As part of the solo travel focus on city breaks we go undercover in Bristol, England.
If Bristol was a bloke who you just met in a bar, you would think he was understated, even a bit scruffy looking, creative type, definitely, complex, cheeky and with plenty of spirit. He’d probably make you think hard and laugh out loud, maybe both at the same time. By the end of the evening, you might conclude that he was a good sort, straightforward, what you see is what you get.
However, judging people and cities on first impressions ignores the fact that both have their secrets, always, and so it is with Bristol. On first impressions, you could skim the surface, see the sights and come away satisfied. Yet you would be none the wiser about the quirky, forgotten and mysterious aspects of Bristol, for here are hidden things that you won’t find in any guide on Bristol activities.
Sneaking beneath the surface of St Mary Redcliffe lie a labyrinthine weaving of underground passages known as Redcliffe caves. They cover around 3 acres of land and the tunnels extend from nearby the Ostrich Inn towards Temple Meads railway station.
These caves are the result of 15th to 18th century mine workings here. The main product was fine sand, which was used to make glass, such as the utterly distinctive Bristol Blue Glass. Myths and tales abound of these caves’ associations with smuggling and hidden treasure and some believe that slaves were kept underground here during Bristol’s dark age of slave trading.
The infamous pirate Blackbeard was a Bristolian gone bad. Born in Bristol around 1680, Edward Teach (not such a good pirate name) later became known as Blackbeard and took to pillaging in the Caribbean. In preparation for raiding another ship, he would make his appearance as terrifying as possible, by tying his enormous black beard into plaits, strapping 3 pairs of pistols to his chest and using slow-burning rope to create billowing black smoke around his head.
He and his ship, the Adventure, wrought havoc for many years, before eventually Blackbeard was caught and beheaded by the Royal Navy.
Now overgrown and neglected, you could whizz along the Portway and pass by the cliff railway, without even realising it was there. In its heyday though, the railway was buzzing with trade. When it was built, in 1893, it was the widest funicular railway of its time. Construction crew blasted through 500 feet of limestone in order to create the tunnel inside the rock and then lined the whole affair with bricks. Two carriages were attached to one another by a cable and operated by a ‘water balance’ system.
The weight of the descending carriage, plus passengers, could be adjusted by adding water, so making it heavier than the ascending one and so the ‘down’ carriage pulled the ‘up’ carriage up the cliff. On its opening day, the railway carried over 6,000 passengers from Hotwells to Clifton and back. After closure in 1934, the railway became a covert transmission base for the BBC during World War II, before falling into disuse and disrepair in the 1960s.
You can’t get much more undercover than Bristol’s very own Banksy. So undercover is he that he operates under a cloak of darkness and no-one knows his true identity, except his dear old mum of course. Banksy may have been born in Brizzle and he almost certainly lived here for a time. Some of his famous early works adorn walls and buildings in Bristol, such as his ‘Mild, mild West’ graffiti artwork on Stokes Croft.
He was also generous enough to hold a world famous Banksy exhibition in the Bristol Museum in 2009. Some say he would walk around his own exhibition and eavesdrop on people’s conversations about his artwork, but because no-one knows what his looks like, nobody realised they were standing right next to him. And you can’t get a lot more secret than that.
Visit Bristol - Tourism for Bristol
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