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A neighbourhood guide to Bristol

The city with a defiant indie spirit is reinventing its docks and downtown area, forging a link between iconic figures from its past, such as Brunel and Blackbeard, and the edgy creative energy of its present.

Published 19 Aug 2019, 09:58 BST
Bristol Lido.
One of the oldest lidos in the UK, Bristol Lido is a heated open-air pool dating back to 1849.
Photograph by Andre Pattenden

The big city in the country, Bristol is green at heart, a place of cycleways, community parks and allotments, with a verdant, eco-conscious attitude to match. Amid the perfectly preserved Georgian terraces and museum-piece treasures of Brunel engineering, visitors will find a graffiti-decked underground dubstep club, a co-op arts space, and a dockside shipping container transformed from functional to fun. Come here to seek out the pioneers of an exciting and eclectic dining scene, spot iconic works by a nation-shaping graffiti artist, and enjoy the briny buzz of harbourside, where one of Europe’s largest regeneration projects continues to reshape the city.

Word has it Oowee Diner is handing out free burgers, downtown. But I’m up in Clifton Village, Bristol’s hilltop Georgian enclave where the city centre’s briny buzz seems a world away. Looking down from its cliff-top heights, Clifton has always had a distinct identity; a neighbourhood dominated by its castle-like observatory and Brunel suspension bridge that was once a refuge for those fleeing the dock’s din aboard Clifton Rocks Railway, which rattled up the River Avon’s steep gorge.

Looming above this defunct 19th-century funicular, the formerly fading Avon Gorge Hotel has been given a new lease of life. The Hotel du Vin brand has applied a decorative defibrillator to the heart of what was once a Georgian spa retreat to rival Bath’s. Former pump rooms are reborn as a wine cellar/event space, 78 guest rooms — some with clawfoot baths and reach-out-and-touch bridge and gorge views — display regal blues, earthy greys and whimsical, classical portraiture. 

Elsewhere, the pull of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s best-known structure is strong. A blustery walk across its almost impossibly strung length recalls bridges spanning America’s mammoth waterways. But there are few more perfectly pleasant English places than Clifton Village, all honey-hewed Bath stone townhouses, where extravagantly furred cats weave through fragrant gardens of foxgloves. It’s here I find ANNA Cake Couture, creators of gem-like confections (try a flight of mini ‘cubicakes’). Nearby, British Barber Co is a chap’s den of red-leather chairs and sandalwood-scented pomades.

Then there’s the porticoed perfection of The Ivy Clifton Brasserie, an outpost of the legendary London restaurant, set in an opulent Georgian building. Sit at its soaring mirror-backed bar, sip a Brunel Breeze (a citrusy blend of vodka, passion fruit, lemon and ginger ale), and admire art deco drawings of the ships, trains and bridges that shaped Bristol’s industrial past.

The oh-so-civilised ante is upped with a restaurant lunch at Bristol Lido, an open-air pool dating back to 1849. I dine on wood-fired Moorish-Med tapas: charred cauliflower and tahini yoghurt, chorizo, and hand-dived scallops, while swimmers plunge into the pool below. 

Exploring the student-trampled Clifton Triangle area, the tranquil spell broken somewhat, I take refuge in another oasis, of sorts: The Coconut Tree, a Sri Lankan street food outfit, where tropical cocktails come in ceramic elephants, the hoppers (coconut-milk pancakes) are killer hot and the DJs unapologetically in holiday mood.

Cargo 1 at Wapping Wharf, a two-storey retail yard of repurposed shipping containers.
Photograph by Jon Craig

From where I’m sitting, I’ve a seagull’s-eye view of St Nicholas Market’s glass roof and the tower of ruined St Mary-Le-Port Church. It’s a scene unchanged since the 1700s — until I get an eyeful of the gleaming Rocket parked up alongside me on the Astroturfed roof of Brooks Guesthouse Bristol. It’s one of four ‘50s retro-style caravans and makes for a surprisingly comfy, fun stay; a shiny symbol of old Bristol’s youthful renaissance.

St Mary-Le-Port represents the city centre’s original proximity to the old docks — a closeness that was lost over time when the port’s fortunes faded and urban planning turned its back on the quayside. But today, there’s once again a sense of connection between docks and downtown — part of an ongoing overhaul that represents one of Europe’s largest regeneration projects. From the Statue of Neptune’s fountains, which spray Anchor Road west of St Nicholas Market, it’s a clear view to the Floating Harbour (aka the historic docks).

Aboard a Bristol Packet Boat Trips’ tour, the greatest hits of regeneration glide by. The Arnolfini, a gallery housed in a handsome former tea warehouse that was once a lone beacon of Bristol’s waterfront renaissance, is now surrounded by wiggly bridges, flower-filled slipways and cafe-lined boardwalks. Floating bars and music venues revive old barges, and flats fill formerly derelict railway sidings, disused gasworks and the warehouses of Redcliff Backs, once Blackbeard’s stomping ground.

