February 2004: Bristol


A replica of the John Cabot’s Newfoundland-discovering craft, The Matthew, sits on the old Bristol docks.

Once England’s second city, there is a certain sense of relief around Bristol this weather that they have offloaded the burden.

The city, at the end of a gorgeous Avon gorge, is compact and walkable and brimming with the self confidence that only comes from two universities. It was short-listed as 2008 city of culture and the oldest working theatre in Britain, the Old Vic, is recovering from a decade of decline under two vibrant new directors.

You get the sense that Bristol is where art likes to hang out. And for those who prefer science, the Atbristol centre was built with millennium money and won a Best Family Attraction award before the storyboard ink was dry.

The Dining Room on the Great Britain, biggest ship in the world when built in 1843.

A solid market house, some gateways and old docks pubs such as the Llandoger Trow preserve a sense of what the medieval town was like before the WW2 bombs.  And for those who hark back beyond that to before the shipping trade moved north to Liverpool, the Matthew is moored close to where it all began.

Gorges, like ice, have always seemed to play on the human imagination. We will never know who got the idea of building Bristol in the middle of one, but it was a great idea.

Blowing Bristol Blue Glass.

It leaves you with a stunning cityscape, a long narrow finger extending up the hills where the wealthy once built their homes above the smog, and the famous old suspension bridge built by one of England’s most famous Regency engineers.

Isamard Brunel’s suspension bridge has been a symbol of the city for 150 years, and a notice at the bridge apologises for traffic jams because the builders couldn’t have foreseen the excitement of the balloon fiesta and other events that colour Bristol’s weekends.

Down on the quayside you will find the most famous ship they built here, and unlike Belfast’s it survived a famous mishap, when it hit the Irish coast and bankrupted its owners. And there was Cary Grant as well. But that’s another story.


Chipshop with a history: Sprigs of medieval Bristol peep through the bomb damaged town centre.

Bristol’s best hotel is in a small crescent off the main city centre through fares, and although just a few years old it comes with a vintage flavour.

The Hotel du Vin celebrates the fine product that coursed through the port since medieval times. Instead of a room number you get a name of a fine wine, which the companies allow the hotel to use in return for a few rooms each year.

Contact the Visitbritain office or hotelduvin.com for details of some special offers.


Ferry rides connect the jewels of Bristol gorgeous gorge-city, with the two nautical exhibits a short and very pleasant river journey from the centre.

  • 1 British Empire & Commonwealth Museum.  Never mind what it says about the Irish (and worse about the Israelis) a good lively poke into the sordid past of the empire, which this shipping centre helped sustain. So you thought illegal drugs are new?  The Brits fought the opium war so they could hustle narcotics in China.
  • 2 SS Great Britain.  Many of the passengers who turned up for the maiden voyage in 1843 wouldn’t travel because this was the very first ocean liner built of steel. They couldn’t get it out of the shipyard, and it took sinkings before they got it back so be sure to drop by for a gawk at how the other half sailed.
  • 3 At Bristol.  Thumping hearts and pulsating brains sustain this lively multimedia hotch-potch of biological knowledge; they even have their own rain forest and a pregnant tummy to which you can retreat if the kids are giving you too much grief.
  • 4 Bristol Cathedral. Big surprise this, the most outstanding piece of hall-ecclesiastical architecture you will find, the ancient Saxon stone to the right of the altar seems to go back further than the clerical gentlemen would be comfortable to admit, and a nice array of 14th century chapels around the main altar testify to a time when this was England’s second city and twin sister of Dublin in a sort of cross-channel dalliance.
  • 5 The Matthew.  An impressive replica of the collection of string and sticks on which John Cabot sailed off to Newfoundland in 1597, the very first English exploration effort. We don’t know much about him or the expedition, but it is small. You will never complain about economy class again.


  • Eight cities feature in  a new www.Visitbritain.ie/citybreaks campaign, Birmingham, Leeds/ Bradford, Bristol, Cardiff, Liverpool, London, Manchester and Newcastle-Gateshead. See your travel agent, the website or call 01-6708000.


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