Denmark Street 

A place to make a mistake

I’m not sure why I take the turning, which adds minutes to my walk, furthering the possibility of missing the bus. But my senses need refreshing, a change of scene to knock me out of my homeward routine. So I take a wander down Denmark Street.

They call it the ‘West End’ in the tourism leaflets but you wouldn’t know it. When I reach the junction with Unity street, there’s nothing but apartments housed in an imposing red brick buidling. Then, out of the darkness emerge the great temple-like doors of the Wah Yan Hong Chinese supermarket. The smell wafting out of the door is familiar, the same one that always seems to surround far eastern food stores. Is it the freezers full of seafood or some ubiquitous spice?

Next door is an extravagant Chinese restaurant, decked to the rafters in lanterns and dragon statues. The overall colour scheme is black, however, giving it the kind of air where you might expect a local Triad meet to take place.

Across the road the stage doors of the Hippodrome are open. I glean a look inside as an usher welcomes a group into a  red-curtained room. Articulated lorries block up the kerb, and there’s a stage hand sucking on a rollup in an unlit doorway.

Blink and I’d miss the steps that lead down to Harvey’s Cellars opposite, blue fairy lights illuminating the old wine racks. It’s the oldest establishment on this stretch by at least a century and still sells the Sherry for which it was founded on in 1895. 

I think about wandering in and feigning a party booking just so I can explore, but instead I decide to take a look in the magic bar next door. It’s a fairly unremarkable boozer decked out in traditional fashion, but with a secret theatre in the back just big enough for 50. It’s empty when I look in but the bartender assures me that it comes alive when the table candles are lit and a show is underway.

A downtown sidestreet such as this wouldnt be right without a seedy side and Shadows massage parlour is there to provide. ‘Shadows in the night’ as far the clientele are concerned or is it the girls who are ‘shadows’ of their former selves?

The whole facade is mirrored and there’s a handwritten note about a daytime offer stuck to the wall of the entranceway. It’s also right next door to a tattoo removal clinic, which would appear to compliment each other well; a place to make a mistake and another to rectify one.

Up on the wall is a red neon sign advertising Bombay Boulevard, a plain looking Indian restaurant. The red glow reflects in the empty windows above making me wonder if there’s any less conspicuous parlours along this stretch.

The thick scent of pure, unadulterated grease, fills the air from a chip shop. Two middle eastern men are behind the counter, their oily faces bantering with customers. 

A sickly-lit alleyway adjacent offers the ideal spot for a late-night urinal or something a little more tawdry. 

Somewhere Between a Rock and a Truly Wild Place – part four

I feel like a proper adventurer as I emerge from the scrub following my conquest of the tunnel.

The sun breaks out again and I hot-wheel it down the pavement, the bridge flickering through the trees above. The end of the gorge is in sight now, rock giving way to Hotwells and the unsightly tangle of the Cumberland Basin octopus junction.

But its not over yet. This place still has a few surprises and the next one is perhaps the most surprising of them all. Set into the cliffs like a lost temple to transport is Clifton Rocks Railway, a Victorian construction that once saw a funicular train carry people up inside the rock to the top of gorge. The last I heard, there were attempts to get it running again, but as I cross the road for a closer look, there are no signs that this is the case. In fact, there’s not really much to look at apart from the bath-stone carved exterior and a gate, through which a glimpse of a tunnel is shortly consumed by darkness.

In case you’re wondering why so much effort went into ferrying people from bottom to top and back again, an answer lies in the adjacent buildings of the Colonnade and Pump Room, part of the Hotwell Spa that once existed here. They are a grand set of buildings, and at one time would have attracted a very grand class of clientele who came to benefit from the water’s health-giving properties. But much like the railway, they are largely ignored these days, except by the occasional rambling tourist or some commuters who happen to get stuck alongside during a traffic jam.

Opposite, is an old landing pier for steam boats that once graced the river and dropped off out-of-towners to the spa. It’s now rotting away in spectacular fashion, with great bows of wood bending or broken and gradually sinking in the merciless mud. It runs for 50 metres or so until a newer, concrete version replaces it, before the Brunel locks open out and the New Cut begins.

Looking across from 200ft up are the houses on The Paragon, majestically clinging to the very ends of the gorge. Then the rest of the neighbourhood sweeps down into Lower Clifton and beyond. I turn off here and negotiate the obstacle course-of-a-cycle route that cuts across a bridge and two locks, seeking out that waterside pint.

Somewhere Between a Rock and a Truly Wild Place – part three

I’ve had glimpses of the Clifton Suspension Bridge for most of the way as the snaking cliffs open and close, revealing one of the towers (or piers) on the Leigh Woods side of the gorge. But as I pass the junction with Bridge Valley Road, the gorge opens up and the full span of the bridge is revealed.

No matter how many times I see it, I am always in awe of its iron might, hanging 76 metres up in the air. The abutments are also an impressive sight; two red monoliths rising out of the rock and scrub like inorganic growths.

Below the bridge is a tunnel protecting motorists from any falling debris, accidental or otherwise. Between it and the bottom of Bridge Valley Road I see a slim strip of pavement with two gated inlets. They look private, but its evident that people pass in and out on their way to climbing routes so I don’t feel bad about slipping round the gate.
I find two pathways leading left and right through ivy-swamped trees. I take the left, which skirts over a rocky bank and drops down to a pile of broken pallets and an upturned chair. Around a corner and the path leads into a dead end and what looks like the mouth of a tunnel that’s been filled in. A bolted door and a window with rusted bars facing out of it remind me of the Blair Witch Project.

