Echoes of Bristol Past #takeover

I was born in Bristol twenty-one years ago. Not that long ago in the general scheme of things, but it feels longer every day. My parents cruelly exposed me to the arts from a young age, terrible people that they are. The audacity of them to take me to the Tobacco Factory to see play after play, the Watershed for foreign films that went way over my tiny head, Arnolfini for incomprehensible art installations that, to be honest, I don't think they understood either. To put a long story short, they made me the annoying tortured artist-type that I am today. I should sue.

Begrudgingly, I did grow to love these establishments over the years. My experience of the city is defined by those places of arts and culture as I'm sure they define the city for many of the terribly unlucky souls like me, born to middle-class ageing hippies.

I'm mostly kidding. I honestly do feel lucky to have been dragged kicking and screaming around these places as a kid, and thankful for the definition of this city that I do have as a result.

Anyway, in recent years, I've looked a little closer at the rose-tinted backdrops to my upbringing. In terms of architecture, there's a certain trend. The Tobacco Factory,  the Arnolfini and Watershed all have an industrial, bare-brick-and-pipes sort of feel to them. I don't know the first thing about architecture so I felt quite pleased with my observations of this pure and total coincidence. I shared my findings with a friend who pointed out that the 'industrial' look that I'd noticed was because they all used to be industrial buildings. “Duh,” they probably added!

When it was first constructed in 1831, the building we now know as the Arnolfini was to be used as a warehouse for an iron foundry, then a tea warehouse in the 1850s. The building only became the Arnolfini in 1975, the institution having previously been based on Clifton, then Queen Square. The Watershed was literally a big shed on the water once. Or two, more specifically, the E and W sheds used for storing goods ready for transport to or from the river. The Tobacco Factory? Well believe it or not it was a tobacco factory, that one's pretty easy. 

The point is, I quite enjoy the fact that the places that define Bristol for me as an arty-farty culturally-plugged-in sort of guy are the places that once defined this city on a wider scale. This was a serious industrial town, an important town, a purveyor of fags, tea and metalwork, apparently. You can hear all about our industrial history if you go to M Shed, itself a repurposed transit shed just like the Watershed. They didn't even bother changing the name with that one though.

I don't really go in for anything resembling spirituality, but poetically speaking I love the idea that echoes of the old industry city that was are resonating through those buildings to this day; as if to give a blessing to Bristol's current big industries of arts and culture. Maybe there's something to it, or maybe I spent too much time in galleries and theatres as a child, I leave that up to you to decide.

This post was written by young guest blogger Jack B Coll
@JackBColl for the #shapemycity #takeover.


  1. This is a good article, Jack. Well done.


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