FROM Brunel’s beautiful bridge to chic boutiques, a West Country gem awaits, says Kate Wickers
I want to get an insight into what makes Bristol tick and learn how to speak “crec Brissle” (correct Bristol dialect) so I resolve that my first stop on Saturday morning will be at the “gert lush” (rather nice) M shed, Museum of Bristol on Prince’s Wharf.
I’m staying nearby in the Harbourside, at The Bristol Hotel, a distinctive 60s build that has successfully reinvented itself as slick and contemporary – I love the purple neon lighting in the bar and the velvet chocolate-brown throw on my bed.
I make a beeline for the River Grille, with lofty ceilings and enormous windows and views over the river to the Watershed, which in 1982 was the UK’s first dedicated media centre, and where as a teenager I watched Taxi Driver and drank my first tequila.
OK, so I’ll confess I know how to talk “crec Brissle” as I grew up here and M Shed has a “mint” (fantastic) collection of more than 3,000 artefacts and stories that explore life in Bristol over the centuries, including its key role in the misery of the slave trade. Highlights include the huge Window on Bristol futuristic mural by Andy Council and Luke Palmer; Banksy’s Grim Reaper (originally painted on the side of the Thekla boat, a venue for live music); and the video of Miles Chambers reading one of his poems about living as a black man in the city – it is thought provoking and hilarious. Bristol’s both gritty and cool. You only have to breathe in a cloud of coal steam on board the Bristol Harbour steam railway, built in 1872, that runs just a mile of the original line, to get a feel for its great industrial and trading past with Brunel’s magnificent SS Great Britain a highlight of journey. Also look out for Brunel’s swing bridges and the massive B Bond Warehouse, built to store tobacco during the boom in the early 20th century.
Back in Bristol’s historic centre I walk down 17th century King Street with its cobbles and famous old pubs like The Old Duke and The Llandoger Trough (built in 1664), and the beautiful Old Vic Theatre, dating from 1764. I’m en route to St Nicholas Market, a warren of tiny shops such as Kalahari Moon for South African goods, located beneath a splendid Victorian wrought iron vaulted glass arcade. By lunchtime there are queues for couscous sept legumes at Moorish; and jerk chicken with coconut spinach at Caribbean Wrap. I browse the boozy, botanical and just downright naughty looking cakes at Ahh Toots Cakery, before choosing pistachio and lemon.
Bristol is known for its quirky individual retailers but if I’d been hankering after designer brands I could have had my pick at the vast glass domed Cabot Circus, which now boasts a Harvey Nichols, in what was once the location of my two favourite destinations – Wimpy and Tammy Girl. Instead I hook up with an old school friend and climb Christmas Steps to Meryl Till’s studio, where she creates and sells her textured ceramic lights. Colston Street, at the top, has an eclectic mix of jewellery, book and homeware shops such as Makers, packed with gorgeous textiles, ceramics and glassware.
We stroll up Park Street early Saturday evening, stopping to admire the Banksy at Number 5, entitled Well Hung Lover, depicting a naked man hanging by his finger tips from a window sill. Goldbrick House at 69 Park Street has comfy armchairs and a private members club vibe with cheekily named cocktails like the How I Met Your Father – a delicious blend of chilli vodka and raspberries. Bristol is a city of hills so we blame our aching legs when we decide to stay for dinner – roast pumpkin and butternut squash tortellini in a saffron broth.
Next door to The Bristol Hotel is the Arnolfini, a leader in experimental arts for more than 50 years and still the daddy on the Bristol arts scene. We see Richard Long’s Time And Space exhibition – journey, text and sculpture entwined with a slate cross inspired by a walk in Cornwall.
For brunch we head up to Spicer & Cole in trendy Clifton Village. It’s only a 30-minute walk from the city centre but it really does feel like a village, albeit a beautiful Georgian one with private communal gardens, swanky boutiques and artisan bakeries. I tuck in to field mushrooms cooked in thyme butter and served with sourdough bread before ambling over an expanse of green known as the Downs to Clifton Suspension Bridge, which has spanned the Avon Gorge for 150 years. “That’s proper!” (That’s great!”), I comment to my friend, who nods, as we gaze down over trees turning copper and bronze.
Proof that you can take the girls out of Bristol but you can never really take Brissle out of the girls.
• EasyJet (www.easyjet.com) flies from Edinburgh and Glasgow, direct to Bristol from £42.98 return; doubles at TheBristol Hotel (0117 923 0333, www.doylecollection.com/hotels/the-bristol-hotel) based on two people sharingand including breakfast starts at £119.