My Kind of Town: Bristol is a maritime city a good distance from the sea

My Kind of Town: Bristol is a maritime city a good distance from the sea

“Bristol’s wealth was built on slavery”, I remember my father saying, growing up there in the 1960s. I had little understanding of what he meant, and we didn’t learn much at school about the triangular route between Bristol, North-West Africa and the Caribbean. I hadn’t heard of Edward Colston, a slave trader who died in 1721, but ‘Colston’ was familiar as a busy avenue, an office block, a posh girls’ school. Colston Hall was where I went to see the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, David Bowie and Led Zeppelin. It now plans a new name after a major refurbishment. Not before time.

My early years in Bristol were bucolic; we lived at the outer edge of the post-war southward expansion of the city, where social housing spread out across the fields to the Somerset boundary. My bedroom window looked across Highridge Common to the fourteenth-century tower of Dundry Church, 700 feet up on the detached tail of the Cotswold escarpment. Mr Fisher in the cottage opposite grazed his goats on the Common before taking the bus to work at British Aircraft Corporation over in Filton.

Later I experienced the city on training trips to the top-lit swimming pools around Bristol, built by the Council in the 1920s and 30s. Twice a week we drove alongside the tidal mud of the river Avon, Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge floating 250 feet above us.

The hell-in-a-hole that is the sunken void of the Horsefair should be built on”

Other architectural stimuli came from visits to the hospital designed by Charles Holden, and to his Central Reference Library for my art history essays. Chicago came to our neck of the woods in my late teens, in the guise of SOM’s cor-ten steel cigarette factory and offices for WD&HO Wills at Hartcliffe.

Travelling around the city you are aware of the hills that Bristol is built on, and of those which envelop it – seven hills, like Rome (but it seems more). The topography dominates. Clifton’s terraces rise upwards from the river at Hotwells, facing the lush greenery of Leigh Woods across the void. Totterdown has the steepest hills, its coloured houses rising and falling like San Francisco. The walls of the Saxon city were on high ground between the Frome and Avon rivers. Diversions, dams, docks and the floating harbour followed. Bristol is a good distance from the sea, but a maritime city: the Gorge beckons to the world beyond.

“A series of civil riots have taken place since 1793, the most recent in 2011 against plans for a new Tesco in the (People’s Republic of) Stokes Croft”

Hitler pronounced the medieval centre “destroyed” after an air raid in 1940. Some buildings remain, but much was rebuilt in the style sadly familiar to residents of Swansea, Portsmouth and Southampton. The area was recently upgraded with grid-shell roofs, and the same shops you see everywhere. The place now known as the Centre is a roundabout built over the River Frome. You sense water walking downhill, but it’s not there, just roads and buses.

Some lament the lack of modern buildings with a wow factor. However the desire for iconic landmarks seems less important than addressing some of Bristol’s urban follies. It made amends for pushing a diagonal highway through 1720s Queen Square by removing it in the 1990s. The hell-in-a-hole that is the sunken void of the Horsefair should be built on. St Augustine’s Reach, a continual building site with traffic-choked roads surrounding a promenade composed of light tubes, nautical sculpture and foamy fountains, could revert to the ‘Dock Option’, revealing the water below the culverts.

It may happen, given Bristol’s capacity for activism, with the populace apt to form into mobs, like the French. A series of civil riots have taken place since 1793, the most recent in 2011 against plans for a new Tesco in the (People’s Republic of) Stokes Croft.

Forty years after leaving Bristol I returned to teach at the UWE campus on the city’s northern fringe, said to be modelled on an Italian hill town. On approach by train I can see across the city to the hills which encircle it to the south. My parents and sister are no longer there. I return to the glazed spans at Paddington and feel like I have come home. You can never go back.