The stories of a couchsurfer

Bristol: Give it time

Town Hall and College Green

The popular proverb tells us not to judge a book by it’s cover. It’s a proverb that I feel generally doesn’t make much sense. It tries to teach us that the cover should not be taken as an accurate representation of the content of the book that it represents. But unless it’s a Penguin Classic with a standardised cover, I feel that the cover of a book does, in fact, provide an indication of the book itself.

Whoever the artist is who has been assigned with designing the cover of a book has most likely read (or at least been given a synopsis of) the book and then proceeds to produce a cover that they find suitable for what the book represents.

Yes, more often than not the author of a book and the designer of it’s cover are two different people and therefore hold two different representations of the book, so the cover is likely not an accurate representation of the authors understanding of the content, but it remains something of a representation to what the book contains – because it exposes the designers point of view, which is just as valid or true to the authors as the potential readers point of view may be.

It’s something that I thought about when arriving by bus to the English city of Bristol, just a couple of hours west of London.

London didn’t provide me with the highest of hopes for my time in Bristol. Parisians may have a bad stigma of thinking only their own city holds worth but in reality it’s the Londoners who don’t hold much respect for any of their English counterparts.

Bristol, or more so it’s people, wasn’t doing much to help the situation pre-visit as, despite sending a multitude of Couchrequests, I wasn’t able to get any positive responses. This usually makes me wary, as it can possibly be a reflection of the outwardness of the city in general but I wasn’t yet sure of the Couchsurfing culture in the UK in general.

I hadn’t hosted a lot of Brits during my time hosting in Australia, and so far I had stayed with a Dutch friend in London. The Brits seemed to have more of a hostel culture, partying it up and meeting people in bars rather than in their living rooms. And so it was that I, too, would be part of this hostel culture during my time in Bristol.

So far, Bristols “book cover” wasn’t enticing me to open it up. I still wanted to read the blurb, at least, and held a keen interest to discover it first hand – for myself.

The blurb in this instance came in the form of driving into Bristol on the bus from London. Again greeted by a typically grey, wet and blustery English day, the bus drove into the centre and rounded “The Bearpit”, a large central roundabout servicing some of Bristol’s major roads.

I had gathered that The Bearpit would be one of Bristol’s most well kept parks from looking at it on Google Maps and received, therefore, quite a shock when I saw it’s sorry state as the bus passed it’s perimeter.

It seemed forgotten by the council – the concrete was cracked, brown and uneven, overtaken by the horde of weeds that shot up from the cracks and climbed the walls (it was a sunken arena, hence the ‘pit’ reference).

After checking into the hostel sometime around early evening I didn’t dare go out to explore. Partly for the horrid weather conditions that would greet me but partly, too, because of the great fear of possible disappointment that had by now grown into looking more and more plausible.

I had to give this city a chance like all the others, however, and so the next day I set out late morning to discover it. After a morning pastry and coffee at the nearby bakery I headed on eastward towards Broadmead – a shopping mall that seemed the only sign of advanced civilisation the day before. There was a pedestrian overpass that linked two of the main buildings of the mall where youths waited watching below.

I quickly gave up on the mall, not that it was a bad one, but shopping is not my idea of discovery and excitement and so I proceed onwards. I stumbled upon Castle Park which, had I have looked up Bristol in a Lonely Planet, would have been one of the first things suggested to visit. This is more a centrepiece of Bristol – a park alongside a water inlet with St. Peter’s Church situated on it. There were quite a few people here relaxing for a picnic and it seems an ideal spot for it.

This area had signs of redevelopment. Alongside the water inlet were new buildings with large banners pinned to them advertising the space for business. It was obvious that there has been a considerable effort put into this area to promote growth and industry, but it just didn’t look like it was taking off at this point in time.

I decided to follow the water and ended up at the Broad Quay, something of a true centre of Bristol. Here, my current perception of Bristol was blown away as I was greeted by modern restaurants and the newly developed @Bristol complex. The area, with the waterfront, was quite picturesque and the image of the run-down, grey and barren Bear Pit was erased from my immediate memory.

