Travelling doesn’t have to mean paying extortionate amounts in plane tickets and struggling with exchange rates. The UK is bursting with beautiful towns, tranquil countryside and rugged coasts and can be just as exciting to explore as foreign shores. In the “Hometown” series some of the Wessex Scene travel writers show us the places they grew up in and tell us why they’re worth a visit!
Now I don’t want to lie to you all: I can’t claim that I actually live in the city. However, I doubt that you will want to read about the sleepy hollow of my little village, so it’s probably best if I describe my slightly busier neighbour. After all, I do only live 25 minutes away; my Dad was born there; AND I always say I’m from Bristol when asked because, let’s face it: have you heard of Wrington?
Named by the Times on Sunday (2014) as the best place to live in the country for its ‘great shopping, buzzing social scene and glorious scenery,’ one can’t help but be slightly proud of saying you’re from Bristol. I shall use these three attributes to structure my picture of the city, giving my own take on their meaning without reading what the original article had to say about them.
As Cabot Circus made its debut onto the stage of Bristol’s shopping scene, I was entering the teenage world and was starting to enjoy the privileges of 13 year old life. One of these privileges was being allowed into the big bad city without parental guidance, and so this marked the beginning of my love affair with the new and exciting shopping centre which, for some time, dominated the Saturdays of my friends and me. With over 120 shops, a cinema, crazy golf and a multitude of restaurants to choose from, it’s no wonder that thousands of people come from all over the country every year to take their pick. Clean, attractive and sparkling; Cabot Circus is a show piece of Bristol’s centre, and if you love high street shopping, then it’s the dream.
However, it is totally down to personal taste, but Cabot Circus just isn’t really my scene anymore. That’s alright though, because I’ve found retail romance elsewhere. If you’re looking for an amazing range of brands and a glitzy shopping center experience then the Big CC is for you, but if you’re wanting something a bit different, then let me lead you away to Stokes Croft and beyond. Walking away from Cabot Circus (I trust you to use a map because I’m not going to give accurate directions) you will find the Bear Pit, and if you take the correct turning off this major roundabout you will enter a world completely unlike the one you just left. Leaving the conventional, extravagant high-street feel behind and replacing it with street art, health food shops and a reclaimed community atmosphere; Stokes Croft is the entrance to charity shop heaven. Turning off this street onto Gloucester Road, you will find a wealth of second hand clothes shops situated in an area where people dress well, which means the charity treasure troves are packed with gems, if you only you have the time sift through the masses and nab them. And if you have time to do that, then you almost certainly have time for a coffee in Bakers and Co, before heading for a beautiful pay-as-you-feel lunch at The Bristol Skipchen (a branch of the Real Junk Food Project). Oh now I’m digressing. Can you tell that the first thing that I ever bought in Cabot Circus was a chocolate muffin?
Anyway, back to the matter in hand. The area leading off from Stokes Croft is retail melting pot of charity shops, vintage/retro shops, books and furniture, but it is not Bristol’s only retail escape from the high-street. Park Street is a bit of a compromise, boasting a mixture of both high-street shops and individual retailers, and the steep hill on which it was situated rises out of the centre and peaks at the majestic university buildings. Beyond this lies Clifton, a very upmarket area which is studded with expensive shops for the buyer on a larger budget, but even if, like me, you’re only window shopping, its architecture and history make it worth the walk. Bristol is a big city and has much more to offer than this, from St Nick’s market to Quakers Friars, and so I think it’s safe to say that it ticks boxes on every aspect of the shopping spectrum.
‘Buzzing Social Scene’
I must say, part of me was hurt that food was not mentioned in the three reasons for Bristol’s success, because eating this city is not an experience to be missed. Therefore I intend to include food in the social scene section as, unless you’re Smithy from Gavin & Stacey, eating is a very sociable thing. Eateries, bars and clubs are in an abundance in Bristol, so much so that it actually makes me feel a little daunted at the prospect of choosing what to cover. As before, it totally depends on what you are looking for, but don’t be afraid: there is something for everyone.
So let’s start with nightlife. From warehouse raves in Motion to the up market bars on Park Street, the social scene is as broad as the retail one. The more traditional clubbing scene is catered for by the likes of Pryzm and Syndicate, well contrasted by the quirky bars and clubs in Stokes Croft. However, Bristol does not limit its nightlife to the land: the recently regenerated docks harbour club and music venue Thekla, and a whole host of other floating venues and restaurants (the Grain Barge being a personal favourite). Like Budapest, the city has endeavoured to rework relics of old industry into the social scene, with Lakota running inside the shell of the Stokes Croft brewery; The Fleece operating in an old wool hall; and Motion working its magic in the matrix of an old warehouse. It’s a huge place, and there is far too much for me to mention without sounding like a Yellow Pages, but I hope I have made it clear that catering for everyone is something that Bristol is very good at.
As you can see, the city is lively, and to enhance this Bristol’s calendar is punctuated by festivals, hosting Love Saves the Day, Bristol Harbour Festival and the ultimate Foodie Festival, among others. Mentioning food, I feel it is the opportune time to delve into the edible side of Bristol’s character. Again, I don’t want to name drop too much, but lovely restaurants are scattered all over the city, and if you pick your preferred area from the places I have already described, you will probably meat your edible match. What’s great about Bristol’s food scene is that there are so many grass roots ventures which have grown into well-loved establishments, and even spread all over the city like the gorgeous Thali Café, which began in festival fields and now has roots in five different areas of Bristol. Its first permanent home was in Montpelier (another branch Stokes Croft), where it began its eco-friendly, sustainable journey serving authentic Indian food inspired by a wealth travel memories. Bell’s Diner also finds its home in this neck of the woods, an open and airy Mediterranean delight, which boasts Prosecco on tap and a vinyl-only music policy. If descriptions like these warm your heart (and your taste buds), then I suggest you book yourself in for a few weeks over here and mentally prepare yourself for serious weight gain, because the edible choice on both land and water is seemingly endless.
So far I have filled your imaginary shopping bags and lined your stomachs, but what about eye candy? Every city has its scars, but Bristol is fairly blemish free, and the ugly new builds of the 60’s are far outweighed by a plethora of stunning buildings. This architecture is mixed in with a remarkable amount of green space, and of course the blue of the harbour, giving the city a relaxed and almost continental feel in parts. A good place to start your tour of this magic assortment is Brunel’s suspension bridge, the views from which encompass much of the city’s western entrance and even reach Totterdown’s ice-cream coloured houses. Once you have taken in all that the inner city has to offer, which could take some considerable time, the Somerset countryside has its arms open wide to you (A Postcard from Somerset), an expanse of rural scenery which sits just on Bristol’s doorstep.
I hope that I have sold our beautiful, eclectic and eccentric Bristol well, and left you just about ready to hop on a train to the heart of the West Country. The phrase ‘the more you see, the more you discover’ is so true of this remarkable city, so when you have the time, come and sample it for yourself.