There’s a shed-load of culture: the Mud Dock cafe/bike shop, the Watershed cinema, and M Shed industrial and maritime museum set in a former transit shed — its collection of towering cranes still cranking over the water, now hauling pleasure riders instead of cargo.

But perhaps the best new attraction is at docks, on the SS Great Britain. Brunel’s 19th-century steamer features a bonkers-brilliant addition to its already extensive museum that runs from rigging (a chance for some knee-knocking climbing) to hull (preserved in a high-tech dry-dock). The Being Brunel visitor experience (respectfully) recasts the ingenious Victorian engineer as a madcap Willy Wonka character. I take a top hat at the entrance, pop it on and explore his world, riding in a shaking, broad-gauge railway carriage and visiting his recreated docks offices.

A docks day should ideally conclude at Cargo, Wapping Wharf’s two-storey retail yard of repurposed shipping containers, where culinary vanguards like Root and Cargo Cantina reign. At Japanese-Scandi cool Kaiju, I’m delivered exemplary izakaya (charred sesame leeks, crispy chicken skins with kimchi) and the silkiest salmon tare. Its big flavours shout in the teeny boxlike space that lacks the grandiosity of Brunel, but certainly channels his inventive spirit.

Mural by Cosmo Sarson outside Hamilton House. One of the UK’s biggest community hubs, it is being threatened with private development.
Photograph by Getty

Stokes Croft
“Bristol venues are particular. They must be plugged into the community — not imposed on it,” says Justin Salisbury, founder of Artist Residence, the hotel outfit transforming a derelict former boot factory on Portland Square into a boutique billet. ‘Shoebox’ rooms, suites, and 200 artworks will fill this Grade I-listed mega-conversion, but Justin is more focused on the ground floor’s bar-restaurant-lounge, which he’s pegging as a local hangout as much as a hotel.

Justin’s illusive formula is Survival 101 in Stokes Croft, an area near the city centre but far left politically. Once grander than Clifton, Bristol’s oldest suburb is today more commonly known as the scene of ’80s riots, squat parties and after-hours raves. Across the square, basement bar Cosies has been dub techno-testing its Georgian foundations for decades. It’s holding firm in the face of developers but go north along graffiti-daubed Upper York Street, and you head into the eye of the gentrification storm. One of the UK’s biggest community hubs, Hamilton House — adorned with Banksy’s famous Mild Mild West mural — is threatened with private development. Coexist, the co-op that runs this ad-hoc bar/cafe/yoga studio, was recently ousted and tenants are being shown the door. 

As well as kitchenware with a punk political aesthetic (Royal Dalton-style teapots with ‘Save The NHS’ logos, mugs adorned with Corbyn’s mug), neighbouring Stokes Croft China does a fine line in preserving community space. A member of local organisation The People’s Republic of Stokes Croft, it’s currently campaigning to save Turbo Island, a tiny triangle of land at the junction of Jamaica Street that welcomes all-day partiers and uses billboards as an agitprop art gallery.

“Bristol responds well to authentic — I hope we’ve done that here.” says Kieran Waite of his new Stokes’ Croft bar Masa + Mezcal. He’s done his homework: research trips resulted in its menu of over 60 tequilas, mezcals, raicillas and sotols from small producers across Mexico, while the food — from asado sweet potato, to Baja-style fish tacos — is delicious. Or, as the locals would say: gert lush. A Stokes Croft stayer? Only time will tell.  

Bristol Old Vic, the English-speaking world’s oldest continuously working theatre. Its recent renovation bring its long history to life.
Photograph by Philip Vile

Five great things to do in Bristol

1. Bristol Old Vic
The recent makeover of the English-speaking world’s oldest continuously working theatre is a marvel. VR tours bring its long history to life; the interactive Noises Off gallery explores sound effects from Shakespeare to digital tech.

2. Oowee diner
From Montpelier start-up to citywide institution in under three years, Oowee Diner is one of the native mini-franchises that Bristol breeds so well. Dirty burgers include the plant-based Sneaky Clucker.

3. Colston Hall
The landmark music venue — named after a 17th-century slave-trading Bristolian — is set to change its name next year, following protests and a boycott from bands, including local outfit Massive Attack.

4. Bristol and Bath Railway Path
The much-loved greenway — tracing the former Bath-Bristol rail route — is flanked by community allotments, artworks and leafy playgrounds.

5. Pieminister
A Bristol institution, this pie shop chain’s hearty, meaty staples now include gluten-free and veggie versions, such as Kevin. This plant-based pie with a ragu filling is named after Kevin Keegan, the former footballer whose surname, handily, rhymes with ‘vegan’.

Published in the September 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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