Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Day Fifteen: Bristol

Friday, August 15, 2008


The Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol
S.S. Great Britain, Bristol
Bristol Cathedral
Saint Mary Redcliffe Church, Bristol
British Empire And Commonwealth Museum, Bristol


This day will be devoted to nearby Bristol.

The city of Bristol is seldom visited by tourists, and this is regrettable. Bristol is an excellent city for explorations—there is enough to see and do in Bristol to occupy three or four days, even more—and we will only be able to visit the most essential attractions of Bristol in the single day we will devote to the city.

Some day I would like to devote two or three days to exploring the many historic churches of Bristol. There are fifty or so churches in Bristol worth visiting—Bristol is one of Britain’s largest cities, with a population of half a million people—but we do not have the luxury of spending several days in Bristol on this trip. Accordingly, we will visit only two of the city’s most essential churches, and leave the remainder for some future trip.

We plan to leave our hotel in Bath at 8:00 a.m. and drive the ten miles to Bristol.

We will start our day at perhaps Bristol’s most renowned attraction: The Clifton Suspension Bridge, just outside Bristol.

The work of engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, still regarded as the finest engineer Britain has ever produced, The Clifton Suspension Bridge is one of the marvels of Victorian engineering. Straddling The Avon Gorge separating Clifton from Bristol, the bridge was constructed between 1836 and 1864 at a cost so high that no one was able to calculate the final expense (one hundred thousand pounds is the best guess, but that figure is almost certainly too low).

The bridge is over 1350 feet long. Its longest span is over 700 feet long, the longest span ever attempted at the time of its design and construction. The roadway is 245 feet above the water at high tide, and the bridge’s towers, over 85 feet high, stand on the cliff tops at either side of the river.

The Clifton Suspension Bridge is a beautiful and remarkable work, and it is a gorgeous sight from all vantage points. It was designed in a pseudo-Egyptian style, much in vogue at the time, but Brunel’s final Egyptian touches—sphinxes atop the two towers—were not incorporated into the finished bridge because of cost concerns.

The bridge remains in use, open to both pedestrian and vehicular traffic, and its useful life is expected to be several hundred more years. The iron chains holding the roadway are the original chains, and scientists anticipate that the iron chains will outlast the towers. Four million vehicles cross the bridge each year.

The Clifton Suspension Bridge has been a magnet for suicides since it opened. Between 1974 and 1993 alone, 127 persons jumped to their deaths from the bridge. The most celebrated suicides or suicide attempts were exactly 100 years apart: Shirley Bassey’s daughter jumped to her death in 1985; and in 1885 a young woman attempted to jump to her death, only to have her petticoats serve as a parachute, carrying her to safety (that particular young lady went on to live into her eighties).

We will drive to Clifton and park in the village, and walk to and cross the bridge. None of us has ever actually walked across The Clifton Suspension Bridge, and we are very much looking forward to doing so. It is supposed to be a wonderful experience.

Once we have completed our visit to the bridge, we will drive to downtown Bristol and park the car for the day.

Our first stop in downtown Bristol will be another Brunel engineering marvel, the S.S. Great Britain.

The S.S. Great Britain was the first ocean-going vessel with an iron hull and a screw propeller. At the time of its launch in 1843, it was the largest vessel afloat (322 feet long, over 100 feet longer than its nearest rival).

Such an unusual ship was a great feat for its day. Its launch day was declared a national holiday. Prince Albert took the train from London to Bristol to officiate at the official launch, and his rail journey in 1843 took two hours and forty minutes, about the same time required to make that same rail journey today.

The S.S. Great Britain was built as a passenger ship to ply the Atlantic between Britain and The New World. It initially accommodated 252 passengers and a crew of 130, but another deck was soon added to the ship to enlarge the passenger capacity to 730 persons. Its maiden voyage was to New York, and required only 14 days, easily a record.

Within a few years, however, the S.S. Great Britain was taken off the Atlantic route and was turned into an emigrant ship for the Australia emigration trade. The ship served the Melbourne route for over thirty years (with a brief interruption as a troop ship during The Crimean War).

Because the journey to Australia took four months, and because meat preservation was difficult in the era before refrigeration, the ship had to carry live animals (and butchers) in order to feed the passengers. A typical voyage to Australia began with 133 sheep, 38 pigs, 420 chickens, 400 geese, 300 ducks, 30 turkeys and three head of cattle. Passengers complained that the ship sounded and smelled like a barnyard.

Once the ship was no longer suited for the Australia emigration trade (it had become outmoded for long passenger trips), the ship was turned into a coal ship in the 1880’s. Its useful sailing life ended in 1886, when a severe fire ended its sailing days and it had to put in at the Falkland Islands. The ship remained in the Falkland Islands for seventy-five years, serving as a coal bunker for forty of those years. In 1970, it was acquired by the city of Bristol and towed home to the very Bristol shipyard in which it had been built thirteen decades earlier. The ship is in dry dock today, restored to its original splendor, inside and out, and open to the public.

