After enjoying city breaks in London, Edinburgh and Birmingham we decided to head to the south west of England for our next weekend away. My journey on board a CrossCountry train was pleasant, having an interesting conversation with an Edinburgh green keeper, learning about life on one of Scotland’s premier golf courses as we journeyed south.
After three and a half hours, my train pulled into Bristol Temple Meads station just five minutes behind schedule at 1.45 p.m. and it was good to find my son waiting to greet me as I stepped onto the platform.
Temple Meads station was opened in 1840 as the western terminus of the Great Western Railway from London Paddington. This railway station was the first to be designed by the famous engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel and is now a Grade 1 listed building.
Our first stop was to the Bristol Central Travelodge on Mitchell Street, conveniently located for visiting the majority of the city’s attractions and not very far from the station. After checking into our room and leaving our luggage, we were ready for a bite to eat so we settled down in the Knight’s Templar pub where we planned our afternoon activities over a light lunch.
An hour later and we were ready to begin our tour of the city. Our first stop was at Temple Quay which lies to the west of the station and is a waterside development including a significant amount of office accommodation. It’s also the starting point for the Bristol Ferry’s service, which operate regularly through the city.
Continuing further, we arrived at Bristol’s Harbourside which at one time was the Port of Bristol’s busy dock area where merchants traded goods and ships sailed on voyages of discovery. Strolling along the quayside, we discovered that the area has been transformed into an attractive tourist attraction with shops, restaurants and cultural highlights lining the waterfront. Former warehouses have been converted into museums and galleries overlooking historic ships moored on the quay.
A quick check of our map followed and soon we had arrived at College Green which is surrounded by Bristol Cathedral, City Hall, the Lord Mayor’s Chapel and the Abbey Gatehouse. Entrance to the cathedral is free of charge and so we took an opportunity to admire the interior with its tall, gothic windows and clustered columns along the nave towards the main altar.
From the Cathedral we made our way to the top of Park Street so that we could take a look at the landmark building of the University of Bristol. Known as the Will’s Memorial Building, this neo-gothic tower was completed in 1925 and is considered to be one of the last, great Gothic buildings to be constructed in this country. We were able to walk into the entrance but public access is not permitted beyond this point.
It then started raining heavily, so we took shelter looking around the Broadmead shopping centre with its festive lights helping to brighten up a dark, damp evening. Finishing shopping, our feet were beginning to tire so we found a city centre pub to rest awhile, enjoy a meal and finalise plans for our next day’s activities.
There was only a slight drizzle when we returned outdoors and made our way to Millennium Square by the harbour to enjoy the Christmas Market with its ice rink, Ferris wheel and enchanting small wooden huts decorated with twinkling fairy lights.
Being a lover of Ferris wheels, we couldn’t resist the temptation of a ride on the Sky View Wheel for some stunning nighttime views of the city skyline from a height of 35m. The Bristol Christmas Market continues until 16th January 2018 allowing plenty of opportunities for visitors to come and enjoy the festivities.
It was then getting late, so we returned to the hotel to get a good night’s rest as we wanted to make an early start the next day.
We were up bright and early as we had planned to spend the day in neighbouring Bath, 10 miles (16km) from Bristol. Getting there was easy as trains depart frequently from Bristol Temple Meads taking just over 10 minutes to Bath Spa station, adult off-peak day return fares are £8.60.
From the moment we left the station and wandered towards the city centre, we thought that Bath was absolutely beautiful with its stylish Georgian architecture. Passing through Milsom Place, we could easily have been tempted into looking in some of the smart, sophisticated stores but that needed to wait until later in the day as we had lots of sightseeing planned first.
In the heart of the city stands The Roman Baths, a well preserved Roman site for public bathing. As it is one of the finest historical sites in Europe we decided to visit there early before it became crowded later in the day. After obtaining our tickets (adult admission £15.50) which come with useful audio guides, we made our way to the terrace which overlooks the Great Bath. Surrounding the terrace are Victorian statues of Roman emperors and governors of Britain. The views, both looking down into the Great Bath and of the city centre are stunning.
Continuing our tour below modern street level the Roman Baths are divided into four main sections, the Sacred Spring, the Roman Temple, the Roman Bath House and the museum. A gallery on ‘Meet the Romans’ takes visitors into the Roman town of Aqua Sulis where we found archaeological ruins, artefacts and models of the Roman temple.
