Shipshape and Bristol fashion

Venue: Bristol
Date: 14 Nov 2014 - 16 Nov 2014

Carrie Martindale found that it’s impossible to be bored in Bristol.

Picture the scene; you’re driving through town one evening and you’re stopped dead in your tracks by a pirate standing in the middle of a mini roundabout, brandishing his Jolly Roger flag aloft. “Karrr matey,” he shouts, “We be crossing this road ‘ere now shipmates.”

An altogether unusual tableau, but get ready to be surprised – you’re in Bristol.

Our Captain Jack traffic warden was a gentleman called Pirate Pete, who gave us an inimitable tour of the waterside city, including laugh-out loud and hushed surprise moments (and some incredulity). Oh, and he managed to get me in the back of a hearse to demonstrate how to use a cutlass and a musket.

I had only ever been to Bristol once before, many years ago, and that was to the upmarket area of Clifton, home to Brunel’s suspension bridge and our destination on the Sunday of our trip.

“Pirate Pete’s tour was fun – some of it I took with a pinch of salt - but it was entertaining and a great introduction to the city and the city’s history.” - Graham Simpkins, Coachshare UK Ltd.

I was keen to find out more about the home of animation-sensation Wallace and Gromit, and I wasn’t alone, as the large group of GTOs that joined me for our three days of discovery showed.

First the facts. Bristol will be the UK’s first European Green Capital next year and it was also recently voted the best city in the UK to live in by The Sunday Times. It beat Manchester, it beat London, it beat Oxford - in fact, it beats anywhere you live hands down, according to the ST, and Jon from Destination Bristol.

“I do miss lying to the Americans”

Pirate Pete was just one of many likeable characters that we met in the city. I wasn’t alone in falling a little bit in love with the Bristolian accent, and I could have listened to our skipper on our Bristol Packet Tour of the floating harbour all day.

He made me chuckle with his wistful quip about how he misses lying to tourists, now that people can check up on his history on their phones. The tour is really enjoyable and a great way to get your bearings.

Liz Gamlin who was our Blue Badge guide on the Sunday was equally excellent.

We learnt about everything from the different trades to come out of the city to the devastating bombing that took place during the Blitz. Liz was full of anecdotal gems like how Harvey’s Bristol Cream Sherry got its name, where the phrase shipshape and Bristol fashion came from, and the mythical  Bristol crocodile’ which was supposedly spotted in the river by a local bus driver.

“The different areas of Bristol really have their own characters,” Liz told me. “If you are visiting just for a short while, you could be enjoying the cathedral area or the university; equally you could spend a couple of hours on the harbour, or you could go to the old town. Or with shopping – you’ve got so many choices and each of those areas, almost like little villages, feels very distinctive.”  

Going off piste

It’s not always what’s on the itinerary of a trip that captures your imagination. During our three days in Bristol I saw (and heard) fire eaters, steampunks, street artists and musicians, taxidermists, African drummers, glass blowing, the cathedral choir and jazz music. And a lot of that wasn’t on the programme.

We stumbled upon the African drummers for example at Arnos Vale cemetery, which we visited on Saturday morning when it was atmospherically draped in what Dickens might have called a ‘London Particular’.

Arnos Vale’s necropolis with its huge ornate memorials is so much more than a cemetery. “As much a venue for the living as the dead”, one reader wisely remarked to me.

Victorians would also have been right at home on the cobbled streets of the Christmas Steps too, where I found Weber & Tring’s liquor shop and its umami-like mulled cider syrup.

“It might seem a little morbid but I think Arnos Vale cemetery was fantastic, especially when we stumbled across the drummers. Every twist and turn of Bristol has revealed more culture. I think that out of all the Reader Club trips, this has been the most enlightening.” - Jacqueline Garside, Ashton-Under-Lyne Soroptimists

We were given what felt like a self-indulgent amount of free time on the trip, which came as a pleasant surprise. I gave into my love of getting a little bit lost and stumbled across an eclectic outdoor market where I tried my hand at some bartering (well, I saved a fiver).

A creative and unorthodox city, there’s also some outstanding graffiti to be seen; which you can discover for yourself, including the Banksys, on a street art tour.

A little touch of magic

Talking of Banksy, the birthplace of the modern phenomenon is an Arcadia for artists. There are original drawings and paintings for sale everywhere you turn, a plethora of independent shops, and any number of places to enjoy a craft ale or a mulled cider whilst you watch performers from across the globe.

One reader described the city to me as a ‘magical place’. Christmas is all about magic of course, and our Saturday afternoon trip to the German markets didn’t fail to fill us with that festive spirit.

Sat there in our own tree-top area watching the hustle and bustle of the revellers below and the twinkling lights certainly made me feel all warm inside. Of course, the lashings of potent Glühwein probably helped. There are some perks of the job.

On our first night we finished up our tour at St Nicholas’ Market in the old town, which had a special night market in celebration of its Christmas lights switch-on.

The event had a Mardi-Gras feel, as you picked your way through the costumed creations on stilts and fire dancers. It turned out to be an enchanting evening for me too, as I bumped into a very old friend who I hadn’t seen for years. That’s magic.

“It’s a city; but it’s got a very local feel.” - Liz Hill, Rural Concierge

Captain of industry

I couldn’t mention Bristol without Brunel, and we were treated to two of his masterpieces on the trip. Firstly, the ss Great Britain, nestled in its dry dock next to the M Shed museum and then the monumental Clifton Suspension Bridge, spanning the Avon Gorge.

We were taken across this behemoth by one of the volunteer guides on a mini tour. The views are out of this world, if a little hairy. My favourite story was of how, pre-bridge, they used to ferry people across the gorge in a wicker basket across a metal pole. Forget hairy, that’s practically hirsute.  

So much thought and attention to detail has been put into the visitor experience on the ss Great Britain. From the unnervingly real mannequins that populate the vessel’s cabins to the real-life smells that ooze out of the ship’s kitchen and engine rooms.

There are even little witticisms on-board, such as the man who tells you off for trying to open the privy door whilst it’s occupied. Then for the more structurally-minded, you can go right beneath the ship’s hull in the dry dock, beneath a glass ‘sea’. If you’re feeling brave you can climb up 30 metres of the ship’s rigging in its Go Aloft! experience – and much more.

I’ve heard it said that if ever there was a city with a story to tell, it’s Bristol. Nothing could be further from the truth; it’s the municipal equivalent of a leather-bound version of One Thousand and One Nights. I came back from the weekend with my own tale to tell, and I promise that you’ll find your own too.     

Useful contact:

Visit Bristol:
0117-946 2209

Photo credit: ss Great Britain.

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