After almost two weeks of intense riding around England and Wales (Darren and Ruth doing all the driving, bless their souls), we took a slightly slower day and focused on Bristol itself. We did have a lovely visit to the Bristol Museum [map], which is probably one of the better local museums, but decided to leave the picture taking behind. But the centerpiece was the church of St. Mary Redcliffe [map].
This church building has been called the epitome of high English Gothic architecture, and it isn’t hard to see why. The ornate stonework and tracery, as well as the flying buttresses and the tall spire, mark this – one of the largest parish churches in England – a real stand-out. Queen Elizabeth I is said to have described it as “the fairest, goodliest, and most famous parish church in England.”
Inside, the church as a couple items of historical note. There’s a model of John Cabot’s ship, The Matthew, to commemorate his 1497 voyage to North America, as well as a piece of whalebone he brought back to England. We had visited the observation tower named for Cabot on our first day in Bristol. Cabot’s expeditions sailed from Bristol under the commission of King Henry VII.
There is also a wooden carving of Queen Elizabeth I, dating from her reign (likely circa 1570). She is known to have visited the church in 1574, but I don’t know if the carving was already there, or done later to commemorate her visit. It is remarkably well preserved, though I suspect the paint’s been touched up now and then.
The rest of the interior is quintessentially Gothic, with high, almost delicate looking arches and vaulting and exquisite stained glass. Much of the original stained glass was destroyed during the Reformation, but later replaced. Bombing in the second world war destroyed the glass on the west side, and was replaced again.
That bombing could have destroyed the church, and a poignant reminder of that is a section of tramline (from a light rail system) that was blown up and onto the church grounds, where it remains today as a memorial and reminder.
St. Mary Redcliffe’s interior is stunningly beautiful and, like most Gothic churches, airy and open. It’s tempting when we hear “Gothic” and architecture of the Middle Ages (“The Dark Ages”) to think of heavy, dark, and oppressive themes. But on the whole, this church and the other medieval structures we saw during our visit, were more atmospheric and almost ethereal. The designers were building these spaces to evoke heaven and salvation, and that’s very much reflected in this church.
As a final note to this spectacular church, the tall spire you can see today was finished in 1872. The original was destroyed in a storm – perhaps struck by lightning – in the 15th Century. For much of it’s existence, the church had short, truncated cone cap on its tower.
We also visited the M Shed museum, though we took no photographs as some areas expressly forbade it, and we were so engrossed that we didn’t think of it! There were some interesting Banksy pieces and some great tributes to Bristolians and their city. If you visit Bristol, M Shed is a must-see!
I had forgotten how much longer higher latitude days are in Spring. Even before the March Equinox arrives, the long twilights running up to dawn and lingering after sunset make for extended daylight. I was up early on our third day to checkout the local park.
Redcatch Park [map] is just a quick walk away from our flat (I’ve always wanted to say that! A flat!) amid proper football fields, a community center, a community garden, some tennis courts, and a playground. It’s a lovely patch of open space with copses of trees here and there, with nearby houses and gardens (what we’d call back yards, sort of, here in the USA).
As I walked to the park, Bristol’s urban dawn chorus was in full swing, with wood-pigeons, robins, blackbirds, chiffchaffs, and tits all singing and calling. I was happy to encounter most of these species in my walk through the park.
It didn’t take long after I arrived for people to start entering the park to walk or play with their dogs. Most were on leashes, and those that were not seemed to ignore the birds and the birds, no doubt used to the canine interruptions, gave the canines a slightly wide berth but generally went about their business.
As the sun grew stronger and the temperature rose up from 4 Celsius (40 degrees Fahrenheit) more of the smaller birds became active, including Great, Blue, and Long-tailed Tits, and House Sparrows. Robins were already singing their beautiful thrush-like songs. Common Chaffinches started singing from treetops, the males’ rosy-chestnut plumage brilliant in the sun.
I got some looks at birds I couldn’t immediately identify, but determined later to be Black Redstarts (a bird in the same taxonomic family as the European Robin). There were also Eurasian Jays, Common Starlings, and Carrion Crows flying or walking about the park.
It seemed to me most of the birds were foraging – probably for nestlings or fledglings – or defending territory. This makes sense, given the time of year. The only courtship behavior I saw was between two Common Wood-Pigeons.
I made my exit and walked back to the flat to get ready for the day’s further adventures in and around Bristol.
I went back to the flat to meet with the others for our next day around Bristol. This time our focus was at the harbor and in particular to see an important piece of maritime and engineering history: The SS Great Britain.
It’s hard to underestimate the importance of this ship. It was the first large ocean liner and the first to be powered by a propeller (or ‘screw’) as opposed to paddles, as had been the case before. This ship performed many functions over the years after it’s luxury cruising days were over. Perhaps one of its most important was to help lay the first transatlantic telegraph cables.
Designed by engineering genius (and by many accounts, jerk boss) I. K. Brunel, the ship is a linchpin in the design history of maritime transportation and the turning point for how ocean travel would progress from that point. You can read about her history at the official SS Great Britain website.
The ship, abandoned and scuttled on the Falkland Islands was recovered, towed back to Bristol, and restored and rebuilt more or less to its days as an ocean liner. Important original pieces of the ship – including hull plates, rivets, railings, and masts – are cataloged and stored in the adjacent museum.
A clever bit of engineering makes the ship seem to float in water up to its waterline, but this is an illusion. Several centimeters of water is sandwiched between two layers of glass plate. This boundary is actually part of the preservation method for the ship’s hull.
