While on an extended stay in Cardiff, Wales my husband and I took a friend’s suggestion to spend a day in Bristol, England. Being only an hour’s train ride, it is a nice change of pace. On this beautiful day, there was a party-like atmosphere on the train with many groups heading off for the weekend, Bristol being a place to change trains for many places.
Stepping off the train at the Temple Meads station in Bristol, our first impression was that is was a large, bustling city. Certainly the train station was. We headed for the Bristol Tourist Information Centre located on the dock where the ferry departs to make arrangements for our visit. We were charmed by the city as we passed through it.
We noticed the Bristol Hippodrome (celebrating its 100th birthday) and saw that “Phantom of the Opera” is playing. Not far away is the Bristol Old Vic Theatre, Britain’s oldest working theatre, which hosts some of the best local and national theatre companies. Further along it seemed that Market Day was in full swing. We saw two, one in the Old City on Corn Street and another along the dock, both very busy. We arranged for tickets on the Bristol Ferry Boat Co., entry to Brunel’s ss Great Britain, and tickets for the Bristol City Sightseeing Hop On- Hop-Off Bus for 1 day (2 & 3 day options are available).
Though a Bristol Packet for a river cruise into the countryside with a stop at the idyllic Beese's Tea Rooms, for a traditional English Afternoon Tea was a possible option, our time didn't allow for this. Instead we enjoyed our ferry ride to Brunel’s ss Great Britian. Before this visit we did not know anything about Brunel. After this visit, Bristol and Brunel will always be linked in my mind.
We were so impressed with our experience visiting Brunel’s ss Great Britain, that it alone would have made our time worthwhile. This exhibit was so fascinating from the look at the underneath of the ship in dry dock to the tour of the ship itself with a wonderful museum and a great movie depicting the way it was rescued, that we were glad we had time to really explore it all in depth. The ship has a story that is well worth a visit of at least two hours. We also enjoyed a meal at the Dockyard Cafe Bar. The homemade bread was exceptional. We noted that purchases in the gift shop and cafe help toward maintaining the ship.
Built in 1843, the SS Great Britain was the world’s first great ocean going liner. It set a number of precedents in engineering design being the first ocean-going iron ship, the first with screw propellers, and the forerunner of modern passenger liners. On her maiden voyage across the Atlantic she broke the previous speed record, completing the voyage in only fourteen days. Her story from this point to deliverer of immigrants to Australia to sinking to restoration is brilliantly told in this exhibit.
Moving on, this was the perfect time to climb aboard the Bristol City Sightseeing Hop On- Hop-Off Bus to see more of the city and hear some great stories. We passed Create Center, and drove through the downs, a huge green expanse where everyone was enjoying the gorgeous weather, surrounded by beautiful homes reflecting architecture from Victorian to modern. A number of riders exited at the Bristol Zoo Gardens which is the fifth oldest in the world with over 400 exotic and endangered species. We stayed on for the next stop, Clifton Village. Although the Clifton Bridge and Avon Gorge were visible during much of the ride, we chose to get off and take a walk on the bridge, another example of Brunel’s genius. It is still functioning as a toll bridge with one side attached and the other floating. Our driver said that Brunel smoked cigars continuously and worked constantly sleeping 4 to 5 hours at night and expecting his employees to do the same.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the son of Marc Brunel, a noted engineer, came to Bristol, where much of his work was done in 1828. He was convalescing after an accident. When he learned of the competition for a bridge over the Avon River, he submitted four designs. The bridge that was chosen has been described as 'admirably adapted to the beautiful scenery of the enchanting spot'. The Clifton Suspension Bridge was begun in July 1831, estimated cost of £57,000, but was not completed until 1864, due to lack of funding. Sadly Brunel had died by this time, but the bridge is a lasting testimony to his capabilities. Walking on the bridge and looking down into the gorge was thrilling.
We returned to the Hop-on, Hop-Off bus and decided that there was so much more to see and do that we would not take the bus back to the train station because taking that last bus would mean we would need to give up dinner in Bristol. So after the bus passed many of the places in the city center we got off at Bristol’s Old City. It was too late to enjoy the museums and art galleries but the shops in the Old City were very active and interesting. Passing out of the Old City, we found ourselves near the Avon River in Welsh Bank where there were many hotels and restaurants. We noted at least two restaurants in boats on the water and decided to eat at Spyglass. Our food was outstanding. We did not choose the Harveys Cellars situated in the former home of Harvey’s Bristol Cream but we did have the most wonderful Sunday-like dessert with Harvey’s Bristol Cream.
It was still lovely and light out and our walk to the station was easy and pleasant. Our only regret was that we had not decided to stay for another day to see more sights and soak up the vibrant atmosphere of the old and new that Bristol offers.
Photos: Leon Keer