As we spent a couple quiet days getting to know our ward, Oberon, we laid out our plans for trips throughout the countryside. The parameters were that we couldn’t leave too early, nor could we return too late; after all, we were being hosted here in England gratis except for the care of the kitty and we take that kind of thing seriously. Besides, hanging out with a kitten for a while is not exactly a burden. So, what sorts of trouble can we get up to during a modest day trip? How about hunting down graffiti in the byways of Bristol?
The city of Bristol is only about 40 minutes by car from our home base, which made it perfect for having a little breakfast first at our new favorite joint, Belle’s Kitchen. (By the by, almost all the websites for local businesses around here look as clean as this one. Not saying it’s cutting edge, but I can’t think of somewhere I’ve lived where every business has taken the time to address their presence online.) One order of pancakes and eggs benedict later we were on the road. Navigating the city was tricky; as per usual in Europe there clearly was never an initiative to eminent domain their way to orderly, gridded streets. It was only a quick bout of WTFAW (“where the #*$& are we?”) before we got on the far side of the downtown nonsense and landed at our first spot. Our first spot, mind you, was basically in the middle of nowhere. A mix of midsize apartment blocks and el basico retail concerns marked this a working class neighborhood of little interest to tourists. Except.
A few years ago we watched a documentary or, more accurately, a “documentary” about the street artist Banksy. “Exit Through the Gift Shop” defies simple explanation and would spawn its own post if not its own blog; suffice to say that Banksy figured in the film although to what extent is unclear. (We deliberately didn’t offer a link to information about this film, and its not just avoiding spoilers. In fact, we recommend you don’t just wiki up an answer. Wikipedia prints what it can verify and much about this movie is hard or impossible to nail down.) Anyway, Lisa had already been an admirer of Banksy’s work and John got on the bandwagon after that. Turns out, the Bristol area is a hub for his work, and we decided a fun way to give our meander some structure would be to hunt down some of his work. And so we found ourselves in a short connecting street to find “Rose on a Mousetrap” pictured above. The frame was put up later by local residents to preserve the work; as far as we can tell Banksy is content for the world to carry on with his work as it sees fit; when he’s done, he’s done.
We didn’t even need the car to find another one just above a cafe. Once we scouted this out, as well as a pretty elaborate garden of graffiti that exists in the neighborhood (like the cover image of this post) it was back to our car to find some parking in a central location. That achieved we began hoofing it to a mix of graffiti’d and non-graffiti’d locations, starting with St. Peter’s Church. St. Peter’s has been a derelict building since the 40s, a victim of German bombing raids. It has been maintained (but not restored) as a monument to the citizenry who made it through those times. A park has grown up around it, and the garden spaces around the church have been put back to use. It really is a lovely space. These monuments tend to go two ways, at least if they are, in our opinion, effective. One is to be overwhelmingly beautiful and austere, almost imposing a sense of solemnity on to the visitor; picture the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. The other way is to become woven into the communal space, allowing life to come right up to the edges so that the memorial can be observed on a regular basis with the underlying message “we made it through this, see?”
Our next stretch was the street markets of Bristol, which are a robust permanent edifice not unlike Pike Place Market in Seattle; substitute Cornish pasties for throwing salmon and you’ve got the vibe pretty close. There are some stalls set up on sidewalks of course, but most of the markets are inside large buildings that if they weren’t built for the purpose sure do seem like it. It’s all craftspeople, cooks, rock collectors and so on. A hodge podge of merchandise (usually some variant of fair trade) is sprinkled throughout. It’s a fun way to kick around and it gets you out of the weather.
It’s a good town to just wander. It seems like there was a vibrant street art community long before Banksy came along, he’s just the most famous son of the movement. The city still embraces this kind of art – no, they don’t let “plain” graffiti run wild (unlike, say, Naples) but there’s enough of a stain of respectability on the craft for it to be included in public decor on a grand scale. We could be on our way to something more established like St. John’s in the Wall – a medieval church, the last standing example of four originals that were built into the walls of Bristol so that you knew, coming or going, just how pious a city Bristol was – and still have to pause and enjoy where the work was tucked into the urban fabric. This particular example was espied on the way from St. John’s to Bristol Cathedral, which anchors a beautiful public space for all kinds of activities. On the day we were there, even with inclement weather hovering around the edges constantly, you still had picnickers, dog walkers, and perambulating families taking their ease on the grounds. It’s funny, we go to a fair number of churches and cathedrals even though neither of us is particularly of the faith, just because that tends to be where “the good stuff” is. Sometimes the good stuff is art; sometimes it’s architecture. And sometimes, like in Bristol, it’s a tent pole for civic life.
We didn’t need our pedometers to tell us that we’d been wandering far and wide that day, and in a feat of amazing planning on John’s part (heh) we came to a close about as far from where we parked as was possible. Woo! Fortunately we had thought to scout out a spot for dinner near to the car, so at least there was French bistro food waiting for us at the end of the walk. Sated, we popped back to Dursley to renew our servitude to our lord and master, Oberon.