There is a rough path down to the Nanikin River. Wilderness encroaches but this is balanced by a few picturesque follies. These are vestiges of the old Guinness estate.
The Herculanean Temple is one of a number of follies with a Roman theme The temple of Isis by the pond nearby takes its inspiration from Pompeii. The false ruins would make an ideal backdrop for a Romantic painting, with cavorting heros and nymphs. Today, two Goth couples lounge by the water smoking the herb. So, more of a Manet then. My journey becomes ever more winding, and I eventually gain the seafront across an Impressionist meadow.
Further south, I head back inland and underneath the Annie Lee Tower and bridge which suggests medieval times. It was named for Benjamin Guinness’s daughter who became Lady Plunket. Though it would pass for an ancient park gate it also dates from the 1890s as the Ardilauns continued to embellish their estate.
Lady Ardilaun was a guiding force in developing the gardens in the manner of French classical garden design. Lady Ardilaun, Olivia Guinness, was born in 1850, daughter of the Earl of Bantry. She was a keen artist and became a member of the Water Colour Society of Ireland. Her passion for horticulture has seen plants named for her. The annual rose festival at St. Anne’s is also a testimony to her work. Amongst the many beautiful gardens that remain is the Walled Garden marked by its landmark clock tower. The Chinese Garden is adjacent.
The Red Stables is the only surviving building of the demesne. This red brick stables was built in the Tudor style so popular in the late Victorian period, and also designed by George Coppinger Ashlin. Today the building houses artists residences and workspace, with a gallery and cafe. The cafe, Olive’s Room, is named for. Lady Ardilaun. Beside the gallery, there’s a a concise history display with a model of the Big House. The Red Stables is adjacent to the car park off Mount Prospect Avenue, taking you to the seafront and Clontarf Rad. The majestic central avenue leads westwards to Vernon Avenue which connects to Contarf Village. Due north, paths will lead you back to Raheny, via Watermill Road or All Saints Church.
During the recent hot spell I would, between a few leisurely lengths of our Hockneyesque pool, retreat through the sliding doors and return to my latest painting on rain and gloom. No better way to cool down. Well, there are some, but there’s only so much one’s allowed.
The road has risen from Killary Harbour behind us and cresting the pass the jagged profile of the Twelve Bens spreads along the horizon. We’re heading for Letterfrack and an assault on Diamond Hill, a standalone peak, or Marilyn, on the western edge of the Bens. We’re on a switchback road through the stark paradise of Connemara. It’s low noon in midwinter and the sky is striped with sudden storms. Raindrops spatter the widscreen and the radio plays.
Someone told me long ago, there’s a calm before the storm,
I know – it’s been coming for sometime.
When it’s over so they say, it will rain a sunny day,
I know – shining down like water.
This painting is acrylic on board, a harder surface than is usual for me. Which seems appropriate given its atmosphere. Off to our left is Lough Inagh. I stayed at the Lodge there over ten years ago, on a midweek course in Spring for watercolour painting. The few days, the fine tutelage and setting rekindled my enthusiasm for landscape painting. Most renowned landscape painter of Connemara would be Paul Henry. Belfast born in 1877, Henry lived in Achill for a decade up until 1919. His bleached landscapes have lodged in the collective view of how the west should look. He was colour blind, and lost his sight completely in 1945. He died at Sidmonton Square in Bray, in 1958.
Imagine the song on the stereo. The song that most sums up the feeling of rain, both positive and negative, was written in 1970 by John Fogerty, and included on the album Pendulum, released in December of that year. Fogerty was looking on the negative side, alluding to the growing disaffection within Creedence Clearwater Revival, despite enjoying success beyond their wildest dreams. But the lyrics and jangling guitar encourage a more consoling take on precipitation. There’s a peculiar exhaltation in sunshowers. Mind, our Connemara trip was midwinter, so the sun was slanting and cool, the rain sharp and hard. Beautiful though, within the bubble of a speeding car.
Yesterday and days before, sun is hard and rain is cold,
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.
My first day’s excursion has to be around Clifton. The Clifton Suspension Bridge is top of my list of things to see. The stroll through Clifton in the morning sunshine is very pleasant. Clifton developed into an affluent suburb in the late eighteenth century. It occupies the high ground above the city between Whiteladies Road at the top of Park Street and the Avon Gorge to the west. It’s a pleasant, Georgian and Victorian environment consisting mostly of tall, elegant terraces. It is reminiscent of Dublin 4, though quieter and more intimate. Even many of the street names match with Lansdowne and Pembroke Roads.
