Is anyone afraid of the dark? Bristol diaries

"Is anyone afraid of the dark?" It was the last thing we heard before being plunged into blackness. The experience lasted for all of 5 seconds, but it was long enough for the small group of us, blinking together under Temple Meads Station, to gain some understanding of the working conditions of those who forged the tunnels over 100 years before.

© Nicola Graham - Visitors walking down a tunnel

This is not the beginning of a horror film, rather the final part of a 50 minute tour that I was fortunate enough to gain a place on; just one highlight of the Bristol Open Doors programme. Expertly guided by the Station Managers Glyn Beck and Nikki Wilcox, it whisks you through the station, hanging its history on visual architectural features: the beautifully wooden-panelled offices and restaurant on Platform 1, designed in the 1830s by Brunel, still in use and astonishingly well-preserved; the stump of what was once the iron bridge used by passengers to traverse the track, designed in 1870s by Digby Wyatt; the underpass and further platforms, part of Culverhouse’s 1930s plans for the station’s expansion and in use today.

And then, there are the tunnels: the remains of the original 1830s tracks, nestled in a graveyard of broken glass and vintage lamps and illuminated only by the multiple pinpricks of light from our torches; a V.I.P. air raid shelter reserved for royalty and important members of the public and complete with facilities; one heavy iron ‘blast door’ abandoned in the curve of a tunnel (…what happened to the other one?); iron tracks built for ferrying produce by cart; an abandoned dumb waiter; the remains of 1920s beer cans in the expansive cellars and countless unexplained black corners. It is a coveted tour and it does not disappoint. For all those who wish to experience it, book early!

Beyond the Platform

The Bristol experience stretches beyond the platform: with vintage buses, steam trains, ferry rides and an eclectic mix of buildings open to view, including the Cameron (hot air) Balloon Factory, it is a truly exciting and varied programme.

After a full day on the Saturday of Heritage Open Days, I met with stalwart organiser Penny Mellor and her cohort to reflect on Bristol Open Doors 2011.

For a visitor, Bristol Open Doors is a little like a treasure hunt, with the aim of taking in as many new sites and stories as is physically possible! What is a Bristol Open Doors Day like for you as an Organiser? Tell us about your day today?

Shatteringly exhausting and very pleasurable.

1. Woke up and angsted about the louring grey clouds and the less than favourable weather a.m. forecast.
2. Did an interview with the local BBC by phone at 8:20 – a bit early morning for me, but it was obviously worthwhile as a stranger at one of the venues later in the day said ‘didn’t I hear you on the radio this morning?’
3. Went into the Centre to put up the remaining bus-stop signs for the ‘DOD Free Bus’ that I feared (probably unnecessarily) might be vandalised if put up the day before.
4. Called in at the Tourist Information Centre to check they were all up to date with info.
5. Checked that two of the central churches - normally closed so I had been unable to visit in the previous week - still had sufficient leaflets.
6. Checked that the ‘Free DOD bus’ that goes out eventually to the Roman Villa, turned up OK at 1000 – it has in the past proved a problem! - and chatted to those waiting - briefed the bus driver.
7. Checked that the vintage Bristol buses provided by a volunteer group of enthusiasts were all ready, waiting and being boarded. Told the Tourist Information Centre that all was happening OK.
8. Repeated 6. with the second bus.
9. Went to the first of the ‘new venues’ to check they were alright – they were doing magnificently – helpful knowledgeable guides and people streaming in.
10. Started the rounds of as many venues as I could manage before time ran out – 30 out of 61 this year. A couple of helpers were simultaneously going round to the remainder and between us most places were visited. All the ‘new venues’ were coping fine, even with the extra visitors that a new one gets. Topped up leaflets where necessary. All was going smoothly and everyone, visitors and visited, were very happy. The sun even came out!
11. Press interview with the Evening Post on my mobile at 1600 “How had it all gone?” Apparently, I said “it was rather a slow start because of the weather but the crowds flocked to the venues as the day wore on” – I don’t remember, it’s a blur!
12. Home to a long hot bath.
13. 1800 Met up with the other helpers, plus you for a relaxed drink, exchange of how it had gone, Heritage Open Days, life in Bristol, the rest of the UK….

Tell us a little bit about the history of Bristol Open Doors. How long has it been running and how did it come into being?

The first Bristol buildings opened their doors in 1994. One of the initiators had been involved with Glasgow City of Culture (hence the Scottish version of the name - Bristol Doors Open Day) and in 1993 suggested that we tried it out here in Bristol. That first year, we had 28 buildings ‘open’. We were very nervous that no-one would come, but in the event Bristolians turned out in their thousands. Now each year there are around 60 venues – about as many as I can manage! - and over the past 18 years there have been over 170 buildings participating.

What does it take to put the Bristol programme together each year and who is involved?

I am the so-called organiser - and have been involved since the beginning. Obviously, each of those c.60 venues organise themselves in their own particular way depending on their size etc. In addition DOD has for the past few years had pro bono PR, which is invaluable in this media age, plus help from a host of other organisations. I start my organisation in January, corresponding with previous venues, trying to persuade new ones to participate, raising sponsorship and eliciting pro bono help (both key!!) etc. Then venue checklists, leaflet and website design, distribution of the 35,000 leaflets printed, distribution of banners, talking with the media, dealing with hiccups... Thankfully all ‘my venues’ are on e-mail these days which makes it all very much easier to keep in close touch.

For you, what is the highlight of running the event?

I love the pleasure it gives everyone - both those who are going round, who express delight at the chance to see Bristol’s hidden treasures; and those ‘opening’ their buildings who derive great pleasure at having the marvellous places in which they work or live appreciated. Going round on the Day I see smiles on every face. And its universal appeal- some years back I was pressurised into doing a survey of postcode of visitors. I found I had every single postcode in Bristol represented, as well as a host of others from further afield!

What part do you think Bristol Open Doors plays in celebrating Bristol’s heritage and varied cultural scene?

A large part. This year, for instance, we had venues ranging from the ruins of a 3rd century Roman villa and a recently restored Priory of 1129, to two buildings only opened in 2011. We had the HQs of key Bristol employers – Aardman, Cameron Balloons and the Environment Agency; and its cultural institutions - University buildings, churches, museums, art galleries. We had the Lord Mayor’s grand Mansion House and a charitable night shelter for Bristol’s rough sleepers.

And next year? Anything new in the pipeline?

Every year, we have a handful of ‘new venues’. Every year I panic, how can there possibly be anywhere else undiscovered, and every year new ones are found. As soon as I have put this year to bed I will start cajoling those I’d like to have and waiting for suggestions!

On the Train Home

I leave Bristol with a real sense of privilege; despite experiencing a microcosm of the many places which open to view, I feel that in my short time there I have got closer to the city. My thoughts turn to the rest of the UK: where shall I go for Heritage Open Days next year?