After the bucolic & ecclesiastical delights of Salisbury and the neo-classical nobilities of Bath – it was about time to get a dose of real city grittiness. But without, of course, letting slacken my keen interest in traces and traditions of the past.
No really, I’m endlessly fascinated by the different layers of life a city has on offer. Not only in terms of the available range in contemporary life-styles but also in terms of the past modes of thinking and living that have shaped a city.
And Bristol surely is a fascinating case in point. Now I only spent a day there, so I can merely relate the most fleeting of impressions, which are set in a framework consisting of a few haphazardly collected commonplaces about Bristol and a personal penchant for cities marked by the 19th Century.
So, armed with these prejudices, I boarded the train from Bath to Bristol. Upon alighting there I was met by the invigorating hustle & bustle of a busy station on Saturday (clearly to be distinguished from the commotion on a Workday! Oh yes, even without calendar one could sense the typical mood of a “station-on-Saturday”, just by the sheer expectant joyousness thrilling in the crowds).
A guide book had already alerted me to the fact that the Old Station nearby had been designed by the flamboyant 19C engineer Brunel and overall I knew that Bristol had triumphantly come upon prosperous times again, after struggling with the inevitable decline of a port city that acquired its riches with 18C trade (including the ignominious slave trade) and 19C industry.
And you just have to leave the station and walk for a mile to see it all with your own eyes – the pompousness of a station that resembles a medieval castle, part of the original station now housing a British empire and Commonwealth museum hosting an exhibit “empire and us” with huge photos outside of smiling contemporary people those who might have second thoughts about said empire (ie a skeptical looking black man, an innocently smiling white girl and other non-whites and/or non-males).
Walking on there’s a desolate feel for 5 minutes or so – the comprehensive urbanistic program has not yet managed to domesticate this piece of no-man’s land: a fenced off burnt-out gas station, weeds growing in cracks in the concrete, deserted warehouses not yet converted into something trendy or entertaining, hideous 70s buildings and road works which force pedestrians out onto the road with cars speeding by. But this impression or urban desolateness doesn’t last long – one soon is met by friendly tourist signs pointing out the sites and giving directions. Pavement & road & sidewalks become trim & neat, all houses seem recently renovated.
And then there’s already the Queen’s Square – a stately and charmingly green square, with signs to alert the innocent pedestrian to its momentous history. Just before getting to the real heart of the city there are the quays – old docks duly reconverted into a leisure paradise – with walking- & cycling-paths and terraces and a tourist office and bars bars bars.
Now of course I welcome this kind of positive urban development, resurrecting docks and buildings fallen into disuse – there’s just a sense of wonder, musing about how all the toil & sweat & suffering of the Industrial Revolution has permitted us to now drink frivolous cocktails and go on pleasure trips in former industrial areas.
Well, I didn’t drink a cocktail, and just ate a proletarian sandwich and drank a sensible cup of tea to fortify myself for the steep uphill climb through a busy shopping street towards the City Museum and Art Galleries . On my way there I was charmed by this typically English cathedral, in grey-brown stone so well-matched with the leafy square in front of it. (autumn really suits English cities! ). And of course I gaped at a posh hotel, so sturdy and solid and with, richly decorated lamps (obligingly lit) behind the bay-windows.
And so many young people around here! and this pervasive sense of activity and optimism! yes an engaging city indeed. But my heart only really did a flip flop upon entering the City Museum – ah, truly a quintessential Victorian museum building!
With just the right measure of pompousness and spaciousness and many stairs and galleries and landings from which to look down and up and sideways. And gleaming copper balustrades, and wide staircases and arches and the names of great painters in bas relief on the walls, surrounded by sculpted laurels. And of course a universal museum: going from Dinosaurs to British Mammals over Assyrian and Egyptian artefacts to a fine collection of Old Master paintings. And how cozy this grand building felt: the radiators oozing warmth, the lamps illuminating dusky interiors, kids swarming about (yeah, when there are dinosaurs to be seen!), people come to see an exhibit on the abolition of slavery also wandering off to the galleries with paintings of dead white males. Yes, a heartwarming museum …
Now I did not go to see the British Mammals nor the Egyptian mummies, I just roamed about the art galleries, enchanted by their dusty Victorian feel : the fading velvety wall-coverings (there is a green room, a bordeaux one, a yellow and a blue one), the creaky wooden floor boards, the shining wooden benches …. The air of genteel poverty in these sublime rooms…. And the quality of those paintings, which this museum hardly touts – no postcards, no catalogue – so one just has to confine to memory those rhythmic contour lines of Holbein, that limpid Venetian landscape on the background of a Solario alterpiece, the Jesus descending into limbo from Giovanni Bellini, that lovely domestic scene from Isenbrandt , the Venetian veduta’s … and much much more.…
So I hardly had any time left for the lovely (& again: deliciously yellowy-leafy) Georgian streets, the laid-back and trendy atmosphere in Clifton (a mix of bohemian chic, student life, and gently decayed bourgeois houses) and the awesome Clifton Suspension Bridge : this amazingly elegant bridge, designed by Brunel, spanning a valley whose depths kindle a dizzying vertigo and whose coloring trees make one sigh yet again with sweet autumnal melancholy.
Yes, Bristol has charmed me, with its regained confidence, with its acknowledgment of its history, with its beauties, with its range of sights & sites, with its bustling activity. A real city indeed.