first trip of the year

After a long winter’s lay-up, during which this elderly couple applied chapped hands and aching backs to an even more elderly and gnarled house, we finally put our Hobby back onto the road where she belongs. Grandson was celebrating the first major 0 of his birthday catalogue and we headed to Devon to help pass round the sticky rice-crispy cakes.

En route, we stopped at Bristol for a couple of nights. We took a pitch at the Caravan Club’s Baltic Wharf. If you’ve never been there, be warned that to step for the first time through the wicket gate at the back of site is to experience the Narnia effect. Push open the rear of the wardrobe and you’ll pass from the mundane to the sublime in a sudden roman candle of revelation. On a June evening a few years ago, we did just that.

As the name of the place suggests, the site is on the actual quay wall of the main wet dock. We sat on steps at the water’s edge outside the adjacent Cottage pub, a pint of beer in hand, and watched, in no particular order, a squadron of hot-air balloons ghosting over head, a fleet of sailing boats tacking through the dark waters, teams of scullers straining against oars, a group of sea cadets practising life saving techniques, a couple of lads fishing patiently from the dock’s edge, narrow boats wending towards the Cumberland locks and flights of geese ticking their approval of the scene below. On the opposite bank, al fresco on a small floating pontoon, a choir practised selections from show tunes. Their mellow songs wafted to us over the water. All around, the normal bustle and clamour of city life was somehow softened and slowed as if the clear blue skies above had ordained a moment of sequestered peace.

Even in winter, this is a place to cycle or walk. In fact, one of Britain’s great town-walks starts at Baltic Wharf and covers a couple of miles or so along the quays to the city proper. Here will be found evidence for why I believe Bristol planners know what they’re doing: the old sits comfortably and amicably with the new; overalls share cafés with pin-stripe suits; your Ferrari parks next to my battle-weary people carrier.

On the walk, we pass new housing built in a style congruous to the maritime character of the area. The Yacht club and a large marina are not mere showrooms for exorbitant wealth; they are crammed with personality, some craft obviously being used as house boats, some for fishing, others of more dubious provenance or purpose. A few yards along is an industrial area with an active chandlery, ship repair yards and a dry dock still busy with welders and marine engineers. Through a dank alleyway and we find Wallace & Grommit’s crucible opposite a derelict warehouse patiently awaiting the sprucing hand of a developer. Right next door is the SS Great Britain, proudly dry docked in her original native home and awaiting completion of her new visitors’ centre. Then the quays open out again. Modern apartments mingle with warehousing, rail lines are still set into the dockside, ships and boats of all types moor alongside, the best open-air café in town is always packed and ancient cranes are preserved as part of the developing Industrial Museum, due to re-open in 2011 after a major refit of the warehouses used to house Bristol’s heritage collection.

On both sides of the dock, new marries old. Ancient port buildings and factories are preserved even as pristine riverside complexes are being built around them. So many cities have bowed to the avarice of land owners and swept away all vestiges of their industrial legacies to be replaced by the brash. Bristol is somehow different, and not just because of the occasional glimpse of Clifton Suspension Bridge and Cabot’s Tower. Very few cities are visually improved by developers, planners and architects; Bristol is in a palpable state of becoming better without sweeping a sometimes grimy past under the carpet.

We love the place. Pity we have to book about a year in advance to get a pitch at Baltic Wharf.


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