I skirt Clifton Village with its lovely arcade and plenty of sunshine sidewalk cafes, before zigzagging vaguely uphill. There’s parkland along the summit, and prominent here is the Clifton Observatory. There’s a wee coffee shop where I can catch my breath. So good I use it twice. At first to relax over a strong coffee and again to recover with something harder after my visit.
The tower has panoramic views over the gorge with bits of Bristol peeking through the trees beyond Clifton Downs. Built in 1776 as a windmill, it was bought by William West who converted it into his art studio. Indulging his passion for photography, he installed the Camera Obscura, meaning dark room, in 1828. The camera took advantage of the spectacular views of the Clifton Downs and the Avon Gorge, further enhanced by Brunel’s suspension bridge of 1864.
I take the full ticket, with entry to the Camera Obscura above and the Giant’s Cave somewhere below. A lady is ahead of me in the queue for the Camera and kindly offers to share the dark room with me. I’m glad of this as it soothes the experience of being in the dark, atop a tower, with the ghostlike apparition of the giddy panorama somehow all around. She also knows how to operate the thing which would probably have mystified me. It is very addictive. There’s a hint of the confessional in the darkness and the hush, without the padre but the presence of God, and the serene lady. By myself I would probably have left scratch marks on the walls, but spent several magic moments within the ancient and modern contraption before finding the door after only a few attempts.
West cut the steep descending passage to the Giant’s Cave. It’s a long way down and my incipient claustrophobia, triggered by the dark room, waxes some more as the passageway gets ever narrower. And then there’s the thought of having to retrace my steps, all of them, all of those steps. I break out into the cave at something of a gallop but don’t tarry long as I rush onto the viewing platform. This juts out of the cliff face with well nigh 360 degree views of the bridge and gorge. Great, claustrophobia and vertigo. It really is stunning. Soaking all in, as much as I can, I quickly clamber up to the open air, regretting I’m not young anymore but very glad to be alive. And my second visit to the 360 degree Glass Cafe offers wonderful views and refreshments, including a welcome bottle of beer. All that and Amy Winehouse singing Valerie on the sound system. Life can be perfect, sometimes.
Well, sometimes I go out by myself
And I look across the water
And I think of all the things of what you’re doing
In my head I paint a picture
And then it’s time for another cliffhanger. The Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol’s most awesome icon, was conceived by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in response to a competition to choose a bridge to span the gorge. Brunel’s design won, or at least he convinced the judges that it did, and he received the contract to proceed. Construction was beset with problems. The Bristol Riots of 1831 halted construction and investors backed out. Work resumed five years later but was dogged by funding problems. The project was abandoned in 1843 with only the towers completed. Brunel died in 1859 and so never saw his project brought to fruition. Admirers at the Institute of Civil Engineers reckoned that completing the bridge would be a fitting memorial to the great man and a revised design by William Henry Barlow and John Hawkshaw was begun in 1862 and opened in 1864.
Brunel’s design had a sphinx atop each tower, but these never materialised. It’s still mighty impressive. The towers do have a certain Egyptian slant and rise to 100 metres above high tide. The bridge has a clearance of 75 metres, a span of 214 metres and a total length over 400 metres.
I walk across the bridge and back. There are few comparable walking on air experiences. I’ve cycled across the Golden Gate, walked and driven over the Hoover Dam, and taken a few tentative steps along the Firth of Forth Bridge. This is right up there, and I mean up. It’s giddy-making and transcendent. There’s a visitors centre on the Leigh Woods side in Somerset but I’m in a special place and continue back to the Clifton side. I am enjoying a long, and I hope visibly poetic, view across the gorge when I sense someone entering my space.
Hello there, you alright there, mate? It’s a genial man, in the livery of the Bridge company. I inform him of my happiness, something not always apparent in my countenance, and consider that people are extraordinarily nice in Bristol. And then I understand where he’s coming from. The bridge is also, balefully, a renowned suicide spot. Plaques advertise the number of the Samaritans and monitors regularly patrol. In 1885 a young barmaid, Sarah Henley, jumped from the bridge. Her voluminous skirts acted as a parachute and she landed safely, if embarrassingly, in the soft mud of the Avon at low tide. She lived into her eighties.
I assure the man that I’ve read the plaques, although that may only confirm his suspicions. I tell him it’s great to be alive. I had hoped to click my heels jauntily while departing, but the old legs aren’t quite up to it, so I stroll, with as much mirth as I can muster, back to Clifton Village.
