Simeon Returns to Bristol: Part Two

Previously in Simeon’s life, the red-haired gibbon (toffee-coloured, if you please) has run around Castle Park searching for spies, learned about the connection between Treasure Island and Bristol, earned himself a certificate, and had a rejuvenating rest. Now he is ready to tell the world about some of his other favourite things to do in the city. So, all aboard the Simeon Tour Bus. Enjoy the ride!

Stop One: Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

Situated half a mile uphill from the city centre is the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, which opened its doors to the public on 20th February 1905. The Edwardian Baroque building was built by the architect Sir Frank William Wills and funded by his cousin, Sir William Henry Wills (1830-1911). Some of the building suffered damages during the Second World War, but much of the original architecture remains. Initially, the museum intended to display antiquities and natural history, whilst a separate museum exhibited artwork. Due to lack of funds and the two world wars, a separate museum never materialised, and the building remains both a museum and an art gallery.

Expecting to see antiquities and natural history, Simeon was surprised to find a stone angel with a paint bucket over its head standing in the entrance hall. This is an artwork called Paint-Pot Angel by Bristol’s anonymous graffiti artist Banksy. It remains in the museum as a reminder of their successful Banksy versus Bristol exhibition held in 2009. If that was not confusing enough for the little gibbon, above the statue hung two frightening Chinese dragons. With fur standing on end, Simeon reassured himself they were not real but rather examples of carved wooden dragons used in Chinese temples during the Qing dynasty.

Further into the museum, Simeon discovered items from Ancient Egypt and Assyria, including amulets, weapons, masks and mummified cats. Many of these items were donated to the museum by Bristol-based travellers, such as, Amelia Edwards (1831-92), “the Godmother of Egyptology” who co-founded the Egypt Exploration Fund in 1882. Carved stone reliefs from the palace of King Assurnasirpal II (883-859 BC) of Assyria (now Iraq) found their way to the museum in 1905, but how they got from the Middle East to England remains uncertain.

Bristol Museum & Art Gallery has a vast collection of taxidermy (stuffed animals), although as Simeon quickly pointed out, they lack a gibbon. Some of these are in the ground floor gallery opened by Sir David Attenborough (b. 1926). These animals are examples of wildlife found in the marine and freshwater habitats of the South West of England. Included in the display are owls, falcons, oystercatchers, gulls, auks and ducks. Simeon found more British animals on the first floor of the museum, including a hedgehog, a dormouse, foxes, badgers, otters and many birds.

In the World Wildlife gallery are specimens from all over the world. Some of these were shot by trophy hunters in the early 1900s, for instance, a tiger shot by King George V (1865-1936) in Nepal in 1911. Others were once residents of Bristol Zoo whose bodies were carefully preserved after death. For most visitors, this is the closest they will get to a sloth, an echidna, a duck-billed platypus, a koala, a chimpanzee and many more animals. Simeon was not sure whether to be disappointed or relieved that there were no gibbons on display.

The highlight of the World Wildlife Gallery is Alfred the Gorilla. In 1930, Alfred came to Bristol Zoo as a baby, where he entertained visitors by throwing snowballs, wearing woolly jumpers, and recoiling in horror at men with beards. Alfred also had a fear of aeroplanes. When he died in 1948, the Daily Mail jumped to the assumption that a passing aeroplane frightened the gorilla to death. In reality, Alfred suffered from tuberculosis, a disease previously thought to only affect humans. Alfred’s body was mounted in the museum shortly after his death, but in 1956, he briefly escaped from the museum. A group of university students stole the stuffed creature from the museum as a prank. Three days later, Alfred was discovered sitting in the waiting room of the student health centre.

Hanging above the museum cafe (which Simeon thoroughly enjoyed visiting), the little gibbon was horrified to come face-to-face with a hideous creature. With hair standing on end, Simeon learned this was Doris, a life-size model of a prehistoric marine reptile called a Pliosaurus. Palaeontologists do not know what Doris, named after a Greek sea goddess, looked like for certain, but she is based on fossil remains found near Westbury in Wiltshire.

Bristol Museum & Art Gallery owns several fossils of dinosaurs, including a Thecodontosaurus antiquus, which roamed Bristol and the surrounding areas about 210 million years ago. The museum also displays a pregnant ichthyosaur specimen. The bones of the baby form the smallest “sea dragon” found to date and prove that the creatures gave birth to their young rather than lay eggs. Also in the museum is a vast collection of minerals and rocks from Bristol and further afield.

The art gallery is located on the topmost floor of the museum. Initially, the museum wished to display local artists, but the collection quickly opened up to foreign artists from all eras. Paintings span from the Old European Masters of the 1400s, such as Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), through to the Impressionists and Pre-Raphaelites of the 19th century, including Alfred Sisley (1839-99) and Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98). The gallery also contains contemporary artworks and several ceramics.

