Ship-shape and Bristol fashion
A new look at an old city and its myriad maritime attractions
JUST minutes after arriving at Bristol’s Victorianera Temple Meads Station, I’m boarding Matilda, a dinky ferryboat in yellow and blue livery, for its regular service down the canalised River Avon (the so-called floating harbour) to the centre of Britain’s happening West Country capital.
This 20-minute backwater putter passes parks and converted warehouses, wharves and waterside pubs, jetties lined by Dutch barges hung with floral baskets, and chic floating restaurants such The Glassboat. It is a revelation.
‘‘To think that the plan was to fill in these waterways and turn them into motorways,’’ says Ed Hall, Matilda’s captain, as he surveys Bristol’s renascent harbour area.
In all the recent buzz about Bristol, the hub of counterculture and creativity that’s home to street artist Banksy and to Aardman, the animators behind Wallace & Gromit, it’s easy to ignore its maritime heritage.
In fact, the 28ha port area, once such a byword for inner-city dereliction that planners in the 1960s meant to do away with it, has turned out to be the centrepiece of the city’s post-industrial regeneration. The popular ferry service runs scheduled departures to 17 stops between Temple Meads and the Hotwells area, delivering visitors direct to former warehouse arts centres, including the Arnofini Gallery and the Watershed ‘‘cultural cinema and digital creativity centre’’, and MShed, which opened in 2011 as a much-admired museum showcase.
Then there’s harbourside Bristol’s stand-out attraction. I leave the ferry at the jetty directly in front of Isambard Brunel’s SS Great Britain. This revolutionary steamship, which in 1970 was towed back for restoration to the same Bristol dry dock where it was built in 1843, made 32 voyages to Australia over two decades in the late 19th century.
‘‘It’s estimated about half a million Australians are descended from people who emigrated there on the SS Great Britain,’’ says museum guide Eddie Elston, who has discovered that members of his own family were among them.
We begin with the dockyard museum, which chronicles the epic life of this iron-built legend with displays of moving personal artefacts and historic accounts. A panel describes the 1861 voyage when the first English cricket team to tour Australia was onboard (the touring party, which included the brother of the legendary WG Grace, won rather more matches than the most recent lot). Then it’s on to the immaculately restored ship for a tour of decks thick with the sights, sounds and even smells of the period; hidden dispensers emit a range of scents including carbolic soap in the surgeon’s cabin and manure in the hold.
A short walk along the waterfront, past rusting dockside cranes and railway tracks, brings me to another episode in Bristol’s impressive maritime history — a working replica of the Matthew, built to mark the 500th anniversary in 1997 of John Cabot’s historic voyage of discovery from Bristol to Newfoundland. It is moored here when not at sea or taking passengers on regular tours of the harbour.
Volunteer guide Royston Griffey shows me around this high-sided Portuguese-style caravel,
ALAMY which he describes as the medieval world’’.
Then Griffey hits me with the big one. ‘‘When Cabot came back from Newfoundland,’’ he says, ‘‘he was given a reward by the king’s representative in Bristol. That man was called Richard Ameryke. We Bristolians believe it was our Richard Ameryke, not Amerigo Vespucci, who gave America its name.’’
As I board another ferry to resume my wanderings, I’m only glad that this historic harbour did not end up beneath a motorway. bristolferry.com ssgreatbritain.org matthewbristol.co.uk visitbristol.co.uk
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The SS Great Britain, Bristol harbourside’s stand-out attraction, made 32 voyages to Australia over two decades in the late 19th century