The entire ship may be toured, from its first-class quarters to its steerage-class quarters to its bridge to its engine room. The public rooms for the first-class passengers are very attractive, although nothing like the scale of luxury that was to become standard for passenger liners later in the century.

We expect to spend a couple of hours touring the S.S. Great Britain, going through the entire ship. It should be fun.

From the S.S. Great Britain, we will walk to Bristol Cathedral.

Bristol Cathedral is a giant building, created on the most enormous scale, built over a period of 700 years.

Originally an abbey, Bristol Cathedral's earliest surviving portions—the glorious Chapter House and two separate gateways, all in Romanesque style—date from 1140. One of the Lady Chapels dates from 1220. The Eastern part of the Cathedral, in the English Perpendicular style, was constructed between 1298 and 1332. A transept and central tower followed in the mid-15th Century. The nave and West towers were the final parts of the Cathedral to be built, erected between 1868 and 1888, in a style consistent with the Eastern end of the Cathedral.

Bristol Cathedral is one of the most unusual sacred buildings in the United Kingdom because it departs in many ways from the typical English practice of building great churches.

The interior is what is known as a hall church, which is German-derived: the aisles are the same height as the choir. As a result, there are no clerestory windows to light the central space. All light must come from the aisle windows, which, to compensate, are very large.

The great West Fa├žade is Spanish-derived, with short, squat spires.

The rose window is French-derived, placed above the central doorway, most unusual for an English cathedral.

The Cathedral is situated on Common Green, a large, triangular public space owned by Bristol Cathedral. Common Green is lined with many distinguished buildings, including Saint Mark’s Chapel, from 1220, which we will not have time to visit.

We will attend the 12:30 p.m. Eucharist service, and afterward spend ninety minutes or so touring the Cathedral and grounds. When we have completed our visit to the Cathedral, we will have a late lunch in the Cathedral refectory.

From Bristol Cathedral we will walk to Saint Mary Redcliffe Church, the other absolutely essential Bristol church to visit.

Saint Mary Redcliffe, large and imposing, is often mistaken for a cathedral, owing to its size, beauty and grandeur. It is the finest ecclesiastical building in Bristol, the second-largest parish church in Britain, and one of the most striking churches anywhere. Its spire (292 feet high) makes it the tallest building in Bristol.

Parts of the church date back as far as the early 12th Century, but most of the building was constructed during the 15th Century, the height of the Gothic-church-building boom in Britain. It is one of the finest Gothic structures in Britain, described by Elizabeth I as “the fairest and goodliest” church in England.

The majestic church was built in the shape of a cross, and observes the Gothic practice of vertical organization, with strong vertical lines always guiding the eye upward. It has a cathedral-like nave and vault, intricate vaulting, and beautiful black marble pillars.

Much of the medieval decoration was destroyed during The Dissolution Of The Monasteries and The Civil War, and much of the original stained glass was destroyed by Cromwell’s forces during the latter epoch.

The proliferation of monuments and memorials was not disturbed, however, and Saint Mary Redcliffe remains full of monuments and memorials of the greatest interest.

We plan to spend ninety minutes or so touring the church and its grounds, situated on one of Bristol’s most lovely spots, overlooking Bristol Harbor.

From Saint Mary Redcliffe we will walk to the British Empire And Commonwealth Museum.

The British Empire And Commonwealth Museum, six years old, will close its doors permanently in October. A move to London is planned, but no site and no date have been established for reopening the museum in the capital.

Many of Britain’s museums, like Britain itself, are in wretched financial shape, and several important museums in Britain have closed their doors within the last few years, including London’s Theatre Museum, which closed last year. Additional museum closures throughout the country are inevitable.

The building itself is perhaps of greatest interest, as it was yet another creation of Brunel. It was designed and built as a passenger railway terminus, the first such terminus in the world, part of the world’s first integrated rail-and-shipping network. London maintained contact with its far-flung empire via Bristol, and Bristol served as the hub of London’s communication with its overseas colonies for decades.

The museum houses sixteen galleries presenting the history and legacy of Britain’s 500-year empire; it mounts temporary exhibitions as well.

We probably will not have time to visit the interior of the museum, because we will probably arrive at the museum half an hour before closing time. Single admission is eight pounds, or about twenty dollars per person, and I doubt that thirty minutes is enough time to warrant the admission price.

None of us has ever visited this museum, although my brother and I closely examined its exterior in 2004. I have heard both very good and very bad things about the museum. Whatever the merits of the museum, it has not been a financial success, which is why there are plans to relocate the museum to London.

The museum is located in an interesting area of Bristol, and we will probably explore this area for an hour or two. It is an interesting part of the city for walking, and we will probably stop during our walk and get a snack or something before we return to our car and return to Bath.

Back in Bath, we will have time for another walk around the lovely city center before we have dinner.

1 comment:

  1. Hi
    Great itinerary! As a Shirley Bassey fan though, I'd just like to point out that the coroner ruled that her daughter did not jump from the bridge. The verdict was accidental death.
    Happy travelling!

    ReplyDelete