Having viewed the Great Bath from above, we were able to walk around the edge of the steaming pool, filled with hot spa water and view the magnificent centrepiece of the Roman Baths. The water that flows into the Roman Baths is considered unsafe for bathing and visitors are not permitted to enter the water, however the recently constructed nearby Thermae Bath Spa allows visitors to bathe and experience the waters.
Near the exit there is a spa water fountain from which visitors can taste the water containing 43 minerals that’s been used for curative purposes for more than 2,000 years. I would suggest allowing two hours for a visit to the Roman Baths, to be able to see everything without needing to rush.
After leaving the Roman Baths we crossed Abbey Square to visit Bath Abbey which was founded in the 7th century but did not resemble what we see today until 1499. There is no admittance charge to visit the Abbey but donations are welcome and help towards the upkeep of the building. The interior is stunning, having some beautiful stained glass windows and a fan vaulted ceiling.
Tours of the tower take place each hour and as one was about to start, we decided to join the other 6 people and climb more than 200 stone steps which are enclosed in a narrow spiral staircase. The climb is broken down into manageable chunks with a pause part way up to look in the bell ringers room and hear a short history of the abbey’s bells. Next, we were taken into a tiny room hardly bigger than a cupboard, where we actually sat behind the clock face and moving on a little further, we inspected the bells themselves and watched as one of them struck the half hour.
On reaching the Abbey roof we had splendid views over the city and our helpful guide was on hand to answer any questions. The tour lasts around 50 minutes and costs £6 which I thought was good value. I would recommend climbing the tower if the weather is good, bags can be left in a locked room as it would be difficult to navigate the staircase with bulky items.
As the sun was shining we then decided to have a walk beside the river and take a look at Pulteney Bridge which crosses the river Avon. It was completed in 1774 in Palladian style to connect the city with the newly built Georgian town of Bathwick. It was a pleasant stroll along the riverbank as we passed the weir and returned to the other side of the river via the next bridge a little further downstream.
It was then time to pop into a cafe for some sandwiches and coffee and after a little rest we were ready to continue exploring the city. Our next stop was to the Bath Postal Museum which is a small museum dedicated to the postal service. I am very fond of anything post related and was keen to visit this museum which included a reconstructed Victorian post office, a collection of heritage post boxes and some cabinets containing old stamps. I thought that the £4.50 admission price was perhaps a little high for the size of the museum but it did contain some interesting exhibits. It’s located beneath the existing post office on Northgate Street and has limited opening hours.
A walk through the shopping centre followed as we made our way to the Assembly Rooms which house the Fashion Museum. Entrance to the museum is £9 but a combined ticket can be purchased which is better value if you are also wishing to visit the Roman Baths.
The Assembly Rooms are a splendid Georgian building where guests came to dance, listen to music and play cards, they are now owned by the National Trust and admittance is free. The Fashion Museum is located on the lower ground floor and is one of the world’s top 10 museums of fashionable dress. Exploring the galleries, we found everything from Georgian gowns to the latest designer trends. Included with the ticket was an audio guide which was useful when more information was needed on a particular garment. There’s also a dressing up room with large mirrors if you fancy seeing yourself in a Georgian ballgown or other outfit.
From the Assembly Rooms we consulted our map once again and made our way over to view some of Bath’s finest Georgian architecture at the Circus and Royal Crescent. Originally known as the King’s Circus, the Circus is a circle of townhouses divided into three curved segments and arranged in a circular shape. We sat down for a few minutes on one of the benches in its central gardens admiring the buildings before continuing a little further to the Royal Crescent.
The Royal Crescent is a row of 30 terraced houses laid out in a sweeping crescent and is believed to be one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture in the U.K. Standing on the corner is No.1 Royal Crescent, a museum that has been furnished as it might have been during the period 1776-1796. It was an hour before closing time when we arrived, but there was still ample time to tour the house and being late in the day, we had the museum more or less to ourselves.
Instead of guided tours, a member of staff is available in each room to answer questions and provide useful insights into how the room may have been used. The museum is spread over several floors and includes the kitchen and scullery below stairs. We found the staff to be very helpful and informative and were pleased that we decided to visit. Standard admission is £10 with concessions available.
Thankfully, it was a downhill walk back into the centre of town, where we glanced in some of the fashionable shops before returning to the station for an early evening train back to Bristol. It would have been nice to sit down on the train but as it was crowded when we boarded, we had to stand for the short 10 minute journey.
