Elemental elegance, a walk in Clifton

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What’s your favourite cityscape of these islands? And what time of year is it best viewed?

Perhaps Edinburgh during those quiet off days between Christmas and Hogmanay, days that slink quietly down frozen alleyways into a smirr of broken bottles and stale cigarette smoke. Days where the gaunt tenements of the old town stab remorselessly into the unheeding violet air of dusk at three in the afternoon. When even the Royal Mile seems eerily quiet and stones of the castle have a strange kind of dark phosphorescence about them as the light fades.  Or perhaps Kings Parade, Cambridge, on a damp misty afternoon in early November, as the dusk creeps in, unheeded by students on ancient bicycles?

However, for sheer charm and elegance, I would nominate Clifton, the old Georgian quarter of Bristol – in the spring. Here there is that astonishing Georgian elegance combined with a certain grittiness. The youthful, vivacity of Bristol proper is never far away, and this combined with the grandeur and scale of the Gorge combine to make this a place where small scale vistas of vernacular charm suddenly open out into the epic and the elemental.

Get up early, on clear day in May and saunter down a street terraced with palatial houses of grey-gold stone – their rooms almost twice the height of those in a modern dwelling. Turn off down a sunken alley, with walls of crumbly deep red stone, and gaze at the blade sharp stripes of light on the flags at your feet. Above, perhaps will be a Forsythia or a Mimosa pouring living yellow flames over the wall from some hidden garden.


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The Beech trees are just coming into leaf. The burnished dark pewter of their trunks setting off the fresh coppery coils of the new leaves. Behind and above these great trees, and of the same venerable age, the curving line of one of the great old terraces – so magnificent as to be beyond human endeavour it almost seems. I climb a zigzagging flight of stone steps with black iron balustrades to reach those enchanted levels.  If the terrace is grey gold from the rear, the grandest like the Royal York Terrace, are painted dazzling white at the front. As up stroll along those worn paving stones, in the sharp fresh early morning sun, it seems as if these must be dwellings for gods. One is surprised to see through the huge casement windows old ladies taking tea, or men in shorts popping out the post box.

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