Starting mileage: 16645 km
Day started: 09:00/08:00
Day ended: 22:00/22:00
Still in Bristol. I mentioned Isambard Kingdom Brunel yesterday and of course, we couldn’t leave the city without visiting the ss Great Britain, Brunel’s second major shipbuilding exercise, beautifully restored and preserved in a dry dock on an artificial island, half-way between central Bristol and Clifton.
In the small exhibition before entering the ship, you can read that Great Britain was a Concorde of its time: the height of technology and engineering of its time, like most of Concorde built in and around Bristol. It was the first iron-bound steam ship, the first large ship with a propeller, the largest ever vessel at the time of its build and for 10 years after (until Brunel beat his own record with the Great Eastern; the previous record holder was Great Western, also one of Brunel’s).
I may be biased, but Great Britain is a magnificent ship and well worth the visit (the admission price is £13 pp). She was recovered from Falklands where she had run aground in 1886 and brought to Bristol on a floating platform – a little more than a rotten hull – almost a hundred years later in 1970. Since then, she was restored to almost full glory, and you can not only climb aboard, walk the planks of the weather deck and play with the steering wheel, but also venture into the bowels, past the passenger decks and cargo hold to the engine bay; at the time of our visit the engine was “running” so that you could see the giant pistons and shafts moving.
It’s a great shame we’ll never get to see the Great Eastern in such glory – a ship which was twice as big and ten times as heavy as Great Britain – but it’s the next best thing, and a great attraction in its own right.
From the docks we tried to get to Clifton Suspension Bridge, glimpsing tantalizingly among the buildings like a giant’s toy thrown over the gorge; we did get some good side views, but we weren’t meant to get to it: the complex system of roundabouts and crossroads at Ashton Gate thwarted all our efforts of getting through to Clifton and, defeated, we had to move on to Gloucester, driving through the centre of Bristol this time.
Gloucester is an ancient and proud city, and it has two distinct, separate areas worth a visit; there are the 19th century docks, with massive, elegant grain storage warehouses of red brick, now finely restored and, as is the fashion, slowly transformed into flats, offices and shops. There are a couple of museums here, a brewery and a peculiar “holistic centre” on board an old lightship. Gloucester still has a working harbour and shipyard – though the traffic, of course, is just a fraction of what it once was, and oriented at small leisure craft and narrowboats.
From the docks it’s just a short walk down the main street towards Gloucester’s other tourist draw, the Cathedral. Now, I’m no expert, but the cathedral in Gloucester is pretty average-looking; it doesn’t have the magnificent facade of Exeter or the grand dimensions of Winchester. However, the medieval district around it is quite something else: a maze of narrow passages and old houses built on and around the remains of the old St Peter’s abbey, with bits of old stone wall here and a cloister arch there, with summer sun peering through the archways, playing shadows on ancient pavements.
Of course, the cathedral draws a different crowd nowadays: its distinct wide cloisters “played” the corridors of Hogwarts in the Potter movies, providing the abbey with a constant supply of tourists from all over the world for years onwards.
We set out in search of a campsite – it was Saturday evening, and everywhere was fully booked – but we have returned to Gloucester on the next day, to refill the gas bottle and pick up some supplies in the massive Go Outdoors megastore. Thanks to that revisit, we saw yet another face of the city – the most modern, multicultural one, with big mosques standing next to methodist chapels, and half a dozen languages – including plenty of Polish – spoken in the streets, confirming that like in Bristol, Gloucester remains a world city long after its harbour stopped welcoming trade from all over the Empire.
Our last stop on the outskirts of Gloucester was at the Over Farm Market farm shop, one of the best we’ve seen so far; the Over Farm produces an abundance of fresh fruit – that you can pick yourself, if you have the time – and this was the first time in all six years of living in the UK that we’ve seen substantial amounts of fresh black currants for sale – alongside strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries and red currants, all freshly picked in the morning, and bursting with the heat wave sun and sweetness.
We also bought a bit of Single Gloucester cheese there – Double Gloucester’s less known brother, more perishable and costly in production than the latter, therefore normally only available in or near Gloucester itself.
This being Sunday in the countryside, we didn’t have much in the way of an itinerary; the James roastery in Ross-on-Wye was closed, the ferry in Symonds Yat was running a very infrequent service, and the only place we knew would be open for certain was the Puzzlewood – a fenced-off bit of Forest of Dean where old yew trees roots smash the limestone boulders, creating a maze of rocks, holes and secret paths. Overgrown with ferns and vines, Puzzlewood looks just like you’d imagine a fantasy forest to look like – and indeed, the owners play up the fact that J.R.R. Tolkien had visited here a few times and allegedly found inspiration for the forests described in The Lord of the Rings.
I don’t think in Tolkien’s days there were that many wooden bridges, huts and benches set up in the forest, though, and I seriously doubt the Professor was charged £6 to enter and had to pass through the pet farm. It is still a nice hour’s walk today – not quite the “Day Off” advertised, the forest is far too small for that; if you’ve ever been in the real European forest, you’ll find everything here is in miniature: the “canyons” are a few feet deep, the trees are not allowed to grow too old and big, the views from the tops of the “hills” reach only as far as the next tree trunk. A hobbit-sized adventure.
It was time to go into Wales, and although we managed to visit Caerwent in the evening of day 30, thematically and geographically it belongs to the next day’s travels, and so I’ll leave it for tomorrow’s post.
Forest Gate in Huntley was the last campsite on my list, after everywhere else turned out fully booked, and I was a bit worried what the fact that they had plenty of space left on Saturday night might mean. I needn’t worry: the place is lovely, a bit of the owners’ vast garden dedicated to campers, with plenty of shade under the old pine trees, an accommodating landlady, and decent facilities – although the building they’re housed in looks a bit dilapidated, the toilets are clean. The best bit – departure time is 5 pm, so there’s never any rush to leave in the morning!
Refilled the gas bottle (Campingaz 907) – lasted a full month.