SUMMERTIME, and the livin’ is easy down on the waterfront in Bristol.
Tourists are mingling with the locals sauntering around the historic harbourside, many just sunning themselves on the quayside watching the world go by.
It’s a perfect place for a relaxed father-and-daughter reunion, surrounded by the iconic cargo cranes, dockyard railway wagons and historic vessels which provide such vivid evidence that this is a city built on industry and invention.
During the day, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s SS Great Britain dominates the waterfront, dressed with flags and ready for departure, just as she looked at her launch in 1843, welcoming a new generation of visitors aboard to find out more about life on the world’s first great luxury liner.
Brunel built bridges, tunnels, ships and railways that were longer, faster and bigger than anything seen before, but while there’s plenty to celebrate about his engineering genius – and his extraordinary transatlantic steamship – there’s no escaping a much darker aspect of Bristol’s maritime past.
The M Shed is the city’s social history museum, home to iconic objects, documents, photographs, films and personal testimonies that tell Bristol’s story from its prehistoric beginnings to the present day.
Free to visit, it’s one of the old cargo sheds on the quayside that recall a time when the harbourside was a flourishing working dock rather than a trendy leisure destination.
It’s also a reminder that by the late 1730s, Bristol had become Britain’s premier slaving port, with local ships transporting thousands of enslaved Africans to work on sugar plantations in the British Caribbean or in the tobacco farms of Virginia and Maryland.
It was on this waterfront that anti-racism protesters gathered in 2020 after pulling down a bronze statue of the 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston, toppling it into the harbour while demonstrating their solidarity with the US Black Lives Matter movement.
The museum doesn’t shy away from that grim legacy, chronicling how profits from the slave trade formed the basis of Bristol’s first banks and some of its finest Georgian architecture, with local ships supplying the British colonies with a wide range of goods and returning laden with slave-produced Caribbean produce such as sugar, rum, indigo and cocoa for refining, processing and manufacturing.
Back in the sunshine of the quayside, the restaurants are gearing up for the evening and the huge dockside entertainment venues are mercifully empty on a Monday night, though those who enjoy a more frantic atmosphere can come back at the weekend for the full-blown party vibe.
It’s a picturesque setting in the fading sunshine, but if you fancy something a little more traditional, the 17th-century Llandoger Trow round the corner in King Street has a huge variety of ales on tap and an intriguing history.
Along with allegedly hosting a variety of ghosts, it is said to have inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write of the Admiral Benbow Inn in Treasure Island, as well as being the place where Daniel Defoe supposedly met Alexander Selkirk, the castaway who was his inspiration for Robinson Crusoe.
Even so early in the week, the tables outside provide a convivial meeting place on a summer’s night, not least for the joyful sounds emanating from the Old Duke across the road, a legendary Bristol jazz and blues venue which hosts free live music every night of the week.
Dating from around 1775, the pub’s heritage lies with traditional New Orleans-inspired jazz, with some regulars having played at the venue for decades.
We’re in luck, because Monday night boasts an evening of traditional jazz, and on this occasion it’s Jeremy Huggett and friends belting out some memorable favourites.
It’s a perfect choice. Monday nights don’t come much mellower than this, even if it’s only the briefest snapshot of just how much the city has got to offer.
From galleries, museums and theatres to live music, seasonal events and that wonderful waterfront, Bristol’s got a huge range of experiences to offer visitors, and a good variety of city centre hotels offering cheaper accommodation on weekday nights if you can manage a short break.
It’s only been the most fleeting of visits, but definitely one to whet the appetite. Don’t worry, Bristol, we’ll be back…