A Stroll Around Clifton

Join Malcolm Rigby as he walks around Clifton and discovers what Sydney Harbour, parachuting Victorians and an empress nicknamed 'carrots' have to do with this glorious pocket of Bristol. Photos by Neville Stanikk

From the suspension bridge to the Downs, from Royal York Crescent to the majestic buildings on the Promenade, from the zoo to the bohemian atmosphere of the village centre, it's difficult not to concede that Clifton has it all.

My own personal love affair with the place goes back to when I was a young teenager visiting my brother who lived here (on Cornwallis Crescent) as a student at Bristol during the '70s. Normally resident in rural Dorset, I was blown away by the youthful vibrancy within the context of such wonderful ageing buildings. If my relationship with Clifton can be put down as an adolescent crush, then my companion on the stroll, Michael Pascoe, could be said to be involved in a long-lasting heartfelt union. The local historian has just co-written a series of guided walks around the area. When I asked him if he would consider living anywhere else, he looked at me astounded: "No! A very strong no. I love it."

Starting the walk in the centre of the village, we made our way to Clifton Arcade, thought to be the only Victorian arcade of shops in its original condition. The two-storey bazaar with Neoclassical columns was finished in 1878, but it was an economic flop and was used as a mere furniture depot for a century, before reopening. At the end of the arcade is the popular indoor/outdoor Primrose Caf, which Michael said he would recommend to anyone.

Turning left and passing through the archway (with Queen Victoria's face carved on it), you come out into the impressive Victoria Square. Number 15 is marked with a plaque to commemorate the fact that the famous bearded cricketer Dr WG Grace lived there. One side of the square is the Royal Promenade, a row of houses designed to look like a single palace. Within the square are the large gardens, once for the exclusive use of residents, and one of the many green spaces that will be passed.

From the square you can join the pretty Church Walk, a path with an arbour all along it, taking you through the graveyard of St Andrew's Church. There had been a church on this site since 1145 and the building of the time escaped the burning of Clifton during the Civil War following a reprieve from Prince Rupert. But the church did not survive the German bombing of the Second World War and all that now remains are the foundation stones.

Briefly we were back amongst the shops. Clifton has a dizzying mix of independent and better-known retail outlets. Michael told me that there's no real reason to go outside the village to buy anything. How many villages could claim that? Then we were back in the residential area of Royal York Crescent, supposedly the longest crescent in Europe at almost a quarter of a mile. At the end is another plaque, this time to Eugenie Montijo who lived here as a girl before going on to meet Louis Napoleon and becoming Empress of France. Her time in Clifton was not the happiest period of her life as she was nicknamed 'carrots' because of her red hair.

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Doubling back along West Mall we come across yet another green space, this one with an interesting sculpture carved out of a dead chestnut tree, apparently entitled 'Starburst', and in the background you could hear the sound of a street saxophonist - it's a multi-sensual place.

Arriving at the Assembly Rooms (now the Clifton Club) was the cue for a story of one of Clifton's strangest heroes - or anti-heroes. The architect of the building was Francis Howard Greenway who was later sentenced to death for forgery; the punishment was then commuted to transportation to Australia. Out in the colony Greenway thrived and was commissioned to design many of Sydney's public buildings, including the lighthouse at the entrance to Sydney Harbour. He became known as the 'Father of Australian Architecture' and after his death his face appeared on Australian bank notes.

Clifton has had its fair share of peculiar residents. There was, for example, the Irish giant Patrick Cotter who at 8ft 1in tall could light his pipe by the gas street light. He used to go out for a walk at night so as not to frighten the children during the day.

Then there was Dr Thomas Beddoes who thought he'd found a cure for tuberculosis in cows' breath and would encourage his patients to have a cow in their bedrooms.

Leaving Christ Church and its green to the right, we reach the jewel in the crown that is Clifton, Isambard Kingdom Brunel's suspension bridge. From conception to completion it took more than a century to build. The structure is a monument to the man's genius yet he never saw the finished product. It is itself an icon for Bristol and indeed for the whole of the Westcountry, and as the views from it are stupendous, walking is the ideal way to encounter the bridge.

Looking down across the gorge into the heart of Bristol I was forced to recall the story of Sarah Ann Henley. The Victorian woman jumped from the bridge after a lovers' tiff but her billowing skirts acted as a parachute. She survived and lived on into her eighties.

Using various media, the Visitors' Information Centre on the other side tells the complicated tale of the bridge's construction, including this quote from Brunel himself in 1836: "Clifton Bridge - my first child, my darling is actually going on - recommenced week last Monday - Glorious!!" My guide Michael, along with Adrian Andrews, wrote the official guide to the bridge.

Back on the east side, looking down at the bridge from the edge of the Downs, is the Clifton Observatory. Once a windmill, it lay derelict for years before local artist William West took it on and installed telescopes and a camera obscura.

The Downs could be said to be Bristol's play area - 440 acres of wooded and open land. If you walk along the promenade you get the pleasure of the giant mansions on the right and the peaceful green space on the left. I was passed by joggers, cyclists and dog walkers, whilst a group of students were making a film by the side. At the end of the promenade is Alderman Proctor's fountain, one of several in Clifton, which was moved a small distance in 1988 because it was considered a traffic hazard. A few hundred yards further on and you reach Bristol Zoo, thought to be the fifth oldest in the world.

The stroll was over and I hadn't even taken in the Victoria Rooms, Whiteladies Road and the Wills Memorial Building. When I asked Michael what were Clifton's boundaries, he hedged the question and muttered that it was difficult to answer. The impression you get is that it stretches as far as the ambience reaches - that strange atmospheric concoction of classic architecture, green parks and a classy bohemianism. I was falling in love... all over again.

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