It’s a modern city wrapped around the core of an ancient settlement with a proud sea-faring past — a place that feels, at times, like a smaller (and quintessentially English) Amsterdam.
In the middle, all streets seem to lead to the Avon — the river that has been Bristol’s lifeblood over the centuries. A huge tidal range !necessitated some inventive wizardry from the city’s most famous engineer, Brunel, to ensure a large waterway in the heart of Bristol to facilitate trade with the outside world. This is known as the Floating Harbour. Nowadays, the trading vessels have been replaced by craft more concerned with pleasure than barter and the dockside warehouses have been replaced by cafes, restaurants (including the largest in Britain), bars, nightclubs, museums, pleasant walkways and groovy-chic residential zones.
Bristol isn’t the type of place that brags about its creative energy, but it’s there in spades nonetheless. Did you know, for example, that it was from here that Hollywood legend Cary Grant first emerged or that Only Fools and Horses was filmed in Bristol and not in North London? The creative vitality of Bristol has been making even larger waves across the world in the last few decades, from musical movements such as Massive Attack to animation genius such as Aardman Animations (creators of Wallace & Gromit). That’s not to ignore its other significant gift to the world — street art. It was on the walls of Bristol’s buildings that street artist extraordinaire Banksy first made his mark.
Today, you can follow in the footsteps of the fascinating and invigorating Bristol street art scene with the Bristol Street Art Tour. John Nation — a former community worker who helped get Banksy himself off the ground as an artist — who conducts an impassioned and enthralling tour of art-on-concrete through Bristol. It takes you along the corridor of stunning street art that is Quay Street — the result of an annual initiative that sees international street artists (including Irish artist Conor Harrington) invited to leave some of their work in the walls of this street. The stories behind how they overcame logistical impossibilities are almost as fascinating as the works themselves.
The tour then leads you into the bohemian, edgier part of town, to Stokes Croft, where yesterday’s street art is “tagged” and “bombed” by the next generation of young guns eager to stamp their credentials all over what they often see as those who have “sold out” to the establishment.
From the Harry Potter-esque Temple Meads Train Station in Bristol (yet another Bristol landmark building designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel), the train journey to Bath is a mere 20 minutes. Once you get off the train, however, you might feel as though the short journey had brought you through a time warp. Everywhere is honey-coloured sandstone Georgian bliss. Even the more modern buildings (such as Debenhams opposite the train station) have been forced to comply with the heritage colour scheme of the soap-stoned city.
Among the various milestone buildings worth seeing in Bath, probably the most famous is the Royal Crescent. It’s a spectacularly long half-moon set on an elevated part of the city. In the middle stands a fancy hotel bearing the same name, while Number 1 (now a museum) is the former resident of the Grand Old Duke of York. This is Jane Austen country and, on a sunny evening standing on the Royal Crescent, you can almost visualise the people that inspired her characters perambulating along the paths that criss-cross the large expanse of greenery below.
Just around the corner from here is another spectacular must-see piece of Georgian urban architecture known as The Circus — a much sought-after piece of real estate that has attracted more than one celebrity purchaser over the years, including American actor Nicholas Cage, who owned No 7.
There is multitude of wonderful places to eat and drink in Bath. The Graze Pub upstairs at the train station is not to be overlooked as just another perfunctory public transport venue eatery. If you look carefully around the airy dining room, you’ll notice a perfectly-formed micro-brewery, which offers a superb choice of beers that are as local as you can possibly get. The food is great too, by the way.
In the heart of the city, meanwhile, Richard Bertinet’s tea house is well worth checking out, essentially for his wickedly decadent and delicious pastries and cakes — like English afternoon tea designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier.
The natural hot springs of Bath have always been a feature of the city. As is the way of the world (and in Bath, in particular), however, each generation of empire built on top of the ruins of the previous ones until there was no more trace of the Roman settlement of Bath. Not until the late 19th century when, following residents’ complaints of flooding, excavations revealed the complex baths that were built by the Romans. What the Victorians discovered buried beneath their Georgian city for centuries was a sophisticated system of natural hot spring baths, complete with a drainage mechanism that still works to this day.
An audio tour takes you around the fascinating site, where you can see many of the thousands of artefacts uncovered. The ancient trinkets attest to a site of great importance that drew visitors from all over the Roman world. There’s a priceless brooch from Ireland, remains of a man from the Middle East and, most touchingly of all, several little folded pieces of lead on which curses were written and thrown into one of the warm pools in the hope of making their complaints heard by an unseen deity.
Aer Arann/Aer Lingus Regional (www.aerlingus.com) operates a direct daily service to Bristol from Cork and Dublin. Bus connection to Bristol is £7 (€8.30) each way.
In Bristol, we stayed at the four-star Doyle Collection’s “Bristol Hotel” — Irish owned and with Corkman Mark Payne managing. Tel: +44 (0) 117 923 0333, www.doylecollection.com.
In Bath, we stayed at the newly-refurbished Bailbrook House, a four-star residence of a hotel on 20 acres at the edge of town.
Bailbrook House Hotel, tel +44 1225 855 100, www.bailbrookhouse.co.uk.
Essential viewing in Bristol are the SS Great Britain and The Matthew. The former is a huge stationary vessel while the latter offers tours of the Floating Harbour in a recreation of the vessel John Cabot sailed to Newfoundland in 1497.
Bristol: The River Grille Restaurant in the Bristol Hotel certainly pushes the boat out in terms of quality and presentation, all with a glass-fronted waterfront view of the evening lights on the quays.
For more of the local/seasonal fare in less salubrious but more edgy surroundings, try The Canteen at Hamilton House, www.canteenbristol.co.uk.
Bath: Apart from Gallic/English afternoon tea at Richard Bertinet’s, the Garrick’s Head brings a level of culinary sophistication that you might not have imagined possible in an English pub. &