by Sally Hammond
The showerhead is enormous – as big as a dinner plate, delivering a storm cloud of big fat droplets, pretty much like standing under a tropical waterfall. The hotel guidelines in the room rabbits on about it too, calling it a 'serious shower', and then – and this you have to like – gives guests full permission to nick off with their toiletries. 'Do take them,' it demands. Who would refuse such an invitation?
It's not at all how you would expect an English hotel bathroom to behave.
More than 200 years ago Samuel Johnson described Bristol as so bad he wished he was in Scotland, his companion declaring himself 'by no means pleased with his inn' there. A couple of centuries later, I am very happy indeed to be in Bristol - and I like my inn as well.
In Boswell's time, when he penned that critical review, Bristol was quite a different place though: dirty, dangerous and working class, if you believe contemporary writers. At that time 'my inn' was working hard too as a sugar house, converting grimy sugar-beet tubers into glassy crystals suitable for the gentry's afternoon cuppas.
Today, the Hotel du Vin, a prestigious establishment, and one of a chain of Hotel du Vin hotels in the UK occupies the buildings. Reviewers in the current Good Hotel Guide to Britain said it 'could not be faulted' and the breakfasts were praised. I agree – one of the best I've enjoyed in Britain.
Those special, nick-able, toiletries labeled appropriately HdV that are found in the bathrooms of all Hotel du Vin properties (and now mine too!) are made exclusively for them on the Isle of Arran in Scotland. (www.arranaromatics.com)
This meticulously restored Sugar House, previously a selection of Grade II listed warehouses dated back to the 1700's, but now houses 40 'loft style' bedrooms and suites all with superb beds, delicious Egyptian linen and those showers. Our suite also had a small adjoining terrace with a view of the city.
Now just in case you are a little hazy about the location of this major city (pop. 400,000), the largest in south-western England, think of it this way. Bristol, a Saxon town, and a port for a thousand years, where the Avon and Frome Rivers converge, lies across the mouth of the Severn from Cardiff, Wales. The width of the Severn at this point is around 20 kilometres. Not far, you think, until you realize that the English Channel is narrower in places. In fact, further south-west this gap between Wales and England is called the Bristol Channel.
So having cleared that up, you need to know that Bristol is not in Wales. Nor is it in Gloucestershire, or Somerset, the adjoining counties. It's actually a 'unitary district' called the City and County of Bristol.
And while it may be a little short on major landmarks – or indeed famous people – you should know that Bristol is where Concorde was built, and was also the birthplace of Cary Grant, heart throb film star of the 1930s and 1940s, born Archibald Leach in 1904. Bristol Zoo, which opened in 1836, is the fifth oldest zoo in the world and was recently named the best in Great Britain.
This is also JK Rowling territory. She grew up outside Bristol, later moving to the Forest of Dean district in Gloucestershire. Did she, you wonder, base her bespectacled hero on some young Bristolian she knew as a child?
Bristol has even entered the language. The term 'all ship shape and Bristol fashion' comes from long ago when, apart from imports of tobacco, sherry, and chocolate, slave ships also entered the port. Fearing disease from them officials would not allow these ships into port until they were cleaned, tidied and carefully inspected and declared suitable for docking, Bristol fashion.
But my interest in Bristol was much more personal. The first of my ancestors to arrive in Australia came unwillingly in 1820, after being sentenced at the Bristol Court of Assizes for – I am told – stealing a lady's bonnet. The court is gone, I discovered, its site lost somewhere in the web of medieval streets that is Bristol's 'old city'.
Today's Bristol is, like many British cities, finally shrugging off the winter woollies of past times and slipping into hip new gear. There are bright new cafes and pubs, restaurants, smart glass fronted buildings and revamped waterfront.
With the dollar's new strength, shopping has become possible again too, and historic Corn Street and the stalls of St Nicholas Markets is the place to come for hand crafted goods and gourmet foods. Bristol's West End, Whiteladies Road and Clifton Village, bring shoppers looking for designer clothes, art and crafts, antiques, and jewellery, and major stores can be found in Broadmead and the Galleries, or on the city's edge, at The Mall.
Yet Bristol is more than just a city-port destination. It's the ideal hub for exploration into so many diverse areas: Wales, Cornwall, Gloucestershire and the Cotswolds are on the doorstep. Leave the city, and suddenly you are back to narrow hedged lanes, views across rumpled green velvet meadows, dark woods, or seaside villages tempting you with ice cream made from the milk of local dairy herds.
So why not stay locally in a hotel with sugar connections? Chances are you'll have sweeter memories of Bristol because of it.
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