The Place at the Bridge: An Essay on Bristol

In Bristol there is a large Edwardian warehouse, which sits, overlooked by Clifton Suspension Bridge, between two murky tendrils of the city docks. I was told repeatedly as a child that this building had been erected to imprison naughty children, and that if I were to ever behave badly it would become my home for the remainder of my youth. It was never fully explained to me what took place inside the building, although it was implied that unimaginably arduous manual labour lay in store for any minor who was inducted into this apparently legal ring of child imprisonment.

It was said, too, that the poor inmates of this 19-storey jail were fed exclusively the foods they hated most, and that those who protested received no food at all. It was this, much more so than having to do manual labour, that truly terrified me. How, I used to wonder, could such a nefarious institution exist? A place where young boys and girls are made to eat, as I imagined it, baked beans; that mess of shell-ridden stodge, steeped in a sickly sweet orange ooze, which dries to a crust on the edge of children’s mouths.

Of course no such institution did exist. The naughty children’s home was merely a lie invented by my parents, who once also convinced me that squirrels are actually called “nut weasels”. In truth, although rather ominous in appearance, with its blood-red bricks and greyed-out windows, the warehouse has never contained anything especially sinister, least of all any bean-eating children. It began life in 1908 as a tobacco warehouse, and is now occupied by the Bristol Record Office, which holds the extensive archives of the city.

Nowadays B Bond Warehouse, as it is officially known, seems to me as much a defining landmark of the city as the S.S. Great Britain or the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Yet only recently have I taken the time to learn anything about it. The same goes for Bristol as a whole, of which, for a long time, I knew mostly what my parents had told me—that is that behind most of Bristol’s most important buildings lay some covert operation concerned with forcing children to eat foods they dislike.

B Bond Warehouse.

Perhaps the obvious thing to say of Bristol is that it is a city very much defined by its past. It is no secret, for instance, that many of the tall buildings in Clifton were built with dirty money; nor is it questioned why there are still streets named “Blackboy Hill” and “Whiteladies Road”. Slavery has long befouled the city’s reputation, and remains, even now, a sore point for many locals. It is argued frequently that Bristol hasn’t done enough to acknowledge the role it played in this unscrupulous business, which is a claim not entirely without merit: still there is no monument to it, no statue or any other such memorial.

When it was announced several years ago that a new shopping centre was to be built near the city centre, naming it proved a surprisingly contentious issue. Initially the name “Merchant’s Quarter” seemed to stick. But eventually this was dashed on the grounds that it had connotations of the buying and selling of human beings. Thus finally an alternative was picked: Cabot Circus, a reference to the Italian explorer John Cabot, who in 1497 journeyed from Bristol to North America, becoming the first European to do so since the Norse Vikings in the eleventh century.

A replica of The Matthew, the ship upon which Cabot made this legendary journey, can today be found at Bristol docks, where it is moored next to another of Bristol’s great maritime achievements, the S.S. Great Britain. This replica was built in the late 1990s and in 1997 travelled across the Atlantic to Canada, specifically the shores of Newfoundland, where Cabot is thought to have landed on his fateful voyage.

I remember distinctly the hoopla that arose upon the ship’s return, and how remarkably popular an attraction the Matthew subsequently became. I recall, too, the rather churlish words of a friend’s mother from around this time, who, wishing to thwart her son’s desire go on board the ship (most likely because it was so popular), said that she felt it was “a bit cheap-looking”. For some reason this didn’t immediately strike me as an odd comment; yet now all I can wonder is if Cabot himself had to endure the same sort of catty comments when he set off in 1497, and whether crossing the Atlantic changed his critics’ opinions.

By the time Cabot had reached British shores, Bristol was a thriving port. It had by then already existed for a near 500 years, having been founded in c.1000 as the town of Brycgstow (Old English: “the place at the bridge”). Twenty years later it had become an important trading centre, to the extent that it was able to possess its own mint; and by 1067 it proved capable of resisting an invasion force sent from Ireland by Harold’s sons. Yet not until the 12th century had Bristol truly been established as one of England’s most important ports, capable of handling much of England’s trade with Ireland, including the transportation of slaves.

The city continued to grow exponentially throughout the 13th century. It was then that Bristol Bridge, a structure dating back to the city’s very beginnings, was rebuilt, this time out of stone rather than wood. Houses with shopfronts were erected on it to pay for its maintenance; some of these were said to be five stories high and overhung the river much in the same way that Tudor houses would overhang the street. It was in 1768, after entering a state of dereliction, that the bridge was rebuilt one final time. Having endured riots in 1793, in which many were killed, and even more injured, it is this bridge that still stands today.

Nowadays, despite its great age, the bridge has lost more or less all significance, having been largely overshadowed by perhaps Bristol’s greatest landmark, the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Suspended high over the Avon gorge it is that one great and enduring symbol of the city, the extraordinary brainchild of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Like most famous bridges, it has over time become a popular place for those wishing to commit suicide, and consequently there are many stories of people who plummeted over its railings. The most famous one is of a 22-year-old woman named Sarah Ann Henley, who survived a fall from the bridge when her billowing skirts acted as a parachute. She subsequently lived into her eighties.

