or "A sentimental Journey back to Bristol"
a (sentimental) prologue
I spent some wonderful years in Bristol as a student, back in the early 90s. Nice rainy weather, parties, outdoor activities (always with a mackintosh on, of course) lots of travelling around the west country and of course lots of food... wait a moment, Food? English food?
Yes love, my favorite food: meat pies, apple pies, fish and chips, scones with double clotted cream, full English breakfast (perfect for lunch), Sunday roast (of course with Yorkshire pudding), bangers and mash, curry and of course English sandwiches (or "how to turn something simple into an art")…. Stereotypes? Yes, sure but so tasty and exotic stereotypes!
The UK is not just another European Country, it is a "continent" by itself. An exotic, mysterious, beautiful and full of surprises island (ok not really only one, but several islands).
And above all the West Country: the beauty of my university years!
Since then, I haven’t been really back (just for a couple of short visits, mainly to see friends and have a pint over juicy gossiping), so this year (2017) I decided to return as a middle-aged man and see how my beloved city has changed over the last 20 years. You see I had just turned 50!
The first thing that really stroked me is that the city seemed to me very familiar but very different at the same time! Everything changed by remaining exactly the same. That reminded me of the lyrics of a popular greek song: "όλα τριγύρω αλλάζουνε και όλα τα ίδια μένουν"...which means "everything changes around me but everything stays the same". The most worrying of all though, was that I had forgotten basic things like streets and names, basic landmarks and attractions…. aging is ruthless!
Note: I visited the city again in February 2020 for ten days and thus I had the opportunity to see more of it. This time the city felt much more intimate than ever.
I decided to stay downtown (at SACO Apartments - Broad Quay) just opposite the Watershed (my basic point of reference in the early 90s), which brought me nice memories of extremely milky cappuccinos with cocoa power (who on earth drinks cappuccino with cocoa powder on the top?) and European film screenings (I have seen so many boring films that period at the Watershed!).
The weather was unexpectedly chilly, and I was not really prepared for that: strong winds and icy rain. I put on lots of layers of clothes and rushed into the streets ready to absorb as much as possible of the Bristol atmosphere.
My trip was a ten-day trip, but it was not a tourist trip, it was a memories trip. A trip dedicated to the "first half of my life" ... so getting some extra pounds on (I mean weight pounds of course) was part of the agenda.
First stop: the Watershed
The cappuccino is still the same … hot milk with a bit of a coffee taste, weak foam (the kind of coffee you give back to the waiter and never return to that place again if you are in Athens) and that lovely touch of cocoa powder on the top.
Next door to Watershed (under the same roof actually) is the Tourist Information Centre. I bought some souvenirs and post cards to send to friends (are there still people out there expecting a post card?!) and off we go.
Back in my student years Watershed (together with Arnolfini Art Center, just across the water on Narrow Quay) was the only redeveloped building in the area. Today all warehouses (sheds) on the Waterfront and Bordeaux Quay have been transformed into modern bars and restaurants. Besides that, all the area behind these buildings recreated to an entirely new neighborhood spread around Millenium Square. The Bristol Aquarium opened ten years ago behind Watershed, making the area very popular to families.
Banksy - a Bristol legend
My real objective was to visit Clifton and Clifton Village. On my way there, at the beginning of Park street (just opposite the iconic Bristol City Council building) I took a picture of Banksy's "Well Hung Lover" (2006)... a bit faded and targeted with blue paint.... but still impressive.
Banksy is an anonymous England-based graffiti artist, political activist and film director of unverified identity. His satirical street art and subversive epigrams combine dark humor with graffiti executed in a distinctive stenciling technique. Banksy's works of political and social commentary have been featured on streets, walls, and bridges of cities throughout the world. Banksy's work grew out of the Bristol underground scene, which involved collaborations between artists and musicians. Banksy says that he was inspired by 3D, a graffiti artist who later became a founding member of the English musical group Massive Attack.
