It came as no great surprise to me that Bristol was recently named the best city in Britain by The Sunday Times. When I moved here over a decade ago, I was smitten by the grand Georgian terraces of Kingsdown and Clifton, the audacious beauty of the suspension bridge and the multi-coloured houses tumbling down to the harbour. We have theatres, galleries and street art; Michelin-starred restaurants and farmers’ markets; yet we can cycle to the countryside within half an hour.
It’s a proud and quirky city. A symbol just as fitting as Brunel’s famous bridge is the Cabot Tower, a Victorian folly on Brandon Hill built to commemorate the four-hundredth anniversary of John Cabot’s voyage to Newfoundland. At night, a flashing light at the top of the building spells out the city’s name in Morse code. Bristol’s Gloucester Road is thought to have the largest number of independent traders of any shopping street in the United Kingdom, while the Stokes Croft area, populated by artists and squatters, hit the national press three years ago when it became the scene of an anti-capitalist riot triggered by the opening of a new Tesco branch.
For the folks who live on the hill in the prosperous neighbourhoods of Clifton and Cotham, life seems pretty good. Still, there’s an occasional sense of nostalgia. The butcher, greengrocer and ironmonger are gradually being replaced by Costa Coffee branches and bijou gift shops. In previously bohemian quarters, estate agents proliferate and houses are so overpriced that stockbrokers who’ve sold up in London are the only people who seem able to afford them.
And let’s not forget that Bristol has its grim side. A visitor emerging from Temple Meads station is confronted by a Holiday Inn Express set in a grey seventies office block, a derelict petrol station and a network of roundabouts and dual carriageways. Further out, there’s a lot of anonymous 1930s suburban sprawl. Meanwhile the residents of Hartcliffe and Lawrence Hill, two of the most deprived areas in Britain, might raise an eyebrow at the Sunday Times’s assertion that Bristol benefits from good housing and low unemployment.
Another problem immediately strikes the first-time visitor from London or Manchester: Bristol is shockingly segregated, both socially and racially. In a memorable 2009 Panorama documentary, two Asian reporters posing as a married couple went to live in Southmead, a predominantly white, working-class housing estate in north Bristol. They were racially attacked and abused more than fifty times in eight weeks. And it’s not confined to the poorer areas. On the sunny slopes of genteel Cliftonwood, a black friend who had never felt quite comfortable here was subjected to racist insults by a neighbour in an argument over parking.
I’m passionate about Bristol but it’s headline-grabbing and reductive to talk about this city – or any other – as the best in Britain. Your experience of the city depends on who you are and where you live. Context is everything.