2.8.10

Bristol: Thekla and Brunel


The real Mr Brunel
Originally uploaded by fred pipes
When I was thinking of relocating from Guildford back in 1987, Bristol was on the list. It's arty, what with the Watershed and Arnolfini, near water and has that industrial chic. Brighton won out, however, but I was back in Bristol on Saturday 24 July to see a performance of Viv Stanshall's Stinkfoot at the Thekla, the ship he called 'The Old Profanity Showboat', where it was first performed in 1985. I knew nothing about Stinkfoot or what to expect, so in a moment of madness booked two nights at the YHA, based on price and its fabulous location right on the dockside. The downside was that I had to bunk up with snoring strangers and brave its ferocious showers!

Originally co-written with his wife Pamela Ki Longfellow and based on a children's book she'd written, this production was more of a promenade showcase, with songs belted out by many of the original performers (including Nikki 'B' Lamborn, Jon Beedell, and Pete Coggins), narrated splendidly by a stubbly Tony Slatterly, with Pete Moss conducting an amazing band squashed into the right hand of the stage and auditorium, and Viv and Ki's daughter Silky Longfellow-Stanshall taking centre stage as Elma the Electrifying Elver. Cats it wasn't, but I must confess that in the first half it was sounding like Meatloaf meets Tina Turner (or Janis Joplin?), what with all the big voices, but it got better in the second half, the highlight of which was the appearance of Viv's ukulele! To my shame, the only songs I recognised were the lament 'I'd rather cut my hands' and the show-stopper 'No time like the future' but we joined in where we could - others had a Brechtian/ Tiger Lillies / Nigel Burch / Foster & Gilvan feel to them - must investigate them further (listening to 'Dog Howl in Tune' now). See some of Mark Garland's photos of the show here.

So, Stinkfoot over and a sleepless night in a top bunk, it was Sunday 25 July and time to explore Brunel's Bristol. After a pleasant walk by the 'floating harbour' (shame the steam harbour railway wasn't operating), I was first visitor into SS Great Britain. This attraction must get a prize for best ticket (and for the £9.50 you can revisit for a year) and the ship itself is fabulous! First you get to go 'underwater' to visit the hot dry dock in which it was built, with a close up view of the revolutionary propeller and balanced rudder - and all the holes in the iron hull!) then through an exhibition (where you get the opportunity to stamp your ticket!) and finally onto the weather deck (curiously low and flat, compared with modern day cruise liners!) - and then below! There's a lot to see, from the cramped berths, even in 1st Class, to the steam engine, only ever meant to spring into action when the wind dropped, the promenade deck full of light and where they stabled the horses in the bow. As I was leaving, I chanced upon Mr Brunel himself strolling about and took a photo. As I left, a huge queue was getting longer, so get there early!

I took the 60p ferry across the water and met my IllustratorsUK friend June Goulding, for a soup in the Museum and Art Gallery and a bus trip to Clifton to see Brunel's Suspension Bridge. Now, I have a bit of a phobia about bridges, and this is a bit of a tall one! We joined the 3pm tour, but soon got bored and decided to go it alone. Phew! Don't look down! Well, I made it across, and after a visit to the shop, we came back along the opposite side, with a view of the Giant's cave where Brunel's original scheme would have terminated and the sight of a couple of brave chaps clambering up the cliffs on ropes. Then it was back to the YHA to grab a better bed, a pint at the Llandoger Trow (I preferred the Bath Ale at the YHA to be honest), and - tired and aching - to bed before heading off to South Wales the following morning.

PS. At breakfast at the YHA, I made a piece of toast and presented it on a plate to the counter assistant, asking for baked beans and scrambled egg to be placed on top. She arranged the cooked food neatly around the toast! This revelation started quite an interesting thread on Facebook, some people asserting that beans would make the toast soggy. I say that's the whole point! The clue is in the name: beans on toast.

PPS. Another treat was to see 71000 Duke of Gloucester in the sidings just outside Bristol, ready to haul the Torbay Express.
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