Bristol is a quirky, arty city – a city famous for Brunel, bridges and Banksy, with an underlying creative buzz. And quirkily, gorillas feature in our two night stay.
My husband Ron and I have our first gorilla encounter at Bristol Zoo Gardens, after travelling on the Bristol Insight open-top bus, from the city centre. You can hop on and off on its two routes and even travel beneath Clifton Suspension Bridge, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859).
It’s feeding time for the family of seven western lowland gorillas. Excitement builds and we jostle for a position, as they arrive. Silverback Jock weighs about thirty-two stone, is the only male and is protective of the clan. We watch him watching the others and enjoying lettuce, his favourite food. Sadly, gorillas are ‘Critically Endangered’ and the keeper tells us that in ten years or so, they’ll only be in zoos.
After a female gorilla, with her baby clinging to her back, lollops away, we leave to walk up Ladies Mile, along The Downs, to the University of Bristol Botanic Garden, home to 4,500 species. Definite favourite is its glasshouse tropical zone, with a raised pool of enormous, Amazon water lilies, and crop plants including cocoa and sugar cane.
Our second gorilla encounter happens at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, where we meet Alfred, a preserved gorilla, a star attraction, He died in 1948, after eighteen years at the zoo, earning the accolade of the longest surviving gorilla in captivity.
It’s a break from gorillas at the museum’s ‘Clowns: The Eggs-hibition’, celebrating 250 years of circus. We’re drawn to a film of Coco the clown putting on his face. A little girl excitedly rushes to dress up as a clown in the mini circus.
Visitors marvel at clowns’ faces, painted on eggs by Clowns International. Each records identity and is unique, as no face can be copied. I like bowler-hatted Charlie Caroli Jnr, Will-E-Droppit, and Sammy Sunshine who made himself the largest clowns’ shoes worldwide.
Down Park Street’s steep hill from the museum, is another worldwide item – ‘Well-Hung Lover’, a mural by graffiti artist Banksy, who was born in Bristol. Sadly this piece has been defaced , but you can also see other original work around the city.
At Cascade Steps, we board ‘Brigantia’ the blue and yellow ferry boat, and smile at Gromit, its figurehead. Bristol Harbourside’s home to Aardman Animations, who created world-famous Wallace and Gromit, Shaun the Sheep and others.
We alight at Bristol’s must-see attraction – Brunel’s SS Great Britain, launched in 1843. Built of iron and with a propeller, it changed shipbuilding forever. She sailed thirty two times around the world, and in 1970, returned home to the Bristol dock where she was built.
Captain John Gray, born in Westing, Unst, was the ship’s longest serving captain – eighteen years, and was also the British merchant fleet’s most celebrated captain. Under his command, about 13,000 people emigrated to Australia. Sadly, in 1872, this popular captain mysteriously disappeared from the ship.
Wandering the ship, we take in the artefacts, and imagine long voyages to Australia. On the outside deck, we cross the white line, painted to separate first class passengers, then go below to the steerage quarters, my highlight – a mock-up complete with bunks, sounds, scuttling rats, and baking bread smells.
We return by ferryboat to Number One Harbourside, a funky cafe and bar with boldly-coloured, diagonally striped pillars, reminiscent of carousels, and enjoy a delicious meal based on the Slow Food philosophy of ‘good, clean and fair’. We choose a vegan option – burgers, triple cooked chips and a Buddha bowl of aubergine caviar, beetroot hummus and spiced quinoa.
Nearby, in Millennium Square, it’s the Wildscreen Festival, a biennial event of natural world, storytelling screenings. The theatre’s a-buzz with fans, including Matthew Wright, producer of our film choice. We’re enthralled by ’Mountain Life at the Extreme’, about the Andes. World-class photography includes a puma and three cubs, spectacled bears and a shape-shifting rain frog.
The Harbourside becomes my favourite area of Bristol. Elsewhere, the city’s also evolving, including renovations of two famous entertainment venues, including St George’s, a leading concert hall with excellent acoustics, attracting diverse artists.
Another redevelopment was at the Bristol Old Vic, built in 1766, now ‘the oldest continuously working theatre in the country’. We enjoy pre-theatre dining in the new 1766 Bar and Kitchen – excellent beetroot and almond risotto, wonderful chilli bread and delightful service.
