Bristol:ship-shaped history

This month, Tom Evans visits Bristol, a thriving 21st century city that manages to maintain a successful balancing act by combining a dynamic and diverse urban culture with a rich maritime heritage. The city has always adapted to the times and, as visiting traders and sailors from past centuries have found, Bristol’s streets boast an abundance of treasures to explore.

Bristol Harbour

Bristol’s past has been inextricably linked to the sea – and recent development has sought to harness its impressive waterfront and maritime history. It has been one of the country’s largest and most economically important cities for over eight centuries, and really started to flourish during the Middle Ages as an important commercial port. Located near the rivers Frome and Avon, it has, however, been inhabited since the Stone Age and there is also evidence of a number of Roman settlements within its boundaries. Known at the time as Brycgstow, by the early 11th century it had become a centre for the wool trade with Ireland and by 1373 had gained a charter and county status. The cloth trade became an important industry for the city over the subsequent centuries and its port became a popular departure point for explorers to the new world. It was from here, in 1497, that John Cabot sailed on his famous voyage of exploration to North America onboard the Matthew, a recreation of which can be seen in the Harbourside area today.

The recreation of the Matthew at the Harbourside

The recreation of the Matthew at the Harbourside

Bristol was made a city in 1542 and its thriving port continued to grow as an importer of wine, olive oil, iron and dried fruits. Although the city’s cloth trade had started to diminish by the 18th century, its economy, and wealthy merchants, prospered from the slave trade, up until its abolition in 1807. Tobacco became a major industry for the city in the 19th century, led by the Wills family (who have an impressive Memorial Building here), and the arrival of the railway, along with a certain Isambard Kingdom Brunel, helped to attract further investment into the area. By 1901, around 330,000 people were living here and, as with other major British cities, Bristol saw substantial immigration from various Commonwealth countries in the post war years. The city centre suffered severe damage during the Bristol Blitz of World War II and subsequent rebuilding works, during the 1950s and 60s, were characterised by brutalist architecture – much of it unloved and demolished during more sympathetic regeneration programmes of the late 20th century. Its Harbourside renaissance began with the opening of a renowned contemporary arts centre, the Arnolfini, in the 1970s, followed by the Watershed, Britain’s first media centre, in 1982. Today, Bristol is a thriving metropolis and tourism has become a major industry, with its wide range of attractions and abundance of shops attracting visitors from across the UK and abroad.

Bristol is situated in the south west of England and is well connected to the rest of the country by rail and road links. Those travelling to the city by coach can make use of various set down and pick up points close to the Harbourside and city centre or the coach parks near the ss Great Britain on Cumberland Road and at Cabot Circus (from mid November). It is well served by the national rail network, with good connections to London, Birmingham, Manchester, South Wales and the rest of the south west. Bristol Temple Meads station is a 10 to 15-minute walk from the centre, while Bristol Parkway, the city’s other major station, is a taxi or bus ride away.

Bristol’s large metropolitan area is made up of a number of distinct neighbourhoods, each with their own unique offer and character. For the purpose of this article, the central areas will be the main focus; primarily the Harbourside, Old City and College Green, as well as Clifton.


A great way to discover the different areas is to organise a tour. Destination Bristol’s user friendly visitor website has a page dedicated to tours, with information on walking, bus and boat tours (see Guided Tours section below). It allows users to download iPhone apps and mp3 audio walking tours and also lists those available as leaflets.

Another popular option to uncover the city’s many hidden gems is to employ the services of a Blue Badge guide. As Bristol is a large city, tours often focus on particular areas, but can also concentrate on certain themes. Details of some of the options are noted in the Guided Tours section below.