Stop Two: Bristol Zoo

Having indulged in stuffed animals, Simeon thought it about time to visit the real things. So, next stop, Bristol Zoo. “Hurry!” shouted Simeon as he ran up the road towards Clifton. “We need to get there before they move all the animals to the Wild Place Project.” Bristol Zoo is closing in 2022 and moving to the Wild Place Project in South Gloucestershire

Bristol Zoo is the fifth oldest zoo in the world. It was founded on 22nd July 1835 by Henry Riley (1797-1848), a British surgeon and naturalist from Bristol who led the Bristol, Clifton and West of England Zoological Society. Many animals were shipped from across the world ready for the grand opening, but the first big attraction did not arrive until 1868. This was Zebi the elephant, who became well-known for removing and eating straw hats. Today, there are no longer elephants at the zoo, but Simeon did not mind; he was too enthralled by the lions.

Lions were first introduced to Bristol Zoo in 1900 when they erected a new house suitable for a family of large cats. Simeon admired the Asiatic lions from behind a wire fence, although they were not very active at the time. The female, Sonika, appeared to be fast asleep whilst Sahee watched over her. Asiatic lions are the most endangered large cat species in the world. They only live in the Gir forest in India, but Sonika and Sahee arrived in Bristol from other zoos rather than from the wild. Simeon was quick to point out that his fur was a similar colour to Sahee’s mane!

Simeon had already met Bristol Zoo’s first gorilla, albeit stuffed and mounted. Now the zoo is home to a family of eight western lowland gorillas. Jock the silverback, the dominant male, can make enough noise for people a couple of kilometres away to hear. Fortunately, he did not do that in Simeon’s presence. Three adult females, Kera, Kala and Touni, and three youngsters, Afia and Ayana and Hasani, live with Jock on Gorilla Island. In December 2020, Touni gave birth, taking the total of gorillas up to eight. The baby has yet to be named.

During the 1980s, Bristol Zoo developed several new exhibits. The Reptile House opened in 1981 and now houses a comprehensive list of reptiles and amphibians, including snakes, turtles, frogs, crocodiles, iguanas and tortoises. Simeon’s favourite tortoises were the Aldabra giant tortoises, which can live as long as 100 years and weigh up to 250kg. In 1983, the Monkey House opened, where mischief occurs daily. Simeon resisted the urge to play with the cheeky monkeys, macaques, lemurs and the two agile gibbons, Samuel and Duana.

Towards the end of the 1990s, the television presenter Professor David Bellamy (1933-2019) opened the Seal and Penguin Coast section of the zoo. The attraction provides the opportunity to view African penguins and seals both on land or underwater. Although penguins are very sociable animals, they were hiding during Simeon’s visit, but he enjoyed watching the seals swimming around the enclosure. The South American fur seals were almost hunted to extinction during the 20th century. Fortunately, they are now of least concern on the International Union for Conservation (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

Simeon loved every aspect of Bristol Zoo, but if he was forced to choose a favourite animal, he would choose the meerkats. The charismatic mob of female meerkats, one of whom introduced herself to Simeon as Bubushka, frolicked in the warmth of their house, frequently coming up to the glass to greet visitors. Simeon admired the patience of the meerkat on lookout duty and was amused when two rested their heads on a ledge and appeared to fall asleep.

Relieved not to be mistaken for an escaping zoo animal, Simeon exited Bristol Zoo with dozens of lovely memories. Bristol Zoo allowed him to meet animals from all over the world, including red pandas, armadillos, flamingos, frogs, bats, stick insects, birds, sloths, mongooses, and so much more.

Stop Three: The New Room

The next stop on Simeon’s tour of Bristol is the “New Room”, which is actually very old. This is the oldest Methodist building in the world, dating to 1740. The building, which became a chapel, was built after two religious societies in Bristol asked the preacher John Wesley (1703-91) to create a new room where they could meet. Wesley arrived in Bristol in 1739 to continue the work of the evangelist George Whitefield (1714-70), who preached on the streets of Bristol. Today, the chapel has been restored to resemble how it looked in 1748, with the addition of pews, which were added in the 19th century. As well as a chapel, Wesley used the upper floors as his home. The space is now a museum dedicated to John and his brother Charles (1707-88).

On entering the chapel, Simeon was struck by the lack of windows on the ground floor. The only source of light comes from an octagonal skylight. Methodism, as the denomination became known, was not welcome by some people in Bristol. Mobs frequently attacked members of the congregation, so the lack of windows limited the amount of damage they could create during a service. The design of the building also made it difficult for anyone to reach the preacher. The pulpit is only accessible from the upper floor.

Services usually took place at 5 am before people went to work – far too early for Simeon! Worship began and ended with a song, usually written by Charles Wesley, who wrote an estimated 6,500 hymns during his lifetime. The organ in the chapel was given to the New Room in the 1930s. During the 18th century, congregations sang unaccompanied.

