Things to do in Bristol, England - Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

Bristol, England – It’s Gert Lush!

One of the first things I noticed upon arriving at the house of my friend, Heather Cowper, was the framed reproduction of a postage stamp hung in her family dining room. The illustration features a sea captain at the wheel of a ship passing beneath Bristol’s famous Clifton Suspension Bridge. Steering one-handed, the captain grips an unfurled banner in the other, upon which the words “Gert Lush” are prominently displayed. When I asked the meaning, Heather explained that it’s a term exclusive to Bristolians.

It means very good or lovely,” she said. “As in, ‘That’s really Gert Lush!‘”

Her kids promptly made fun of her accent; Heather is a transplant from London and may not have quite mastered the local dialect, but in every other way she and her family are true Bristolians who are passionate about their city. After two weeks of discovering loads of things to do in Bristol, it was easy to see why.

Poster displays the Bristol motto "Gert Lush," meaning "very good"

Poster displays the Bristol motto “Gert Lush,” meaning “very good”

Though archeologists have found evidence that the area was inhabited 60,000 years ago, the city of Bristol is believed to have been founded around the year 1000. It was known as Brycgstow in those days, an Old English word meaning ‘the place at the bridge.’  With its stone bridge and location at the confluence of the rivers Avon and Frome, by the 12th century it had become an important port city with a strong presence in shipbuilding and manufacturing. Because the River Avon was plagued by high tides that left the banks a muddy, nonnegotiable mess at low tide, the town built a “floating harbour” to remedy the problem, however despite their attempts to hold onto the number one position in shipping the industry gradually migrated to Liverpool where better port facilities were available. Fortunately, over time Bristol has become well established in other industries, including aerospace, defense, information technology, and financial services.

Kids play in the fountains in Millennium Square in downtown Bristol, England

Kids play in the fountains in Millennium Square in downtown Bristol, England

Today the Port of Bristol has been moved seven miles downstream to the mouth of the River Avon. Bristol’s old Harbourside is now home to cafes, bars, museums, boardwalks, and marinas where scores of pleasure boats tie up. Making it even more fun, many of the restaurants in Wapping Wharf, as the area is now known, are housed inside old shipping containers. On hot summer days entire families scamper through fountains at Millennium Square or escape to the cool inside the Bristol Aquarium. Pedestrians stroll or bike over Pero’s Bridge to Queen Square, a favorite venue for festivals, or soak up the sun on beach towels thrown down next to burbling fountains in the center of the business and retail sector.

Llandoger Trow, an historic pub in Bristol, England

Llandoger Trow, an historic pub in Bristol, England

History is everywhere. Bristol has more than 4,300 listed buildings, ranging in architectural style from medieval to modern. One walking tour took me past the Theatre Royal, the oldest continuously operating theater in England; the Llandoger Trow, a pub dating from 1664; and a traditional almshouse, which originally provided housing for those no longer able to support themselves, such as the infirm or seniors.

Bristol is also thought to be the source of the old saying, “cash on the nail,” which means immediate payment in cash. Because of its port, commodities such as wool, fish, grain, wine, and tobacco were routinely traded in the city. Merchants met on the north side of All Saints Church, under a closed-in walk called the Merchant’s Tolzey. Trading was conducted at four waist-high brass pillars topped by small round tables and payment was usually made in nails. Four of these pillars, all dating from the late 16th and early 17th century, still stand in the area around the church and The Exchange on Corn Street in the old financial district.

Bronze trading pillar in front of The Exchange on Corn Street, in Bristol's old financial district, where merchants met to buy goods from arriving ships

Bronze trading pillar in front of The Exchange on Corn Street, in Bristol’s old financial district, where merchants met to buy goods from arriving ships

Even those who fancy shopping won’t be disappointed. The city is rife with opportunities to plunk down some cash at no less than three retail developments in the city center, including Cabot Circus, a $700+ million shopping center that opened in 2008. Though not a shopper myself, I took a stroll through Cabot Circus and was impressed not only by the retailers, but also by the attractive architecture of the center.