I left behind the "Naked Man" and College Green, a huge open space dominated by Bristol Cathedral and the City Council building and continued uphill on Park Street till Wills Memorial Building Tower (the main-ceremonial University building) and the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.
Just before arriving at Wills Memorial Building Tower, I turned left at Charlotte Street (there is a sign) for a visit to Brandon Hill. Brandon Hill is a beautiful hilly park, a popular picnic spot with nature reserve. The Hill has a small cascade and ponds and is popular as a Tai Chi practice spot.
The hill is best known, though, because of the Cabot Tower located at its highest point. The 32m high tower was constructed in the 1890s in memory of John Cabot, 400 years after he set sail in "Matthew" from Bristol and landed in what was later to become Canada. The tower is built from red sandstone with cream Bath Stone for ornamentation and emphasis. It consists of a spiral staircase and two viewing platforms where balconies with wrought iron railings overlook the city, the higher of which is approximately 102 m above sea level. The views from up here are the best one can has of Bristol. Be aware of the staircase because it is steep, narrow and dark. Consider using the torchlight of your mobile phone.
Wills Memorial Building
Back to Park street and the impressive Wills Memorial Building with its 68m high tower. The building which, officially opened in 1925 by King George V and Queen Mary, houses the University’s School of Law and the School of Earth Sciences, in addition to hosting graduation ceremonies twice a year and a whole host of public events. Next door stands the Bristol Museum.
Bristol Museum & Art Gallery
Bristol Museum & Art Gallery tells the story of our world in every display, from the beginning of time to the present day. 19 galleries over 3 floors reveal fascinating cultures, ancient civilizations, human invention and creativity, as well as showcasing our beautiful and fragile natural world. All these are displayed inside a beautiful Edwardian building at the top of Park Street. The Museum also has dynamic exhibitions and events programme throughout the year and a shop and a café located in a huge space in the ground floor. As part of Bristol Culture, the museum has no entrance fee.
In the summer of 2009 Bristol Museum & Art Gallery was taken over by an extraordinary exhibition of works by the infamous Bristol artist Banksy called “Banksy versus Bristol Museum”.
The exhibition was held secret till its opening. Very few people knew of it and overnight the museum was transformed into a menagerie of Unnatural History – fishfingers swimming in a gold-fish bowl, hot-dogs and chicken nuggets. Paintings were placed in amongst the historic collections of Old Masters, sculptures and other pieces dotted around throughout the museum displays. The main entrance was transformed into a sculpture hall, accompanied by a burnt-out ice-cream van that pumped out an eerie soundtrack of warped tunes, whilst a giant ice-cream melted on its roof.
Before long, people queued around the block to get into the exhibition, some as long as seven hours just to be part of this unique phenomenon. Over 100 works by the artist – most of which had not been shown before – were displayed.
Banksy left one sculpture behind, the most famous of all: the sculpture of an angel, which stands in the Museum’s sculpture hall, over whose head Banksy had dumped a can of pink paint, leaving the can in place. This became known as "Paint Pot Angel". In fact, the piece became so iconic that the Museum has left it untouched at a prominent position as part of the permanent museum exhibits.
I left the museum and continued on Queens Road, passed in front of Victoria Rooms and followed all the curved road till Victoria Square.
Some emotional info about my University years
Here in Queens Road, at No 115, stands the building which was my dormitory during the first year at the University. The building is located just next to the University Students Union building.
My room was on the 4th floor overlooking the Students’ Union Building. Four floors all together...one Greek student on every floor. This was a "third world dormitory" for students from Asia, Africa and Greece. The western Europeans were staying in posh places... for the same price of course!
There was only one telephone set on the ground floor of the building. So, when you had a telephone call someone was shouting your name and you had to fly four floors down ... no elevator!
Making a phone call though, was more fun and certainly very cheap by using the payphone at the Triangle.
