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.