It’s official: Bristol is the most environmentally-friendly city in Britain. It also has more Georgian buildings than Bath and an imaginatively regenerated waterfront
Few British cities feel as continental and as green as Bristol. The city is slowly recovering from the pounding it took from town planners in the 1960s and 1970s and is now a pleasant place to explore on foot. Bristol also boasts more Georgian buildings than Bath and a picturesque waterside setting which has benefited hugely from an imaginative regeneration programme.
Last year saw two major developments. First the new shopping complex, Cabot Circus, opened (if to a slightly mixed response), and the city was voted the most sustainable in Britain by Forum for the Future; and while locals who bravely cycle into the teeth of a car-dominated transport network may have raised a quizzical eyebrow over this accolade, the fact is Bristol does treasure its green spaces and waterways.
It’s a hilly place and above the city you will find the huge expanse of Clifton Downs, 400 acres of grassland with views across to Brunel’s suspension bridge and the beautiful Avon Gorge. Home to rare species such as the Bristol onion (not an onion but a flower) and in spring the thrilling sight of peregrine falcons, the Downs also support large areas of limestone grassland with scarce wildflowers such as wild thyme and several native orchids. The bridge – if you walk across it bear in mind that its gentle wobbles can often catch out those with even the slightest fear of heights – connects the city to Leigh Woods.
Close by the bridge, on the east side, is the terrace of the White Lion Inn, the bar attached to the Avon Gorge Hotel on Sion Hill, which offers fantastic panoramic views of the balloons (during the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta) and the suspension bridge. The east side of the Avon Gorge tumbles down into the Georgian grandeur, crescents and terraces of Clifton, full of coffee shops, delicatessens and other artisan-themed stores.
Although the Industrial Museum is closed for restoration and reincarnation into the Museum of Bristol, with a scheduled opening of 2011, classic tourist sights in Bristol abound. I made my way first to the Empire and Commonwealth Museum, housed in part of the historic Grade 1-listed terminus building of Temple Meads. The station should not be overlooked: with its cast-iron spans and gothic forecourt, this is one of the great Victorian train sheds. The museum is home to powerful and sometimes moving accounts of life around the world in the days of colonial rule.
A short stroll away lies St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol’s most impressive church, despite being now marooned by busy thoroughfares. Entering the church via the north portal, I was struck by the 14th century intricate hexagonal design. A volunteer at hand explained that, intriguingly, the design is similar to those in mosques and courtyards in Yemen, and hints at ancient sea trade connections between Bristol and the Middle East. In the churchyard lies the grave of the church cat that died in 1927.
Bristol’s historic legacy is enthralling, if not always positive. For more than 100 years, Bristol was a key port in the triangular slave trade. Arms, alcohol and textiles were shipped from the city to the west coast of Africa, where they were traded for slaves. The boats then took their human cargo across the Atlantic to the plantations, where they filled their holds with sugar, molasses and tobacco to be shipped to Bristol. Between 1698 and 1807 more than 2,100 slaving ventures sailed from Bristol. Very few slaves ever came to Bristol – except as trophy exhibits to demonstrate the “civilising” philanthropy of the sugar merchant.
Curious to learn more, I walked up Park Street, a steep road full of distinctive local shops, to find the Georgian House on Great George Street. This is the 18th century former home of John Pinney, a slaver who earned his fortune from sugar plantations in the West Indies. It's so beautifully restored, with period furniture, you’d be forgiven for thinking Pinney has just stepped out to check on the progress of his ships. A sobering display on the second floor outlines Pinney’s views on the slave trade: “It’s as impossible for a man to make sugar without slaves, without the assistance of Negroes as to make bricks without straw.”
Bristol has moved on, thankfully, since those days. Heading back downhill, I came to the redeveloped floating harbour, which can now be crossed by Pero’s bridge, named for an18th century slave brought to Bristol from the Caribbean as a houseboy. Waterside cafés abound here, and it seemed the ideal place to hop on the city’s water taxi service – a rarity in Britain – back to Temple Meads. On the way, the ferry passed old deserted dock houses that are home to sparrowhawks and fig trees brought back by sailors from Asia and the Mediterranean. Perhaps Bristol does warrant that title of the UK’s greenest city after all.