Bristling with history

Steve McKennaThe West Australian
Bristol’s historic floating harbour.
Camera IconBristol’s historic floating harbour. Credit: Steve McKenna/Supplied

It was one of the most visceral moments from the Black Lives Matter protests that rippled across the globe in 2020, when demonstrators toppled a statue of slave trader Edward Colston and dumped it in Bristol’s historic “floating” harbour.

A year on, the bronze statue has been hauled out of the water and put on show, still daubed in spray-painted graffiti, at M Shed, a modern dockside museum that trawls through Bristol’s fascinating past and present.

M Shed Colston Exhibition.
Camera IconM Shed Colston Exhibition. Credit: Bristol City Council

This port city in the south west of England grew rich off the slave trade but has reinvented itself as an artsy, liberal-minded, multi-cultural place with strong eco-friendly credentials. In 2015, it became the first UK city to be European Green Capital and has launched a wave of sustainable-minded projects, including a hydrogen-powered, zero-emissions fuel cell ferry that offers cruises on the harbour and the River Avon.

Displaying the Colston statue is a striking way for M Shed to mark its 10th anniversary inside a converted transit shed by the old docks. On view until September — its long-term future is still up in the air — the statue appears alongside a selection of placards from the protest and a timeline of key events leading up to the moment it was tossed into the harbour from Pero’s Bridge, a footbridge named after Pero Jones, an African slave brought to the city from the Caribbean island of Nevis in 1783.

M Shed Colston Exhibition.
Camera IconM Shed Colston Exhibition. Credit: Bristol City Council

Colston has long been a controversial figure in Bristol. He used some of his wealth earned from the transatlantic slave trade and sugar industry to provide financial support to almshouses, hospitals, schools, workhouses and churches throughout England and was previously lauded as a philanthropist.

But his legacy has been reappraised in recent times. This culminated not just in the toppling of his statue (which had been erected in 1895), but the renaming of Colston Hall, a Grade II-listed concert hall that was retitled the Bristol Beacon last year.

As part of a “city-wide conversation” into Bristol’s past and future, the city’s museums, artists, teachers, tour guides and politicians (including Marvin Rees, Britain’s first elected black city mayor) have been looking to generate greater awareness of Bristol’s connections to the slave trade.

Inside Being Brunel at Bristol harbour.
Camera IconInside Being Brunel at Bristol harbour. Credit: Visit Britain

It’s thought that Bristol’s slavers were responsible for shipping over half a million enslaved Africans, with many of the city’s streets and buildings having links to this grim business. For example, Bristol Old Vic, another celebrated entertainment venue, formerly the Theatre Royal, was funded by 50 merchants — of whom at least a dozen were slave merchants or slave ship owners.

Also financed with the fruits of the slave trade were some of the grand mansions in the elegant, hilly suburb of Clifton, which makes for a pleasant walk west of the city centre. Clifton is perhaps best known for Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Suspension Bridge, a staggering feat of engineering spanning the Avon Gorge.

Clifton Suspension Bridge.
Camera IconClifton Suspension Bridge. Credit: Steve McKenna

Heading back down to harbour level, you can stroll back to M Shed alongside riverside paths that will take you via Spike Island, where there’s a cluster of boatyards, artists’ studios, a marina and SS Great Britain, another Brunel masterpiece that is the focal point of the top-notch visitor attraction, Being Brunel.

The world’s first high-speed ocean liner when it was unveiled in 1843, this ground-breaking iron steamship transported thousands of immigrants to a new life in Australia and carried the first England cricket team to tour Down Under in 1861.

From SS Great Britain, it’s another 15 minutes on foot by the harbour back to the city centre, passing M Shed and Pero’s Bridge along the way. Be sure to seek out St Nicholas Market, a delightful draw at the medieval core of Bristol. More than 60 retailers, dealing in everything from books and antiques to fashions and vinyls, do a lively trade at this Georgian arcade, while there’s also an enticing choice of globally-inspired food and drink to suit carnivores, vegetarians and vegans alike.

Bristol is festooned with street art.
Camera IconBristol is festooned with street art. Credit: Steve McKenna

A raft of other cafes, bars, restaurants and pubs are within a stone’s throw of the market and Bristol’s inner-city suburbs also have plenty of tempting culinary offerings, whether you’re in chic Clifton Village, bohemian Stokes Croft — where you’ll also spy some of Banksy’s famous murals — or neighbouring St Pauls, where a collection of street art pieces (dubbed “The Seven Saints”) celebrate Black Bristolians whose activism has changed the city.

Banksy's works are among the bounty of street art in Bristol.
Camera IconBanksy's works are among the bounty of street art in Bristol. Credit: Steve McKenna

Complementing its excellent guided walking tours, award-winning Where The Wall has launched a new self-guided smartphone-enabled trail uncovering the history of Bristol’s street art and Banksy’s contribution to it with 13 audio commentaries in 13 different locations.

Narrated by Bansky mentor, the so-called “Godfather of Bristol urban art” John Nation, the trail also leads you past works from the next generation of Bristolian artists, including talents who’ve gravitated here from abroad, adding new flavours to the city’s cosmopolitan melting pot.

For more information head to visitbristol.co.uk

Get the latest news from thewest.com.au in your inbox.

Sign up for our emails