Bristol appears at the end of the road to where I live. The M4, that is. From me in Richmond, where it starts – or I feel it starts – it draws a neat, straight straight line from East to West, and concludes in Bristol, other other side of the country. And just two hours as the crow flies – traffic dependent, naturally.
I visited ‘Brizzle’ this winter to experience the SS Great Britain, the pioneering ship from Britain’s engineer powerhouse Isambard Kingdom Brunel, which was brought to dry harbour from the Falkland Islands fifty years ago. Known as ‘the ship that changed the world’ it’s now an extraordinary interactive museum, where visitors can walk around the bow, port, starboard, stern, topside, keel, leeward, bilge, yardarm and underdeck. I became a quick learner in mariner speak, as you can tell, senses awakened to the sounds and smells of the first and second class cabins, the kitchen and laundry room and dining quarters.
The huge 1000hp engine is a marvel, designed to work in conjunction with the sails, each supplementing the other’s power and, as a result, almost halving the time it took to cross the Atlantic. You can even ‘go aloft’ up the rigging, 25 metres up, and across the mainyard, if you’re brave enough, to get a different perspective on the deck below. But it is the gargantuan Brunel head, cigar jutting aggressively from his mouth, which leaves the lasting memory. Visitors can even go behind his over-sized face and enter the brain of the genius, learning more about what inspired him and what he achieved in his lifetime.
The SS Great Britain sits in the harbour, cleverly redeveloped with new flats and penthouses, a farmers market, vegan cafes and the Bristol museum, and it gives Clifton, the ‘Richmond of the West’, a run for its money in terms of charm, community and, well, veganism. (I have a feeling the trend will last a lot longer than a month in this part of the world.)
Not ten minutes’ stroll from the harbour is the Bristol Hotel, in 2018 named best in the South West in the Sunday Times’ ‘100 Best British Hotels’. Central and stylish, complete with a listed façade and free parking (definitely worth mentioning considering its location), the interior is captivating art deco, but, completing the theme of my trip, it’s the view from the breakfast area and bar, overlooking the harbour area with its moored boats and cultural redevelopment, that makes the stay worthwhile.
It’s also a stone’s throw from the celebrated Bristol Old Vic, completing your weekend of culture if you want to take in the theatre, though for my part I was happy to stroll the local squares, and up to Clifton Downs, through the covered market and peruse the new works from Bristol’s budding artists.
Having admired that view over breakfast, and walked it off that afternoon, for supper I turned to Marmo, recently reviewed by the perpetually hard-to-please Jay Rayner as ‘an absolute corker’. Indeed, his comment ‘I wish all restaurants were like this’ is easy to see why; the focus is on quality as well as quantity, for simple beautifully done dishes, and the price is a fraction of what you would pay two hours back down the M4 in London. And, ironically, the owner, Cosmo Sterck, is formally a Richmond boy, who runs it with his wife, Lily. Italian at its best, it beats anything I’ve eaten at London’s Charlotte Street. Or Richmond, for that matter. Brunel would have loved it, too, I’m sure.
The Bristol is part of the Doyle Collection. For more information, including their ‘Slice of the City’ insight into what to see and do in the area, visit www.doylecollection.com.
For more information about the SS Great Britain and to plan your visit, go to www.ssgreatbritain.org.