In the summer of 1993, during my week off from work, I decided to spend the day in Bristol. I hadn’t been there for a while, and I wanted to take advantage of my free time. It was one of my favourite places for a change of scene – a convenient forty-minute train journey from Cardiff, and not too expensive.
More importantly, at that time it still hadn’t been turned into a Clone Town (see Location, Location, Location) and retained enough of its old character to make an occasional visit worthwhile. It’s been said by some unkind people that the best thing which could happen to Bristol city centre is another Blitz. Much of the old centre was destroyed in the Second World War, and the subsequent redevelopment wasn’t much to shout about. However, once one got away from the Broadmead and the Galleries Shopping Centre, there was plenty to see and do.
Scattered around the city centre in the late 1980s and early 1990s were a handful of bookshops, a great comic shop, a couple of decent independent record shops, and a really nice wholefood café-cum-left/green hangout at the top of Christmas Steps. St Nicholas Market was a cool place as well, somewhere between Kensington Market (see Zigzagging Down Memory Lane) and the Emporium in Cardiff – both of which, sadly, are now history.
It was in Bristol that I came across the political magazines Freedom, Class War, and Split (see The Armchair Anarchist), as well as my first copies of Viz, which was very much a cult paper at the time (see Comic Cuts.) It was in Bristol that I acquired my first record by Blyth Power and plugged a few gaps in my Crass collection as well. There were historic pubs, independent shops, fine churches, and unusual nooks and crannies to explore. I’ve always been fond of the place, and spent a lot of time there when I had the chance.
When I got to Temple Meads Station, as usual, the first thing I did was to pick up a copy of the local paper. I had a vague idea about moving to Bristol at the time, so I wanted to look at the job ads. When I opened it, I had a very pleasant surprise. By sheer chance, I’d timed my visit to mark the 150th anniversary of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s great ship, the SS Great Britain.
Brunel is one of my great heroes. The ‘little giant’ bestrode the world of civil engineering in the first part of the Victorian Era, and set his stamp on South Wales and the West Country. Aberdare’s old high level station is one of his creations, as were his famous timber viaducts, one of which, in the present-day Dare Valley Country Park, survived until after World War II. He built railways, bridges, ships, and stations, all of which were bigger and more ambitious than those of his rivals. His genius even extended to projects which were quite literally ahead of their time, such as the ill-fated Atmospheric Railway in Devon. Modern engineering materials could probably make this idea viable in the Twenty-First Century; in the Nineteenth Century, unfortunately, it was a disaster.
I went to Brunel University, which (in spite of the name) isn’t in the West Country. The original campus was adjacent to a stretch of the Great Western Railway in Acton, and took its name as a reflection of the great man’s contribution to our rail network. I always made a point of stopping to admire this photograph which was in the foyer of the University Library. If I was ever going to enter Mastermind, I think I’d like to take Brunel’s life and career as one of my specialist subjects.
The story behind the Great Britain‘s construction is an epic tale in itself. You can read it in L.T.C. Rolt’s definitive biography of the great engineer. The mighty screw-driven steam-fired iron leviathan was a triumph of marine engineering. It was also a huge financial liability. It would never be built today, in a age of cost-benefit analysis and public-private partnerships. This, however, was the Industrial Era par excellence. Buccaneering mavericks like Brunel were lionised by company shareholders, fêted by the press, and generally given free rein to ‘go large!’
Technically speaking, the Great Britain wasn’t ‘launched’ but instead was ‘floated out’ from an enormous dry dock in Bristol’s maritime heart, on 18th July 1843. After becoming the first iron ship to cross the Atlantic, its fortunes declined rapidly. Stranded after a navigational error, it was sold for salvage. Thereafter it carried thousands of emigrants to Australia, before being converted to sail in 1881. Three years later it was taken to the Falkland Islands and used for storing coal, until it was scuttled in 1937.
