I’m pretty sure Number Thirty Eight is run by ghosts. We certainly barely saw a living soul there. From the moment we arrived, lurching through a fitful snowstorm to find the place bolted, barricaded and guarded by a lone fellow guest puffing on a cigarette, to the moment our time was up, we pretty much had the place to ourselves.
Sure, somebody emerged from a dark panelled door on the ground floor to pass us a key, and someone else materialised two days later to settle the minibar, but on the whole it was a house of whispers, faint creaks, and pervasive silence. This atmosphere of isolation in the centre of a big city was partly down to the time of year (halfway through January) and partly the intentional design of the hotel, which eschews an official reception, bar and other noisy communal trappings in favour of peace and privacy and a quite lounge/breakfast-room hybrid where the conversational volume is turned to murmur. It was like The Shining without the spooky twins or personality disorders.
Which was alright by Mrs Smith and me. As we explored the West Loft Suite, collapsing onto the sprawling sleigh bed and running a scalding bath in the copper-toned tub for two, we opened the bottle of room service red and toasted anonymity. Our quarters spanned one half of the top of the house, boasting huge sash windows with full length blinds that rose to reveal the snow-covered grassy expanse of the Downs on one side and Clifton’s hodge-podge multi-coloured houses on the other. Further deep blue panels enclosed a toilet and a separate shower with requisite dinner plate head, stuffed with Ren toiletries. Bedside tables were packing cases and a huge vintage chest sat at the foot of the bed. A Union Jack digital radio had been tuned to Jazz FM by a spectre prior to our arrival.
We were here with several aims: to splice that most monochrome of months in two, to escape the tedious talk of post-Christmas dryathalons surrounding us on social media, and to revisit the city I grew up in over a decade ago. I promised I’d go easy on the nostalgia. That was easier said than done. As with any town in which you spend your formative years, the streets were stamped with reminiscences and full of my own personal ghosts from the depths of my memory. Even a short walk to the alma mater, an imposing 16th-century pile that ‘looks like Hogwarts’ according to Mrs Smith, brought back visions of furtive first cigarettes, fumbled encounters in bushes, scrapes with the law and all those other teenage hoops laid before an impressionable teen.
Number Thirty Eight is perfectly positioned for exploring the best of Bristol in a morning. Twenty casual minutes on foot took us past Bristol Zoo (impressive as they go, but covered in exhaustible depth in my youth) to Brunel’s spectacular Clifton Suspension Bridge, built a century and a half ago and long-favoured as a spot to bid a permanent farewell to the world. A swift about turn led us away from sudden death to Clifton Village, home to the city’s most exclusive residences and best boutiques, for coffees and all manner of decadent delicacies at the Mall Deli.
As the tome on local history in our room pointed out with a typically local mix of respect and cynicism, Bristol is the victim of thousands of years of, shall we say, creative town planning, bombing raids and bureaucratic buggering about, and as a result has grown higgledy-piggledy on a hilly, unsuitable patch of Britain into a charming mess of alleyways, dead ends and incongruous architectural clashes. While nearby Bath is a compact, convenient, tourist-friendly postcard of a town, Bristol is a living, breathing fallible mess of a place and all the more charming for it.
The descent from Blackboy Hill to Whiteladies Road (named after pubs, not long-forgotten slave trading or racial profiling, apparently) and on to Park Street is a must. Britain’s flatlining high streets are nowhere to be seen here although the likes of HMV and Woolworths never really muscled in on it in the first place. Instead family businesses thrive after decades and new contenders – from the massively popular Cowshed steakhouse and butcher’s shop to the forthcoming River Cottage – are constantly upgrading Bristol’s status as a city worth your attention. Park Street, meanwhile, is a must for vintage threads and quirky accessories and of course Banksy’s famous Naked Man stencil.
That evening, after two obscenely large steaks and a couple of pints of local Bounders cider at the nearby Townhouse restaurant we retired to our room at the top of the house at top of the hill. Mrs Smith thought we might hear some of the infamous local, ahem ‘doggers’ on the Downs, but middle-aged grunts were thankfully absent from the bushes and our sleigh bed whisked us off into a blissful slumber.
The following morning, woken by the sun peering over the city’s ramshackle skyline and feasting on cake-like homemade bread and butter and a spectacular full English spirited to our table, it struck me that Bristol’s grown up as much as me over the last 10 years. Over two wet January days the city pulsed with life as locals, shoppers, tourists, musicians, artists, rowers and sailors flowed through its roads and river. Change has certainly marched through – the sparkly Cabot Circus shopping centre has supplanted the shabby Galleries mall where we used to bunk off school and try to (unsuccessfully) charm local girls – but is hasn’t trampled over the city’s soul. It’s a place to be proud of, and Number Thirty Eight is the perfect address from which to explore.