On the outside, the ship’s detail are exquisitely recreated, including the stern decorations, and even the English coat of arms with unicorn and lion. “God And My Right” had been the English monarch’s motto since probably the 12th century. It signified the King (or Queen’s) divine right to govern.
Above decks, the ship is colorful has several access points to the cabins and stateroom below. I didn’t get any photos belowdecks, though. I think I was too busy experiencing the ship and kind of forgot about my camera! Sorry!
Great Britain is a long ship, and quite narrow in its cross-section. This was done on purpose to reduce drag and increase efficiency of the propeller drive.
Inside the dry dock, the environment is controlled to stem corrosion of the mostly original iron hull plating. In addition to “natural” rust and corrosion, there are a series of holes along the hull that were made to sink the ship in the 1930s.
The ship was eventually returned to Bristol in 1970 for conservation and restoration. The dry dock dehumidifier chamber is a marvel itself, both functional below and aesthetic above.
The ship was eventually converted to use sails as well, and a winch system was developed to raise and lower the propeller, rudder, and part of the shaft out of the water. That assembly is in the museum building were it is slowly losing a battle against corrosion (the air is not optimal for either the iron fittings or the wooden rudder).
The ship and museum are a definite “don’t miss” if you ever come to Bristol or SW England. The exhibits were top notch, and the ship itself is so accessible and present. It seems right at home in Bristol Harbour.
After lunch and a quick drive to the nearby Clifton section of the city to view the Avon Gorge and the suspension bridge that Brunel designed in the 1830s (but wasn’t completed until over 30 years later, with some changes).
The gorge is beautiful, with dramatic cliffs and forested hillsides. There is evidence of old landslides, and the cars and roads below are dwarfed in scale.
The area atop the cliffs has a large green-space and people were sitting and laying in the relatively warm sunlight. Birds were happily mingling with the people, mostly Eurasian Jackdaws. A few of the more shy Eurasian Magpies stayed closer to the trees.
A short drive and a walk away is the Clifton Observatory [map]. This building houses a camera obscura that renders a 360 degree view of the surrounding landscape onto a central viewing table.
Beneath the observatory is a long stairway down part of a cave system that opens up on the side of the cliff, about mid-way. A balcony has been constructed to give brave souls an amazing view of the bridge and gorge.
After the observatory and cave we drove around Bristol a little and then made our way back to the flat and settled in for the evening, ready for more adventures.
Our first full day in England started with slightly better weather – only a few sprinkles and some Sun amid the clouds. It made for a good walking day around the center of Bristol.
Darren dropped Ruth, my wife, and I off not too far from Cabot Tower, which sits at the top of Brandon Hill Park [map]. Completed in 1898 to commemorate John Cabot’s expedition to North America in 1497, the tower has over 100 narrow steps. For long-time Florida residents like us, the steep walk to the tower up Brandon Hill and then the steps was quite a trial by fire to the type of walking we’d be doing for much of our visit.
The view from the top level of the tower afforded lovely views of Bristol, including some places we’d visit either later that day or later in our visit.
The garden provides some good habitat for area wildlife, so it was not surprise to see and hear Eurasian Blackbirds and European Robins singing, and see a number of Common Wood-Pigeons and Carrion Crows flying around the tower.
We made our way down into the city below, including the storefronts along Park Street and surrounding areas. The University of Bristol is near this area, and there were many students walking, biking, and even skateboarding. The make up of that part of Bristol paints a dynamic scene, with old and new elements blended together.
Bristol is the home to street artist Bansky, and his art is found in several places in the city. One work was being shown by a guide to a group of Spanish language tourists who were overjoyed to be seeing and taking photographs of it. You can see it’s been “commented” upon a few times, too.
Eventually we walked up to Bristol Cathedral, one of many Gothic church buildings we saw on this trip. Also like many large Gothic buildings, it was built over many years, with the bulk of the church constructed in the 14th and 15th centuries. Here’s a selection of photos from this lovely church.
There is so much to see in the cathedral, the above is just a small sample. Feel free to explore more about it, perhaps starting with these sites:
Opposite from the cathedral, on the other side of College Green is the Bristol City Council building which had these spectacular golden 18th century unicorns adorning each roof end.
Walking east, we passed a statue of Queen Victoria on our way to the northern end of the waterfront of Bristol Harbor on our way toward Queen Square.
Just about anywhere you look in the center of Bristol, there is spectacular architecture. Walking toward Queen Square I caught a glimpse of this ornate tower, which it turns out belongs to St. Stephen’s, the Church of England parish for Bristol
The streets around Bristol (and many English cities) are narrow, but this close spacing seems endearing to many American eyes. Almost quaint.
Ruth told us that Queen Square is the only square square in a major city in Europe. I don’t know if that’s strictly true, but you can look on the map and see how square this square compares to other squares.
I thought it was ironic that the statue at the center of Queen Square is actually of King William III, mounted on his horse. The history of Queen Square is quite telling, in that it was all but abandoned after the 1831 Bristol Riots as the more affluent Bristolians moved to Clifton. The square was nearly obliterated, with rail and road traffic crossing right through its heart. It was eventually restored in the 1990s and is now a beautiful and well used park.
We wound down the afternoon walking past the Old Vic Theatre and some other historic buildings near the River Avon.
It was a fun and exhausting day, and my knees and feet tried to complain, but there was so much to see and I was too busy having an amazing time.
After dinner is was off to bed and dreams for day 3.