Walking with Clare Thornton on 18 February 2013

Bristol

I am walking with Clare. Clare was at University with me but in more recent years our paths have crossed mostly at live art festivals. The frantic bustle of festivals leaves little time for proper talking (lots of people, lots of work to see, lots of interruptions, lots of half-spoken thoughts and unfinished sentences…) I’ve been looking forward to the opportunity for a more concentrated conversation.

We meet at St Mary Redcliffe Parish Church just before noon. It’s a brilliantly bright day, with winter chilliness jostling with spring freshness. We begin by taking a turn around the impressively Gothic church, its stained glass catching and projecting the sun. The Chaotic Pendulum, a permanent installation which tips recycled water into a cross beam – it’s impossible to predict with any certainty which way the water will tip each time – serves as a reminder that life is unpredictable, that some things cannot be known, and that this uncertainty is a wonder. No mention is made of an all-knowing God (though science is given a bit of a kick).

Leaving Redcliffe’s we turn west, down Redcliffe Hill and on to Commercial Road, looking over the hospital and passing the M-Shed – an old transit shed turned into a museum that tells the story of Bristol. Today, we will pass many cultural buildings which will alert me to just how little of Bristol I have seen. Though I have visited lots of times, I always travel with a specific purpose, which tends to take me down the same routes (Bristol Temple Meads-Arnolfini-Park Street-Bristol University).

As we walk beside the New Cut, Clare tells me of her mum’s recent death. I am so glad we are here, walking side-by-side, ear to ear, the sun on our faces, away from the noise of the city, of art festivals. On Cumberland Road, beyond God’s Garden (Open Today), we see our first daffodil of the year, blooming vividly yellow, impervious to the dustiness and stoniness of its roadside habitat. We are amused by a sign that reads ‘A day without olives is like a day’. A sign of the chaotic quotidian? A little further along is a house coveted by Clare – as if aligned with the olive sign, it seems transplanted from warmer Mediterranean or further-flung climes – fronted with palm trees, painted a desertish-red and boasting a flat sun roof. The hedge beside us chirps with a gathered flock of sparrows.

A pedestrian/cycle path brings us closer to the River Avon (Festival Way; Route 41 National Cycle Network). At the edges of this tidal Avon New Cut are banks of sludgy shiny mud. On the other side of the railings and railway tracks is Spike Island (another first for me), where Clare works, and a little further along the Bristol Record Office and CREATE, the walls of which are the canvas for multi-coloured graffiti (though none of it by Banksy). In the far distance, a row of the coloured terraced houses for which Bristol is famous. We pass a model eco-home (closed) and head towards a spaghetti junction of motorways. Brunel’s spectacular Clifton suspension bridge is suspended ahead of us, high over the Avon Gorge. (The bridge has tantalised me for many a year.) In the scruffy Cumberland Basin, Clare tells me about Brazilian artist Maria Thereza Alves’ Seeds of Change project. Ships involved in the European trade would dock here and dump their ballast – made of earth, rocks etc – onto the river bank. In the process, they were also dumping seeds which in time would germinate, changing the Bristol landscape.

Crossing one of the locks, but failing to find a pedestrian route out of the dock, we climb a railing to get onto the overpass. In this concrete jungle some well-intentioned but foolish council committee has tried and failed to make a pleasure garden. Not even the skateboarders have taken up residence – garden benches sit in abandoned isolation, the concrete landscaping is cracked and crumbling, flowerbeds are unplanted. At the end of the bridge, what would once have been a desirable Georgian property has its curved handsome wall intruded upon by a hulking steel motorway-sign sitting just inches away from windows. On Hotwell Road Clare points out another bench, this one looking bewilderingly out onto multiple lanes of traffic and a brick wall. A little further along, we come across the unique Colonnade houses which, in spite of the busy road, retain something of their former grandeur, with porches and colonnades supporting a second story. A plaque on the wall informs us that a hot spring rose out of the river mud near this spot.

Just beyond the Colonnade lie the remains of the Clifton Rocks Railway – a funicular railway inside the cliffs of the Avon Gorge (closed in 1934 but a secret transmission base for the BBC during WWII). We follow the narrow pavement hugging close to the cliffs of the gorge, arriving at a public footpath sign: ‘Zig Zag Path to Clifton’. Steep steps lead us upwards, gaining height and views. Graffiti instructs us to ‘Be Happy’. The sun streams through tall ivy-clad trees. At the top of the aptly named Zig Zag Path, we make our way to the suspension bridge, walking out to its dead centre. I am delighted to be standing here, rather than viewing it from a distance. The bridge sways under foot. It’s a long drop down. Though hazy, the view to the horizon is spectacular, the eye following the course of the river, then roving over the panorama of rolling hills.

Back on solid ground (with legs still a bit jeely), at the top of the Rocks Railway we throw some loose change into a charity bucket (for railway preservation), aiming and failing to hit a bell. Caledonia Place (a hint of Scotland?) leads us into plush Clifton, onto Richmond Terrace and round some back streets to a hidden, unassuming treasure – the Lido (a subscription bath first opened in 1850 and re-opened in 2007). People swim lazily in the outside pool, whilst those inside snack on tapas and homemade cakes. We join them – the minty scallops rank amongst the best I have ever tasted. I like Bristol. It’s good for the spirit. As are unknown routes. And the company of a friend, sharing her thoughts and stories during a long-overdue walk.

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