A Day at the Harbourside in Bristol


Tales of shipping, trading, slavery, press gangs and pirates paint a vivid picture of Bristol

Discover a world when amazing voyages of exploration were made to far reaching lands, when traders made their fortunes - often with disregard to the lives of African slaves - and when the dastardly deeds of the pirates such as Blackbeard, caused fear amongst the seafarers of old. Tales of shipping, trading, slavery, press gangs and pirates paint a vivid picture of Bristol’s history on a visit to the harbourside. There are plenty of things to do in Bristol, as well as all the bars, restaurants and clubs to keep you entertained. But where to start? This guide will give you ideas about how to get the best out of a day on the harbourside.

To fuel up for the day, if you have not already breakfasted at your hotel, head for Brunel’s Buttery, half way between the M Shed and Brunel’s ss Great Britain. This outdoor café serves up the best bacon sandwiches in town and is a great favourite of the locals. Sit on the terrace and enjoy watching life go by on the water whilst deciding whether to go back for second helpings. Once fully satisfied, you are ready to embark on your explorations of Bristol's best attractions.

Your first port of call is the M Shed, a museum with a difference. Look for the huge cranes on the dockside to locate it. Housed in a 1950s transport shed, it does not look distinguished from the outside, but don’t pass by. Once inside, you will find yourself immersed in stories from the past, tracing Bristol’s history from ancient maritime days, right through to recent times. You will find out about famous figures such as Brunel, who played a huge part in shaping the Bristol we know today, and hear audios from Bristol residents giving a rich insight into the city’s social history. Glorification is not the name of the game here, and the museum does not shirk away from some of the murkier aspects of the city’s history such as its involvement with slavery.

The emphasis in M Shed is on interactivity, with plenty to interest both adults and children. A favourite amongst the youngsters is the big, green, Bristol-built, city bus, which plays centre stage in the first exhibition area. The invitation to climb aboard is irresistible! There is no entry fee to the M Shed and you can expect to spend a couple of hours exploring here. Before you leave, make sure you step out onto the balcony on the top floor to enjoy splendid views of the harbourside and the city beyond.

Grim Reaper on the Thekla (Credit: N Hindmarsh)Grim Reaper on the Thekla (Credit: N Hindmarsh)The M ShedThe M ShedBristolBristolBristol HarboursideBristol HarboursideArnolfini from across the water Harbourside scene (Credit: N Hindmarsh)Arnolfini from across the water Harbourside scene (Credit: N Hindmarsh)A view of the M ShedA view of the M Shed

Once back outside the museum take a few minutes to look at the exhibits on the water:

1. The steam tug Mayflower is the world's oldest working steam tug. Now over 150 years old, she used to tow vessels on the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal, Bristol Channel and the River Severn upstream of Gloucester to Worcester.

2. The diesel tug John King was built in 1935 and towed cargo ships from Bristol City Docks to the mouth of the River Avon.

3. The fireboat Pyronaut was built in 1934 and played a crucial part of the docks' fire-fighting service for about 40 years.

These boats are maintained by volunteers and offer short trips to the public on selected weekends.

Next up, if you have an artistic bent, is the Arnolfini. Cross over the swing bridge to take a peek at whichever new exciting exhibition is on show. This arts centre stages an innovative and changing programme of visual arts, performance, dance, film and music. You can visit the galleries for free so it’s worth a quick gander to see what’s on and to browse in the excellent art bookshop.

Those who prefer to view their art on the street may decide to take a 10 minute detour to view a piece of work by the famous graffiti artist Banksy. Instead of crossing the bridge to Arnolfini, continue walking for about 5 minutes. Look across the water to the side of the nightclub boat, the Thekla, to see the “Grim Reaper”. This is the second Grim Reaper to appear on the Thekla, the first having been painted over on the instructions of the harbourmaster in the days before the work of Banksy was considered acceptable by the authorities.

