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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- 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)
- Do not fall off Clifton Suspension Bridge. It is a long way down.
- Do not fall in the harbour. You will get very wet.
- Be respectful in the Cathedral. It is a place of worship.
- Pace yourself when climbing Brandon Hill. There are plenty of benches along the pathways.
- Watch out for people on bikes. Do not walk in cycle lanes.
- Do not touch the creatures in the aquarium. Particularly the terrapins, they have powerful jaws.
- Be prepared for rain. Pack more than one pair of trousers.
- Look out for Banksy. A couple of his works are in Bristol.
- 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