Wesley did not design the New Room as a church, nor did he intentionally separate from the Church of England. The term ‘Methodism’ was initially given to the group by those who disliked the religious society. The Methodist Church came into being after the death of John and Charles. As well as preaching, John Wesley aimed to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor. He created food and clothing banks and argued for a national living wage. He founded affordable schools and encouraged uneducated adults to earn qualifications. Wesley also promoted cleanliness and taught people how to improve their health. He provided free medicine for the poor and improved the living conditions of those in prison. Wesley was a man before his time who campaigned against the slave trade and encouraged women to play a wider role in society.

Upstairs in the museum, Simeon explored the living quarters of John Wesley and his assistants. There were twelve small rooms and one large common room, which served as both a meeting space, dining area and study. Wesley only used two of the rooms for himself: a bedroom and a private study. Today, the rooms tell the story of the Wesley family, the start of Methodism, and life during the 18th century.

The first couple of rooms in the museum explain what life in Bristol was like before John Wesley arrived in 1739. Life for the poor was dismal in comparison to the rich. Simeon’s eyes widened, and his mouth salivated as he read how the rich used to dine. A meal typically lasted at least two hours, and each course consisted of between five and 25 dishes. Gentlemen always drank port with dessert, and the women drank sweet wine. For a brief moment, Simeon thought he would love to live like the rich of the 18th century, but the rest of the museum soon put that notion out of his mind.

Admittedly, Simeon felt a bit sceptical when he read John Wesley’s recommendations for a healthy lifestyle. “Abstain from all pickled, smoked or high-seasoned food.” (Simeon eyed his round little belly guiltily.) “Exercise is of greater service to your health than a hundred medicines.” (“But I only have little legs!” exclaimed Simeon.) “Those who read or write much should learn to do it standing.” (“I think not!” declared Simeon.)

The final few rooms of the museum focus on social injustices, particularly those concerning slavery, war, consumerism and politics. Wesley looked to God for inspiration and strength. He wished to promote equal treatment for women, care for animals, offer the best possible education, create a society based on values and not on profits, avoid engaging in wars, live simply and “be content with what plain nature requires”. (“What a good man,” said Simeon, admiringly.)

“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”

Stop Four: Tyntesfield

A week in Bristol is exciting, but sometimes it is nice to get away from the city crowds. So, Simeon travelled eight miles into the countryside to visit an ornate Victorian Gothic house called Tyntesfield and its extensive gardens. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, Simeon only had access to a handful of ground floor rooms, which failed to tell him much about the house’s history. Fortunately, Simeon is a resourceful gibbon and has learned everything he wished to know from the National Trust guidebook and website.

The estate, formally known as Tyntes Place, became the possession of William Gibbs (1790-1875) in 1843. (That’s GIBBS, Simeon. Not GIBBON!) Gibbs hired the architect John Norton (1823-1904) to double the size of the house in the High Victorian Gothic style. He also purchased neighbouring estates upon which he built homes for his sons. Following his death, his descendants made a few changes to the interior of the building, for instance, installing electricity and central heating. Richard Gibbs (1928-2001), the last member of the family to live at Tyntesfield, died without an heir and the house was left neglected. In 2002, the National Trust acquired the house and surrounding land. Following an ambitious conservation programme, they restored Tyntesfield to its former glory.

William Gibbs earned his money through guano trade with Spain and South America. Guano, as Simeon is keen to tell you, is the dried excrement of seabirds, a popular fertiliser in the 19th century. Although Gibbs spent a lot of his wealth on Tyntesfield, he also contributed to many charities. Both Gibbs and his wife Matilda Blanche (1817-87) were deeply religious and funded several churches, including the chapel at Keble College, Oxford. Towards the end of his life, Gibbs commissioned Sir Arthur Blomfield (1829-99) to build a chapel next to Tyntesfield, which the family used for daily prayers and Sunday services.

Simeon entered the house through the cloister, decorated with encaustic tiles. This led through to the centre of the house, designed to create a sense of awe and grandeur. Here, the main staircase leads up to the first-floor family bedrooms, but Simeon could not visit them on this occasion. Fortunately, Simeon was permitted to look in the library, which contains over 2000 books on several subjects such as theology, science, fine art, history, poetry and gardening.

Gardening was a favourite activity of the last inhabitant of Tyntesfield. After William Gibbs died, his son Antony did not continue the family trading business. Instead, he focused on arts and crafts. Likewise, the next heir, George, took a different profession and became an influential politician, earning him the title of 1st Lord Wraxall. By the time Richard Gibbs, 2nd Lord Wraxall became the owner in 1949, the family’s wealth had reduced considerably. After shutting up many rooms, Richard focused on maintaining the estate grounds, particularly the Kitchen Garden.

