An art-filled escape to Bristol.
It’s the first rule of Bristol – don’t talk about Banksy. Or at least don’t ask the locals if they know who the world’s most famously elusive street artist is. Quite a few do, as it happens, and if you’re lucky they’ll drop the odd nugget into conversation. “Banksy went to school with my son,” says our guide Lesley, as casually as if she’s describing what she had for dinner last night. It’s all we get from her, though; – further questions simply bounce off.
Rob Dean, the affable artist who runs Where the Wall, a street-art walking tour of Bristol, turns out to be friends with Banksy’s best mate and sometime collaborator, Inkie. But when we ask if he’s met the Bristol-born Banksy, if Banksy is male or female, or even if, as it’s sometimes rumoured, Banksy is actually a group of artists, Rob flashes the knowing smile of a man used to keeping secrets. We figure Bristolians must sign some kind of oath at birth not to reveal too much about their city’s favourite son.
W e arrive in England’s graffiti capital on a day when spring seems to have forgotten its name. The daffodils are out but the sun isn’t. It’s not my first time here – I once spent 18 months in Bristol when my animator husband landed a contract with the company behind the Wallace & Gromit films. Thankfully, not too much has changed although, oddly, the Bristol Harbour Hotel, where we gratefully drop our bags after a 24-hour-flight and twohour drive, used to be my bank. In my absence, the Grade II-listed building has morphed into a boutique hotel with a high thread count and a bathroom almost as big as our former flat, just up the road. It’s odd being a tourist somewhere you once lived. But brunch at the Glassboat, a restaurant moored on the murky River Avon, helps to reorient me. Caught between the rolling hills of Somerset and Gloucestershire, and sliced in two by the tidal Avon, Bristol doesn’t exactly scream ‘boutique destination’. That title goes to Bath, 50km away, where the honey-coloured stone architecture and hot mineral water bubbling out of the ground are like catnip for visitors.
Instead, Bristol has always been the slightly grungier sibling, the one with its shirt untucked, still rubbing the sleep out of its eyes. But while tourists were swerving around the former industrial hub, en route to its more genteel neighbour, this city of 450,000 was crafting its fiercely independent and creative spirit, producing bands such as Massive Attack and Portishead, and spawning some of the world’s best street artists. People such as Banksy, who was “once just a kid with a spray can trying to provoke a reaction”, says Rob.
We start our Where the Wall tour in front of a 4m-high homage to two of Bristol’s most iconic characters, Wallace &
It’s odd being a tourist somewhere you once lived
Gromit. Five minutes away in Frogmore Street is Banksy’s Well Hung Lover, which depicts a naked man dangling from a windowsill, while another fully clothed man peers angrily out. Known for his strong political and social commentary, Bansky cleverly placed the work just out of reach of the graffiti-removal team and opposite City Hall which, at the time, had a zero-tolerance approach to public art.
Sound and colour
O n our walk north, Bristol reveals itself as a city of muscled hills and skinny streets that are, inexplicably, two-way. Stokes Croft, previously a scruffy lair of crack-heads and clubs, is Bristol’s most bohemian neighbourhood and it’s a rare building that hasn’t been tattooed with vast, colourful art. At the Canteen, a creative space/recording studio/cafe where the air is scented with beer, paint and marijuana, Banksy’s famous Mild Mild West, which depicts a Molotov cocktail throwing teddy bear, sits opposite a twostorey mural of a break-dancing Jesus. It’s vibrant, fun and, like so much in Bristol, doesn’t take itself too seriously.
But things weren’t always this good. Founded in 1542 as a trading port to rival London, Bristol’s swashbuckling history loops through pirates, sugar traders, smugglers and the trans-Atlantic slave trade (it’s estimated around 500,000 kidnapped Africans were sent into a life of slavery from here).
This legacy is evident in the city’s most affluent neighbourhood, Clifton, where grand Victorian and Georgian homes were built on the back of this shameful trade. I know the suburb well, having rented here during my 18-month stint although, sadly, not in one of the postcode’s posher residences. It’s reassuring to see that my favourite pubs and shops are where I left them.
A 20-minute walk from the city centre delivers us to the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which is not only a convenient way to traverse the Avon Gorge but also Bristol’s most defining landmark. Designed by the fabulously named architect Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1754 and finished 100 years later after a building period dogged by financial difficulties, riots and the death of Brunel, this wide ribbon of steel flings itself across the river, providing panoramic views so stunning they almost look photoshopped.
W e bump into Brunel again at the SS Great Britain, the hulking great propeller-driven, iron-hulled ship he designed as the world’s first luxury cruise liner. Even if you’re not that way inclined, a visit to this painstakingly restored ship is a reminder of how deeply the sea is stitched into the fabric of Bristol’s past. The ship was built on this spot in 1843, to accommodate 252 first- and second-class
passengers, and crossed the Atlantic seven times before becoming a troop carrier and later a migrant transport ship. Inside, they’ve done a bang-up job of recreating what life on the ocean liner would have been like, including realistic-looking mannequins and special effects that are possibly too real – from the galley kitchen where the smell of half-baked pies makes our tummies rumble, to the infirmary where the whiff of blood does not.
We need little persuading to move on to the Lido, one of Bristol’s most unexpected attractions. An outdoor swimming pool is the last thing you’d expect to see among a swarm of pastelhued terraced houses, but squeezed into a cobbled backstreet is this historic pool, spa and restaurant, originally built in the 1800s. In the 1930s, it became Britain’s first electrically heated pool, but by 1990 was in such disrepair, it was closed. A hair’s breath away from being bulldozed, the building was granted historic status and renovated, although most of the Victorian features have been maintained, including the cute poolside changing cubicles. And although the water is a warm 24°C, we’re not here to swim but to stuff ourselves silly at the upstairs restaurant, where the menu mashes up French, Spanish and Moroccan influences.
Raising the bar
B ritain’s eighth largest city hasn’t escaped the trend for modern British food and there’s no shortage of eateries with menus that feature the words ‘artisinal’ and ‘organic’. But Bristol’s greatest gift to the world is its pubs. One of the oldest is the Llandoger Trow, just around the corner from leafy Queen’s Square where I spent six months editing a business magazine. Legend has it that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote part of Treasure Island here. Chuck a pint glass the other way and you’ll hit the Hole in the Wall, one of my after-work locals, which was named after the spy hole that once allowed sailors and smugglers to keep watch for customs officials (the spy hole still exists). Bristol is grunge and graffiti, some of it works of art (thanks Banksy) and others that look as though a five-year-old has been let loose with a paintbrush; it’s a post-industrial city with a maritime heart, ungentrified enough to be hip but transformed sufficiently to be a centre of contemporary culture. Bristol was my home for 18 months, and I can’t imagine it not being part of my narrative.
IT’S A POST-INDUSTRIAL CITY WITH A MARITIME HEART, UNGENTRIFIED ENOUGH TO BE HIP
Above: Bristol shares much of the same honey-coloured architecture as Bath. Opposite page: Banksy’s Well Hung Lover, a view of the cathedral and a field of flowers on the outskirts of this once overlooked city, which has become a cultural hub.
Right: The SS Great Britain has been restored to its former glory. Below: A statue of
Queen Victoria takes centre stage on College Green, in one of the city’s more traditional neighbourhoods.
take Bristol doesn’t itself too seriously
Opposite: Colourful and creative graffiti decorates many of the city’s buildings. Below: The Avon River cuts through the city, and is a popular spot for local boaties and tourists alike.