“Cheddar Gorge, it is a lovely place, they have lots of goats, they have an insane amount of goats.” I must have missed that in my investigation on TripAdvisor but, there again, I hadn’t clicked the “Top 20 places for goats in North Somerset” icon. However, now I knew, courtesy of the charming Eastern European assistant at Europcar. He had already proved his worth by telling me I had been double charged on some insurance, and we were making some idle conversation whilst he fixed the matter on his system. He also advised me that, as I had picked the full insurance, there was nothing else to pay, whatever I did to the B class Mercedes I had ordered (or indeed, the Skoda they gave me instead). “Nothing to pay” he said with conviction, “Nothing to pay, nothing, (pause) unless you put diesel in it, then you pay”. If I was not going to doubt him on the diesel, I was certainly not going to question his knowledge on the goat density in Cheddar Gorge.
Deciding to visit Bristol and its surrounding areas in February had less to do with a love of the late winter climate in South West England (bloody awful, no matter what the BBC Weather App claims) and more to do with the £7 one way offered by EasyJet to get there from Gibraltar. Given the clear desire EasyJet had to get me to visit the place, I felt it was only fair that I picked my choices of sites to visit and restaurants to eat at with unusual care.
I have previously written about my caution when using Trip Advisor, particularly their recommendations on places to visit/things to do, as the majority of those placing reviews seem to have a passion for walks, cycling and city tours on a Segway. Not appropriate for me at the best of times, and certainly a big no in Bristol during winter. I, therefore, expanded my search to other internet sites and recommendations.
Partially as a result, first on my list was a seaside town called Weston Super Mare. This was given a degree of fame by Jeffery Archer (Lord Archer of Weston Super Mare) and, later, a degree of charm by a TV series called The Cafe, which is set on the beach front there. The Cafe does not exist in reality, nor to be honest, does the charm of Weston Super Mare. It appears stuck in a period of British holiday making history which is best forgotten. A period where the highlight of the day was either going round the crazy golf course or walking down a pier in the driving rain, in the vain hope that the amusement arcade at the end was open, unvandalised and not fire damaged. Such fun was had in those days before returning to a caravan to dry off and watch “Love thy Neighbour”, “On the Buses” or something with Sid James in it, on a black and white portable TV that could only ever seem to get ITV.
Yes, Weston brought back memories, suppressed memories, but it did have a helicopter museum. Indeed, the largest dedicated helicopter museum in the world.
Getting excited about a helicopter museum defines one. It defines one as middle aged and a bit dull. I accept this and therefore will not detail just how good it was, both in content and in its detailed explanations of the displays. Nor will I gush with my appreciation of the volunteers who made it all possible. You are simply not interested. The next sentence therefore is for the very few who understand and care. Included in its numerous exhibits are a Mil Mi-24D Hind, the world speed record holding Lynx and a Bristol 192 Belvedere!
Back in Bristol, the hotel I had chosen, imaginatively named The Bristol Hotel, was selected for its central location and price. It did, however, have one additional feature which proved useful. They had improved your chances of recognising which, otherwise anonymous, corridor your room was on by leaving trays of discarded room service meals strategically placed for several hours, so allowing their individual uniqueness to make identifying the correct route simple. And to think other hotels simply rely on arrows and room numbers. Still, the rooms themselves were clean and warm and it was, indeed, central.
Having decided to give Cheddar Gorge a miss on day one, and hoping that the goats were not migratory, I proposed to give it a visit on day two. It was, the BBC Weather App confidently predicted, going to be warmer and dry. It was still predicting this when I stepped out of the hotel into the rain. I began to suspect a plot. There is, after all, BBC Bristol. Perhaps they persuade reluctant London based presenters and executives to go there by extolling the virtue of the Bristolian climate. “Look”, they say, “see how lovely it is on our Weather App”. Too late, the victim finds out the truth, they have already signed a new contract and are speeding out of Paddington Station. Three months later, they spend their days staring at the Clifton Suspension bridge with the same longing as a member of the Avon branch of Dignitas.