Simeon thoroughly enjoyed exploring the Kitchen Garden, which continues to grow many fruits and vegetables. The little gibbon also ventured through fields of cows to locate some of the other formal gardens on the estate. His favourite was the rose garden, which ironically contains very few roses. The local deer have eaten most of the roses, but a pink American Pillar rose continues to thrive on the iron pergola.

Stop Five: Floating Harbour

Simeon’s tour of Bristol concludes at the Floating Harbour, which covers 70 acres of the city. It is referred to as “floating” because the water levels remain consistent and are not affected by the tides. Simeon explored the harbour many times on his previous visit to Bristol, but he could not resist a few walks along the water, looking at all the boats.

Naturally, Simeon believes his tour of Bristol is far superior than anyone else’s, as I am sure you agree. Nonetheless, he insisted on travelling on the “Toot Bus” to get a glimpse of all the places he had not the time to visit. Bristol’s sightseeing bus tour starts near the floating harbour then drives up to Bristol Zoo, passing Clifton Down Station along the way. The bus passes under the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which Simeon bravely crossed on his last visit.

From the top deck of the bus, Simeon had a view of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s SS Great Britain, as well as the other boats in the Floating Harbour. Before returning to the first bus stop, the bus drove Simeon to Temple Meads Station, which opened in 1840 as the western terminus of the Great Western Railway – another of Brunel’s inventions. Finally, the bus came to a halt outside Simeon’s apartment, where he indulged in a well-deserved rest.

Of course, a trip would not be complete for Simeon without sampling several restaurants, no matter what John Wesley says about abstaining from rich food – although the New Room’s cafe makes a mean marble cake! For pizza lovers, Simeon recommends The Stable, situated on the harbourside. The laidback restaurant serves up seriously good pizza with a wide range of toppings, alongside pints of beer, cider and crafted drinks.

Another of Simeon’s favourite places to eat is Bar + Block, a steakhouse on King Street. Whilst they specialise in steak, there are plenty of other options on the menu. Other places with large menus include The Berkeley and The Commercial Rooms, both owned by J. D. Wetherspoon. The Berkeley is situated in a former shopping arcade and contains a stained-glass dome and a small whispering gallery. The Commercial Rooms were once a gentlemen’s club and meeting place for the city’s merchants. The foundations were laid in 1810, and the Rooms opened for business the following year. In 1852, following the completion of the Great Western Railway, The Commercial Rooms became the first telegraph office in Bristol. The Rooms were taken over by Wetherspoons in 1995.

Those wishing to experience Bristol’s ultimate fine dining need to visit Browns, housed in a building that once belonged to Bristol Museum. Simeon enjoyed eating in the sophisticated establishment against a backdrop of enormous arched windows and original stone pillars. By the end of the meal, Simeon felt well and truly stuffed – both literally and figuratively. (Don’t expect this treatment all the time, Simeon!)

This concludes Simeon’s tour of Bristol. We hope you have enjoyed the ride. Do come again soon.

Simeon’s Top Tips

  1. Book tickets for the attractions in advance. Most places are limiting the number of visitors due to Covid-19. (Generally, it is best to book to avoid disappointment)
  2. Do not fall in the harbourYou will get very wet.
  3. Watch out for people on bikes and electric scooters. Do not walk in cycle lanes.
  4. Do not feed the animals in the zoo. That is the zookeeper’s job.
  5. Be prepared for lots of walking. Bristol is not very car-friendly.
  6. Watch out for seagulls. They will try to steal your food.
  7. Be prepared for rainPack more than one pair of trousers.
  8. Pace yourself. There is so much to see. It is impossible to do it all in a day.
  9. Do not eat too much pickled, smoked or high-seasoned food. John Wesley would disapprove.
  10. Follow government guidelines regarding Covid-19. They are there for everyone’s safety.

Read about Simeon’s previous adventures here:
Simeon goes to Amsterdam
Simeon and the Bloomsbury Treasures
Simeon Visits Rainham Hall
Simeon, the Cliffs and the Sea
Simeon Encounters Antwerp
Simeon Investigates Covent Garden
Simeon and the Green Witch’s Treasure
Simeon Conquers York
Simeon’s Bristol Highlights
Simeon Returns to Bristol: Part One

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Simeon’s Bristol Highlights

Simeon the red-haired gibbon (toffee-coloured, if you please) has been off on his adventures again, this time to the South Western city of Bristol. Steeped in history, Bristol lies on the rivers Frome and Avon and gets its name from the Old English Brycgstow, meaning “the place at the bridge”.

Bristol made the news in June when Black Lives Matter rioters tore down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston (1636-1721) and deposited it in Bristol Harbour. Although honoured for his involvement with schools, almshouses, hospitals and churches, it has recently come to light that Colston trafficked around 80,000 men, women and children during the Slave Trade.

Whilst Bristol cannot escape its historical connection with the Slave Trade, Simeon discovered there are plenty of positive facts about the city and many places to visit. Twinned with Bordeaux, France and Hanover, Germany, Bristol is amongst the most popular cities for tourists in England. After spending an enjoyable, albeit wet, week in Bristol, Simeon is keen to tell you about his favourite attractions.