On closer inspection the place appears to be nothing more than a sort of storage facility with more pallets and paving stones stacked by the door. It’s still an uneasy location, though, and wouldn’t be out of place in a Saw movie. Thankfully, a model of Grandpa Smurf perched on a plank goes some way towards lightening the atmosphere.

I retrace my steps and follow the right-hand path, which leads into more open territory. Whooping voices from above make me look up and I see the yellow grill that covers the mouth of the Giant’s Cave, accessed from Clifton Observatory up on the Downs. After this, the cliffs recede into a cavernous alcove and present a view right up to the side of the bridge where tiny heads linger.
Meanwhile, closer by, I notice a rope.

As I drag myself up its knotted loops towards the top of the tunnel I take a moment to wonder if other people do this kind of thing just for the sake of a blog. But then again, I know it’s for my sake as well; I can’t resist a bit of adventure.

A fence has been expertly peeled back and I pass through the gap to find myself in an elevated meadow. Grasshoppers ping out of the way like seed pods as I slide between golden grasses and wildflowers.
Above, the bridge looms and I can see the skeletal framework of its underside. I also gain a strange perspective looking down at the cars through the tall grass as they motor in and out of the tunnel.

Somewhere Between a Rock and a Truly Wild Place – part two

I leave the rusted fencing behind me and return to cruise mode, following an easy right-hand curve beneath arching trees. To my left, the woodland gets higher and steeper and then suddenly the first set of cliffs known as, Seawalls, announce themselves.

A giant ramp of rock juts up towards the sky, joining a ragged vertical face that peaks at around 70 metres. I spot a couple of climbers, their bright vests and stretched limbs marking them out like strange crabs against the limestone.

I hop off my bike and balance on the kerb, waiting for a gap in the traffic, when there is movement in the air. I double take as what I can only assume to be a Peregrine Falcon, swoops lazily across the road and disappears behind the trees. ‘Tis the season I am soon to discover (see photos).

Across the road is a grassy bank and I trudge over it, losing sight of the road. Then the cliffs are all about me, magnificent and daunting.

I spy more climbers attached to the rock at impossible angles while others teeter about near the bottom. Towards the far end of the area is a gravel car park with a few cars and a mini-bus parked there. Ropes are strung up next to it, leading youngsters with mandarin-coloured helmets up and down the shorter part of the cliffs.

Back on the Portway, I find another enclave, labelled with the less adventurous title of Main Wall. However, this one appears much less tamed than the first. A Co-operative lorry and a line of cars are parked in a lay-by, all driverless. Behind them a mound of earth lies where a red barrier has long since been raised and left for dead.

I clamber over the earth and find myself in the remains of another car park. White lines painted on the tarmac get lost in fantastic carpets of orange moss while greater heaps of vegetation create corridors down which I wander.

There are odd remnants of human activity scattered about; a crash-landed radio controlled plane, a wildlife research project and a memorial of lanterns and flowers at the foot of the cliffs. I stop here a minute for some cool reflection and look up at the rock. It glares back at me unrelentingly, with a face even more extreme than the last in its concave shape.

 

Somewhere Between a Rock and a Truly Wild Place – part one

I make a quick stop at the viewpoint on the Downs and join the tourists and lunchtime strollers as they gaze into the hollow of the mighty Avon Gorge. It’s an epic sight, not least because of the majestic limestone cliffs and wooded banks that rear up from the riverside, but also due to its location right around the corner from Bristol city centre. In fact, I’m fairly sure that within ten minutes of passing under the Clifton Suspension Bridge that hangs across the mouth, it’s possible to find yourself in a pub with a nice harbourside view.

I keep that thought in mind as I ride off, turning down Seawalls Road into the genteel neighbourhood of Sneyd Park. Here is a land of pristine hedgerows and perfect driveways and more than a few properties that border on the castle variety. There also seems to be a distinct lack of traffic, which might have something to do with there being no obvious way to the river and I  follow any road leading downwards in the hope of eventually finding it.

Then all of a sudden, secluded wealth is swept aside and replaced by gritty 1960’s housing before the Portway makes itself known; a fast and furious carriageway that runs/ruins the entire length of the gorge. Being a Sunday, however, the traffic is relatively calm and I’m able to get to the other side unscathed where a cycleway runs adjacent to the river.

I start riding and find the pavement wide enough (just) for two cyclists to pass each other without getting sucked into the tailwind of a freight lorry or toppling over the fence and into the mud, but it’s no less a humbling experience. Everything about the surroundings makes me feel small, from the huge expanse of water flowing past to the banks of trees that start to rise up on either side.

Nevertheless, there’s nothing particularly eye-catching on this initial stretch until my urban decay radar picks up something across the road. A rusted fence lies half-collapsed and mangled, opening the way to what appears to be an abandoned sports ground.

I chain up my bike and make a dash across the road. There is a barrier that stands between a gate and the fence, but I easily push it aside and squeeze through. A ramp leads down to an area of bare concrete where some long-extinguished fireworks waste away in the sun. To my right is a stripped out hut full of rubbish while to the left are two basketball courts. In the first, masonry lies strewn about like broken slabs of chocolate while the second is empty all but for a sorry-looking bike ramp made of chipboard. The only thing keeping the place alive seems to be the fresh-looking graffiti that decorates the walls.

Over Steps and Stones

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I’ve just finished the last chapter of my project, exploring and writing about the Christmas Steps area of Bristol! You can read it and the rest of the chapters here.

I’ve got more urban journeys lined up for the Spring including a trek down the Avon Gorge and an amble around the new business district that calls itself The Enterprise Zone, so stay tuned!