I do not know who started this trick first, but that particular payphone was an adorable payphone: instead of 20-pence coins we used 5-drachma coins to make phone calls. You see the silly phone could not tell the difference! (†) I used to carry tons and tons of 5-drachma coins in my suitcase every time I was coming back from Greece. There was not a single 5-drachma coin left in a radius of 5 km from my house in my hometown!
While living here I did most of my house shopping at a small convenience store at the corner of Queens and Clifton Road. It was (and still is) called the "Ten O'Clock Shop".
(†) 20 pence ≡ 130 drachmas in the 90s
The second year of my studies I moved one block further down at 9 Dover Place. That was nice two bedroom apartment with a view of Cabot Tower. I shared that apartment with my very good friend Maria (now a high school computer science teacher in Aspropyrgos near Athens).
What I remember more of that apartment is our furniture which did not match: an armchair with yellow and brown stripes, which was given by a cypriot friend who decided to move on with his life, a dark brown bookcase we bought (the only piece of furniture we ever bought) from Habitat at Queens's Ave just oposite Barclays, a crystal dinning table we got from a friend's mom, who moved to Spain to retire under the mediteranean sun, some chairs, all different to each other, which we got from places all over the city, a grey sofa bed we were given by my friend Marty, etc. The big window blinds were given to us by Mr Chad, the indian landlord, the hot-cold water mixer in the bathroom was given to us by our friend Sifis, who lived in London those days (now a physics university professor in Heraklion, Crete).
I left Queens Road behind and crossed diagonally Victoria Square. I walked under the archway to find myself in Clifton Village, the most beautiful neighborhood of Bristol.
The area really feels like a village with two-story multicol houses, old-fashioned shops and cute little cafes. One should give himself a couple of hours to wonder around the narrow streets and do some window shopping, before head towards Bristol's landmark, the Clifton Suspension Bridge.
But, before scrolling around the Clifton Village alleys, I recommend you visit "Primrose cafe" for some yummy breakfast, brunch, meal or just a moist cake. This two-story old-fashioned café at 1, Boyce's Ave (just after the archway I mentioned earlier) is one of my favorite spots in Clifton Village.
I love this place because it is soooo English and full of old fashioned "English ladies" (or at least the idea we have about "Englishness", us foreigners). I used to go there to have a coffee and watch the locals or to read a book.... no wi-fi those days, no smartphones...no people lost in their texting and social networking.
When it comes to food, I always have the "FULL MONTY" (this is how they call the big English breakfast): 2 poached eggs, 2 rashers bacon, 2 sausages, 2 portobello mushrooms, baked beans, grilled tomato, hash brown & sourdough toast. After that, a pot of Earl grey and a piece of the homemade cakes completes your satisfaction of a day!
Primrose cafe is located next to "Clifton Arcade", a two-story arcade with small shops.
Avon Gorge Hotel
Then I walked towards The Mall, which is the center of Clifton Village, I popped into several shops in Princess Victoria street on my way to the pub of Avon Gorge by Hotel du Vin (on Sion Hill) for a drink. This hotel is built on the Clifton Gorge and has the most spectacular views of the gorge and the Clifton Suspension Bridge. If the weather is good you can sit outside at the open terrace.
Alternatively, if one craves for a cake then in the center of Clifton Village, on The Mall, Bar Chocolat has a good collection of desserts. It is a family run neighborhood coffee house, which specializes in artisan chocolate, gourmet coffee and teas. They have a variety of light breakfast and lunch choices, but it is their sweet treats that attract people here: freshly baked pastries, locally produced cakes and a good selection of handmade chocolates.
The Clifton Suspension Bridge
I left the Avon Gorge Hotel, passed in front of the neglected (unfortunately) old Clifton Rocks Railway upper entrance ‘et voila’: Brunel's masterpiece. The Clifton Suspension Bridge opened in 1864.