Bristol Old City

With the help of a murder mystery trail provided by Treasure Trails, Simeon explored the cobbled streets of the old city, containing buildings from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The trail began outside the former Everard’s Printing Works, which was built in 1900 and decorated in the Pre-Raphaelite art nouveau style by William Neatby. Although most of the building has since been demolished, the arts and crafts facade has been preserved.

Around the corner, whilst visually less impressive, is another notable building. Built in 1857 to resemble the Library of St Mark, Venice, it has been occupied by Lloyds Bank Limited since 1892. Before then, a different building stood on the site known as the Bush coaching inn. This inn featured in Charles Dickens’ (1812-70) first novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (aka The Pickwick Papers).

The most impressive building Simeon came across on the trail was the old Exchange building. Built between 1741 and 1743 by John Wood the Elder (1704-54), the architecture includes Corinthian columns and an arched doorway over which sits a frieze of human and animal heads. Merchants of all types traded in the building, including coffeehouses and taverns. The Bristol Slave Trade used the building in the 18th century.

Outside the Exchange are four bronze tables representing the type of tables used at trade fairs. Known as “nails”, the tables were made with flat tops and raised edges to prevent coins falling onto the floor. Each copper nail is slightly different in design and date between the reign of Elizabeth I (b.1553. r.1558-1603) and 1631.

The three-handed clock on the facade of the building most amused Simeon. One hand shows the hours, one the minute according to Greenwich Mean Time, and the third tells the local time in Bristol. Bristol is 2º 35′ west of Greenwich, making it ten minutes behind London. Due to problems, such as sticking to train timetables, Bristol eventually adopted GMT.

The Exchange is now home to St Nicholas Market, established in 1743. It is the oldest market in Bristol and ranks amongst the top ten markets in the United Kingdom. Open every day except Sundays, the market is home to over 60 independent retailers, including food stalls, jewellery makers, clothing brands and gift shops.

The Murder Mystery trail took Simeon along the quayside where the Bristol Merchant Navy Memorial stands. Unveiled by Princess Anne (b.1950) in 2001, the memorial lists the names of those who lost their lives at sea. It also records the ships lost during the two World Wars.

At the end of the trail, Simeon came across the Christmas Steps next to The Chapel of the Three Kings of Cologne, whose stained glass window depicts the nativity scene. “Three Kings” references the Biblical magi and “Cologne” refers to the church of the same name in the German city. The origin of the name “Christmas Steps” is uncertain, but one theory suggests it relates to the window of this church.

The steep steps were constructed in 1699 and lead to a small street containing grade II listed buildings. One of these buildings is The Sugar Loaf Public House, established around 1700. Another now houses a unique cafe, Chance and Counters, where customers can eat and drink while spending a couple of hours playing board games.

Bristol Cathedral

On the College Green, not far from Bristol Harbour, stands a gothic cathedral. Formally the Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, Bristol Cathedral belongs to the Church of England, as it has done since the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. Founded in 1140, the original building contained St Augustine’s Abbey, but much of the structure collapsed in the 16th century. Today’s gothic building includes a nave built by George Edmund Street (1824-81) and two towers that were added in 1888 by John Loughborough Pearson (1817-97).

In 1549, Henry VIII (1491-1547) raised the building, or what was left of it after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, to the rank of Cathedral of a new Diocese of Bristol and dedicated it to the Holy Trinity. Paul Bush (1490-1558) became the first bishop of Bristol; his grave lies on the north side of the choir.

Not much is known about life at the abbey before it became a cathedral. A mob destroyed early records during the 1831 Bristol riots, as well as part of the building. Several benefactors helped to rebuild the nave, which opened in 1877. Ten years later, Taylor’s Bell Foundry cast new bells for the north-west tower.

Inside the cathedral, the vaulting of the nave and choir impressed Simeon. The architecture allows the aisles to make use of the full height of the ceiling, which is brightly lit by the daylight coming in through the tall stained-glass windows. The original windows, including a rose window on the west facade, were produced by Hardman & co, during the restoration in the 19th century. Unfortunately, many of the windows shattered during the Blitz (1940-41). Bristolian Arnold Wathen Robinson (1888-1955) produced the windows that are in place today. These designs honour several people, including St. John’s Ambulance, the British Red Cross, the Women’s Voluntary Service and the Home Guard. Plans to remove one window dedicated to Edward Colston are underway.

Cabot Tower

Although temporarily closed, Simeon says it is worth walking (he was carried) up to Cabot Tower to enjoy the views from the top of Brandon Hill. Since 1980, Brandon Hill is looked after by the Avon Wildlife Trust who have their headquarters within the parkland. The area is a breeding ground for butterflies, frogs, newts and birds, such as jays and bullfinches. Simeon also met a squirrel while having a rest by the tower.

