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Published: August 22nd 2014
Ready for a fast ride
Leaving London Paddington for Bristol, Bath and Swindon
After a first day in London (more on that later if I get around to it) and a visit to a Great Western Railway working steam museum, it was out to the West Country again yesterday, but this time a little further. Jumped on a fast train to Bristol, under two hours from London.
We flashed past the very picturesque Roman town of Bath, from where the Wardell family was banned on our last trip after a young female member was heard to say loudly in the Jane Austen Heritage Centre: "Who's Mr Darcy?". Oh, the shame of it.
So I pushed on to Bristol Temple Meads, another large station on the GWR, complete on this day with a heritage train, the Torbay Express, standing under a grand arched roof.
Was raining when I got there, so opted for the £1.50 shuttle bus into the city centre (esp. as I had no idea where it was). A couple of minutes later I was deposited in a non-descript and pretty shabby town centre of 'modern' concrete structures and chain hotels, which really could have been anywhere. A bit of a let down after
Bombed out remains of St Mary's Church, overlooking the River Avon
Navigating by way of tourist info maps placed strategically every four minutes walk or so (a bit like following bread crumbs) I wound my way along the old Bristol docks - unusual for a city so far inland) and I found my way to the M Shed Museum in an old waterfront transfer shed. The new museum tells the story of Bristols's people places, life and harbour - and it was packed.
Inside I discovered the reason the centre of Bristol has so little architectural soul is that much of it was levelled during the Blitz. If I read the info right, there were only six night time bombing raids because after that there was nothing else to destroy...ouch. Probably a pity because for 400 years up until the mid 1700s Bristol has been Britain's second-largest city, and settlement here dates back to pre-Roman times.
Much of that later success and wealth was built on the slave trade, which a meaningful chunk of the museum is devoted to. Clearly, this is still a controversial issue in the city, with public debates in recent years about how (or if) to
Contemporary views - bit of self interest there!
acknowledge this fact. A grand total of 2018 slaving voyages were made from Bristol, transporting around 500,000 selves from Africa to the 'New World' of America and returning with spices, sugar, rice and rum to England. The mainland Europe slave trade is estimated at an eye-popping 11,000,000 over the same 400 year period. We know this because excellent record were kept by slaving captains on the "quantity" of their human cargo...
I think Bristol could best be described as "gritty". The M Shed contains references to the city's porn film industry (ok - pot/kettle etc...,coming from Canberra, home to Fyshwick, I can't really comment unfairly on that), massage parlours and 'gentleman's clubs' on the High Street. The town has a Street Sex Market Policy, agreed by civic authorities, police, industry workers and the community. I also passed a couple of casinos and gambling parlours.
For all that, Bristol has a modern high tech and creative side. Home to an aeronautical industry that gave us the Bristol Blenheim bomber, the engines for the Concorde, and the wings for the A380 that flew me over here. It is also home to Aardman Studios, the people responsible
M Shed Museum
Bristol is home to the creators of Wallace and Grommit
for Wallace and Grommit and Shaun the Sheep.
After stopping off at an obligatory large church, which commemorated (rather than celebrating) the voyages to America by the city fathers which led to the slave trade. it was back on board a HST to Swindon to visit Steam, the Museum of the Great Western Railway. As railway museums go, it was pretty good. Not quite a match for our own Workshops rail museum in Ipswich, Qld, but pretty close. At its height at the start of the 20th century, the place employed 12000 staff, but was finally closed by British Rail in 1986 after 143 of continuous operation.
It was a dangerous occupation - railways were second only to coal mining and the merchant navy in terms of accidents causing death to workers. The museum detailed the societal changes the 'coming of the railway' bought not just to the UK but the world. Those building the railways - the navvies - lived on beef, bread and beers, supplied by the contractors building the new lines across the country. According to info in the museum, in 1854 more than £1000 per mile of new line was
(Another) grand station
Bristol Temple Meads - not quite CountryLink Canberra!
spent on beer alone - and that was a lot of cash back then! As an agent of social change, railways made the industrial revolution possible. Our modern system of time keeping was introduced by the railways out of necessity (for the first time we actually needed to operate on the same time in places many a miles apart). People and goods could travel. Manufacturing commenced on an epic scale. Raw materials and finished goods were shipped around the country and around the world.
And now the same railways, laid down more than 150 years ago, are carrying a loud, boisterous group of young people (I sound so old) on my train back to London to Reading, east of London, for a three day music festival.
Another day in the capital tomorrow before heading to Brussels.
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