Being South-West England’s largest city, nobody would argue that Bristol is the region’s de facto capital, but its geographical position in the north of the region is often blamed for the lack of resources spreading out into the rest of the south-west. “Nothing gets past Bristol” is a phrase I’ve often heard, and one that I’ve used myself, but in my view there’s no other town or city with better credentials.
Until the Industrial Revolution, Bristol had always been one of the country’s foremost cities mainly thanks to its rich, but checkered, maritime history.
Its Anglo-Saxon name of Brycgstow means ‘Place of the Bridge’, and thanks to the local dialect, which has a tendency to add the letter ‘L’ on to the end of words, it became known as Bristol.
Bristol Bridge is still here, a different one I hasten to add, and is close to where the River Frome used to join the River Avon.
The port developed around Bristol Bridge from the 11th century onwards, but it was the formation of the Society of Merchant Venturers which had the most impact on the city’s prosperity. They funded John Cabot’s journey to Newfoundland in 1497 and were responsible for the development of the port, as well as financing projects such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Western Railway and Clifton Suspension Bridge.
Unfortunately, the Merchant Venturers were also involved in a business that has left a stain on Bristol’s reputation – the Slave Trade. For many years it was a taboo subject in the city, and even today it remains controversial. People like Edward Colston, who was a philanthropist on the one hand and a slave trader on the other has become the focus of debate. His statue still stands, as does the name of Bristol’s premier music venue – the Colston Hall – but local musicians Massive Attack have been instrumental in getting the name changed, which is due to happen in 2020.
The Avon cuts through a limestone landscape, most notably through the Avon Gorge, and like many cities where the river runs through it, it also divides it. South of the river was originally part of the county of Somerset, and north of the river was in Gloucestershire – that was until 1373 when it became a county in its own right – and it is still officially called the City and County of Bristol.
In 1974 the boundary changers created the County of Avon to cover the Greater Bristol area, along the same lines as Merseyside and Tyneside, but the idea was abolished in 1996, leaving it as a Unitary Authority instead. The city has a current population of 459,300 and the built-up area an estimated 724,000.
Outside of the Bristol boundaries, the landscape becomes mainly rural, and this proximity to the countryside seems to affect the city’s character; in 2015 it became the Green Capital of Europe, the first UK city to do so.
It must also have a bearing on the character of its citizens who tend to have a friendly, easy-going, laid-back attitude to life. If you think of some of the people that have associations with the city, you’ll get my drift; Was there a more laid-back actor than Cary Grant who was born here? or a more laid-back song than Acker Bilk’s ‘Stranger on the Shore? and what about our football teams, who are too laid-back to go out and win anything worth winning?
You may have noticed that I said “our” football teams – that’s because ‘Easymalc’ is a native Bristolian.
Just for the record I came from the south side of the river, and each district has its own identity (as it does everywhere), and there’s a big difference between genteel Clifton, cosmopolitan Easton, and the alternative ‘People’s Republic of Stoke’s Croft’. This is why it’s possible to have David Attenborough’s BBC Natural History Unit, Wallace and Gromit’s Aardman studios, and the street artist Banksy, all coming from the same place.
It would be wrong for me to suggest that everything is all ‘Ship Shape and Bristol Fashion’; The Luftwaffe seen to that when they ripped the heart out of the city centre during WWII. Bristol isn’t alone where that’s concerned, but it wouldn’t hurt too much if they came back and destroyed some of what replaced those historic buildings.
Bristol would have been a legitimate target due to its aircraft manufacturing and port activity, but the city docks closed down of their own accord in the 1970s. Avonmouth and Portbury have taken up where the city docks left off, with Portbury being the largest importer of cars in the UK, but it has to be said that there are times when it seems like most of them have ended up on the streets of Bristol.
The old docks area though has, on the whole, become a success story, with some of the old warehouses being turned into bars, restaurants, arts venues and museums. There are also more modern attractions around Millennium Square that sit alongside the luxury apartments which seem to have to be built in these circumstances to make all the investment in redevelopment projects like this worthwhile.
For me though, some of the back streets around the S.S. Great Britain on Spike Island, which haven’t quite made it into the 21st century yet, are somehow more rewarding, but I don’t see it staying like that for too much longer.
This introduction to my home city is just a flavour of what it has to offer, and it wouldn’t be difficult for me to start waffling on about this and that, but I’ll save that for future posts.
I spent the first twenty-one years of my life here, and I’ve now been living in Devon longer than I lived in Bristol, but as they say – you can take the boy out of Bristol, but you can’t take Bristol out of the boy! Watch this space!