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Seven Stars For Bristol....

An excellent few days in the city of Brunel and Banksy, a most fascinating, vibrant, and welcoming place for a visit....


Bristol Marina

A tortoiseshell cat greeted me as I walked into the pub. I went up to the bar and ordered a half of Forzai, from North Wales brewers, Heavy Industry. As I handed over my money, the cat was at my feet, purring. And as I went over to grab a stool, it beat me to it, but then vacated it quickly so I could sit down. I sat down, looked around, and I realised it wasn't the same cat. They were everywhere. There was one in a basket by the window. There was one on the bar. They were under tables, perched beside customers. There was also a load of house rules for on the chalkboard, peppered with some pretty colourful language! I was in the Bag O'Nails, a quirky traditional pub at the bottom of a steep road in the Hotwells area of Bristol. Love's 'Forever Changes' was on the turntable. Andmoreagain. A kitten skidded in from the back. The atmosphere was fantastic, there was a friendly, bohemian vibe about the place, so I ordered another half, this time of the wonderful Rocketman from local brewers, Arbor. The Bag O'Nails was one of the stand-out places in a city of excellent pubs. "How many cats have you got?", I asked the landlord as I was leaving. "About 16 or 17, I think" came the reply. Check out this wonderful place and then you can count them for yourself!
Purrfect pub: The Bag O'Nails, Bristol

Earlier in the day, I had visited the SS Great Britain, which was designed by the brilliant Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel and built in Bristol, the first ship built with a metal rather than a wooden hull, driven by an engine rather than wind power, using a propeller rather than a paddle wheel. The ship had a fascinating life, from its launch as a passenger ship in Bristol in 1843, making a total of 32 journeys from Britain to Australia, many of those on board leaving to start a new life on the other side of the world. It was later converted to a sailing ship, the vast space cleared by removing the engines enabling it to be used instead to carry cargo, and finally it ended up in the Falklands Islands of all places, in the harbour at Port Stanley, where it was used as a warehouse, before being scuttled and sunk in 1937. In 1970, 33 years later, to cut a long story short, the boat was re-floated, repaired, and made seaworthy again, and finally it returned to Bristol, where it is situated in the Floating Harbour on Spike Island, and has been converted into a fascinating museum, telling its amazing story with the boat restored to enable the visitor to appreciate life on those long journeys to Australia. Brunel and Bristol are intrinsically connected, not just by the SS Great Britain, but also by the Great Western Railway, which he designed, connecting London to Bristol and later beyond, and the iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge, which straddles the deep Avon Gorge a mile or two out of the city centre. By all accounts, he was something of a determined and rather irascible character, but his impact on Bristol cannot be understated.

The SS Great Britain

After visiting the SS Great Britain, I decided to wander out to the Bristol Beer Factory Tap, which is situated in the Ashton Gate part of the city, near the Bristol City football ground. It was around a half hour's walk away from the harbour, across the river Avon. I walked down past some houses, came to a junction and there it was, situated on the opposite corner, brightly decorated with street art.
The Bristol Beer Factory Tap

Inside, the decor was pretty much yer standard tap house chic - high tables and chairs, with a few sofas scattered around, shelving with plenty of bottles and other merch, with a cool soundtrack coming out of the speakers. There were 4 beers on cask and 4 on tap, so I decided to give them a go. First up was Low Rider on cask, a blend of Citra and Amarillo hops, which I gave a 4 on the NBSS scale as I thought it was that good. I followed that with a half of Fortitude, a red ale which was OK. I then tried a half of the Wolf of North Street, a pale beer made with Slovenian Hops which had (I thought) a hint of pine to it, but was nonetheless very pleasant. The 4th cask was a White Milk Stout and I was given a taste of this to try alongside their more conventional Milk Stout which was on tap. The cask stout was a pale beer, tasted like a stout, but was very sweet and a bit thin, a bit like Nestles Milky Bar chocolate, whilst the keg version was a delicious, creamy well-rounded stout and got my vote! I finished off with a half of Southville Hop on tap, a big IPA featuring Cascade, Centennial, and Simcoe hops to give a huge smack of tropical fruit.

It was time to go. I liked the BBF Tap. It was friendly, the staff were courteous and helpful, it was just a shame they weren't doing any brewery tours that day. If you want the opportunity to taste some of the city's finest beer as close to their source as possible, make sure you give it a visit.

I headed back towards the harbour, walking through the historic Underfall Yard which is still a working boatyard today. I called in at a traditional street-corner pub, the Nova Scotia, at the edge of the harbour as it meets up with the River Avon, a pub loved by an old but sadly-departed friend. I enjoyed my half of Tunnel Vision from the Wiltshire-based Box Steam brewery as I sat in the garden, with the Clifton Suspension Bridge visible in the distance.