There was only one thing lacking – the people. The area was impressive but had it been brimming with people it would have also been exciting. Instead it came across as a failed project that wasn’t supported by the people of Bristol.

I continued along the waterfront, which was quite a nice fifteen to twenty minute walk, before finding a pub to enjoy a pint outside in a rare moment of English sunshine. My target was to find the Clifton Suspension Bridge, common on postcards from the region and somewhere in the western regions of Bristol.

The city of Bristol lies on the River Avon but to this stage I had been following the edge of an inlet of that river. Once I reached the River Avon the bridge was easy to find but I also discovered its ugliness. The river was more of a stream that trickled its way down kilometres of mudbanks which made the little water that did exist a terrible pale brown.

The inlet that I had been traveling along was full thanks to a lock at one end and it’s easy to see why Bristol has chosen to develop along this waterfront instead of the river itself.

At this section, the River Avon passes through a gorge of sorts and its this gorge that the bridge traverses. The bridge stands out amongst the rest of the scenery so in that respect it’s quite impressive – particularly given that it was constructed more than a century earlier. In reality, it’s only a special bridge because it has no peers here, but on a global scale, it doesn’t have anything to boast.

Walking back towards the centre of Bristol I passed through the University of Bristol. Bristol, as it turns out, is quite a hotspot for university goers in the UK and as such houses a considerably large university. It’s here that you find some of the more impressive buildings of Bristol too – in particular the Wills Memorial Building that rises above all the others.

This building hosts many things, not the least being the Bristol Museum, of which I spent a couple of hours exploring. It may come as a surprise that, although I am a man of science, I don’t enjoy museums too much and this particular museum didn’t change my tune. It was nice to see the interior of the building though.

Also here was a large replica of Gromit from the Wallace and Gromit series. Bristol had a great campaign going where scattered around town at various Bristol landmarks were fifty or so, in total, Gromit statues, all decorated differently. One may be Gromit as a spaceman, another Gromit as an artist. The goal was for people to find all fifty, write down the locations and enter a competition.

I thought this was fantastic, firstly because it took me back to my childhood watching Wallace and Gromit, and secondly because it was a great initiative to get the people out and discovering the city.

I found a nice looking park nearby and decided to see what it contained. I always like following hills because, generally, even if there isn’t anything special at the top it still provides a decent view of the landscape below. This was no exception, and came with the extra benefit of discovering the Cabot Tower, a tall, thin, brick tower that provided the perfect lookout. Climbing the thin and steep set of stairs on the interior led me to the top, where waiting were spectacular views of Bristol.

I think I sat here for almost an hour, basking in the rare sunlight and enjoying the view. At the top there was a compass type map pointing out to various areas with cities and the distances. One such example was something like “Amsterdam, 324 miles”. It was one of those intermittent moments along the trip that smacks you in the face and makes you realise exactly what you’re embarking on.

The tour of Bristol finished by descending back downwards towards the hostel and on the way passing by the Bristol Cathedral, a very typically English cathedral.

I also went one last time to the @Bristol centre. Now that it had become evening, I was interested to see if it had attracted any more people. What I found was basically the same as during the day. It was a real shame to see.

Clearly Bristol was making every effort to make itself lively and exciting, from modern redevelopments to city initiatives like the Gromit hunt. Yet it just didn’t appear to be working. The rental availabilities near Castle Park weren’t being snapped up and the restaurants and cafés along the waterfront weren’t being filled. The square at @Brisol was near empty.

All of this, in the middle of summer.

Perhaps it’s too early to tell. Perhaps these projects were a success, and I just wasn’t there to see it. Bristol has potential and it could become a very attractive English city in the future, but it needs support from it’s people.

I can’t help but feel that if it doesn’t, it may be another fifteen or twenty years before it works up the courage to make the necessary developments again.

Bristol did end up impressing at least one person, however. It won’t be at the top of many of my lists, but it was a place that, if the opportunity presents itself, I would be happy to return to.

Perhaps I should change my opinion on that old adage – don’t judge a book by it’s cover. I still think the cover does provide a reliable representation of the what the book is about, but it’s not until about chapter three or four that you can really determine if it pleases you or not.

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