Reviving Bristol’s Maritime Quarter: A Fresh Breath of Seafaring Tradition

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fokus keyword: Bristol's maritime quarter

This piece was crafted by the team at National Geographic Traveller (UK).

The clock strikes 11 in Bristol Harbour, where the waves gently rock a boat. Local shanty group The Longest Johns are performing, filling the air with their versions of classic sea songs as a lively crowd, energized by ale, joins in wholeheartedly. Though the evening may be chilly, the interior is warm, alive with festive lights and fogged-up glasses, while outside the harbor’s waters touch the hull, resonating with melodies of faraway oceans and sailor tales.

One of the UK’s most distinctive music venues is Thekla, a German cargo ship from the 1950s, now repurposed as a floating stage for events. It resides permanently near the Grade II-listed Prince Street Bridge, its masts bare, but its lower compartments frequently filled with enthusiastic concert-goers. This blend of history and the modern era is a common theme in Bristol. Near the gangway, Mud Dock, a combination of bicycle shop and brunch destination, greets visitors with a prominent stencil of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the renowned engineer behind the iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge, atop a collapsible bicycle.

The harbourside is an excellent introduction for anyone trying to unravel the multifaceted character of Bristol. For instance, M Shed, once a transit building and now a museum, honestly chronicles the city’s past, including its involvement in the slave trade. Across from the museum is the spot where in 2020, the 125-year-old statue of English trader Edward Colston was forcefully thrown into the water by residents.

Pero’s bridge, named after Pero Jones, an enslaved African who once resided in the city, stands as a somber memorial to Bristol’s connections to slavery.

Bristol’s harbor has much to explore, including historical pubs. The Ostrich has a cave where smugglers hid goods; The Hole in The Wall is named after a watch hole used by criminals; The Orchard Inn, near a prominent Banksy piece, has been serving local beverages for nearly two centuries. Inside, over 20 ciders beckon. A server’s recommendation: “You can’t go wrong with the farmhouse makers,” a wisdom that seems timeless.

Walking west on a clear morning, one can witness the lively history of the docks, once a bustling passage for goods like wool, fish, and sherry. Today’s vessels each have their own story, ranging from quaint houseboats to historical replicas like The Matthew, the wooden ship famous for its 1497 transatlantic journey to Newfoundland.

A sight to behold is the SS Great Britain, one of Brunel’s crowning achievements. Launched in 1843, this iron-hulled liner revolutionized ocean travel, completing over 30 voyages to Melbourne. Around half a million Australians can trace their ancestry to passengers on this ship.

Aboard the vessel now, visitors can experience the contrasts between the luxurious first-class dining area and the cramped, austere steerage compartments. The ship’s history is brought to life through letters and diaries, like one passenger’s 1875 reflection: ‘It is not the ship I mind, it is the sea.’

Bristol abounds with maritime heritage.

Years later, the SS Great Britain served various purposes, ending up neglected in the Falkland Islands, before being returned to its original dry dock for restoration. It stands as a symbol of Bristol’s enduring maritime legacy.

Further into the harbor lies Underfall Yard, a 19th-century boatyard that still hosts traditional maritime artisans. The yard’s community manager, Flex Toomey, shares its history, linking it to the expression “shipshape and Bristol fashion.” A tour reveals the old-world charm, culminating in the visitor center, now partly a café, where you can enjoy modern delicacies while overlooking the harbor.

Bristol has evolved into a city that can be easily enjoyed, but it continues to probe and honor its rich and complicated past.

This article was featured in the UK & Ireland supplement, included with the Jul/Aug 2023 edition of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

To subscribe to National Geographic Traveller (UK) magazine, click here (Available in select countries only).

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about fokus keyword: Bristol’s maritime quarter

What are some key attractions in Bristol’s maritime quarter?

Bristol’s maritime quarter is rich with attractions, including Thekla, a floating events venue; Mud Dock, a bike-shop-cum-brunch-spot; M Shed, a museum detailing the city’s history; historic pubs like The Ostrich, The Hole in The Wall, and The Orchard Inn; and iconic ships like The Matthew and SS Great Britain. The Underfall Yard provides insight into traditional maritime trades, and visitors can even enjoy modern delicacies overlooking the harbor.

Who is Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and what is his connection to Bristol?

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a renowned 19th-century engineer who designed Bristol’s iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge. He also designed the SS Great Britain, an innovative iron-hulled ocean liner. His influence can be seen throughout Bristol’s maritime quarter, symbolizing the city’s rich engineering history.

What does the article reveal about Bristol’s links to slavery?

The article mentions Bristol’s complex links with slavery, including a reference to M Shed, a museum that tells the city’s story frankly, without avoiding its connections to the slave trade. It also discusses the unceremonious removal of a statue of Edward Colston, an English merchant linked to the slave trade, and Pero’s bridge, named after an enslaved African, as reminders of Bristol’s connections to slavery.

Can you tell me about some of the historic pubs in Bristol’s maritime quarter?

In Bristol’s maritime quarter, several pubs are full of history. The Ostrich has a cave where smugglers once hid contraband. The Hole in The Wall is named after a spyhole used by wrongdoers to watch for customs officers. The Orchard Inn, near a prominent Banksy artwork, has been serving local beverages like cider for nearly 180 years.

What are some of the ships mentioned in the text, and what are their significances?

The text mentions several ships, including Thekla, a 1950s German cargo ship now used as a floating venue; The Matthew, a replica of the ship that sailed to Newfoundland in 1497; Miss Conduct, a former New York dinner cruiser; and the SS Great Britain, an iron-hulled liner designed by Brunel. These ships symbolize Bristol’s rich maritime heritage, each telling a unique story of the city’s seafaring past and present.

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5 comments

TravelerK August 12, 2023 - 12:04 pm

didnt know much about Bristol before reading this. i’m fascinated now. The maritime history and iconic ships! Think I need to add Bristol to my travel list. Thank you

Reply
John Smith August 12, 2023 - 3:14 pm

I’ve been to Bristol once, great place! The harbor is something to see for sure. The SS Great Britain is a must-see if your in the area. Top stuff in the article

Reply
BrianT August 12, 2023 - 8:46 pm

isambard Kingdom Brunel, what a legend. His work still amazes people today, the Clifton Suspension Bridge is an engineering masterpiece! I really enjoyed reading about it, great article

Reply
Sarah_89 August 12, 2023 - 10:24 pm

Wow this takes me back! I studied in Bristol and spent so many nights at Thekla. Thanks for the trip down memory lane, a really evocative piece

Reply
CiderFan August 13, 2023 - 1:01 am

The Orchard Inn, best cider in town hands down! If you’re a cider lover, Bristol’s your place. Loved the article, brought back some good memories. I miss those west country tipples!

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