Cabot Tower was erected in the 1890s to commemorate the 400th anniversary of John Cabot’s (c.1450-c.1500) journey from Bristol to Canada. Born in Italy, Cabot came to England to seek financial backing for an expedition across the Atlantic. Henry VII (1457-1509) gave Cabot a royal patent stating that all his expeditions should begin in Bristol, which was the second-largest seaport in England at the time.

The first expedition returned early due to bad weather but Cabot’s second expedition proved to be more fruitful. In 1497, Cabot set off on a small ship named Matthew of Bristol with a crew of 20 men. On the 24th June, Cabot’s ship made landfall somewhere off the coast of North America, now believed to be Newfoundland. At this time, Cabot decided to go no further and returned to England to report his findings. Although Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) is famous for colonising the Americas, Cabot Tower recognises Cabot as the first European to reach North America.

In May 1498, Cabot set off on a third expedition, this time with a fleet of five ships. Bad weather forced one ship to dock in Ireland, but the other four carried on sailing. No one heard from them again. Whether Cabot died at sea or if he found land is unknown. His son, Sebastiano (c.1474-1557), continued his father’s work, seeking the Northwest Passage through North America for the king.

Cabot Tower is 105 feet high, making it approximately 334 feet above sea level. The red sandstone structure contains a spiral staircase leading to balconies from which Bristol Harbor is visible. The tower, designed by William Venn Gough (1842-1918), is supported by buttresses and is topped by an octagonal spire upon which a ball finial and winged figure sit.

Clifton Suspension Bridge

Not to be missed is the Clifton Suspension Bridge across the Avon Gorge, which links the Bristol suburb Clifton with Leigh Woods, North Somerset. Intrepid Simeon traversed the 1,352 ft (412 m) bridge at 254 ft (74.67m) above water to reach the visitor’s centre on the Leigh Wood’s side.

The visitor’s centre contains a small but informative exhibition about the history of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which opened in 1864. The idea to build a bridge “from Clifton to Leigh Down” to ease traffic in Bristol came from the will of a wealthy wine merchant, William Vick (d.1754). He left £1,000 to the Society of Merchant Venturers, instructing them to invest it until it had reached £10,000, after which they should have enough money to build the bridge across the Avon Gorge.

Vick’s visions were impractical for the time because the technology to build such a bridge did not yet exist. Forty years later, Vick’s wishes resurfaced, and the aptly-named William Bridges published the first design idea. Unfortunately, war broke out with France and the plans were laid to one side.

In 1820, a proposal for a suspension bridge across the Avon Gorge developed. This type of bridge is much cheaper to produce than a stone bridge and quicker to build. In 1829, the Merchant Venturers launched a competition to design an “Iron Suspension Bridge at Clifton Down”, which received around 22 entrees. Only five were considered practical, but the designers lacked expertise. Instead, the committee approached Thomas Telford (1757-1834), “the father of Civil Engineers”, to provide input.

Telford, famous for his Menai Bridge, advised them not to use the competition entries and promptly produced a design of his own. The plans far exceeded the amount of money proposed by Vick’s; therefore, the committee put forward a request to raise more money for the project. Meanwhile, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59), one of the competition entrants, proposed an alternative idea costing £10,000 less than Telford’s designs.

Brunel’s design met approval with the locals who also began to propose alternative ideas. In 1830, the committee decided to hold another design competition, which Brunel and other designers readily entered. Of the thirteen designs entered, Brunel came second to an entry by Smith & Hawkes of Birmingham. Unhappy with this result, Brunel tweaked his design and persuaded the judges to grant him the winner.

Unfortunately, many hurdles needed overcoming before work could begin on the bridge. The project was £20,000 short of the necessary funds, and plans to raise the sum came to a standstill due to riots prompted by the House of Lord’s rejection of the Reform Act. Work eventually commenced in 1835, as recorded in Brunel’s diary: “Clifton Bridge – my first child, my darling is actually going on – recommenced week last Monday – Glorious!”

The construction of the bridge progressed slowly over the following few years, but it cost a lot more than initially expected. Work came to a standstill once again in 1843 when Brunel reported they needed a further £36,348 but methods of raising this amount were scarce. By 1853, the Society of Merchant Ventures believed “the idea of completing the Bridge is now wholly abandoned.”

When Brunel died in 1859, locals wanted to demolish the beginnings of the bridge, which they considered to be “monuments of failure”. Fortunately, before this could happen, railway development works in London resulted in the demolition of Brunel’s Hungerford Suspension Bridge, and those in charge donated the material to the Clifton Suspension Bridge. With renewed hope, the committee quickly raised £35,000 and completed the bridge by 1864.

Although Brunel did not live to see the finished product, his “child” remains one of the most iconic structures in the area. Despite being built with horse and carts in mind, more than 4,000,000 cars cross the bridge each year. Regular inspection and maintenance keep the bridge safe, but the key reason it has survived to the 21st century is due to Brunel’s superb engineering.