I did not go to Cheddar Gorge that day, but texted the goats so as not to be rude.
That morning, my preplanning began to work, I had recently read an article on the best coffee shops in Britain (middle aged, dull and a little bit sad, I know). There was one in Bristol, Mokoko, and it is stunning. Starbucks, Costa and the rest chain coffee establishments should hang their heads in shame. These guys have just two coffee bars and can still beat you hands down without spilling a drop of their double shot, flat white, Nicaraguan, single plantation cup of ecstasy. Bristol was looking up (or the caffeine was kicking in). What made things even better was that I had walked past a transport museum on the way to get the coffee.
It was, as it turned out, not a transport museum. Having one bus, however well preserved, does not make a transport museum. Nevertheless, the M Shed, is a superb museum of Bristol and its people. It brings the city to terms with the dark reason for much of its original wealth and celebrates its current cultural diversity and heritage. Bristol has also clearly claimed Banksey for its own. The museum had one of his works prominently displayed and its shop sold a variety of items based on his art, ranging from cards to fridge magnets. Somehow, the edginess and cultural importance of his art is lost in the resulting ability to purchase a copy of it that can be attached to a kitchen appliance, and used to keep a shopping list for the next trip to Waitrose in a handy place. His “Dismaland” pop up exhibition was in Weston Super Mare. That was contextually appropriate.
As I walked back into the damp cold (or tropical heatwave, depending on whether you trusted the BBC Weather App or your rapidly freezing extremities), I was beginning to warm to the place, if not the climate. However, there was no way I was venturing to the SS Great Britain, Bristol’s most famous tourist attraction, I had been there before and, whilst superbly restored, it was way too cold to pay it another visit.
Shopping for curios here is as close to a pleasure as I can remember feeling outside London. Not quite Spitalfields or Portobello Road, but St Nicholas Markets have an eclectic range of stalls to attract everyone from the fossil hunter to the smoker of exotic substances. The stall selling Bob Marley cigarette papers is unlikely to be frequented by those merely seeking something to wrap their Old Holborn in. I am sure one or two BBC types would approve of this local option.
The same centrality with which I had picked the hotel could not be said about my choice of restaurant for dinner. I had picked one called Bullrush, which was about 30-minute walk from the Bristol. It appeared from my investigations to have an unusual menu (mackerel in ponzu with dashi broth, for example) and one well worth trying out. I picked well, stunningly well as it turned out. Two weeks after booking, it appeared on The Times 100 Best Restaurants in Britain list. It deserved it. It is enough, by itself, to make Bristol a worthwhile destination and may be responsible for stopping several relocated BBC executives from otherwise ending their exile by plunging to a watery death.
The next day brought no rain, the biting wind, which was provided as an alternative to show Bristol’s climatic choice of weather conditions, meant that the many goats remained uncounted by me for a further period. I texted, they did not respond. Instead, I tested Bristol’s more conventional and, indoor, shopping malls. Of the two, the largest, called (presumably after much consumer testing by an expensive marketing firm) “The Mall” is located about 30-minute drive from the centre of Bristol. Like most of its kind, it showed minimal deference to its location (pick any major UK city and an identical edifice will be located on the ring road). Nevertheless, if shopping at Marks & Spencer’s, John Lewis’s, Next and Build A Bear is what you are after, this is your place. There is also the Cabot Centre, closer in, smaller, but with a House of Fraser. I am sure that John Cabot, whom it was named after, would have appreciated the irony that, whilst he never made it back from North America, the “shopping mall” did successfully cross the Atlantic from West to East and joins McDonalds, the potato and tobacco as one of the many cultural gifts his explorations have resulted in. As an aside, he was the one who named the new land he found on the other side of the Atlantic “Newfoundland”. I assume his descendants are now in the marketing business, specialising in the names of shopping centres.
Lunch was a British affair at The Ox. If you like Sunday roasts with the trimmings, then this is a great choice. The roast beef and Yorkshire puddings are superb and its location, in a low lit cellar, gives a Dickensian feel. They do have vegetarian and non-British fayre alternatives, however, if this is your preference, it is probably better not to go there. If it is your choice of a first date with a vegan, it will also be your last. Your call, I loved it.