We had a lovely day in beautiful Bath and were fortunate to experience the city on such a sunny, winter’s day. Bath has so many cultural highlights that it wouldn’t have been possible to see them all in one day so I’m certain we will be returning before too long to see even more.
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After the previous day’s glorious sunshine, we woke to grey skies but as we’d planned to spend the day visiting two of Bristol’s top cultural highlights which were both indoors, it didn’t bother us too much. So, after our usual cooked breakfasts and large cappuccinos we felt suitably nourished and ready for a day of sightseeing.
Our morning activity was to explore the SS Great Britain, and what better way for us to travel to this iconic museum ship than by water. Bristol Ferry Boats operate a scheduled water bus service around Bristol Harbour and so we boarded their first service of the morning from Temple Meads at 10.00 a.m. There are 17 stops along the harbour, some of which are request only, so if you see the blue and yellow ferry boat approaching, just stand at the landing stage and give the crew a wave and they will stop and pick you up. Detailed timetables are affixed to each of the stops and boats run at 40 minute intervals.
It was a 30 minute journey along to the SS Great Britain and we enjoyed viewing the city from the perspective of the water. Matilda, our ferry boat, took us alongside houseboats, barges and sailing ships including a replica of The Matthew on which John Cabot sailed to Newfoundland. Since the 1970’s Bristol harbour-side has undergone a huge amount of regeneration and is now both an attractive and vibrant part of the city centre.
SS Great Britain was launched by Prince Albert in July 1843 and was at that time the largest passenger ship in the world. She was also the first screw propelled ocean going iron hulled steam ship and was built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859). Brunel was a famous engineer who built bridges, railways, tunnels, ships and docks and his innovative approach to engineering meant that people were able to travel and trade in new ways.
After obtaining our tickets, (standard adult £14) it was suggested that we start our self guided tour of SS Great Britain in the Dockyard. Since 1839, when it was decided to construct a transatlantic liner, the Great Western Dockyard has been here. The bustling atmosphere of a ship being prepared for departure is still evident today and from the quay we were able to view the SS Great Britain adorned in flags and ready to depart.
From the Dockyard we were able to access the Dry Dock where we strolled along a pathway around her iron hull. The Dry Dock has been sealed by a huge water line glass plate surrounding the ship and to keep the air dry a giant dehumidification plant helps to retain the atmosphere at a relative humidity of 20% to prevent corrosion. On one of the information boards I read a sign explaining that the air in the Dry Dock was actually as arid as that of the Arizona Desert.
Continuing our tour, we moved along to the Dockyard Museum where visitors are taken back in time through the SS Great Britain’s history. Our self guided stroll took us through four time zones with each gallery showcasing the ship’s long life of adventure.
Starting in 1843 with the launch of the luxury liner, the exhibition captures the experiences of the passengers and crew through to the 1850’s when she made 32 voyages carrying emigrants across the world. In 1880 she was converted from steam to sail and made three voyages to San Francisco. It was in 1970, after a dramatic salvage operation in Port Stanley, Falkland Islands that the ship was rescued for the nation and became a major tourist attraction along the Bristol waterfront. After learning about her history, we were then ready to step on board SS Great Britain in her fully restored glory.
We began our tour on the upper, Weather Deck. Here the space was divided into different areas for passengers travelling first, second or third class. Only first class passengers were allowed to cross a white painted line behind the mainmast.
On the floor below we explored the Promenade Deck. This was an area for first class passengers to socialise, walk and dance without having to get wet or windswept on the open air Weather Deck. On either side of this deck we were able to look in some of the first class cabins and observe life on board a luxury liner.
As with cruise holidays today, eating and drinking were a major part of life on board. In the Dining Saloon first class passengers dined in style sitting with fellow travellers at long tables eating off the finest porcelain tableware and drinking expensive wines from crystal glasses.
Third class passengers, also referred to as steerage, endured journeys on the lower decks in noisy, cramped accommodation during their voyages to Australia but I’m certain they still had lots of fun and made the most of their time. We also had an opportunity to view the galley, stores, bakery, forward hold and engine. In the forward hold, live animals were transported some of which were slaughtered for fresh meat to be used in the kitchens during the passage.
