Bristol Stories and Tips

Overview and Highlights

The harbour Photo, Bristol, England

We were going on holiday in southern England and decided to break the long journey by stopping off in Bristol for a couple of days.

This is the West Country's biggest city. It is 120 miles west of London and just across the Bristol Channel from Wales. I knew it as being famous for its maritime history, but was surprised to find it offered a large and diverse range of attractions, and is a wonderful place for a short break.

In recent years, Bristol has become one of England's most vibrant areas and there is a thriving cultural scene. There are buzzing bars, lots of restaurants and cafes, beautiful architecture, wonderful hotels and excellent shopping. It ranks 4th in England's top visitor attractions.

Bristol is a historic inland port, linked to the sea by the River Avon. It has seafaring traditions and many links with the colonisation of America. It was always a port and trading town, but after John Cabot sailed from here with his son Sebastian in 1497, claiming the "New Found Land" for Henry VIII, Bristol looked to the New World for imports.

The 17th and 18th centuries were a prosperous time for the city and Bristol became the foremost port for trade with North America. The merchants of Bristol exploited the New World. They made fortunes from sugar, rum, tobacco and slaves. The construction of the Floating Harbour in the 19th century provided much needed extra moorings, but trade declined. Slavery was abolished and this contributed greatly, but in addition, manoeuvring bigger ships up the tidal Avon was too tricky.

Bristol was the home of William Penn, developer of Pennsylvania and a haven for John Wesley, whose Methodism movement played an important role in colonial Georgia. You can visit the New Room in Bristol - John Wesley's chapel and first headquarters.

In the 19th century, Bristol became synonymous with engineering and the famous engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Engineering projects here included the Great Western Railway, two ships - the SS Great Britain and the SS Great Western and the Clifton Suspension Bridge - now the symbol of the city.

We absolutely loved wandering around the old part of the city in the evenings. There are many lovely old buildings, but also lots of hidden alleys and quaint cobbled streets. Be sure to look out for the Corn Exchange and the Nails. The Corn Exchange was built in 1743 and has a clock on the front that tells the time in Greenwich Mean Time and Bristol Old Time. Before the Corn Exchange was built, business was conducted in the street. Merchants completed money transactions on 4 flat topped bronze pillars or "nails" which are still standing on Corn Street. The oldest one dates back to the 16th century. This is the origin of the expression "paying on the nail."

Also look out for the Llandoger Trow - a beautiful old half-timbered inn on King Street. It was renowned as a haunt of smugglers and pirates in the 18th century. It was also supposedly the inspiration for the Spyglass Inn in the novel Treasure Island. The inn was the meeting place for Daniel Defoe and Alexander Selkirk - the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe.

The city's industries no longer rely on the docks, so the historic harbour along the River Avon has been handed over to recreation and the harbourside is again the floating jewel in Bristol's crown. Again it is a vibrant and exciting place to be - day or night. Many of the city's attractions are on or close to the harbour - I would recommend staying in a hotel in this area.

We loved Bristol - the picturesque harbour, lovely Georgian streets and beautiful setting on the River Avon make it a place we want to return to. It is such a lively city, full of energy and excitment and left us wanting to come back and explore some more.

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