Sated, we experience a guided tour of the atmospheric, theatre auditorium, and watch actors rehearsing ‘Twelfth Night’. Then it’s time to see our final gorilla in ‘A Little Death’, at the theatre’s intimate, Weston Studio. Vic Llewellyn, its writer, performs admirably, and his accompanying gorilla appears intermittently.
We enjoy more quirkiness at the excellent, refurbished, Mercure Bristol Grand Hotel, with its unconventional, brightly patterned furniture, and urban street art theme. The hotel’s superbly located in the Old City, near St Nicholas Market’s independent traders. So no car needed for exploration.
Ron and I have not nearly finished exploring Bristol but neighbouring Bath beckons. We take an eleven mile, train journey there from Bristol Temple Meads station. The original one was designed by Brunel, and opened in 1840.
It’s time to relax at the refurbished, Country Living Lansdown Grove Hotel, on a hill above the city. So we gaze out at Bath from our bedroom bay window. We’re eager to explore but first enjoy a leisurely, peaceful, breakfast in the Garden Room. The standard of staff assistance is so high here that our waitress even gives us a lift to town, after a taxi let-down.
Reaching the Thermae Bath Spa, it’s a mega, wind down in the naturally warm,
mineral-rich waters of the open-air, Rooftop Pool. It’s idyllic drifting in the water, revolving to gaze at Bath Abbey. We flip-flop downstairs to the Wellness Suite for colour bathed, experience showers, aroma steaming, and infrared sauna’ing. After a quick dip in the columned, Minerva Bath, expert Natasha delights me with a fifty-minute, tailor-made facial. I leave the spa anti-aged and renewed from triple roses and frankincense.
It’s hard to energise for our two-hour walk, led by Julie, from the Mayor of Bath’s Honorary Guides – volunteers whose walks are free and strictly tip-free. However, participants are asked to donate to charity.
Although I’m still mentally in a spa stupor, I enjoy Bath Abbey and its ladders of angels, and views of the city’s fine Palladium and Georgian buildings. At the window of the public powder room, we imagine people powdering their wigs.
Arriving at Gravel Walk, I perk up as it’s where Jane Austen walked, and where her ‘Persuasion’ characters, Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliot, agree to marry.
We crunch the gravel towards Bath’s iconic images – The Circus, and The Royal Crescent to survey the 500 ft crescent of thirty Georgian terraced houses, and imagine horses and dairy cows grazing in the garden.
At the 18th Century, Assembly Rooms, Bennett Street, which now houses the Fashion Museum, you can marvel at its spectacular ballroom, with Whitefriars crystal chandeliers. The room could accommodate about 800 socialites. A main meal was served at 3pm, and dancing began with a sedate minuet at 6pm.
There’s nothing sedate next day at the Roman Baths, with crowds of tourists.
However, at the Great Bath, we snatch exclusive time with costumed characters – Gauls ’Rusonia Aventina’ and her cousin, ‘Peregrinus’,
Rusonia came to ‘Aquae Sulis’ (Bath) with her husband, who was told by the oracle he needed a special salve for a bad eye. It made him worse and he died. She set up a laundry business and Peregrinus,her cousin, came from ‘Germania’ to stay in her guesthouse.
At the West Baths, we sample a paper cone of warm spa water, containing 43 minerals, from a fountain. Visitors are in company with the Charles Dickens’ fictional, ‘Mr Pickwick’, who drank much more than our paper cone full.
Nearby is Acorn Restaurant, a Michelin-rated, vegan restaurant, featuring artistically presented, colourful meals. Here, where plants are king, we linger over a special meal experience. Ron selects a meal of a cauliflower, expertly cooked in several ways, and served with almond milk croquetta infused with fenugreek & onion. My dessert of freshly juiced strawberry jelly with fennel bulb cream and thyme and anise meringue ends a perfect meal.
At the end of our perfect stay in Bristol and Bath, we feel we need more time in both cities and have more to cover. For now, it’s goodbye to Brunel, Romans and Jane Austen’s footsteps. And gorillas.
www.visitbristol.co.uk / @visitbristol
www.visitbath.co.uk / @visitbath
In Bristol, we stayed at the Mercure Bristol Grand Hotel.
In Bath, we stayed at the Country Living Lansdown Grove Hotel.