I was only six or seven at the time, but I do (rather vaguely), remember what Bristol was like in the early 1940s, before the Germans arrived. It was a beautiful old city, curled up like a baby in the arms of the River Avon and River Frome since the days of the Romans, about 12 miles from the famous spa town of Bath (known in those early days as Aquae Sulis), and for many years a county in its own right — a rare honour!
Like most other old towns, early Bristol was built within a stone protective wall, a little of which is still standing to this day, but the great majority of what the Germans destroyed (helped after the war by so-called town planners), was the medieval city, all lathe and plasterwork and overhanging upper stories, buildings that stood no chance at all when 300-pound bombs or incendiaries landed on them. About the most classic of those wonderful buildings must have been the ‘Dutch House’, situated right in the centre of the city, containing shops and offices on five floors plus an attic, and possibly a basement below as well. So famous and well-loved was that particular building that most people in Bristol can tell you all about the place even now, 60 years after its destruction.
But Bristol was full of such places, with virtually every street boasting some oddity amongst the more modern structures, and luckily just a few of them are still there, like the Llandoger Trow, a pub in the docks area of the city, featured as the one owned by Long John Silver in Treasure Island. There must be a dozen other pubs that have stood the long test of time, still providing comfort and sustenance to Bristol’s weary travellers!
Another of the famous old streets of the town is Christmas Steps, which I suppose shouldn’t be called a street at all really. It’s very steep and drops quickly through about 100-feet from one road to another, and it is lined on both sides by quaint little shops, clinging like grapes down each side of the thoroughfare. Too steep for a normal footpath, it is, as the name implies, steps all the way down, apart from a couple of ‘landings’, where a traveller could rest and catch his/her breath. When I was a kid, many, many years ago, the businesses there were all junk-shops, antiques dealers, and a specialist in postage stamps, but now, most of the premises have been turned into chic little restaurants and boutiques. Luckily though, the various owners have managed to maintain the full character of the steps, with no ghastly modern signs on show, and of course, because of being all steps, there are no cars there, just people walking up and down, or shopping.
Although it is about 13km from the Bristol Channel, to which it is connected by the River Avon (pronounced ‘ayvon’), Bristol was once one of the major ports of England, crowded with sailing ships from all over the known world; it was from here that John Cabot set sail to discover Newfoundland, later followed by his son Sebastian, one of the first explorers to try to find the ‘North-West Passage’. There is a tower on a steep hill near the centre of Bristol, built to commemorate their departure.
With the arrival of steam ships, and the massive tides Bristol suffers, the docks eventually died and the River Frome, which had run for centuries through the centre was enclosed in an enormous pipe and buildings were erected over it. At the same time, most of the lovely old buildings lining the river bank were destroyed too, to be replaced by some rather awful modern structures.
I have to admit, even including the many mistakes made by the planners, Bristol is still, and always will be, an interesting city to visit and explore. If you are ever in England, you really should try to get there and have a look!