Clifton Village itself is wearing a happy face in the sunshine. I potter about the shops and the cafes. There’s an upmarket but bohemian vibe abroad, a palpable sense of Santa Monica in the straight streets, the faded fin de siecle facades. I stop for refreshment on the pavement along Princess Victoria Street. While reviewing my photography, my phones battery dies and I must head back to the hotel to recharge.
It’s time for a late lunch anyhow. Racks Bar is empty, it was packed yesterday. The bargirl asks me how my day has been going and I tell her. Ultimately it’s all about being glad to be alive. I must apologise to the queue that’s formed behind, hopefully enjoying my tale. Outside the sun is blazing and I relax over a falafel and a foaming beer. Amy Winehouse is playing, same as at Clifton Observatory. Two perfect moments in one day.
Oh, won’t you come on over?
Stop making a fool out of me
Why don’t you come on over, Valerie?
Valerie was originally a song by the Zutons, a Liverpool band of the Noughties. It was written by their frontman, Dave McCabe, though credited to the full band. McCabe wrote it in a cab, a kiss blown westwards to his ex, an American girl called Valerie Star. It features on the album, Tired of Hanging Around from 2006. Winehouse’s cover is found on her producer Mark Ronson’s album Version, released the following year.
I am early into Bristol and alight from the airport bus at the city’s main railway station, Temple Meads, at the tail end of the morning rush hour. Built in 1840 as the terminus for the Great Western Railway which was the first railway project of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It was extended in 1870 to allow for through traffic. The distinctive entrance tower with its decorative turrets was added then. The station is on the island formed by the division of the Avon River not far from the city centre which is largely cited on high ground above the northern bank.
The name Bristol is derived from the Anglo Saxon Brigstow, the place of the bridge, and it blossomed in early Norman times into a vital trading city and port. It would also form one end of the bridge for the Norman invasion of Ireland, a century after the Battle of Hastings. Today, Bristol is a large city of half a million people, so I’m not going to see it all in three days. I’ve a checklist to explore; especially its maritime, ancient and cultural connections. I may make a trip to Bath nearby, there’s connections by rail and river. I’ll see how it goes. I’m just glad to be overseas, even if it’s only the Irish Sea crossed. I’m off my own island and onto another, for the first time in two years.
I grab a coffee and breakfast roll at the first opportunity, then begins the task of lugging my bag up to Clifton where I’m staying. My route takes me past St Mary Redcliffe Church which draws me in. It’s a fine gothic pile standing on its own green enclosure. A most friendly gentleman welcomes me. He gives a good rundown of other sights worth seeing, but doesn’t rate my excursion to Bath. “Or, as we say: bah!” says he. I am made swear I will visit the SS Great Britain, as I had planned. Meanwhile, St Mary Redcliffe’s proves well worth the stop.
Described by Queen Elizabeth as the fairest, goodliest and most famous parish church in England, it was almost as old to her as she is to us. There was a church in Saxon times, but today’s church dates back to the 13th and 14th centuries. It formed a significant landmark in its situation above the Avon perched on the red cliff that gives it its name. Mariners would pray for grace on departing and give thanks on their return. As Bristol burgeoned as a port, well heeled local traders contributed to the upkeep of the church. The result is a testimony to the glories of the English Gothic Perpendicular. Such famous family names as the Penns, the Cabots and the Ameryks are part of the fabric.
John Cabot was an Italian who in 1496 came to England seeking funding for a voyage to the New World. He gained the support of Henry VII, and in 1497 sailed from Bristol to cross the Atlantic and make landfall, probably in Newfoundland. He became the first European to reach the North American coast since the Viking, Leif Erikson, some five centuries earlier. That other Italian, Christopher Columbus had famously set foot in Central America in 1492, a prelude to Spanish dominion over the southern parts of the Americas. It looked like England was destined to establish its own foothold to the north. Cabot set sail again the next year, but then only silence. Cabot may have died at sea, or stayed in America by accident or design. Some claim that he returned and sponsored further exploration by other mariners. William Weston was one, his voyage along the Labrador coast being the first to signal the obsessive search for the Northwest passage. Cabot’s son Sebastian, born in Venice, also explored the North American coast over a number of years in the early sixteenth century and was keen to establish a presence there. He returned to England in 1509, but the new king, Henry VIII, wasn’t interested in exploration, of a geographical nature anyway.