Guided Tours

Lis Gamlin, of Bristol & South West Tour Guides, was the very helpful and knowledgeable Blue Badge guide who took the author on his tour of Bristol. As the city’s guiding specialists, Bristol & South West Tour Guides offer a range of guided walks.
Group walking tours can be arranged for large or small parties and can be tailored to cover specific interests and needs. Some of the themed walks for GTOs to consider include Bristol Highlights, Merchants and the Slave Trade, Redcliffe and Historic Harbour, Clifton, Brunel’s Bristol and Historic Wine Merchants.
In addition, a panoramic coach tour can be arranged to visit all the well known local landmarks with short stops en route to enjoy the views.
For more information or to arrange a tour
call 0117 968 4638,
email or

Open-Top Bus Tours

Another popular option for groups is a tour with City Sightseeing on an open-top bus.
The tours feature commentary by fully trained guides who introduce visitors to Bristol’s history and numerous attractions.
Travelling on one of the bright red buses provides a great way to see the city and GTOs are able to book a private-hire bus and choose where to go on a tour.
Call 0117 367 0208 or

Audio Tours and Apps

The growing popularity of smartphones has increased the options for audio tours of cities and a number are available for Bristol. Perhaps the best source of information for audio tours of the city is Destination Bristol’s visitor website,, which features a number that you can download for free. Tours include the Bristol Churches Trail, the Slave Trade Trail, the Bristol Literary Trail and the Bristol Quayside Adventure (
Also available to download for free from the site is an Apple iPhone app, which serves as an official guide to Bristol and plots all business listings directly onto a Google map (

The Harbourside

Probably the best place to start a visit is in the Harbourside area, which is home to the Tourist Information Centre.

The former dockland area of the city has been radically transformed over the past couple of decades and it now hosts numerous attractions, as well as a large number of restaurants and bars. The district is a pleasant place to explore by foot, but another good option is to take one of the ferry services on offer – details of which are noted in the panel below.

Starting at Bristol Aquarium, located behind the Watershed, this takes you on an underwater journey from the British Coast to the warmer waters of the Tropics and houses a four-storey IMAX 3D cinema, whilst those with an interest in contemporary arts will be keen to visit the free-entry Arnolfini, a short walk from the aquarium over Pero’s Bridge. It is currently celebrating its 50th year and hosts a varied programme of innovative work in the visual arts, dance, film and music fields. The converted warehouse boasts one of the country’s best arts bookshops too and special interest tours can be arranged.

Marine life at Bristol Aquarium.

Marine life at Bristol Aquarium.

Moving over the Swing Bridge, groups will find the newest attraction in the Harbourside, the M Shed, a sympathetically restored 1950s transit shed. Opened in June at a cost of £27 million, it replaces the Bristol Industrial Museum and focuses on the city’s social history by taking a themed approach to exhibitions. The light and accessible building boasts three permanent galleries and a temporary exhibition space, as well as a glazed rooftop extension, a learning suite, café and shop. On the ground floor, visitors will find the Bristol Places gallery, which features a mix of photographs, paintings, vehicles and a large aerial view of the city. The first floor galleries, meanwhile, give an insight into the vibrant social life of the city and the individuals who have contributed to its character. Entry to the M Shed is free and prebooked guided tours are available.

Brunel’s wonderful ss Great Britain lies a little further from the other main attractions in the harbour, but is well worth a visit and can be reached either by foot, road or ferry. Launched in Bristol in 1843, the Great Britain was one of the world’s first great ocean liners and its revolutionary design used the very latest in maritime technology. The attraction allows visitors to experience the sights, sounds and smells of life on board for Victorian passengers and crew with a choice of free audio companions; in addition to the onboard experience, groups can learn about the ship’s history in the interactive Dockyard Museum and descend under the glass ‘sea’ to stand below its magnificent hull. For those with a real interest in Brunel and his work, the Brunel Institute, situated alongside the ship, features the ss Great Britain Trust’s collections and the National Brunel Archive. The ship is fully accessible and guided group tours can be booked to explore its history in greater depth.

Other attractions in the Harbourside area include At-Bristol, one of the UK’s biggest interactive science centres. It takes visitors on a journey of discovery using the latest hands-on and multimedia techniques. Its large exhibition spaces, on the ground and first floors, house over 300 interactive exhibits. At-Bristol also features a 90-seater planetarium, housed in a spectacular chrome sphere. Free planning visits are available to GTOs and the venue is to host the first South West Group Travel Show in January 2012 (see ‘Date for your Diary’ below).

