Bristol

Sunny vantage on Bristol history

When the sun is shining there are few better places to be than sitting on the terrace of a dockside bar in Bristol. Even in the heat you can while away a few hours at ease as there is almost always a gentle breeze. Boats carrying tourists pass by at a relaxing pace and buskers entertain those out for an afternoon stroll. And the bars and pubs make perfect playgrounds for people watching.

Back in Bristol at the weekend to catch-up with friends and family I found myself enjoying a great lunch outside Mud Dock, a bar and cycle shop with a stunning raised terrace providing views over the regenerated Harbour. From my vantage point several storeys high I could see for miles and it was great to witness the very factor that brought Bristol into existence, its water and its quaysides, booming. Not with cargo being loaded and unloaded of course, but with people enjoying out making the most of their Saturday.

It was a fitting place to consider the Bristol story, one that begun more than 1000 years ago when a settlement grew up near the current Bristol Bridge. It was known as Brigstow – the Saxon meaning ‘place by the bridge’. Settlers lived in simple structures made out of wood, thatch and clay. They traded by river with groups in South Wales, North Somerset and Ireland long before the 11th century, and quickly the population grew. In the Middle Ages Bristol was the second city in England after London.

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Bristol started as trading post, a place travellers passing between the capitals of Gloucestershire and Somerset could enjoy refreshments before continuing their journey. Over time Bristol’s merchants built up a good reputation exporting and importing goods. First they travelled to France to import wine, but then they became more adventurous and sailed further afield. It was John Cabot that left Bristol to be the first European to re-discover North America since the Vikings.

Success came at a price though. It was the shameful slave trade that made countless merchants rich. The financial district of Bristol was founded on the profits of human cargo and many Bristol houses were financed by the trade. It’s a legacy that Bristolians today have to deal with.

Take a drive around Bristol and you will see a city that wears history very proudly on its sleeve. Visitors can of course view St Mary Redcliffe church with it awe-inspiring spire, Brunel’s world-famous Clifton Suspension Bridge and his SS Great Britain, the world’s first great ocean liner – the start of what has become a multimillion cruise industry.

I am a Londoner these days, but when it comes to a heading off for a weekend break Bristol is very high up on my list – and that’s not just because I have friends and family there. It is a city that deserves all the attention it has had through history and all the attention it is getting right now.

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