The evening was spent at the Hippodrome. Again, worth checking what is there before you decide on the dates of your trip. As a building, it is a wonderful throwback to an earlier era when entertainment was simpler and more wholesome. I went to see Jasper Carrot. He kind off fitted there. I went to his last tour in the 1990’s when he was appearing with a rubber faced comedian called Phil Cool. Going to consecutive tours, does this make me a groupie?
On the final day, the sun shone, the car reused and the trip to Cheddar Gorge occurred. Would love to say it was amazing. Voted second best natural feature in the UK. I would love to say it was absolutely amazing. It is not. If you don’t believe me, even TripAdvisor only rates Cheddar Gorge and caves as the number two thing to do in Cheddar (the crazy golf made it to number four).
I was lied to about the goats, maybe that or they were in hiding or had left because of the weather. By itself, it may have ruined the visit there. Regretfully, I must conclude that even goats have pride and didn’t want to hang around possibly Britains most disappointing mass tourist attraction. To anyone who has been to St Michael’s Cave, Gough’s Cave is, at best, ordinary. The area itself has a shabby tourist trap feel. The only hotel is closed and decaying. According to the local paper, the hotel is haunted, if so, it must be by a tourist, condemned to remain until such time as the Gorge regains its former glory. If so, he has a long wait, the entrance tickets to the caves are valid for twenty years, they will have expired before I go back.
The businesses in Cheddar are clearly making the best of a bad job but the whole area is crying out for improvement. I decided to buy some local cheese to show support for the local economy. It tasted familiar but I couldn’t quite place it.
Apparently, the Longleat Estate, who own the place, has been promising to undertake major improvements to the area for a while. Until they do, skip it. Stay on the A371 and head straight for Wells.
Wells is amazing, fantastic, historic and wonderful. Whether it is the Cathedral itself (check on a pack of Cathedral City Cheddar cheese in Morrisons if you want to know what it looks like, nearly), the Bishops Palace, or just the town, it is all worth the visit. Next to the Cathedral is Vicars Close, the only complete medieval street left in England. To give an illusion of greater length from the Cathedral end, the street tapers by ten feet to the end.
Wells even has something for comedy film buffs as Hot Fuzz was filmed there (they do tours of the filming locations starting from the Crown Inn every Saturday, never a dull moment in Wells). I thought I even saw a goat there, but that may have been the cider.
One final side trip worth taking is to the vineyards at Aldwick, midway between Wells and Bristol on the A38. particularly from April to October when the vineyards are more than just rows of twigs.
As we have been told ad nausea, English wines are now challenging, and beating the French. These prove the point. Pick up a bottle of the sparkling wine. Regretfully, the rigidly applied EasyJet weight restriction for hold luggage makes a more significant number of purchases impossible.
Now for the helpful, factual bits. The EasyJet flight to Bristol is the best option unless you want to trek from Heathrow. From Bristol International Airport you can get to the city via a shuttle bus. There is no train connection. Regarding hotels, there is a plethora. The Bristol is actually not bad, the Ibis Bristol Centre is cheap and well located. Restaurants abound, the Mezze Palace on Small Street is a very reasonably priced Lebanese one. There is also an excellent Vietnamese restaurant (Pho). For cocktails, try the Aluna on Broad Quay (two for £10 most days apart from Saturday, I went on a Saturday), the passion fruit Mojito is rather good.
Plan ahead and, if you want to eat at Bullrush or one of the other notable restaurants, book ahead. Similarly, there are numerous festivals in the city. I had previously been here for the Bristol Harbour Festival (by coincidence, but I was there). They add to the “vibe” of the place (horrible word but it suits) and it is worth choosing your trip to coincide with when one of the major ones is on.
EasyJet opened Bristol up to short breaks from Gibraltar. EasyJet did us a favour. I might even apply for a job at the BBC, at least for the summer, and would commute from Wells (it has goats).
words | Marcus Killick