The Bridge is infamous for people jumping from it (quite some distance) down to the Avon river.... not that easy to do today with all the wire they put on both sides of the bridge. The barriers put on in 1998 and since then the number of deaths (by jumping from the bridge) halved!
If you are lucky, and the weather is nice and clear admire the Avon Gorge from the bridge deck or better climb up to the Clifton Observatory Hill and seat at one of the benches and admire the 360o view. This iconic landmark of Bristol established in 1766. In the observatory there is established a camera obscura and in a clear day you can see the all area thru it.
From the observatory, stairs (130 steps) dug into the rock take visitors to Ghyston's Cave, aka Giants Cave or Foxhole, a natural cave in the limestone face of St Vincent's Rocks in the Avon Gorge.
When you feel tired walking and climbing around stop for a drink at the "360 Glass Cafe" located in the Observatory itself.
Mark Olson did not write "Clifton Bridge" for this Bridge, but always thought the lyrics are a perfect match for this bridge... my bridge!
Daylight, comes a sound We walked across Clifton Bridge Which way would it be, up or down? We laid our cards on the table I woke up before the sun Which way is the way Between the heart and the soul You spoke with my words tangled up inside Some people come here to die We came here to live There's a hope in our hearts There's a future in our souls We both have tragedy In our youth I met your brother and sister They stood by me in the ring Your green eyes in the sun Some people come here to die We came here to live There's a hope in our hearts There's a future in our souls Some people came here to die We came here to live There's a hope in our hearts There's a future in our souls There's a future in our souls There's a future in our souls Daylight, comes a sound We walked across Clifton Bridge Which way would be, up or down?
Bristol Zoo Gardens & Clifton Downs
Weather permitting, the walk around Clifton would not be complete without visiting the beautiful parks in the area, namely Clifton Downs and Durdham Downs.
Leave the suspension bridge behind and take Clifton Down road around the Observatory Hill towards the Bristol Zoo Gardens. Opened in 1836, Bristol Zoo is the world's oldest provincial zoo. It is a Victorian walled zoo located between Clifton Downs and Clifton College. It covers a small area by modern standards, but with a considerable number of species. The zoo has a nice shop.
Back-to-back with the zoo stands the Clifton College, established in 1862. Walk till the Durdham Downs, where Clifton Down road meets Whiteladies Road. The neighborhood inside the curve formed by these two roads resembles a village: 1-2 story multicolored houses and cobbled streets makes you wonder if you are in a city or a village faraway.
Whiteladies Road is a beautiful old road that goes downhill from Durdham Downs to Victoria Rooms and the top of Park Street. There are upscale shops here and beautiful cafés. The BBC campus (Broadcasting House Bristol-1934), the Clifton Down railway station (1874) and the Whiteladies Picture House (1921) are some of the landmarks of the street.
The upper part of the road is commonly known as Blackboy Hill, named after the Black Boy Inn, which stood on the hill until 1874. "Black Boy" was a common name for pubs after the Restoration. Charles II was commonly known as "the black boy" due to his black hair and the pub sign on Blackboy Hill had a portrait of Charles II on it. The origin of the name of Whiteladies Road appears to be a pub, known as the White Ladies Inn, shown on maps in 1746 and 1804. There is a popular belief in Bristol that the naming of both Whiteladies Road and Blackboy Hill had connections with the slave trade, but this is probably an urban myth. Both names appear to be derived from pubs. A map of 1826 shows a house called White Ladies, and the road at least as far as Whiteladies Gate (near the present site of Clifton Down station) had been given its name by that time.
The walk around Clifton is a loop that finishes where it started in “The Centre Bristol” square and the Waterfront. It takes several hours to be completed; thus, one needs a good dinner after all these.
Bristol is a food paradise, and there is not a single place I visited without get satisfied to a great degree. Thus, the suggestions that follow are just some of my many favorite places and nothing more. Here are some places for breakfast/lunch/dinner or just a drink:
A couple of years ago, some meters away from our Apartment (SACO) we noticed a rather dark-looking restaurant (7 Broad Quay). A place with dim lights and dark painted walls called "Pieminister". What on Earth is this Pieminister, I wondered? I approached the window and without any hesitation I said, "dinner time"!
