An art-filled es­cape to Bris­tol.

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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.

In­die city

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.

Host­ing his­tory

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.


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.

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