Close by, you will also find the Watershed media centre, which delivers a diverse cultural programme of films, events, festivals and artist commissions, and The Architecture Centre, offering an intimate and welcoming gallery. The area is also home to some impressive public spaces such as Canon’s Marsh Amphitheatre.

Boat tours

River cruising with the Bristol Ferry Boat Company.

River cruising with the Bristol Ferry Boat Company.

A great way to experience the sights and sounds of Bristol’s lively harbour is to take to the waters and enjoy a boat trip. Here are just some of the options available.
Bristol Ferry Boat Company offers a wide range of fascinating cruises around the historic harbour and on the surrounding rivers. Throughout the year its vessels operate a timetabled passenger service, linking the city centre and Temple Meads railway station with tourist attractions such as the ss Great Britain. There are two hopon, hop-off services to choose from; the Temple Meads round trip and the Hotwells round trip. The family-run company provides a friendly service and offers groups the opportunity to hire one of their boats for tours of the harbour or along the River Avon.
Phone 0117 927 3416

The Bristol Packet also offer tours of the harbour, as well as river and docks cruises up to Bath and down the River Avon, all with expert commentary. The company has four boats available for charter, with capacities ranging from 50 to 95 passengers. Some of their popular themed tours include a three-hour Evening River Cruise, Dockside Pubs and the Avon Gorge Cruise, which takes in views of Brunel’s Suspension Bridge.
Phone 0117 926 8157

Number Seven Boat Trips operates a fleet of four boats, with passenger capacities of between 28 and 50. Each is available to hire and GTOs can choose from a number of river trips including Avon Gorge cruises and a visit to Beeses Tea Gardens and Riverside Bar. The company also provides regular public ferry services and operates the cross-harbour ferry from Brunel’s ss Great Britain to the Harbourside.
Phone 0117 929 3659

The Old City

Moving on from the Harbourside through Queens Square, visitors will be struck by the change in surroundings. The square is an elegant green space surrounded by grand Georgian buildings that would have been home to the city’s wealthy merchants during the 18th century.
At its centre lies a statue of William III on horse back, created by the Flemish-born English sculptor John Michael Rysbrack, erected in 1736 to demonstrate the city’s loyalty to the crown.

Crossing the square and entering Welsh Back, groups should take a left and walk along the historic cobbled streets. The area is home to some fabulous waterside bars and restaurants, as well as an array of historic buildings. A highlight is the stunning Old Granary, which provides a fine example of the Bristol Byzantine style with its coloured bricks and Moorish arches.

In nearby King Street is the Old Vic theatre, designed by the Bristol architect James Saunderson and constructed in 1766. It was the first in Britain to adopt the ‘horseshoe’ shaped auditorium, now popular across the world, and it has remained largely unchanged for over 200 years. It is currently undergoing a £19.26 million refurbishment project and, while work is taking place, productions are being put on in spaces around the theatre and as part of new collaborations with companies and venues across the city.

Moving along Queen Charlotte Street and across Baldwin Street onto Corn Street, groups will find the city’s old financial district lined with elegant buildings dating from the 18th and 19th century. The majority of banks and commercial firms have long since moved out and the area is now home to a range of bars, restaurants and cafés. Along the street there is further evidence of its commercial past in the shape of four flat-topped bronze pillars, called nails. Dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, they were used by merchants for trading purposes and when a deal was completed they were struck, giving rise to the expression ‘to pay on the nail’.

A stallholder displays his wares at St Nicholas Market.

A stallholder displays his wares at St Nicholas Market.

The thriving St Nicholas Market stands next to the nails and is a wonderful place to spend an hour or two. The Exchange Hall, dating from 1741, houses an eclectic mix of stalls, while the surrounding arcades and avenues host a wide range of independent retailers and food stalls. In A stallholder displays his wares at St Nicholas Market.
addition, there is a monthly Slow Food Market that takes place here on the first Sunday of every month and a Farmers Market every Wednesday from 9.30am to 2.30pm.

