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Bristol's Brunel Birthday Bash

by Jean Burnett

Isambard Kingdom BrunelIn 2006, the city of Bristol celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the greatest engineer of the 19th century. The place that contains some of Brunel's greatest achievements pulled out all the stops in a year long festival that also highlighted a great maritime city that is re-inventing itself in the 21st century.

There is a statue of Brunel, the diminutive genius, with his cigar and his tall hat in the city centre, only ten minutes walk along the harbour side from one of his most famous creations.

The SS Great Britain, the world's first great ocean going liner-propeller driven, steam powered and iron clad-was built in 1839. It carried thousands of emigrants to Australia and later to the US. After being found derelict in the Falkland Islands (Malvinas), she was towed back to Britain and has been carefully restored. She now sits in dry dock in all her glory. Brunel later designed a even bigger ship, the Great Eastern which was used to lay the first transatlantic telephone cables.

Up in the elegant Georgian suburb of Clifton is the construction that has become Bristol's symbol. The small but perfectly formed Clifton Suspension Bridge spans the Avon Gorge and is one of the world's great engineering feats. Brunel's bridge, completed in 1868 and built for horses and carriages, was so ingeniously constructed that it now bears the weight of four million cars every year.

Visitors to the city often arrive at Brunels's magnificent gothic railway station, Temple Meads. He was the architect of the GWR, the Great Western Railway linking London with the West Country; a commission he obtained at the age of twenty seven. At the London end, Paddington Station was also a Brunel design. Work started on the railway in 1836 and was completed in 1841. Dubbed "Brunels's billiard table," local people referred to it affectionately as "God's Wonderful Railway."

Clifton Suspension Bridge

He also worked on a prototype for the first tunnel under the River Thames in London. A man full of ideas, Brunel was a walking "entente cordiale," being half French and half English. His father was a Royalist and an engineer who fled to England to escape the French Revolution. He married a Somerset girl and they educated their son at home. Young Isambard showed a great aptitude for design and mathematics.

Bristol has a full program of events planned throughout the year; the city is the ideal starting point for visits to the area. Bath is just a few miles away for lovers of Jane Austen and Georgian architecture and London is one hour and forty minutes away by train.

SS Great BritainThe city's maritime glories may be in the past but there are vivid reminders all around. In the harbour you can see the little galleon, the Matthew, in which the Italian Cabot brothers sailed to the new world in 1497, landing at Newfoundland just a year before Columbus finally reached mainland America. The galleon is a perfect facsimile of the original, built to retrace the expedition in 1997.

There is a statue to John Cabot (Giovanni Cabote) on College Green in the city centre. The brothers came to Bristol to seek financial backing for their expedition from the city's wealthy merchants. Bristolians will tell you proudly that "America was discovered from here!"

Although the medieval heart of the city was largely destroyed by bombing during the Second World War, some intriguing corners remain-a few lovely churches, a length of city wall, the cathedral on College Green and the quaint Christmas Steps lined on both sides with old shop fronts. Just off the centre is St Nicholas' Market and the leather- covered columns known as the Nails. Merchants settled their accounts there, originating the saying "to pay on the nail" i.e. promptly.

The finest ships once sailed from the harbour "all shipshape and Bristol fashion." Now, only pleasure boats and floating restaurants remain. The harbour scene is a lively one with many bars and restaurants and two art centres containing cinemas and art galleries.

The City Museum on Park Street, next to the main University Tower, is a good place to see a panorama of Bristol's history from its medieval days as a wine importing centre to its involvement in the slave trade and its transformation in the 20th century into a centre for cigarette production. It's a wicked old city, many will tell you; its wealth built on alcohol, slaves and tobacco. Today, the city is known as a booming IT area.

Bristol Cathedral

If you wander around the centre you will find many quirky corners such as Europe's smallest chocolate factory, Guilbert's, tucked away in Leonard Lane near the market. Stop there for a delicious treat. Linger and admire Queen's Square with its fine Georgian houses built in the 1790s by those rich merchants. Today they are mainly offices. On the front of no. 33-35 you will see a blue plaque dedicated to Woodes Rogers, a Bristol seaman and notorious pirate who eventually became Governor General of the Bahamas. There is a coffee shop named after him on Park Street.

Nearby is another plaque denoting the Τunofficial' American consulate in Bristol immediately after the War of Independence. At a time when there were no diplomatic relations between Britain and the new American Republic the merchants of Bristol invited Elias Vanderhorst over from Boston in 1792 in defiance of the government in London. They needed a go- between to facilitate their American trade. In his diary, preserved in the city archives, the consul related that he had such a great social life in the city he was scarcely able to do any work. He stayed until 1815.

In the centre of the Square is a statue of King William 1V on horseback, said by many critics to be the finest equestrian statue in Europe; judge for yourself. Just around the corner is the Theatre Royal, England's oldest working theatre, founded in 1764 and guaranteed to provide a good evening's entertainment.

Young visitors can be kept happy at the zoo in Clifton or in the new hands-on science museum in the Millennium Centre. This complex, known as At-Bristol, combines a science wing, a Wildwalk and an Imax theatre bringing science, nature and art together. An entire morning can be spent enjoying an exploration of the SS Great Britain followed by ferry trips around the harbour.

Bristol Council House

More Information:

SS Great Britain

Clifton Suspension Bridge

Bristol Tourism Information

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Jean Burnett is a freelance writer, novelist and tutor currently living in Bristol, England. She has travelled widely and lived in the USA for several years. Her passions are books, travel and dark chocolate.
Article © 2006 Jean Burnett
SS Great Britain photo courtesy of Graham Flack. Bristol Assembly House photo courtesy of BritainonView.com. Clifton Suspension Bridge and Bristol Cathedral photos courtesy of (photographer) (via Wikipedia.org). Photo of Brunel courtesy of Wikipedia.org.


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