Clifton Suspension Bridge.

It seems amazing to me that there is any truth whatsoever to this story, for I remember hearing it in the playground: that brilliant forum for bullshit from which so many concocted stories seem to originate. It was here also that I was warned never to venture into the St. Paul’s area of Bristol, where it was said that all manner of things could happen to me. Apparently I was liable to be shot, kicked, punched, beaten with a sack of doorknobs and clouted over the head with a frying pan—all presumably at the same time. Hence I was shocked and more than a little relieved when years later I finally visited St. Paul’s, only to find that I wasn’t assaulted at all, not even a little bit.

Having now lived in some of the most deprived areas of the country, I’d hardly consider St. Paul’s, which has a lot going for it, amongst any of those places. Unlike in London and Leeds, the two other cities in which I lived for significant amount of time, even Bristol’s notorious areas tend to have the privilege of culture in their favour; London’s deprived areas are built up like cages, as if to prevent its inhabitants from spilling out into more desirable territories. There are parts of Bristol that are guilty of this, too, of course, though hardly to the same extent. But then perhaps I’m being biased.

It seems most people feel one of two ways about towns or cities in which they grew up, with very little room in between for impartiality: some adore their city almost unconditionally, remembering it through celebrated spectacles, by which every memory they have of it appears irreproachably wonderful; others can barely stand it at all, and have thus spent the latter portion of their lives trying to erase the misery their city inflicted upon them in the first. In my case the former is true: I tend to view Bristol as this beguiling, golden place, where the sun shines brighter than it does elsewhere in the country, and where people drink cider, have charming accents and host balloon fiestas because there’s nothing much else to do.

As unrealistically optimistic a view as this may be, it’s not entirely baseless: Bristol really is one of the warmest cities in the UK, not mention one of the sunniest. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much as one balloon in the sky since I left there, six, seven years ago. Now whenever I visit it feels as though life in Bristol moves just that bit slower than it does here London. It seems much greener, too; and yet this privilege isn’t to the detriment of the sort of things one expects of a big city. It still has most of the benefits of London, but with fewer Pret A Mangers and grown men who wear trilby hats or ride Micro Scooters.

So why then, if Bristol is so good, do I continue to live elsewhere? The answer is probably that because moving there would ruin for me the city’s illusion of perfectness. I’d see it then for what it is, instead of how I prefer to romanticise it. In any case, the occasional visit seems to suffice. This gives me enough time to get reacquainted with the city, while also allowing me to watch a bit of Points West, Bristol’s BBC-produced regional news programme. Of course all local news programming is excellent. But Points West is especially concerned with the sort of smiley small-town blandness, such as aimless reports on vandalised road signs and vegetables that look like people, that makes me giddy with hysterics.

I can still recall fondly the programme’s report on Concorde’s last flight, which climaxed gloriously with a small bespectacled Bristolian teen weeping the words, “I just love plane!” Back when this was broadcast in 2003, I found this much funnier than perhaps I should have. Now I know better than to laugh. If it were announced today that Bristol were to be turned to rubble, I’m sure I’d act similarly to that poor plane-loving boy. I’m sure, too, that if a reporter from Points West were to ask me how I feel about Bristol’s imminent eradication I would be forced to bellow in the camera, with unfettered enthusiasm, something along the lines of, “Me just love Bristol!”

Often when I write about a city, I like to mention some of the nicknames it has inherited over the years. The least flattering of all these names so far has been “The Great Wen”, William Cobbett’s graphic description of London, which he fancied resembled a festering boil waiting to burst. But Leeds, which has rather unremarkably been called “Motorway City of the Seventies”—and which these days seems to conjure in one’s mind images of boiled cabbage, brown suits and songs by the band Sweet—is scarcely any less depressing.

It’s hard to settle on a good one for Bristol; it doesn’t quite have as definable an image as most cities in the UK. Positioned all the way over on the South West coast, all by itself, an icy swim away from South Wales, it seems to evoke very few images for most people. When we think of Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool and London, we think we have some idea of what these places are like, even if we have never visited them before. But Bristol it seems is synonymous with so little besides Banksy, intolerably bad teen dramas, trip-hop music and its deeply regrettable past—all of which don’t make for especially good nicknames.

Therefore, my best advice to the Bristol tourist board would be to dub it “Bridgeland”, or something more eloquent is needed then why not “A Place at the Bridge”, a reference to the city’s very early beginnings? This I feel is a little bit like “Motorway City of the Seventies”, but doesn’t evoke the emetic imagery of boiled vegetables, grimly-coloured suits and offensively optimistic glam-rock. At the very least it sounds better than “baloontown”, my only other suggestion.

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