Following the Black Lives Matter protests, and the tearing down of the statue of slaver Edward Colston, the city of Bristol has been in the UK media a lot in recent weeks. Vanessa Kisuule, Bristol-based writer and performer, and Bristol City Poet for 2018–2020, introduces us to the sights and people of the city as she sees it.
Bristol the fleeting kingfisher
Good, you’re here. Just in time, we’re about to set off. Welcome to a walking tour unburdened by time, fear or fitness levels.
We’re starting here at the Suspension Bridge. Don’t bother taking pictures, a cramped image on your camera roll won’t do the dizzying scope justice. Do marvel at the coppery streaks rippling through the sheer drop of the Gorge. Pretty enough, but not where the action is.
Now run, skip or roll down one of our many hills. Fact: we have the steepest street in the UK. Vale Street boasts a twenty two degree slope. Thighs burning? Suck it up. Nothing but a requisite of Bristol citizenship!
We’re back on flat land by the Harbourside, home of The Apple. It’s a cider bar on a canal boat, which sounds hokey but I assure you it’s wonderful. Here you can test the West Country’s claim to making the best cider. Don’t expect any respect from the staff if you request a Thatchers.
On to the foyer of central Bristol: Broad Quay. It’s a wide walkway of pale stone peopled with slick cyclists and lovably terrible skaters who hold court around the war memorial. That empty plinth? It’s an embarrassing story. Would you believe for over two hundred years, it had a statue of a heinous slave trader on it? Shudder.
Even if you don’t know much about Bristol, you know the earthy bass of Massive Attack, the itchy ubiquity of Banksy or the mid noughties TV show Skins. Here is College Green, where the cast splayed out and smoked spliffs. Fourteen-year-old me watched them, scandalised and envious. Years later, I’d sit on that same patch of grass with my own gaggle of chaotic friends. College Green is neighboured by City Hall, a gently curved building housing the local council offices. Despite its imposing architecture, its pillars often smell of stale urine. No place or person gets to sit too comfortably in grandeur. Just ask that slave trader we threw in the harbour.
And this? This is the sweat, heave and bass of St Paul’s Carnival. If you like soca, dancehall or bashment, you’ll lose many hours amongst the sound systems. A local will let you use their loo for a quid, or you can surreptitiously piss into your empty can. See how many tracksuited entrepreneurs you can spot, rucksacks full of gas canisters and balloons. The elders look on with bittersweet grimaces, lamenting the humbler festivals of their day.
Over there is Bristol legend Jeff, a consistently cheerful Big Issue Seller who’ll greet you with a scatter of patois and a fist bump whether you’ve bought a copy or not. He’s not to be confused with Big Jeff, a tall, stocky white man with a head of messy blond curls. It’s common knowledge amongst Bristolians that any concert worth its salt needs the anointment of his presence. If you want to see Big Jeff in head banging action you can catch him at the Fleece, where a white square of tape on the scuffed floor marks a front row space to the right of the stage especially reserved for him.
Most people would dismiss Lawrence Hill as rough. The salmon coloured tower blocks and drably lit taxi firms aren’t so picturesque, but there’s a reason I’ve brought you here. If you’re done with paying silly money for tepid coffees and rubbery wraps, here lies your refuge. Barton Hill Settlement is a community space with a creche, free English classes and, best of all, a cafe selling lovingly made sandwiches for £1.50 and lattes for £1.20. Plant yourself on the gently worn sofa and eat slow.
Gloucester Road is a long stretch of street that used to be unsullied by chain stores. Since the infamous and unsuccessful Tesco riots of 2011, the pestilent chains have asserted themselves. Pour some rum on the curb for Plantations, the West Indian restaurant that used to stand proud at the top of this road. It’s been replaced by Turtle Bay, offering on-the-nose murals of Bob Marley and jerk chicken callously robbed of its kick. Sorry if I sound like a grouch. Perhaps I’m overcompensating? I wasn’t born or bred here. My Bristolian credentials are self-appointed and somewhat self-serving. But I’ve been here long enough to know the independent cafe that once stood where that Costa now is, to mourn the clubs I frequented in my student days that have changed their names or disappeared altogether. But I’ll sit on my grudges until they come for Jason Donervan, the kebab joint that loyally serves dodgy puns and greasy chips.
As you can tell, I’m a zealous Bristol evangelist. Perhaps I ought to keep my mouth shut. Bristol’s increasing popularity has caused a spike in house prices, mercenary urban development and the inevitable rash of hipster eateries. Stickers around the city demand we Make Bristol Shit Again. The people often dominating the debate are progressive, arty types like myself. No one likes to disparage gentrification more than us, the inadvertent symptoms of the disease.
I’ll leave you at my favourite spot, Eastville Park, where runners, mothers and doe-eyed couples weave round each other in subtle synchronicity. I love its seemingly banal but quietly magical lake. Cast your vote: is it the colour of chocolate milk or dishwater? There’s moorhens and emerald necked mallards gliding along the water. You might even spot a kingfisher.
That flash of electric blue, winged and fleeting.
You missed it?
Well, that’s how things go.
Even as I type, this is ultimately a historical document, a frenzied snapshot of moments and people and places that cannot stand still or stay forever. They flit like kingfishers, bright, beautiful and fickle. Ours for a second, then gone. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, they lodge themselves in the memory and live there a while. If you close your eyes and concentrate, you can feel them against your skull, fluttering.
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