Pieminister did not exist in my old days. It opened just in 2003. It is a Bristol based company, which has already 3 restaurants in Bristol and half a dozen more in other cities. They also sell their pies to many pubs around the country.
At Pieminister they serve only British pies .... the variety is not that huge, pies are very tasty and the price modest! Meat pies, chicken pies, kidney pies, mushroom pies... yummy, yummy!
Some of the pies I have tried are: the "Moo & Blue" (beef and Stilton cheese), the "Free Ranger" (chicken, leek & thyme) and the tastier of all the "Moo" (British beef steak and craft ale).
In the forthcoming days we also visited the restaurant at 24 Stokes Croft, (St Paul's).
British Pie Week - The week the hamble pie becomes a King
British Pie Week is held the first full week of March.
Originally, set up by a pastry maker as a way to sell more of their pastry, it is now Britain’s main celebration of pie! Pubs, restaurants, pie shops and more have used British Pie Week to run com-pie-titions, pie specials and more, while supermarkets sometimes use the week to discount their pie ranges. The British Pie Awards have even moved their awards to this week, to coincide with British Pie Week.
However, it’s also an excuse for pie lovers to do various pie stunts (like eating only pies for the whole week) and for the average pie fan to excuse their pie eating for a week! (“Well it’s Pie Week, so I have to have a pie!!!”)
So what we do during that week? Well, the pies are the limit! The more traditional ways include eating a pie from a pie shop or pub, or making your own pie at home. The more adventurous might host friends for a “pie night” or do some crazy pie stunt or create an unusual filling for a pie or go for pub hoping to eat pies and have a warm ale.
Catch-22 (dictionary entry):
1. a frustrating situation in which one is trapped by contradictory regulations or conditions.
2. any illogical or paradoxical problem or situation; dilemma.
3. a condition, regulation, etc., preventing the resolution of a problem or situation; catch
[from a military regulation in a novel of the same name (1961) by U.S. novelist Joseph Heller]
Catch22, for the glutton, though, is the 5-star fish & chip quality awarded by 'The National Federation of Fish Friers' restaurant in Bristol! (*)
When I was a kid I had heard that in those far away wet islands they eat "fish and chips" which are served into funnels made of paper! In my English school it seems that everyone knew what fish and chips is. I was too proud to ask because I did not want everyone to understand that I do not know what fish and chips looks like!
There was no Google or Wikipedia those days, so I could not figure out what kind of fish one eats with his fingers? So, I believed it is small fritted fish like "γαύρος" (anchovy) or "μαρίδα" (smelt).
That was the picture I had in my mind for years.
I saw the real thing in a pub in London, many years later. It did not appeal to me at all. You see, back home, we have a very different idea of what a fish is and how it is cooked or grilled or fried.... besides I was not that fond of fish, anyway!
It took me some time to taste that divine dish...and the moment I did, I dreamed of open seas and beautiful fishing villages, of multicolored boats bringing delicious fish (still alive) into the ports, of fishermen in tarpaulins unload them into big wooden crates…
Fish and Chips: tasty and cheap, easy to find everywhere.... but for the real taste you have to visit Catch22, a recent tasty addition in Bristol's culinary scene (38 College Green).
The only drawback of the place is that after dinner/lunch you must hang in the fresh air your clothes to get rid of the smell of the burning oil/fish.
(*) 'The National Federation of Fish Friers"? What on Earth, "Ils sont fous ces Britons!"!
I have to admit that, eventhough I lived in England for years, I had no idea what a "hen party" is! I had to visit "Revolution Bar" in Bristol (59-63 Baldwin St) and see at least 3 different Hen parties taken place: all silly dressed young ladies, with multicolored ribbons worn across their chests, drinking and laughing unceasingly! Why? Because one of them (or more) is getting married. Holly crap!
