Saturday, February 28, 2009

A walk through Bristol

Over to Bristol by train for lunch today in the Clifton Gorge Hotel, overlooking Brunel's landmark suspension bridge. It was an 80th birthday lunch for my sister Pauline with a dozen of her family present, a happy occasion and opportunity to meet great nephews and a niece I'd not met before.

There was sufficient time on arrival to walk from Temple Meads station to Clifton, through the newly opened Cabot Circus shopping centre. I've been meaning to visit and have a look around for some time, and this was the perfect occasion for a walk-through inspection, camera in hand.

I was impressed by how few empty shops there were in the complex, given these difficult times for retailing. There are shops on several levels, optimising the use of vertical space, and providing balconies from which to survey the surrounding scene, with huge 'geodesic' canopies filling the air space above, though not enclosing it fully as a roof might. The central crossing area is big enough to permit activities which can be watched from above. On this occasion a large trampoline enclosure had been set up, and an athletic demonstration given.

The new open street area centred on the 18th century Quaker's Friars buildings where the Registrar's office was once housed is pleasantly arranged, integrating old and new. The old buildings have been transformed into a collection of prestige restaurants.

By way of contrast the Bristol Mall shopping centre, along the street ffrom Quaker's Friars is an astonishing disappointment. It is set behind an eighteenth century suite of almshouses, restrained and elegant to the eye. Behind them the Mall looms, with a wall of windows framed in white modern materials and arranged in several geometrical patterns reminiscent of the start of a migraine. The contrast is simply horrid. The interior is light, airy and multi-level, in white and stainless steel criss-crossed by moving staircases, resembing the backdrop of Fritz Lang's film 'Metropolis'. Not bad, I suppose, apart from the insulting juxtaposition of its exterior with an ancient building of far superior quality.

Walking through Broadmead on the way up towards Clifton was a bit of a shock to the eyes. When Clare and I were undergraduates, this shopping centre was brand new. It has aged badly, and looks dirty, and downmarket. Like or loathe the new development, the difference in appearance between them must be an embarrasment to the retailers, if not the city planners.

Park Street, also stylish in our student days, also looks tired. Clifton Village is, as it ever was, a mix of scruffy and well maintained buildings whose quality is pleasing to the eye nevertheless. It's still full of small smart shops of every kind, reflecting all the current trends in an attractive and interesting way. Not a bad place to retire to I mused until I saw the price of housing there.

Altogether we lived for eleven years in Bristol. It's changed hugely, but still has many of its old attractions about it - not least places as elegant as the Clifton Gorge Hotel for summer lunch or afternoon tea on the terrace. But it's not Wales. It's not Cardiff - a far friendlier city to call home.

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