The visitor’s centre provides more details about the construction of the bridge and the people involved. For £5, visitors can learn everything they want about the bridge and its designer as well as use interactive screens to test their knowledge of engineering. On a nice day, the Clifton Suspension Bridge is a lovely place to enjoy stunning views and take photographs.

SS Great Britain

Clifton Suspension Bridge is not Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s only achievement in Bristol; the other, located in the Great Western Dockyard, is a ship that changed the world. SS Great Britain, which claims to be Bristol’s number one tourist attraction, was the first iron-hulled, screw-propelled passenger liner ever made. After launching in 1843, she had a long and eventful life at sea until she found herself back in the very dry dock of her origin. 

When launched, SS Great Britain was the biggest and most technologically advanced ship in the world. Brunel meticulously planned each element of the vessel down to the minutest details to make her suitable for sailing from Bristol to New York. She could sail the distance in 13 days, although not always without problems. On her maiden voyage, the propeller suffered damages but, on her fifth voyage, SS Great Britain collided with a lighthouse and ran aground on the coast of Northern Ireland. Fortunately, after a few alterations, SS Great Britain soon sailed again.

Fitted with a new engine, SS Great Britain set off from Liverpool on 21st August 1852 with 630 passengers destined for Melbourne, Australia. She could complete the journey in 60 days, which was much faster than any sailing ship. A large proportion of the Australian population can trace their ancestry to migrants who arrived on the SS Great Britain.

After many successful years sailing back and forth between Britain and Australia, Antony Gibbs & Sons converted SS Great Britain into a “windjammer”. Between 1882 and 1886, she carried wheat and coal between America and England, often through turbulent waters. These storms eventually damaged SS Great Britain, forcing her to seek shelter in the Falkland Islands.

SS Great Britain spent the rest of her working life as a storage hulk for the Falkland Islands Company until she became too old for use. In 1937, the company abandoned her in Sparrow Cove where she received visits from curious penguins and local children. By the time naval architect Reverend Dr Ewan Corlett (1923-2005) rescued the ship, only a rusting hulk remained.

Corlett arranged for SS Great Britain to return to her birthplace in Bristol. She eventually arrived in the Great Western Dockyard on 19th July 1970, 127 years after her launch. Extensive restoration work has returned the ship to her former glory. Using passenger diaries from SS Great Britain’s first few trips, the team has created a fairly accurate representation of both the exterior and interior of the ship.

Simeon thoroughly enjoyed exploring SS Great Britain, beginning with the top deck where the crew kept animals for use as food products during the journeys. One passenger diary entry listed the number of animals on board the ship in 1864: “one cow, three bullocks, 150 sheep, 30 pigs, 500 chickens, 400 ducks, 100 geese and 50 turkeys.” Most of these animals helped to feed the first-class passengers, but the steerage or third-class passengers received little more than broken water biscuits.

As Simeon discovered, the steerage class lived in the cheaper accommodation below decks in small berths containing bunk beds. Crammed together with only a narrow aisle between bunks, the steerage class had little privacy, ventilation or natural light. Simeon decided steerage class was not for him and headed to the kitchens where cooks prepared luxurious food for the first-class passengers.

Simeon found the first-class section of the ship much more to his standards. As well as slightly larger sleeping areas, first-class passengers had a wide choice of meals, which they ate in the decorated Dining Saloon. Between meals, the passengers found ways to entertain themselves, including putting on amateur theatrical or musical performances. Charades, bible-reading classes, Sunday schools, language lessons and a variety of games prevented anyone becoming bored. Although they could go up on deck for fresh air, the first-class also had a Promenade Saloon where passengers could walk if unable to go outside.

As well as the steerage and first-class accommodations, Simeon visited the noisy Engine Room, the Galley, the Cargo Deck, the Holding Bridge and the Dry Dock. The latter is a specially created roofed-dock that protects the SS Great Britain‘s iron hull. Travelling over a million miles in salty seawater caused the metal to corrode, leading to holes. Despite no longer being in the water, the hull would continue to deteriorate without prevention. 

The Dry Dock is a giant dehumidification chamber that removes 80% of the humidity from the air, making it the same level of dryness as the Arizona Desert and protects SS Great Britain from further damage. Visitors can enter the dock to get a close up look at the ship’s propellor and appreciate the size and shape of her enormous hull.

A trip to SS Great Britain includes two museums as well as the ship. The Dockyard Museum, which leads onto the top deck, provides all the details about the ship’s construction, journeys and restoration. The other museum, Being Brunel, tells the story of Isambard Kingdom Brunel from his birth to his death. SS Great Britain and the Clifton Suspension Bridge belong to a long list of Brunel’s achievements, including two more ships, the Great Western Railway and several bridges. 