It is a bachelorette party you moron... an American friend (who has an English lover...how else he would know that!?) told me.
The Revolution Bar at Old Fish Market: the Makers of the Party Spirit since 1996. A huge place with top ceilings (revealing its past as a warehouse), multicolored decor (a bit of 60s all-pastel colors) and full of cheering youngsters, rainbows, smiles, and butterfly kisses.
I have to admit me and my friends were the only persons not in their 20s or early 30s in there ... a bit frustrating ... but who cares: life starts at 50 (bullocks!)
Besides drinking our vodka cocktails (you have to try the Unicorn Frappé) I stack to (what else?) traditional fish and chips (perfectly battered fish, fat chips, mushy peas and tartare sauce right by the seaside), while the others devoured alluring pizzas.
Mud Dock café
“Mud Dock” is an iconic bike shop and café at mud dock area in the very center of Bristol and opposite another iconic venue: Thekla. It is set over two floors of an old harborside building, which was refurbished back in the 1990s, with a bespoke workshop, bike shed, and large outdoor terrace added in 2006. The café is located on the upper floor and is consisted of one big and high room with large windows that offer unrivalled views of Bristol’s harborside. It is a very pleasant venue for morning coffee, a leisurely lunch, afternoon tapas or a romantic dinner in a very relaxed atmosphere.
“Grain Barge” started life as an engineless transport barge that carried barley and wheat from Bristol to Cardiff, across the Severn Estuary. Built in 1936 by the Charles Hill shipyard, the barge is now moored in Hotwells, opposite its original berth and near to Brunel’s ss Great Britain.
The boat was bought and refitted in 2007. The new interior uses reclaimed and recycled materials that reflect the boat’s industrial heritage.
Today, Grain Barge is a relaxed and friendly bar/restaurant with spectacular views across Bristol harbor and the iconic ss Great Britain. Serving fresh, locally-sourced dishes and a range of craft beers, ciders, wines and coffees, this unique venue also hosts a programme of live music and comedy from its intimate Hold Bar. Relax below deck and enjoy panoramic views of the river from the light, bright restaurant/bar or sit up-top and watch river life glide past.
"Thekla" is a cargo ship which houses a music venue of the same name, moored in the Mud Dock area of Bristol's Floating Harbour, England. Originally brought to Bristol as the Old Profanity Showboat, it was a late 1982 brainchild of novelist Ki Longfellow-Stanshall, the wife of Vivian Stanshall. The showboat was based on the idea of creating and running a theatre on a sea-going ship and using it to showcase music of every sort, including cabaret, comedy, plays, musicals, and poetry events. The ship also contained an art gallery.
During the 1990s, under new management, it was run as an underground nightclub under its original working name of Thekla. Thekla became a cornerstone of Bristol's drum & bass music scene. Over these years some of Bristol's best known artists (including Massive Attack, Portishead and Roni Size) began by playing in Thekla's hull.
Since 2006 Thekla continues to operate as a landmark venue for club music under the new management of DHP Family, playing host to a variety of club brands such as fiftyone27, hospitality, fruity antics, shoestring, blowpop and many more. Upcoming this year we will see the likes of local dubstep legends Kahn & Neek, funk and soul master Craig Charles, house music icon Chris Lorenzo & many more. Plus Thekla hosts the best and longest running indie and alternative night Pressure, along with Pop Confessional, a place for you to come and confess your guilty pop music pleasures.
👍 Work by the artist Banksy can be seen stencilled over the bulkheads inside the club as well as his much larger work on the outside of the hull at the waterline. This piece was painted over by the harbour master, much to the annoyance of the club's owners, who threatened the council and harbour master with legal action. Banksy returned to paint it again. The painting of the "Grim Reaper" is now on display at the M Shed.
Thank you Marty and Martin for the nice time.
I'll be BACK!