In 1970, it returned to the UK in a very sorry state. Some years ago the BBC repeated an edition of their history series Chronicle, which followed the ship’s progress from the South Atlantic to its original home. I watched it, and found it fascinating and not a little depressing. Fortunately it ended on an optimistic note, with the ship back in its birthplace and undergoing an ambitious makeover. My friend Glenn, who grew up just south of Bristol, saw it making its slow way up the Avon Gorge. He was about five or six years old, and his father took him to see the historic sight for himself. The ship was painstakingly restored in her original dry dock, where it can be visited today. The BBC programme is on YouTube, if you want to check it out yourself.
Maybe the date had subconsciously registered with me, but it was more likely that my visit was nothing more than a huge coincidence. I was pleased to see that the city had decided to mark the occasion in style, with people in period costumes posing for photographs. I thought I’d share a few photos which I took that day, for no good reason:
After leaving the ship, I headed back into town on the waterbus. This unusual service connects the old maritime quarter with the shopping centre, and enables you to see the city from an unusual vantage point. I’ve often thought that Cardiff could do more to exploit the old Glamorganshire Canal, a part of which is sadly neglected near the City Hall and National Museum of Wales. Churchill Way, just off the main shopping street, was constructed over another stretch of it; if that was opened up to allow fast access between the centre and Cardiff Bay, I think it would be a great tourist attraction and a real money-spinner for the city.
I made my way by bus to another of Brunel’s staggering accomplishments, which spans the Avon Gorge. I’d been across the Clifton Suspension Bridge a couple of times previously – most notably when I joined the Bristol Class War gang at the Ashton Court Free Festival, in 1990 or 1991.
I’ve also been under it once, on one of our occasional road trips (see Getting Stoned.) I forget who was with us altogether, but I do remember Deno’s astonished yell of ‘Shit!’ as we rounded the bend and the bridge hit us between the eyes. I’ll warn you now – if you’re not good at heights, it’s definitely a place to avoid:
On another road trip, Gaz and Billy were horrified to see a guy walking up one of the suspension cables, apparently with no means of support. The sun was behind him, and we couldn’t see the safety harness and rope that tethered him to the superstructure.
Before yet another road trip, Jason W. and Ray P. had boasted that they weren’t scared of anything. With this in mind, I ushered them onto the deck of the bridge. It’s in true dynamic equilibrium – as the motor vehicles drive over it, you can feel it moving under your feet. It didn’t take them long before they were asking to head back to solid ground. Out of curiosity, I threw a coin over the side and counted the seconds until it hit the water. It had vanished from sight long before we saw a tiny splash. As AC/DC didn’t quite sing, it’s a long way to the bottom:
There’s a (possibly apocryphal) story about a Victorian lady who suffered a romantic disappointment, and who decided to take her own life by throwing herself into the Avon, some seventy metres below. Apparently her voluminous skirts acted as a parachute, landing her in some trees on the far side. On the other hand, a friend of mine once told me that a friend of his had been rock-climbing in the gorge. He was appalled to see someone passing him at high speed on the way down.
Again, I’ve been told (although I haven’t verified this personally) that the reason the main A4 road is covered for some distance either side of the bridge is to prevent bodies crashing onto the vehicles below. I’ve shown you this sign in a previous entry, but the first time I saw it it made me chuckle in a macabre way:
I haven’t been up to the Clifton Bridge again since the day with Pam, Gaz and Billy. Pam or Nigel B. would generally drive on our road trips, and I’d navigate from memory. Pam lives in that neck of the woods now. We haven’t had a random day out for years, since we’ve all grown up and settled down.
In fact, I haven’t been to Bristol at all since a gang of us went to see Milton Jones, Shappi Khorsandi and Ardal O’Hanlon at the Comedy Festival a couple of years ago (see Poets’ Corner.) I’ll have to see what the train fares are if you book far enough ahead, and have a day there in the summer. That’s something to look forward to.