Fully rested we were excited to be heading off on day 2 of our brief trip to Bristol. Still so many sights to see but with clear blue skies we were really looking forward to seeing them in all their glory.
Clifton Observatory and The Giant’s Cave
Having said all those positive things about the weather, our first booking was for The Giant’s Cave. Through the pandemic lots of places have remained open but, even if they are free, are operating on-line timed slots to control the number of visitors. Not a problem for us now we know the system but it does mean that we have to arrive at a certain time, no shilly shalling!
Clifton Observatory sits high on Clifton Down overlooking the Avon Gorge and the Clifton Suspension Bridge. It is on the site of a former mill and after a mixed past is now an events venue, cafe and museum with a camera obscura on the very top floor. We have seen one of these before but I can’t recall where. A convex lens and sloping mirror were installed on the top of the tower at the observatory back in 1828. The image is reflected onto a circular metal table. The mirror can be turned to change the direction of the view. We had to shut ourselves into the small dark wooden circular viewing room. It took us a while to figure out the direction of the mirror but once we got the idea it was interesting to move it around and see the cars going over the bridge. Slightly different to the views that would have been reflected almost 100 years ago.
Whilst researching and booking our time at the observatory, I read about The Giant’s Cave which is accessed from the Observatory building. It sounded intriguing so we added the extra couple of pounds each to our booking and waited eagerly to descend down the narrow staircase. The guy who took our ticket had a whole bank of CCTV screens so he could monitor how many people were in the cave and their progress up or down. Primarily for safety, it now had the added advantage of keeping people socially distances on the narrow staircases and tunnels.
While we were waiting we read a bit about the cave. It was first mentioned as being a chapel back in AD 305. Originally the cave could only be accessed from the gorge face but in the 19th century a shaft was dug out down into the cave from the observatory. The Giant’s Cave, also known as St Vincent’s Cave, has 130 steps down to the viewing platform. The further down you get the width and height gets more and more restricted. Fine for me but Jonno was bent double in a couple of places. At last a good reason to be short!
Eventually we saw the opening which sits 90 feet below the cliff top and 250 feet above the bottom of the Avon Gorge. We had the whole place to ourselves but a warning sign said no more than 8 people on the the very edge of the viewing platform which juts out to give amazing views of the Clifton Suspension Bridge.
Regular followers will know that I am not a lover of heights but I did manage to get to the front rail, trying not to look down and the cars and River Avon 250 feet below me. After lots of photographs and watching a few rock climbers scaling the heights of the gorge, it was time to head back up the narrow stairs. We are so pleased we found out about this cave. It somehow made us feel that we had had a view of the bridge and gorge that so many people miss.
Clifton Suspension Bridge
The bridge is such an iconic image of Bristol as it towers over the gorge linking Bristol to north Somerset. It based on a design by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, although he did not live to see it’s completion. It is a barrier controlled toll bridge but pedestrians can walk either side (temporary one way system in operation at the moment). In the first photo of the bridge you can see the small yellow platform that we were on, accessed via the Observatory.
There were a lot of barriers up and it could have been construction/maintenance but we also felt it could be a safeguarding measure in these troubled times. Frequent notices giving details of The Samaritans run along both sides.
An information board gave the story of the miraculous survival of a 22 year old woman back in 1885 who jumped from the bridge. Her full billowing skirts acted as a parachute, slowed her descent and she landed in the thick mud banks of the River Avon. The other amazing story we read was about an RAF jet which went rogue. In 1957 the pilot flew under the deck of the bridge while performing a victory roll. He then crashed into Leigh Woods on the Somerset side of the bridge and was killed.
There is a visitor centre on the Somerset side of the bridge which was closed on the day we visited so we took a walk down through Leigh Woods back towards the shore of the river and the city.
Before arriving back on the waterfront that is home to a selection of houseboats, boatyards, residences and sailing clubs, we passed a structure that was labelled “Brunel’s Other Bridge“.
The swivel bridge is far older than the Suspension Bridge and looks in a very sorry state. There is a huge push to restore it although to me parts looked beyond repair.
A little further the riverside walk took us through the historic Underfall Boatyard where we saw a lot of activity around a boat called The Catherine. An old tar barge that was converted into a houseboat was auctioned off earlier this year. Locally it has the nickname Radio Rentals because its windows look like old television screens, lthough there is a rumour that the windows are casings from old runway lights at Bristol Airport. We would love to see it again once the restoration is complete.
The riverfront area has a lot to see and we probably took far too many photos.
SS Great Britain
Further along this south side of the river we arrived at another icon of Bristol, the SS Great Britain. Another of Brunel masterpiece, she is a passenger steamship designed for the Bristol to New York route. Her first crossing of the Atlantic was in 1845 with accommodation for 120 crew and 360 passengers. The ship was so large that the entrance to Bristol Docks had to be widened to get her out to sea. Passengers were not left hungry. First class passengers gorged on 30 course lunches and live animals were kept on board for fresh milk and meat. Definitely feels like she set the mould for the Titanic era to follow.
After being retired to the Falklands Islands after almost 40 years service, she was used as a warehouse but in 1970 an English businessman paid for the vessel to be raised and towed across the Atlantic back to her home port of Bristol. She arrived 127 years to the day from her launch in the same harbour and after 3 years of restoration she is now a huge visitor attraction.
Further along the quay is The Matthew which is a modern reconstruction of the original ship used by John Cabot in 1497 to find quicker trade routes and discover new lands. He discovered Newfoundland and the following year he headed off on his second expedition never to be seen again. Mystery surrounds his disappearance. Was the expedition lost at sea? Did he make land and set up a religious colony? Or did he return to England and die in a plague outbreak?
As much as a mystery to me is how he managed to travel all that way with crew and supplies in what seems a relatively small ship.
The next stop on our walk around the wharf was the MShed Museum. This former boat shed is named after its identifying number that each shed had. It is free to enter but donations are gratefully received. We had our timed slot arranged and spent about 2 hours walking around seeing as many of the 3,000 exhibits as we could. It is such a well laid out museum and doesn’t shy away from the unsavoury history of Bristol’s role in the slave trade.
Here are just a few of the exhibits. Family loyalty necessitates the motorbike!!
A post about Bristol would not be completed without mentioning Banksy. The unknown but well-known street artist’s work evolved from collaborations with other artists and musicians. Allegedly from Bristol, his dark humoured graffiti features on walls in the city.
We managed to make a few detours on our walks to see two of his works. The first was “Girl with a Pierced Eardrum” which has been adapted for the pandemic! This is based on the famous portrait of “Girl with a Pearl Earring” with the building’s alarm being strategically placed for the earring.
The second piece is called “Naked Man” but also known as “Well Hung Lover“. The work has been defaced a couple of times by a paintball gun but remains on the wall of a sexual health clinic.
This brings us to the end of our 2 days whistlestop tour of Bristol. Everything everyone had said about Bristol was true. It is a fabulous city that has managed to keep in touch with its roots and history yet it feels progressive and modern.
It was time now to catch a train from another of Brunel’s accomplishments, the grand Bristol Temple Meads station and head back to Kent. 30th Birthday Celebrations for our middle son, Sam, were going to need to be cancelled and adapted as Tier 2 kicked in for London. Shame he couldn’t have joined us in Bristol but we will be singing it’s praises and maybe we will get a night out in the Left Handed Giant or one of the many other harbourside bars. Count us in!!
14/10 – 15/10/2020