Touring the museum ship was an absolute treat as it is set out with interactive displays and rather than just being able to glance into cabins, kitchens etc., visitors are actively encouraged to step inside and relive the voyage. I was also pleasantly surprised to find how accessible each part of the ship was. Over the years I’ve visited numerous museum ships where it’s been necessary to clamber up and down steep narrow stairways and although I haven’t found it problematic, it would be for some visitors. Don’t let that dissuade you from touring the SS Great Britain and enjoying life on board the ship. Tickets are valid for one year, providing an opportunity to view the new exhibit ‘Being Brunel’ about the life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel which is due to open at the end of March 2018.
We spent about two and a half hours exploring SS Great Britain so I would suggest setting aside half a day for a visit to this majestic vessel. It was back on the water for us as we caught another one of the Bristol Ferry boats back to the city centre. As it was lunchtime we popped into the V Shed pub on the waterfront for a panini and coffee before catching a No.75 bus to Aerospace Bristol, the new home of Concorde.
Checking route information on the First buses website, the journey time was listed as 31 minutes and it claimed contactless payment was available. Both of these facts appeared to be incorrect as our Saturday afternoon journey actually took 50 minutes and the driver would only permit cash payments despite having a card reader installed! A day ticket costs £4.50 and fortunately I had a £20 note to be able to pay for the two tickets otherwise we would probably have not been allowed to board.
The 75 service doesn’t actually drop passengers at the door of the museum so its necessary to alight at Gypsy Patch Lane just after you see the large Royal Mail sorting office on your left. To get to the museum, continue walking along the road for approximately ten minutes (there is a pavement) and you will see the museum ahead.
Aerospace Bristol only opened in October 2017 and is located on the historic Filton airfield from where every British Concorde made its maiden flight. Adult admission is £15 and is valid for one year for return visits. The museum cost £19 million to build and its main attraction and centrepiece is undoubtedly a visit to the purpose built Concorde hangar to view Concorde Alpha Foxtrot, the last of the iconic supersonic passenger jets to be built and the last to fly 14 years ago in 2003.
Bristol can safely hold claim to being the rightful home of Concorde, being the location of the U.K. assembly line and where the airframe and engines were largely developed. Viewing Concorde in its shiny, new home was a marvellous experience. Not only are visitors able to walk around the outside of the aircraft but they are also invited to step on board through its front doors.
The aircraft design needed to be long and thin as it was all about speed, but it was still surprising to note how narrow the soft leather seats were and how little legroom was provided. We peered into the cockpit wondering what all the buttons and switches controlled, saw the toilets which were not even as smart or spacious as those we are familiar with today when travelling long haul economy. Considering the gourmet meals served during the supersonic three and a half hour flight between London and New York, it was a tight fit in the cramped galley for the cabin crew to prepare the food.
After leaving Concorde by its rear door, there was still plenty to see. Off to one side is a gallery dedicated to the airliner where we saw menus, champagne bottles from its maiden flight, changes in seat design, smart uniforms and other fascinating memorabilia. The Concorde hangar has been designed to be used to also host functions, just imagine enjoying dinner sitting beneath the wings of Concorde – it’s certainly a venue with a difference!
Although Concorde is Aerospace Bristol’s showstopper there’s lots more to keep visitors interested. Back in the main building, the museum explores the wider history of the aerospace history in Bristol from the earliest days of powered flight to the latest technological advances.
In 1910, the entrepreneur Sir George White announced that Bristol Tramways and Carriage Company were going to branch out into aircraft, and at the outset of World War One the British Colonial Aerospace Company (BCAC) was launched and building fighter planes. Since then, warplanes, missiles, helicopters, satellites and rockets have all been built in Filton and the surrounding Bristol area.
Exhibits range from a Sea Harrier jet fighter noted for its vertical take-off and landing, and its use in the Falklands conflict, to the Bristol Type 192 Belvedere twin rotor helicopter which had originally been designed for inter-city travel but was later used as a troop carrier and bears resemblance to the modern Chinook used today. As well as exhibits, there are numerous interactive displays designed for both adults and children. Using one of these we tried to create enough power to fly a plane and on another we learnt about engine thrust, providing visitors with both an educational and fun experience.
We had found the museum so interesting that we were among the final visitors to leave just before it was closing. Along with SS Great Britain its a definite must see on a visit to Bristol and I would recommend setting aside at least two hours for a visit to Aerospace Bristol.
