Bristol is an enigma. As any local will tell you, it takes time to understand what ‘Brizzle’ is all about. As Britain’s fifth largest city it really is unique. At first glance it appears to be just a hilly town full of launderettes, with a cool bridge, a zoo and a decent aquarium, but in reality it’s so much more.
Ever changing, ever evolving, always surprising, the city reveals its considerable charms slowly. So here’s some basics: Bristol is big – it’s a series of connected neighbourhoods, it’s arty, cliquey, fascinating, unknowable and geographically complicated. Oh, and you’ll get very fit here on account of the hills and the winding streets. It’s a city of ships, pubs and secret alleyways (a bit like Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter films). Founded on money made from cigarettes and slavery, it’s also a major international port that’s surrounded by farmland. Imagine a market town gone slightly feral – a city where rural meets urban meets foreign.
Bristol is, of course, home to the graffiti artist Banksy, and one of his earliest and most infamous murals depicts a huge, fluffy white bear, grinning benignly as it throws a Molotov cocktail at a line of baton-wielding police. Proudly displayed on a brick wall next to a converted office block in the hip bohemian quarter of Stokes Croft, it’s entitled ‘The Mild, Mild West’. This, more than any of his other images, gets to the heart of the Bristolian philosophy. It may appear laid back, but if you provoke it you’ll quickly feel the city’s ire.
Stokes Croft is home to art workshops, performance spaces, galleries of street art, venues and a glorious selection of care-worn pubs that have live music whatever the season. In high summer it’s like being in downtown Havana, the restaurants and bars overflowing onto the streets and music thumping from every door and window.
The Canteen, a hangout for hipsters and musicians beneath the converted DSS offices of the Hamilton House arts commune, is the place to see and be seen. Bands, great food and a drink at the longest bar in the west of England draws students, young professionals and the arty crowd. This is just one of more than 400 live music venues in Bristol.
Unlike most major cities there’s no pay-to-play policy here: you’ll see local acts and big international bands on the same bill at the Colston Hall, The Fleece, The O2 or Thekla – Bristol’s famous floating venue down on the dockside. All this connects with Bristol’s deep-rooted love affair with popular music: a 2011 poll by PRS found that the city has spawned more successful musicians per head of population than anywhere else in Britain. As Gerard Langley, a life-long Bristolian and singer with the legendary rockers The Blue Aeroplanes, commented: “It’s not like London and it doesn’t need London. Bristol is self-contained and self-determining. Bristol bands were amongst the first 100 bands at The Roxy back in the day and remain amongst the most influential. It’s a city of originals.”
Genres and styles collide perfectly and imperfectly here – from indie and rock to urban and grime. Trip hop flourished here in the early 90s, making local heroes of Massive Attack, Tricky, Roni Size and Portishead, and this has since evolved into a thriving Dubstep scene.
The countercultural edge survives here in a very real way. Unlike other cities whose more interesting neighbourhoods have been turned into themed tourist attractions or heritage trails, music, art and literature are woven right into the fabric of the city. Whether it’s secret warehouse gigs in Easton, or underground clubs and VIP nights in the Gloucester Road; leftfield art exhibitions or pop-up graffiti shows, Bristol’s focus is on that most enigmatic of qualities – authenticity. If it isn’t the real thing, then it’s just not cool.
One thing you’ll notice is that people smile here. It’s a laid-back, easy-going smile, but a smile nevertheless. Sure, Bristol isn’t brooding and urban and edgy in the way that Birmingham or Manchester are. It isn’t Gotham, and you won’t find any huge municipal buildings silhouetted against a dark satanic skyline. It has villages and neighbourhoods.
Ultimately, Bristol’s a city for people who don’t need to try too hard. Or, as Gerard Langley says: “Bristol neither cares nor doesn’t care”. And isn’t that just perfect?