Bristol Harbour

A visit to SS Great Britain makes it impossible to miss Bristol’s harbour. Nicknamed the Floating Harbour because the water level remains constant regardless of the tides, it covers an area of 70 acres, which tour boats regularly sail around. Aboard the Tower Belle owned by Bristol Packet Boat Trips, Simeon sailed past former workshops and warehouses that now contain restaurants, nightclubs and museums.

Commentary supplied by the captain of the boat taught Simeon about past and present life in the harbour. Along the way, Simeon had good views of SS Great Britain, old industrial cranes, and a replica of Matthew, which John Cabot sailed on in 1497.

Bristol Aquarium

Sticking to the water theme, Bristol Aquarium is a short walk from Bristol Harbour and is home to hundreds of sea creatures. Visitors explore the wonders of the oceans in seven themed zones. Piranhas from the Amazon, Cichlids from Africa, and Clown Fish (Nemo) and Regal Tangs (Dory) from the tropics are among the popular attractions.

Simeon particularly enjoyed watching the terrapin turtles in Turtle Bay and watching the sharks and Honeycomb Moray Eels eat their lunch. The jellyfish and rays provided a peaceful ambience, whereas the faster fish added an element of excitement. Simeon’s favourite section, of course, was the Urban Jungle where he felt at home with the foreign trees and plants, for example, the banana plant (Musa basjoo) and cheese plant (Monstera deliciosa).

Whilst the aquarium is a fun place to visit, it is also a place of learning and development. Bristol aquarium specialises in breeding seahorses, but they also have juvenile pipefish and sharks in their nursery. They take great care of their creatures and nurse any poorly ones back to good health. Many of the fish came to the aquarium as donations, but others are rescuees from dirty or unsafe waters. Many of these are eventually re-homed thanks to the aquarium’s support of marine conservation.

M Shed

On the harbourside sits the M Shed, a museum devoted to the history of Bristol and its people. Situated in one of the former dockside sheds named simply after letters of the alphabet, the museum covers everything from life in the harbour to the development of the city over several centuries. Simeon enjoyed learning about different periods of history and looking at the hundreds of exhibits.

The largest single item on display is the green Bristol Lodekka bus, used between 1949 and 1968. Specially designed to pass under all the bridges in Bristol, it could carry up to 73 passengers. Other vehicles in the museum include a fully restored Type T Tourer, the fastest solid-tyred bicycle from 1883 and a “Flying Flea”. The latter is the English name of Henri Mignet’s (1839-1965) aircraft Pou De Ciel. These were sold as kits for amateur flyers to assemble. Bristol engineer Harry Dolman (1897-1977) was the first person in England to build one of the planes, which he named the Blue Finch.

The M Shed needs more than one visit to appreciate fully; there is so much information, it is impossible to take it all in on one trip. The Slave Trade is impossible to ignore, but the museum curators have dealt with it in a sensitive, educational manner. Stories about housewives who boycotted sugar in protest of the Slave Trade and those who protested for equal rights demonstrate how the Bristolians overcame their ignoble past.

The museum refers to Bristol’s International Balloon Fiesta, which attracts hundreds of people each year. Those lucky enough to see the balloons flying over the Clifton Suspension Bridge are in the perfect position for awe-inspiring photographs – weather permitting. Simeon was disappointed he was not in Bristol for the fiesta, but he did catch sight of a couple of hot air balloons once or twice.

Of course, the balloons were not the only thing Simeon was unable to see; it is hard to fit everything into one week for such a little gibbon. Covid-19 restrictions also limited the number of places he could visit, but Simeon has a list of places he would like to see during his next trip to Bristol: Bristol Zoo, the Red Lodge Museum, the Georgian House Museum, Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, and John Wesley’s Chapel.

Simeon’s Top Tips

  1. Book tickets for the attractions in advance. Most places are limiting the number of visitors due to Covid-19. (Generally, it is best to book to avoid disappointment)
  2. Do not fall off Clifton Suspension Bridge. It is a long way down.
  3. Do not fall in the harbour. You will get very wet.
  4. Be respectful in the Cathedral. It is a place of worship.
  5. Pace yourself when climbing Brandon Hill. There are plenty of benches along the pathways.
  6. Watch out for people on bikes. Do not walk in cycle lanes.
  7. Do not touch the creatures in the aquarium. Particularly the terrapins, they have powerful jaws.
  8. Be prepared for rain. Pack more than one pair of trousers.
  9. Look out for Banksy. A couple of his works are in Bristol.
  10. Follow social distancing rules. They are there for everyone’s safety.

Read about Simeon’s previous adventures here:
Simeon goes to Amsterdam
Simeon and the Bloomsbury Treasures
Simeon Visits Rainham Hall
Simeon, the Cliffs and the Sea
Simeon Encounters Antwerp
Simeon Investigates Covent Garden
Simeon and the Green Witch’s Treasure
Simeon Conquers York