A short walk from the market is Broad Street, where an interesting mix of architectural styles can be found. Visitors can’t fail to miss the ornate façade of the former Everard’s printing works (now offices), designed in the Art Nouveau style by William Neatby. At the bottom of the street stands the Church of St John the Baptist, which dates from the 14th century and is built around the last remaining part of the city wall, St John’s Gate.

Those looking for more retail therapy could turn right and head a short distance towards the city centre shopping area. The recently transformed pedestrian streets offer nearly 500 stores, two separate covered shopping centres and more than 50 cafés and restaurants, as well as a number of relaxing open spaces. Opened in 2008, the Cabot Circus development is the latest retail addition to the area and its sympathetic and sustainable design features an elegant glass shell-shaped roof, which covers over 120 stores.


Clifton Village is perhaps the most elegant of Bristol’s many neighbourhoods. It grew in the late 18th century as merchants relocated further away from the city docks and features some wonderful Georgian architecture. Visitors today will experience a relaxed and pleasant environment in which to browse numerous up-market independent shops selling jewellery, art, furniture and organic foods. The area also features some fine restaurants and excellent cafés.

Situated in the heart of Clifton Village is a beautiful Victorian shopping arcade, the Clifton Arcade. Originally opened in 1878, it later fell into disuse but has recently been restored and now houses a wonderful range of small shops.

Clifton Suspension Bridge.

Clifton Suspension Bridge.

A short distance from the village is the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which spans the picturesque Avon Gorge. The world famous structure was designed by the great Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel and completed, after his death, in 1864. Though originally designed for light horse-drawn traffic, it still meets the demands of modern motorists and its magnificent setting and stunning views attract thousands of visitors each year. Guided tours of the bridge are available and are very popular with visiting groups. The tours take around an hour to complete and are led by knowledgeable staff, many of whom are Blue Badge guides. In addition, an Interpretation Centre is situated at the Leigh Woods end of the bridge and contains information and images of the bridge during its construction.

There is a vast area of public open space north of the bridge and the village of Clifton, which is called Clifton Down. It is an excellent place for walking and has some great spots for viewing the River Avon, the Gorge and the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

Jock the silverback gorilla at Bristol Zoo Gardens.

Jock the silverback gorilla at Bristol Zoo Gardens.

Close to the Downs is Bristol Zoo Gardens, which houses over 400 species and nine undercover animal houses within its 12-acre gardens. During a visit, groups are able to get up close to lemurs, butterflies and bats in the walk-through exhibits and take advantage of free activities that take place across the site during the day. A favourite activity is the gorilla talk and feed, where visitors can watch western lowland gorillas tuck into some lunch while learning about the zoo’s efforts to support the species in the wild. Throughout 2011, Bristol Zoo Gardens is celebrating its 175th birthday with a host of new exhibits that include a new Meerkat Lookout, which allows visitors to get up-close to the animals from undercover viewing areas, Bristol’s Walk of Fame, featuring 50 of the city’s most renowned people, places and icons, and Bristol’s Smallest Cinema, showing old home movie clips of the zoo. The zoo also has excellent facilities, which include a restaurant and plenty of open space and benches to relax on. A free familiarisation visit is available to GTOs and discounts of up to 32% on entry prices are offered for groups of 10 or more.

College Green

Moving back towards the Harbourside from Broad Street, groups will find another of Bristol’s impressive open spaces, College Green. A statue of Queen Victoria stands at its apex, while at its south-western corner is a sculpture of the Indian social reformer, Raja Rammohun Roy, who died and was buried in the city.

Overlooking the green stands the imposing Council House, designed in the 1930s by the architect Vincent Harris. Dressed with Portland Stone, its construction was interrupted by World War II and it wasn’t until 1956 that it was finally opened by the Queen.

Bristol Cathedral.

Bristol Cathedral.

Opposite the Council House lies Bristol Cathedral, which dates from the 12th century when the Abbey of St. Augustine was founded on the site. Of the original Abbey buildings, only the Chapter House and Abbey Gatehouse remain as part of the cathedral. Subsequent re-designs, including a major rebuilding programme in the Victorian era, have created one of the finest examples of a ‘hall church’ in the country and groups can explore its history by arranging a cathedral tour.

