South-West England’s Regional Capital
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 a 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.
The city grew up in a sheltered position on the banks of the River Avon approximately 6 miles from the mouth of the river where it joins the River Severn. The location gave it both protection and access to the Bristol Channel and beyond.
The Avon also split the city into two. On the north side of the river was Gloucestershire, and on the south side was Somerset – 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.
As the river became silted up and more difficult for larger ships to navigate, new facilities were built at Avonmouth, Portishead and Portbury. In the 1970s the City Docks were closed down with some of the old warehouses being turned into cultural attractions, bars and restaurants.
Being a port and an aircraft manufacturing city, Bristol was a prime target for the Luftwaffe, who literally ripped the heart out of it. The historic city centre lost many important buildings, but like countless towns and cities elsewhere, regeneration after the war came in the form of new architectural ideas, some of which worked, and some of which didn’t.
One thing that Bristol didn’t suffer from as much as other parts of the country, was the decline in industry and manufacturing. During the 1970s and 80s the industrial heartlands of Britain suffered from foreign competition and a swing towards the service industries for economic wealth. Not being a major industrial area, the city was well placed to take advantage of the change in circumstances and many regional offices sprang up almost overnight.
The perception that Bristol was a thriving city in the South of England without the problems of the cities of the Midlands and North meant that there was a wake-up call for the rest of the country when racial tension flared up in 1980 as serious rioting erupted in St. Paul’s. Everyone else might have been surprised, but Bristolians weren’t, and it was a warning of what was to come the following year when similar riots broke out up and down the country.
The decades leading up to the end of the millennium were a time of change everywhere. Post-industrial Britain was creating a climate of uncertainty for people from all backgrounds and it was around this time that Bristol spawned a new type of culture, which although not unique, was different from what had gone before. Bands such as Massive Attack and Portishead led the way in a new genre of music known as ‘Trip Hop’ and Banksy became universally known for his Wall Art (or graffiti if you prefer).
Whether you appreciate this type of thing or not, at least it all adds to the mix of what Bristol has to offer the visitor. Being a native Bristolian, it’s my intention to write posts covering many aspects of city life covering its past history to the present day. I hope you enjoy them. Please let me know if you do – or even if you don’t.