In this week’s guest post, we travel to England for a walk around the harbourside area of Bristol with Heather Cowper who lives in Bristol and writes about the interesting things she finds there, as well as her travels around the world on her travel blog at www.heatheronhertravels.com. So let’s stroll Bristol with Heather!
A WALK AROUND THE BRISTOL HARBOURSIDE
I’ve lived in Bristol for 15 years and one of my favourite parts of the city, both to take visitors and for an afternoon stroll with my family, is the harbourside area. In Bristol’s trading heyday in the 17th and 18th centuries, tall-masted ships set off from here to Africa and India and many Bristol merchants made their fortunes off the back of the tea, spices and slaves that were landed here. Later the docks became the industrial engine of Bristol and now have been restored as an area for leisure and pleasure.
If you’d like to make a circular walk around the harbour with me, then let’s start at the city centre end, where people come to sit on a sunny day by the fountains and water features that cascade down the steps. From here, you can easily pick up a blue and yellow ferry to take you around the harbour, or drop you further down the harbour so you can walk back. If you walk left along the cobbled street, you’ll pass the old tea warehouses set back from the quayside. One is now a youth hostel which has a great location if you need budget accommodation. Next door you’ll find the Arnolfini art gallery, a centre for contemporary art and film which is free to enter. It’s always worth venturing in to see what weird and wacky show they have on; also, the café is a cool place to hang out.
At the end of the quayside, you’ll find the statue of John Cabot, who sailed from Bristol in 1497 in his ship, the Matthew, and is reputed to be the first European to reach the shores of North America, landing at Newfoundland. Continue over the iron bridge and turn right along the quayside past the Industrial Museum. At present it’s undergoing renovation and will reopen in 2011 as the new museum of Bristol. The huge cranes in front are being preserved as part of Bristol’s industrial heritage. At the moment there are hoardings with some great street art.
As you walk along this part of the quay, you can take a look at the wide range of boats, including spotting the owners of houseboats sunning themselves on deck or watering their geraniums. There’s a steam train run by enthusiasts that chugs up and down the quay on holiday weekends in the summer. By now, you may be in search of refreshment or some lunch; you’ll find two of my favourite eating spots nearby. The Olive Shed is housed in one of the small warehouse buildings, serving Mediterranean-style food and tapas with a terrace to watch the boats go by. If you fancy something more Bristolian, you can get your bacon butty, chips and home-made cakes from the Brunel Buttery kiosk a little further on, washed down with a steaming mug of tea.
Continue onwards and you’ll reach the SS Great Britain, now one of Bristol’s major tourist attractions. She was designed by the great Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel who also designed the Clifton Suspension Bridge. At the time she sailed in 1843 from Bristol to New York she was the largest steam ship in the world. She was eventually abandoned in the Falkland Islands and in the 1970s the project was started to bring her back home and refurbish her to the wonderfully restored ship you see today.
From here, you can cross over to the other side of the harbour on the small ferry that goes back and forth. To indicate you’d like a pick-up, just stand on the landing stage and pull a rope to raise the signal for the ferry to come. On the other side, you’ll find blocks of modern flats which are replacing an area that was for many years a derelict wasteland. Turn right to walk back towards the city centre and after 10 minutes you’ll reach the large semi-circular office building, owned by Lloyds TSB. In front there’s an area where skateboarders often gather to try out tricks and where many different festivals are held in summer. The highlight of the harbour’s year is the Bristol Harbour Festival, held every August, when boats gather from all over the world and the harbour becomes alive with music and entertainment.
If you continue through this open area, moving slightly away from the water, you’ll find yourself in Millennium Square, a great public piazza to relax. Sit on a bench and see the children cooling off in the water features and shallow pools, or sit beside the statues of notable Bristol characters, including film star Cary Grant who was born here. On one side of the square you’ll see the silver globe of the Planetarium, which is part of Explore-At-Bristol, a hands-on science centre that’s a favourite with families.
Turn back towards the water, past the giant beetle sculpture and you’ll arrive at Pero’s Bridge, which would take you across the water, back to the YHA and Arnolfini. The sculptural horns on top of the bridge are actually weights to help lift the bridge when ships pass underneath. The bridge is named after the black slave Pero, who served a wealthy Bristol merchant in the late 18th century.
This stretch of the harbour is packed with bars and restaurants and in the evenings it’s a hot spot for the youth of Bristol, in search of cheap beer and a party atmosphere. For the more discerning, I love Bordeaux Quay, housed in a large warehouse which has a bistro and cocktail bar downstairs, an upscale restaurant upstairs and a cookery school and deli, too. Further along, the film and arty crowd go to the upstairs bar at the Watershed film centre, with free wifi and café food, cakes and drinks all through the day, paired with a great view of the water.
By now you’re back in the city centre where you started, having seen a glimpse of Bristol’s historic and maritime past and its modern day pleasures. Visit us soon in Bristol and find many more Bristol recommendations on the Visit Bristol website.