Bristol, May 2012
Christina writes: On Monday, May 14th, our last morning in Oxford, we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at Quod (the restaurant at the Old Bank Hotel) before leaving for Bristol, as fares were cheaper on a mid-morning train. Knowing that we would probably have to skip lunch because of our travel schedule – and that there would not be much if any choice of good food on the train – we ordered a cooked breakfast consisting of very smooth and creamy scrambled eggs, smoked salmon, and wheat toast. Wayne says that Quod makes the best cup of tea he’s had in England; I myself am a coffee-drinker.
By the time we left Oxford, we had acquired ten books as well as an assortment of photocopies. Wayne managed, not without difficulty, to find space for these in our bags without expanding into our fourth, reserve case, which made our journey easier. Our taxi driver took us to a side entrance of the Oxford station, which avoided the steps at the front, and our train left from the entrance platform; but we had to change trains at Didcot, which involved using lifts to and from a subway and a short, unsheltered walk: this coincided with the only heavy rain we experienced during our trip, at the very moment when neither of us had a hand free for an umbrella! The train was quite full, and there was little room to store our luggage at the end of the carriage where we first boarded, so we had to move it to the other end. At Bristol Temple Meads station, we again had to use lifts and a subway to get to the exit, but the taxi rank was directly outside.
I should perhaps note here that I was born in Bristol and lived there until the beginning of 1961, when I moved to London to take up a position in the Civil Service. I continued to visit my family in Bristol frequently until I moved to the U.S.A. in 1995, and even after that, as I noted in En Route to Oxford, I still visited my father in Bristol at least once a year until his death in 2002. This was my first visit to the city since his funeral.
Our main reason for spending time in Bristol on this trip was research in the Penguin Books Archive, housed in Special Collections in the University of Bristol’s Arts and Social Sciences Library on Tyndale Avenue. Since the collection has not been catalogued in every detail, we were not certain how much time we would need. We thought that we might get through the material on Monday afternoon, if there wasn’t much, but just in case, allowed a full day on Tuesday which could be used either for research or for visiting various places in Bristol, as well as Wednesday morning if we were to delay our departure for London until the afternoon.
Wayne had chosen a hotel within reasonable walking distance of the University, the Hotel du Vin, located in converted 18th-century Grade II-listed warehouses in Narrow Lewins Mead. We were lucky that our room was ready even though we arrived before the checking-in hour, so that we had time to do a little unpacking before our afternoon appointment at Special Collections. The Hotel du Vin has a character very different from any other hotel we have known. Each of its rooms is named after a particular winery (hence vin in the hotel’s name) – ours was called Rosemount, after the Australian winery – and here we made our first acquaintance with a platform bed, rather low with a wooden ledge around the foot and sides. A friend tells us that this type has become popular in England, but we found it too low for sitting on and just low enough to pose a risk of hitting one’s shins. We also found the lighting in the room, presumably meant to set a romantic mood, too dim for, say, reading in bed or being able to choose clothes hanging in a deep, dark wardrobe. Fortunately, the bathroom was well lit as well as nicely appointed: it had a very deep free-standing bath, rather too deep for any but the most athletic to climb in and out of with safety, but there was also a wide walk-in ‘monsoon’ shower behind the bath which could be accessed from both ends.
Looking at a map to work out our best route to Tyndale Avenue, Wayne noted that most of the way would be up St Michael’s Hill. At this point, I used my hand to indicate an angle of about 45 degrees, and commented that it would be quite a climb: much of Bristol is built on hills. Our map was not quite clear on the first part of our route, but almost as soon as we left the hotel I realized that we needed to begin our journey by climbing Christmas Steps, a very steep and narrow passage. Although in my younger days I had had no problem with either Christmas Steps or St Michael’s Hill, now, at the end of our fifteen-minute climb on the Monday afternoon, I was well out of breath, and even Wayne was a little puffed. He judged the hill to be closer to a 50-degree incline.
Our interest in the Penguin Books Archive was mainly focused on work by Pauline Baynes, who had many commissions from the Puffin Books division of Penguin over the years, primarily for cover art. We hoped that the collection might include letters or contracts not only between Pauline and Penguin/Puffin, but also with some of the publishing companies absorbed by Penguin, such as Constable Young (as indeed it does). One Baynes Puffin title, the 1961 Hobbit, of course was also of interest to us for its Tolkien connection. We had sent the Bristol archivist a complete list of relevant titles, and she had very helpfully pulled a considerable number of files for us, some clearly relevant, others only possibly so. It didn’t take us long to realize that the archive was going to be an important resource for us, and that we would definitely have to return on Tuesday, and maybe even on the Wednesday as well. Apart from various correspondence about the Puffin Hobbit, including the fallout from Penguin ‘correcting’ Tolkien’s preferred spelling of dwarves to dwarfs, elvish to elfish, and so forth, we saw files on several Puffin editions including C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Mary Norton’s ‘Borrowers’ books, and Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tale of Troy.