The weather had picked up over the course of the afternoon, and as I walked past smart and trendy waterside dwellings, the sun was beating down. After about 20 minutes, I arrived at my next destination, another Bristol Beer Factory outlet, which, as far as I know, is the only one not based on land. The place in question is the Grain Barge, which is situated on a boat on the opposite side of the Floating Harbour to the  SS Great Britain, and on a sunny late afternoon, a pint of Nova outside on the deck was a most enjoyable way to while away the time. So pleasant, in fact, that I went back for another....
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Another reason for visiting Bristol was to check out the vibrant culture the city has to offer. Having arrived, checked in to the hotel, and dropped by bag off, I set off for a walk. Minutes later, I came across a few guys doing a fashion shoot, a deserted city centre street providing the backdrop. And it seemed that on every available space on a suitable wall, there would be an example of street art, not surprising really when you consider that the city is the birthplace of Banksy, whose witty, often political, generally irreverent, work has appeared on walls, buildings, and other structures across the world. But it was Bristol where it all started and whilst there are still some of his works that can be seen as you wander around, the majority are from those who have been inspired by this mysterious son of the city, whose gradual acceptance by the mainstream has created an environment where nowadays staff from councils or the railways or other guardians of the environment are just as likely to be spend their time on a course to appreciate Street Art as they are to indiscriminately remove anything that has been applied without permission.

Banksy's Well Hung Lover, sadly slightly defaced

There was just the one exhibit from Banksy at the City Art Gallery and Museum, situated on Park Row up a hill from the city centre, on the road towards Clifton. There was though some fine examples of British artists on display, with classics from the likes of Reynolds, Gainsborough, and George Stubbs through to Damien Hirst, plus several classical works from European artists.
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A few other places I enjoyed on my trip. Bristol has some fantastic buildings and interesting corners. It is a great place for just wandering the streets, where you are likely to come across one of the many alleys in the city, or a stretch of green space, or some wonderful street art. There are plenty of museums, such as the M Shed, which chronicles the city's past, and Arnolfina, an internationally-acclaimed contemporary art gallery and performance space. With it being quite hilly, an attractive view will often appear, or a quiet and intimate corner which makes you forget you are in the 8th largest city in the UK. The Harbourside, with its bars and restaurant is a vibrant place of an evening, whilst the harbour itself is of great interest, with the scene constantly changing.
Christmas Steps, Bristol

The city is also home to many wonderful pubs and bars, and in particular, in addition to those mentioned above, the ones mentioned below are all worth visiting for different reasons. And with some of the country's best breweries based in the city, you are never far from a decent beer. For a great street corner locals' pub in the heart of the city, I particularly enjoyed The Bank, very friendly where I had some local beers I hadn't seen before, and I particularly enjoyed Chequered Flag from Prescott, and Bitter Bully from Cheddar Valley. There was a great chill-out soundtrack, a most enjoyable place to visit.

Take it to The Bank.....

And I also enjoyed the pub at the bottom of the eponymous steps referred to above. It is a split level pub, no doubt because it sits aside a slope, almost Dickensian in feel, with lots of nooks and crannies. Here the friendly staff served one of the best beers I had on my tour, Wolf Of North Street, which I rated 4 on the NBSS scale, even better than at the Bristol Beer Factory tap that I had visited earlier in the day. And I particularly enjoyed the Seven Stars, situated on narrow Thomas Lane in the heart of the city's financial district. This is a friendly, unassuming pub with a good choice of beers and a great soundtrack. I got myself a half of Boston Beer Party, a delicious 3.9% New England IPA from Swansea's Boss Brewing, which I rated NBSS 3.5. I had a most enjoyable half hour or so in this historic, friendly spot.

Eager punters outside the Seven Stars, Bristol

I crossed the bridge back to the old town, where King Steet, home to the recently refurbished Old Vic, the oldest continuing working theatre in the company. It is also home to a couple of decent pubs, the modern Beer Emporium with its cellar bar, and the historic Famous Royal Navy Volunteers, with its old frontage, and Tardis-like interior which reveals a number of tastefully decorated rooms, where I had a half of Natural Selection from another of the city's fine breweries, Good Chemistry.

The 'Volley', King Street, Bristol

Bristol has its flip side, like any major city, and its involvement with the slave trade, as part of the so-called Slave Triangle, where it played a major part in shipping people picked up in Africa over to the Caribbean and the Americas is something of a dubious stain on its history. In the 17th and 18th centuries it was the 2nd port in England after London, and as well as commodities like grain and tobacco, slaves were a lucrative source of income to the city's many merchants and traders. One of the most significant was Edward Colston*, who gained much of his wealth through his involvement in the slave trade. He became an MP for the city, and today his name lives on in the 2,000 capacity Colston Hall, which is probably the South West's most important venue.

It was time to head back up north, but before I left I headed to Rough Trade records which was very close to the car park. Bristol has over the years produced some major artists, such as Portishead, Tricky, Massive Attack, and Roni Size. One of the latest to emerge are Idles, whose 2017 debut album Brutalism was an uncompromising and unrestrained assault on the senses, and it was their new album, Joy as an Act of Resistance that I purchased. Another Bristolian band that I love at the moment is Beak, but their new album hadn't hit the shops at this point. One interesting place I would love to visit at some point is Thekla, a boat which is host to many gigs, with one of my current favourite bands, Teleman, due to appear there at some point in October.

All in all, a great few days, although I barely scratched the surface of the place. It just means that I will have to pay another visit in the not so distant future....

Cranes on the Harbourside

* Since I wrote this blog in 2018, there have been many changes as the city has faced up to its past involvement in slavery. The Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 led to Edward Colston's statue being despatched into the harbour by those outraged by his involvement in the slave trade, and the city has subsequently distanced itself and removed many references to its colonial past as a result of the prevailing public opinion.

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