On the north-east side of the green lies St Mark’s Church, also known as the Mayor’s Chapel. It was founded as an almonry by Maurice de Gaunt in the 13th century, but was surrendered at the Dissolution of the Monasteries and bought by the Bristol Corporation in 1541.The chapel became the official place of worship for the city’s Mayor in 1722 and today it is the only municipally-owned church in the country.

Running alongside the green is Park Street, one of the city’s most famous. Its trendy clothing shops, records stores and funky cafés are popular with Bristol’s large student population.

Park Street overlooked by the Wills Memorial Building.

Park Street overlooked by the Wills Memorial Building.

At the top of Park Street is the free-entry Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. It houses a mix of exhibitions including works by the street artist Banksy. The Grade II listed Edwardian Baroque building is a highlight in itself and hosts 20 galleries over three floors.

A short walk from Park Street is Barndon Hill, thought to be one of the oldest municipal open spaces in the country. It is home to the newly restored Cabot Tower, a commemorative public viewing tower built between 1896 and 1898 as a monument to the 400th anniversary of John Cabot’s voyage from Bristol to America. The Grade ll listed building offers some of the best views of the city and is free.

The Bristol Hippodrome, located nearby on St Augustine’s Parade, hosts an array of touring shows and was designed by the eminent theatre architect, Frank Matcham, opening in 1912. A unique feature within the theatre is a dome in the roof, which can be opened to reveal the sky above. The Hippodrome offers a varied programme of live theatrical entertainment and is well used to catering for groups with a dedicated group bookings service. Those booking 10 or more tickets benefit from no booking fee, as well as discounts on the majority of shows.

With so much to see and do, GTOs should consider an overnight stay in Bristol and there are plenty of hotel options to choose from; for further information on visiting Bristol, including accommodation choices, GTOs should view Destination Bristol’s comprehensive visitor website, which features a dedicated area for groups:

Quirky Bristol

Bristol is home to some quirky activities, places, venues and shops, all of which make for a unique visitor experience.

The city has spawned a number of creative talents who have had a major influence on British urban culture. A thriving urban underground scene of trip hop, drum and bass, and graffiti art has existed in Bristol since the early 1990s and many of its leading lights have gone on to forge successful musical and artistic careers. Bristolians such as Massive Attack, Portishead, Tricky and Roni Size have managed to capture the essence of the city in their music, while the street artist Banksy used its urban environment as a canvas. During a visit, look out for some of Banksy’s art on walls and buildings around the city. Locations include The Canteen in Stoke’s Croft, the side of a sexual health clinic in Frogmore Street and the side of the Thekla Social boat moored in the harbour.

An example of Banksy’s art in Bristol.

An example of Banksy’s art in Bristol.

The city is also home to the successful Pieminster, an innovative pie-making company set up in the city in 2004. Brothers-in-law Jon Simon and Tristan Hogg decided to establish the company in Bristol due to its green-minded ethos and passion for locally-reared produce, and now sell pies across the country.

Bristol has an impressive range of historic pubs and ‘backstreet boozers’, many of which sell a range of local ales and ciders. The Llandoger Trow is one of the oldest and, as an important timber frame building, a great deal of its original features have been meticulously restored. Many myths and legends surround the pub, including those of pirates and secret tunnels, and groups can enjoy a pint or two while viewing the building from the outside seating on the cobbles. Also on King Street is the Old Duke, dating from 1780, and a well known jazz and blues venue.

Those with a finely-tuned sweet tooth may know that Bristol is home to Guilbert’s Chocolatiers, makers of luxury chocolate. The first store was opened by Monsieur Guilbert in 1910 on Park Street and over 100 years later, Guilbert’s still manufactures its goods in the city, from 16 and 17 Small Street.


Organiser of The South West Group Travel Show 2012

The first South West Group Travel Show will take place on 14th January 2012. Come and visit to experience more of the south west tourism offer.

tel 0845 166 8125
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