Sandwich shop in Clifton, the "upscale" neighborhood of Bristol, uses the town's motto to best advantage

Sandwich shop in Clifton, the “upscale” neighborhood of Bristol, uses the town’s motto to best advantage

The mystery in all this is why Bristol, with all it has to offer, is so little known. As I wandered about town I encountered many exchange students who traditionally come to Bristol to study English, but there was an absolute dearth of tourists. I’m not complaining; it was wonderful to enjoy this vibrant city without having to battle crowds of tourists. But I think the operative word is yet. I suspect that the myriad of things to do in Bristol will appear on the radar of travelers soon enough, because it is definitely Gert Lush!

Heather Cowper and her husband, Guy, during a walk in Priors Wood Nature Reserve, where we enjoyed the annual riotous blooming of bluebells

Heather Cowper and her husband, Guy, during a walk in Priors Wood Nature Reserve, where we enjoyed the annual riotous blooming of bluebells

Heather Cowper and her family very graciously invited me to use their home as a base from which to explore Southwest England. I spent less than two weeks in Bristol and have written about what little I know, but Heather is the preeminent expert on travel and tourism in Bristol. I highly recommend her article on free things to do in Bristol.

22 Comments on “Bristol, England – It’s Gert Lush!

  1. Call me crazy, but I am heading to Bristol for two nights…thanks to your posts! I am heading on a month road trip and thought it would be fun to see little towns in the country plus cities like Bristol to get a taste of everything.

    • Hi Tiana: What a lovely compliment! I’m sure you’ll enjoy Bristol; it’s a really nice city.

  2. Hi Barbara
    Heather kindly directed us to your blog and I just wanted to say ‘thank you’ for taking the time to visit and blog about our fabulous city. We are very lucky to have Heather as a resident fan.

    As experienced, Bristol is a vibrant city which once visited people always love and want to return. Many say it has the best bits of London in one package, others call it the ‘capital of cool’. It has been many things to many people over the years starting from the 17th C when it was the largest port outside of London. As it’s prosperity grew so did its links with the world and today for example there are 34 Bristol’s since named around the world.
    There will only ever be one great Bristol – so thanks again for shining a light on this English gem. If anyone wants any more info they can go to

    We look forward to welcoming you back one day,

    The tourism team at VisitBristol xx

    • Hi Kelly: So nce to hear from you. As you can tell by my articles, I really loved Bristol. It is, indeed, an undiscovered gem and I will certainly come back and will look forward to meeting you at that point.

  3. So glad you enjoyed Bristol as we do and happy we could show it to you through a local’s eyes – there’s plenty more Bristol terms we could teach you.

    • I’m holding you to that, Heather. Next year I want to learn how to talk like a Bristolian 🙂

  4. I really need to go see more of England one of these days. Bristol sounds like an interesting city!

    • Hi Ali: I think you’d love Bristol and I’ll bet Heather would be happy to show you around.

  5. I lived less than 50 kms away for four years and only visited Bristol once. Shame on me…

    • Mark! I can hardly believe that of you, since you’re such a world traveler. You’ll have to go back.I’m sure Heather would love to see you.

  6. Gert lush, Barbara! Is it OK for me to use it even though I’m not a Bristolian? Anyway, really a lovely post. Nice to get some of the Bristol history and read a bit about Heather and her family. Nice you all could get together there.

    • Of course you can use it Cathy! Glad you enjoyed my story.

  7. Ha ha, this is where I grew up. Such an awesome place, with such deep rooted heritage! Only when you leave do you realise how lucky you are to grow up in such a fascinating locale. Can’t wait for my next visit home – thanks for the nostalgia!

    • You’re welcome Jamie. Glad to have provided you with a little nostalgic virtual trip back home.

  8. Great article – thanks! And thanks for the link to ‘free things to do in Bristol’. I just moved to Bristol in May (from London) and absolutely love it here. Best city in England, I reckon! 🙂

    • Hi Haikugirl – I have to agree, Bristol is a terrific city.

  9. Thanks for this. Very helpful article. I’m visiting a friend in Bristol in September. My first time in the UK, and have no clue 😉

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