By now, you are probably beginning to feel peckish and want to sample some of Bristol's cuisine, so retrace your steps to the harbourside and cross Pero’s Bridge, distinguished by its two horn-like structures. The bridge is named after a slave called Pero; the double arch of horns are a reminder of the musical heritage that Pero and his fellow slaves brought with them to Bristol, and the rigging in the middle of the bridge represents the ladders on the slave ships’ riggings. Once across, you will find a varied range of interesting eating-places. Take your pick from those offering full meals (many have special price lunchtime menus) or simply pick up a sandwich to eat by the waters edge. The deli in Bordeaux Quay has a particularly good selection of sandwiches – so good that the popular fillings sell out quickly, so you may want to head there before the lunchtime rush.

Bristol HarboursideBristol HarboursideBristol HarboursideBristol HarboursideBristolBristolBristol HarboursideBristol Harbourside

For the afternoon activities, make a choice between At-Bristol, Bristol Aquarium or Brunel’s SS Great Britain- you will not be able to fit them all in. For At-Bristol and the Aquarium, cross to the back of Millennium Square with it’s gigantic silver orb. If you’re wondering what to do with the kids, choose At-Bristol for masses of fun, hands on, science-based activities. Here you can animate your own cartoon characters, learn how the body functions, present your own TV show, take part in experiments, or gaze at the stars in the planetarium.  In a new exhibition, from 20th July 2012 you will also be able to visit "Our World -no more waste" and find out about ways in which everything in our world is recycled into something new. If you fancy a fishy experience opt for the Aquarium to meet Velcro, the giant octopus, watch a fish feeding frenzy and discover underwater habitats.

Those who would rather find out about living on, rather than under, the water should make for Brunel’s SS Great Britain. Either catch one of the Bristol Ferry boats at the Millennium Square stop, or retrace your steps to M Shed and continue walking for another 5-10 minutes along the waterside to reach this attraction. Brunel’s SS Great Britain is a magnificently restored Victorian ocean liner. On a visit here you get a real feel for conditions aboard ship. You can see inside the cabins and hear accounts from passengers, visit the galley and even get a view of the iron hull under the glass “sea”. If you don’t manage to see everything in one visit, your ticket will allow you to return within the year or even the next day.

Should none of these suggestions appeal, check out the boat trips operating around the harbour and enjoy a lazy afternoon admiring Bristol from the water, or make a slight detour to admire the grand interior of Bristol Cathedral just a few minutes up Park Street from the harbourside.

The Bordeaux QuayThe Bordeaux QuayThe TheklaThe TheklaBristol CathedralBristol CathedralBristol HarboursideBristol HarboursideA fishing boat docked at the harbourA fishing boat docked at the harbourHarbourside bars at nightHarbourside bars at nightBristol HarboursideBristol HarboursideBrunel?s ss Great Britain (Credit: N Hindmarsh)Brunel?s ss Great Britain (Credit: N Hindmarsh)

Evening falls all too soon and it’s time to check out the bars for pre-dinner drinks. If it’s cocktails you’re after, check out Bordeaux Quay, or try Las Iguanas for a Mexican style marguerita. Look out for signs giving special offers in the early evening, these are usually very good value. Then it’s time to choose your eatery. Consider moving away from the central harbourside area to one of the restaurants on the Welshback where you can dine on the waterside in a more peaceful atmosphere. If you are visiting at the weekend you would be wise to book ahead as the best and most popular restaurants tend to get full.

Those less interested in food may like to investigate the Watershed, a media centre that shows non-mainstream films, or alternatively Bristol HippodromeTheatre, just a few steps away from the harbourside.

Later at night the harbourside comes alive with revellers heading to some of Bristol's nightlife, especially at the weekend. The Oceana and the Thekla are lively popular venues. Head to Oceana for mainstream music and Thekla for live bands and club nights.

So we come to the end of our day on the harbourside. For more information on things to do in Bristol visit www.mydestination/bristol.com

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