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In search of Banksy in Bristol

I never knew Bristol to be the birthplace of the modern tobacco trade, until I went on the Wills Memorial Building tour inside the Bristol University campus. Our guide narrated the story of how two brothers William Day and Henry Overton took over their father’s business in 1826, named it WD & HO Wills and turned the British city into a global epicentre of the tobacco business. At the start of the 20th Century, they amalgamated the business with 12 other British tobacco syndicates to form Imperial Tobacco Company. Headquartered in Bristol, it became and still exists as one of the world’s largest cigarette enterprises.

Nestled in hilly Southwest England, Bristol has many stories to tell. One is about its name which is derived from the Saxon ‘Brycg Stowe’ meaning the place by the bridge. During the time of the Saxons, a wooden bridge spanning the River Avon was a designated meeting point for the locals, and the settlement which grew around it became Bristol.

Sea front

Visitors today go to the riverside to see that fabled wooden bridge which doesn’t exist any more. Instead, they are greeted by the world-famous Clifton Suspension Bridge, another modern architectural marvel. Like San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and Kolkata’s Howrah Bridge, it’s a commanding symbol of Bristol. Every year, over four million vehicles cross it, though when designed by the illustrious English engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel in the 19th Century, only horse-drawn carriages made up the traffic. Its setting on the cliffs of the scenic Avon Gorge is awesome and thousands of visitors crowd the locale regularly to soak in its beauty.

Located two-and-a-half hours away from London, Bristol has always been a perfect weekend destination for Londoners. The city offers luxury hotels, chic bars, cafés, fine dining restaurants, shopping opportunities and a lively art and music scene.

Combining this contemporary lifestyle with its rich heritage and natural splendour, Bristol is now finding fame as a destination worth visiting. And the stories that fill the air act as powerful drawcards; that’s why many locals refer to Bristol as the ‘City of Stories’.

Maritime lore

Bristol has a rich maritime history, which is evident when browsing its waterfront. The star exhibit there is the SS Great Britain, a source of many fascinating stories. Another of Brunel’s engineering feats, this magnificent royal vessel was built in 1843 as the world’s first iron-hulled, propeller-driven ship to cross the Atlantic. After sailing for almost four decades over million miles, it’s now moored at the dock where it was built, dominating Bristol’s historic waterfront. Decorated with flags and a ready-for-departure look, just as it was when it first sailed, it welcomes visitors to come aboard and explore. Thriving with sights and sounds, it offers an experience inside an extraordinary time machine. The Dockyard Museum next door reveals dramatic episodes and stunning objects from the ship’s long and adventure-filled life. Documents, paper clippings, letters, photographs, and items, from the ship’s bells to graffiti imprinted by the crew, richly bring its story to life.

Factfile

  • Bristol has excellent road and rail connections from other parts of the UK. Regular trains from London’s Paddington Station reach Bristol in less than two hours. Bristol also boasts of an international airport with flights to major European cities.
  • Accommodation is available for every budget, from luxury hotels and youth hostels to Airbnb and old-style bed and breakfasts.

Bristol’s early growth and prosperity came through slavery as well. Stories of some famous pirates, Blackbeard and Bartholomew Roberts, still float around the waterside walkways. Many of the buildings, particularly around Queen Square, are closely linked with both pirating and privateering and still remain as they were centuries ago.

Street art

A major draw of present-day Bristol is its street art scene. Visible almost everywhere, down side streets, along alleys, through under passages, across city walls and on bridges and structures of any kind, these creative expressions have transformed the landscape into open-air art galleries.

Amongst several, the most haunting are from Banksy. Not long ago, he was just another kid on the streets of Bristol with a can of spray paint in his hands, now he is admired worldwide as the ‘elusive graffiti artist extraordinaire’. There are guided walking tours to show his work. Outside Bristol, his work features in many major cities like London, Los Angeles and New York.

For Indians, Bristol offers a little more. It’s the place where early 19th-Century social reformer from Kolkata, Raja Ram Mohan Roy lived the last few years of his life, while pleading with the British Government the banning of the immolation of a Hindu widow on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband. He died in Bristol in 1833. His statue outside Bristol Cathedral and his tomb at the Arnos Vale Cemetery are regularly visited by Indians as a mark of respect for his contribution to the upliftment of Indian women.


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