England would have to wait until Elizabeth’s time for its colonial project to begin. Virginia Dare, born in Roanoke in 1587, was the first European settler to be born in the territory that became the USA. No one knows what happened to her either. She disappeared without trace into the feral woodland embracing the Chesapeake, a lost white child in a vast dark wilderness.
Cabot’s achievements slipped below the radar for a while. But he’s well commemorated in this most maritime city. There’s a statue to him outside the Arnolfini Gallery near the Old Town, the landmark Cabot’s Tower rises over the city centre and a reconstruction of his ship, the Matthew, floats in Bristol Harbour.
Sir William Penn, father of the founder of Pennsylvania is a notable monument in St. Mary’s, again connecting with the New World. Penn senior was an admiral and politician who died, not yet fifty, in 1670. His son, William, accepted a grant of land in America, in lieu of monies owed by the crown. The new colony was to be called Sylvania, being covered in dense woodland, the word Penn prefixed in honour of the late William senior. A more fanciful connection is proposed for Richard Ameryk, Anglo Welsh merchant and Sheriff of Bristol. The claim that he, as sponsor of Cabot’s Matthew voyage, gave his name to the place has few champions. Yet another Italian, Amerigo Vespucci, has that honour.
After a brief pause for prayer, I continue around the church which is a sublime hymn in stone. Churches, like trees, bend and grow with time. St Mary’s had been hit by lightning in 1446, destroying the spire, which was only repaired four centuries later in 1872 to a height of eighty metres (260 feet). Bombs rained down during WWII, still the church survives. Stories live on, even when their subject quickly fades. In 1752 poet Thomas Chatterton was born here, his family being longterm holders of the office of sexton of St. Mary’s. Chatterton features in Pre-Raphaelite painter Henry Wallis’s depiction of his tragic death by suicide at the age of seventeen. Chatterton was an inspiration for the Romantic poets who followed: Wordsworth, Keats and Coleridge. Coleridge has a particular connection. At Cambridge, he had become a friend of Robert Southey, a Bristolian. They hoped to establish a Utopian commune in Pennsylvania but the plans were abandoned. The two married sisters Sara and Edith Fricker at St. Mary’s in November 1795 and set up house in the Lake District.
Coleridge’s weird masterpiece, the Rime of the Ancient Mariner begins with the wedding guest being accosted by a raving loon, the Mariner himself. Can happen in any bar, believe me. At the end of the tale, spoiler alert, the mariner makes it home, and experiences the universal joy of the traveller returning.
Oh! dream of joy! is this indeed The light-house top I see? Is this the hill? is this the kirk? Is this mine own country?
Another item of note, if you’ll pardon the pun, is provided by the organ. A massive construction of over four thousand pipes it was designed by Harrison and Harrison of Durham in 1911. Which reminds me, the last time I was in Durham I got a lift from Sunderland with a man called Harrison (no kin). Travel is all about connections.
Taking my leave of St. Mary’s I eventually get to cross the Avon at the Redcliffe Bascule Bridge. There are many Avons in England. The most famous dribbling past Stratford not far north of here; but that, though near, is a different Avon. The word is simply the old Celtic word for river, as in our own Avonmore and Avonbeg. At Bristol, the Avon is about eight miles inland from the Severn Estuary. It is still tidal here. That created problems for the harbour as the water level fell by thirty feet at low tide leaving craft grounded in a muddy channel. In the early nineteenth century William Jessop designed the solution creating Bristol’s Floating Harbour.
A new cut for the tidal river was made to the south, with the harbour remaining on the northern branch. Locks, now called The Brunel Locks at the western extreme help establish a constant water level, meaning the harbour is perpetually afloat. At the eastern extreme is another lock, and upriver from that the Avon remains navigable as far as Bath. Between the two branches, Spike Island was created. This long, narrow island became an industrial and dockland centre.
Although Bristol thrived for more than a century, the tidal nature of the river downstream, through the Avon Gorge, presented dire navigational problems for ever larger modern shipping, which eventually did for it as a port town. But towns and cities change and adapt also. The old harbour area of Bristol has been intelligently developed. Riverside bars and restaurants, shops, museums and galleries abound, the wharfs are thronged with joggers and strollers from far and near. Small ferryboats and pleasure boats ply the waters of the floating harbour in the early Summer sunshine. Great ships of the past, Cabot’s Matthew and Brunel’s Great Britain are parked here, now waiting for the world to come to them.