Ship-shape and Bris­tol fash­ion

A new look at an old city and its myr­iad mar­itime at­trac­tions

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - JEREMY SEAL

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

‘ ‘ white van of the

The SS Great Bri­tain, Bris­tol har­bour­side’s stand-out at­trac­tion, made 32 voy­ages to Aus­tralia over two decades in the late 19th century

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