On leaving, instead of returning back into the city centre on the same bus service we arrived on, we continued walking along the road to the Cribbs Causeway Mall which is a large, out of town shopping centre located to the north of Bristol. It took us about 20 minutes to walk to the mall, most of the way along pavements with just a short section where we had to take extra care. After a day of museums we rested our feet with tea and cakes in the John Lewis cafe then did a spot of window shopping and admired the festive decorations before returning to the city centre on a No.2 bus. Numerous buses operate between Cribbs Causeway and the centre of Bristol so we didn’t have to wait very long to board. Journey time was similar to that of the service we took earlier in the day.
It was then back to our hotel after a fun filled day viewing ships and aircraft.
Our final day in Bristol, but still plenty of time for more sightseeing, so after checking out of our hotel and leaving our luggage to collect later in the day we once again caught the Bristol Ferry Boats 10.00 a.m. service. Unlike the previous day, when we disembarked at SS Great Britain, this time we remained on board for its entire 35 minute journey to The Pump House landing stage in the Hotwells district.
As it was fine, we were able to sit out on deck and enjoy the ever changing waterfront scenery as we slowly made our way along the harbour. Our reason for taking the boat to Hotwells was so that we could visit another of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s great masterpieces, the Clifton Suspension Bridge.
It took us about 15 minutes to reach the bridge from the waterfront. It’s quite a steep climb up some narrow streets through the prosperous village of Clifton, with the bridge becoming visible as we approached.
In 1754 a wine merchant left £1,000 in his will to build a bridge across the Avon Gorge, but it was 70 years later when Brunel began working on the project. The bridge finally opened in 1864, five years after Brunel’s death.
The Clifton Suspension Bridge links Clifton in Bristol to Leigh Woods in North Somerset and crosses the Avon Gorge which was formed during the ice age. This spectacular setting is a popular beauty spot and many visitors come for a stroll, not only to view Brunel’s feat of engineering but also to admire the dramatic views looking down onto the gorge below. Avon Gorge is home to many rare plants and wildlife and is a designated site of special scientific interest (SSSI), one of the country’s best wildlife and geological sites.
Crossing the bridge on foot or by bicycle is free but there is a £1 charge for motorists. As we walked across the bridge we stopped repeatedly to take photos, the views seemingly to improve the further we walked. The river was very low when we visited but as the Avon is a tidal river it rises and falls by 13 metres, with high tides twice a day.
Reaching the Leigh Woods (toll booth) side there is an informative visitor centre which is worth a visit. In here we found an exhibition about the history of the bridge and the people who worked on it. Returning back across the bridge to the Bristol side, we followed a path uphill to the Clifton Observatory. This former corn mill is now used as an observatory and features a camera obscura.
We then retraced our steps downhill back to the ferry landing stage and with good timing only had to wait a few minutes until one of the small blue and yellow boats arrived, taking us back into the centre of town.
After a quick coffee stop, we were ready to visit our final museum of the weekend at M Shed, which is located on Prince’s Wharf beside the harbour. The museum is housed in a dockside transit shed that was formerly occupied by the Bristol Industrial Museum and is free to visit.
The museum is divided into four sections with the first gallery focusing on Bristol Life. This explores ways in which people experienced local life over the centuries.
We then continued on to the Bristol People Gallery which focuses on the ways that people have shaped the city and their experiences. It highlights how Bristol has transformed over time and showcases the discoveries that have been made in and around the city.
Upstairs in the Bristol Places Gallery we explored the activities past and present that made Bristol what it is. We learnt about the city’s trading past and its involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.
On the top floor there is a large viewing terrace with far reaching views over the city and of the museum’s outdoor working exhibits including cranes, trains and boats which are operational on selected dates. Overall, we found the museum to be very informative with some interesting exhibits detailing Bristol’s industrial heritage.
On leaving, we came across a vibrant area located just behind the museum known as Wapping Wharf. This lies between the main harbour and the New Cut, an artificial waterway completed in 1809 to divert the river Avon. Here we found an eclectic mix of small, independent shops, bars and cafes some of which are housed in converted shipping containers with glass frontages and terraces.
There was plenty of time for us to enjoy a final meal in the city before returning to Temple Meads station for our rail journey home. As you can tell from this series of four posts, there is much of interest to see and do in both Bristol and Bath. So much in fact that there’s still lots more we want to experience, so hopefully it won’t be too long before we return there.
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