BRISTOL did not make a good first impression. We drove from Wells on a road that dipped and rose through verdant hills. And the last hill dropped us into the middle of the traffic jam that was Bristol.
I’d been talking about returning to my birthplace for years, and here we were, bang in the middle of an endless queue. We ground our way to a multi-storey car park. Then we walked beside a road clogged with diesel-rattle buses and inch-by-inching cars.
Everywhere looked grubby. It was hot, smelly and unpleasant. The buses sported signs boasting that Bristol was the European Green Capital 2015. That seemed like a sick joke.
We found our way to the harbourside. Too crowded and too full of students, it seemed to us. We wanted somewhere local to eat, but ended up having an average meal in an Italian chain restaurant, an anyplace pizza in any-townsville. After that we returned to the car and drove to our Airbnb.
It hadn’t been a happy homecoming.
I was eight when our family left Bishopston. We lived in Long Mead Avenue in a house where, at the age of three, I fell from an upstairs bedroom window. I carry a small Bristol dent in my head to this day. One set of grandparents lived nearby, not far from the prison and the nearby allotment where my grandfather had his refuge. I can still see the gate to the allotment now, and the plots rising up the hillside. My childhood memories of Bristol are all happy. Well, apart from the fall and I don’t recall much about that.
The next morning we caught the bus into the city centre, ready to explore. Perhaps today would be better. Well, the sun was shining from a blue sky. Market stalls were lined either side of the water. We walked to Clifton Suspension Bridge. Away from the rammed busyness, the riverside walk began to show a better side of Bristol, with interesting modern buildings slotted between the remnants of the old dockside, and a feeling of space, somewhere to breathe at last.
We miscalculated with Brunel’s great creation, ending up hot and bothered beneath the bridge rather than on it. There wasn’t time to put that right, so we walked on the other side of the harbour, looking over at the brightly coloured houses that hang from the hill like cards on a string. The steeply falling gardens behind the houses brace their knees against the slope.
After that we made our way to ss Great Britain for more Brunel. There isn’t space here to do justice to this museum, among the finest we have visited. Perhaps the highlight was standing in the dry dock next to the huge curving swell of the hull, with the sunlight falling through the glass ceiling with its covering of water that throws shimmering patterns over everything. The rescue of this great ship from its abandonment in the Falkland Islands was a tremendous achievement, and no visitor will leave unhappy.
We ate our sandwiches by the harbour as young members of a sailing school looped around in the lazy breeze. The sun still shone and the sky was blue. Bristol was putting on a show for us, hanging out the bunting.
Our next stop was the Arnolfini gallery and its Richard Long exhibition, Time And Space. The Bristol landscape artist goes on long walks and rearranges stones, photographing those he has placed in straight lines or gathered in circles. It might not sound much, but the exhibition is wonderful, especially the gigantic cross made from thousands of pieces of slate that fills one room.
Cider from the gallery bar then sustained us, as we sat outside listening to the buskers, with our legs dangling over the dock. Below us people were learning to balance on giant surf-board things, kneeling and standing as they paddled. Rather them than me.
Refreshed, we wandered round the St Nicholas Markets, visited the cathedral just before chucking out time, then retreated to a pub round the corner from the Arnolfini, which we left long before chucking out time.
Earlier we had passed a restaurant, the Olive Shed,on Princes Wharf. It looked good so we went back at 6pm. The waiter raised a quizzical eyebrow when I asked about a table. It was a very popular restaurant, he said in admonishment. He said he’d let us in if we agreed to scarper by 7.30pm.
We had a table in the window. The sun dipped, throwing new patterns on the darkening water. The food was good and we ate up in time. A happy end to a short return.
We’ll be back, for there is much more to see. Next time we’ll reach Clifton and walk across the bridge. Visit Blaise Castle, perhaps – where I remember having family picnics.
If only Bristol could sort out the bloody traffic. And empty some of those overfilled litter bins.
At one point I joked with my wife that I was offended that nobody recognised me at all. Well, it has been 50 years.