We left the library just before 5.00 pm, as Special Collections were closing, and made our way back down St Michael’s Hill and Christmas Steps. I was not out of breath going downhill, but my knees protested strongly (for Wayne it was his toes). We returned to the hotel in time to rest a while before having dinner with a cousin of mine and her husband at the hotel bistro. I had seen quite a lot of Jenny as a child, but not again until my father’s funeral; since then, we had kept in touch, and Wayne and I had visited Jenny and Tom during our 2007 trip to England. We were hungry, having had no lunch, so were very pleased when we found that the food lived up to the restaurant’s lofty reputation. Wayne and I both chose the same items from the menu: chicken liver parfait with raisin chutney and toasted brioche to start, followed by pan-fried turbot with samphire and crab velouté, honey-roasted carrots, and green beans (the last two shared by us and our guests). For dessert, we had crême brulée. The four of us took our time over the meal, enjoying also the restaurant’s elegant décor, and time passed quickly as we talked.
The next day after breakfast (cereal, fruit, and breads from the buffet), we returned to the Penguin Books Archive, again ascending Christmas Steps and St Michael’s Hill, and stayed until late afternoon. By that time, we had finished going through all of the files, taking only a short break at midday for a shared sandwich and a bottle of water in the library’s modest café.
I suggested to Wayne that rather than return directly to our hotel by the way we came, we should try a longer but less demanding route along streets and roads that are not quite as steep. We had already decided that we would delay our departure to London on Wednesday to allow us some time to look around Bristol as tourists, and a route back to the hotel via Park Street would allow us to spy out an area we thought to revisit at more leisure the next morning. It was as well that we did so. I have many fond memories of George’s, the multi-storeyed bookshop once situated at the top of Park Street: of the basement children’s section where in my youth I bought many books, including several works by Violet Needham; of its later situation on a higher floor where, more recently, Wayne and I found many things to interest us; and of the fiction department on the ground floor where in 1956 I bought at least one of the volumes of my earliest set of The Lord of the Rings with carefully hoarded pocket money – I can still more or less visualize the exact shelf. (I bought at least one volume of that work at Harold Hockey’s, another bookshop, smaller but nearer to my home; I am not sure which shop was the source of the other volume.) I also recall the secondhand and rare books department of George’s entered from the side, later moved to separate premises further down Park Street. The last time I was in Bristol, George’s had been taken over by Blackwell’s but was still impressive. Now we found that the bulk of the former premises had been sold and turned into a Jamie Oliver restaurant, leaving only a very small area as a minimal bookshop under the Blackwell’s name. We spent less than five minutes looking around. The secondhand shop had also disappeared, as had a shop devoted to works of fantasy and science fiction and the Waterstone’s which had faced College Green at the bottom of Park Street. There was obviously no need for us to return the next day!
We had been so impressed by our meal the previous evening that we decided to eat at the hotel again on Tuesday. We wanted more of the chicken liver parfait starter, but also to try something new, so we ordered one parfait and a dressed crab on toast starter and shared them. We both had belly of pork with garlic mash and gravy, and again shared a side of honey-roasted carrots. We skipped dessert.
On Wednesday, uncertain whether we would get any lunch, we had a cooked breakfast, again choosing scrambled eggs and smoked salmon. The eggs were not quite as good as at Quod, but the smoked salmon was heaped remarkably high. Despite the disappointment of Park Street, we decided to spend a few hours in Bristol and catch a train which would allow us to reach our London hotel soon after its official checking-in time. Wayne had found mentioned online a secondhand bookshop in St Nicholas Market, about ten minutes’ walk from the Hotel du Vin, and also the site to which Waterstone’s had moved (and a very good Waterstone’s it is). The secondhand shop, amusingly called Beware of the Leopard, was stuffed with books, including piles on the floor, but had an interesting stock. Unfortunately, most of what interested us we already had, but Wayne managed to find a copy in dust-jacket of Oliver Simon’s 1945 Introduction to Typography.
We then took a taxi to Temple Meads station, where we again had to negotiate lifts and subway but, as the train was starting from Bristol, we had no problem finding space for our bags. Wayne walked along the train to the buffet car and bought us a snack of biscuits and crisps. At Paddington Station in London we had quite a walk to the taxi rank, since much of the surrounding area is undergoing major renovation. We then had a swift journey across London and soon arrived at the five-star Chancery Court Hotel in High Holborn, close to Sir John Soane’s Museum where I used to work. Partly because we were enrolled in a hotel preferred-traveller scheme and partly because we had booked a longer stay than most guests (eight nights), we were upgraded and given a recently renovated, very stylish room on the fifth floor at the back, which actually overlooked the Soane on the back and gave us a view over south London.
We felt like having an early meal, and decided that this was the evening we would splurge on one at the first-class Pearl Restaurant located in our hotel. Although we decided to skip starters, we were treated to a few chef-supplied samples nonetheless, each of them only a mouthful, including chicken liver paté, and nettle soup with fromage frais. We noticed other guest getting the same treatment. For our main course, we both chose lamb Wellington (that is, served en croute) with roast Jersey Royal potatoes, grilled lettuce, peas, and broad beans. For dessert, I chose white chocolate and passion fruit mousse, while Wayne had caramel pannacotta with apple compote; but before these dishes arrived, once more we were treated by the chef each to a small parfait, no less elegantly served than the rest of our meal.
Images, top to bottom: Christmas Steps photo by Immanuel Giel, public domain; the Puffin Books Hobbit (1961); part of our bedroom at the Chancery Court Hotel.