48 Hours in… Clifton

PUBLISHED: 15:53 22 May 2008 | UPDATED: 15:12 20 February 2013

The Regency buildings of Clifton can clearly be seen from Bristol Docks

The Regency buildings of Clifton can clearly be seen from Bristol Docks

Where else can you find a gorge crossed by a Brunel bridge, the world's oldest provincial zoo, plants that grow in no other location, an observatory, outstanding Georgian architecture and the UK's oldest shopping arcade all within the space of two...

Settlers spotted its strategic benefit as long ago as 350BC. Iron Age lookout posts on both sides of the gorge protected a causeway crossed at low tide. Roman centurions later guarded the crossing to protect supply lines between Bath and Caerleon in Wales. But after more than two millennia, in 1894 the Victorians finally decreed the causeway a danger to shipping and blew it up.

Clifton suits visitors in no particular hurry. The grand boulevard of beech trees along Clifton Down perhaps best illustrates this. Those in a rush are unlikely to spot that one of the trees is a hornbeam. Such are the idiosyncratic charms of a place with few equals on a sunny day.

Hit the downtown

Before the merchant classes stamped their mark high up on the cliff, fashionable society patronised the valley floor, drawn by hot springs that bubbled up through the mud. Said to cure sailors of scurvy after long voyages, the springs sparked a building boom in the late 17th century. Hotwells Assembly Rooms and Bristol's first theatre entertained ladies and gentlemen of social rank with tumblers, conjurors and lavish balls. Dowry Square and Albemarle Row still survive from this period.

Hotwells' popularity lasted about a century. The cost of much-needed modernisation to prevent sewage from the river seeping into the springs saw rents rise steeply in the late 18th century. Pleasure-seekers went elsewhere for their fun and Hotwells gained the reputation as a last resort for the incurable, many of whom are buried in the Strangers' Burial Ground at the bottom of Lower Clifton Hill.

Clifton prospered from Hotwells' demise. Most of the major terraces (The Mall, Rodney Place, Richmond Terrace, Prince's Buildings, Cornwallis Crescent, Bellevue, Sion Hill and Royal York Crescent) were laid out between 1780 and Britain declaring war on France in 1793. The war bankrupted many developers, leaving hundreds of houses half built and without roofs. They were eventually completed after the war, and Saville Place and Windsor Terrace show the 'before and after' effect.

Christ Church dominates Clifton Green and contains the most beautiful church interior in Bristol. Mechanical 'quarter jacks' strike bells every quarter of an hour. Across the green is Lord Mayor's Chapel, the only church in England owned and run by a local council.

Between 1893 and 1934, a funicular railway connected Clifton and Hotwells. Restoration work is under way to bring it back into use. In the meantime, a zig-zag path offers a bracing alternative.

Birdcage Walk crosses the site of St Andrew's Church. Clifton's oldest house of worship survived the torches of retreating Royalists during the English Civil War only to be reduced to rubble by a German bomb in the Second World War. The churchyard still survives.

Eating and sleeping

For home-made treats and a caf besides, try Arch House Deli, near Victoria Square, where cricket legend WG Grace once lived. Clifton's dinkiest caf must be Village Pottery, Princess Victoria Street, where a maximum of 10 can enjoy coffee and biscotti whilst watching a potter at work.

For the finest coffee, take a breather in Coffee #1, Princess Victoria Street. For the best hot chocolate, luxuriate in Bar Chocolat, The Mall.

Primrose Caf & Bistro, Clifton Arcade, is an alfresco caf by day and a candlelit bistro by night, with meat from the Somerset Levels and organic ice cream made on the premises. Nearby is Clifton's swankiest gastropub, The Albion.

The Square Club, situated on two floors of The Berkeley Square Hotel, covers all the bases, with a chic dining room, an opulent lounge, artwork and a video wall. On Princess Victoria Street, Strada is Bristol's best Italian, while the fruits de mer at Fishers Restaurant is hard to beat.

Avon Gorge Hotel www.theavongorge.com began life as the Clifton Grand Spa and Hydro, which opened in 1898 for those wishing to drink the Hotwells water, pumped up from the foot of the cliff to an elegant pump room. More than half the rooms have a view of the suspension bridge and a large outside terrace is a popular place to be seen during the summer months. Cary Grant often stayed here in the 1960s.

Amongst Clifton's best B&Bs are 21 Royal York Crescent (tel 0117 973 4405), with one double, and Park House (tel 0117 9736331), 19 Richmond Hill, with two rooms.

In the city centre, Hotel du Vin & Bistro www.hotelduvin.com/HotelLanding.aspx?HotelId=5 in a restored sugar warehouse is a wonderful alternative for the style-seeker, with live jazz on some Sundays.

Explore the area

The camera obscura at Clifton Observatory and Caves is a miracle of primitive science that projects an image of the Downs and gorge onto a circular table. Visitors can also walk through a cave to a spectacular viewing platform 76 metres (250ft) above the river.

Bristol onions, Bristol rock cress and two species of whitebeam are found only in Avon Gorge. Look out for peregrine falcons, marbled white butterflies, horseshoe bats, roe deer swimming across the river and badgers dashing across the suspension bridge like fugitives on the run.

View Clifton's colourful social history at Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, Queen's Road. The museum also has an Egyptology section, galleries of stuffed animals and an open-plan caf. Or take a stroll on Brandon Hill, Bristol's oldest park, and climb Cabot Tower for great views of the city.

Harbourside has much to offer, including the contemporary arts centre, Arnolfini, The Architecture Centre and Brunel's SS 'Great Britain'.

The Red Lodge, Park Row, and Blaise Castle House Museum, Henbury, have wonderful gardens, while a Bristol Channel Cruise www.waverleyexcursions.co.uk or a trip on a Bristol Ferry Boat www.bristolferry.com promise wonderful views.

Outside the city, Barley Wood Walled Garden www.betterfood.co.uk at Wrington serves organic breakfasts and lunches in a restored kitchen garden designed by tobacco magnate Herbert Wills. Elsewhere, join Bristol Water on a free behind-the-scenes tour of its hydro plant at Blagdon Visitor Centre (tel 0117 953 6470) every Sunday. BY STEPHEN TATE. PHOTOS BY TONY HOWELL

Further information

Bristol TIC: tel 0906 711 2191 (50p/min), www.visitbristol.co.uk

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