….but we are all fabulous.

Visiting Bristol: aquaria and nostalgia

I love visiting aquaria (I like the word ‘aquaria’ better than the alternative ‘aquariums’) – I’ve been to many – Boston (outdoor tanks and wonderful central tank which you walk round on a spiral walkway), Barcelona (great walk through tunnel), Sydney (highlights: the duck-billed platypus and crocodile), Lisbon (the cutest sea otters), Stockholm (wonderful eel garden) to name a few and yesterday I visited the one in Bristol. Somewhat smaller than the others mentioned, but still well worth a visit, the highlights included the seahorses, stingrays trying to leap out of the water and the unicorn fish.


Pot-bellied Seahorse

I used to go scuba diving and the peaceful, mesmerising experience that provided is echoed in aquaria. There is something fantastical about underwater life and some species such as the seahorse, duck-billed platypus and unicorn fish seem as unlikely and as magical as the fictional unicorn for which the latter is named.

Scuba diving was one of those rare activities (for me at least) which was so utterly absorbing that that the everyday background chatter in one’s head – concerns about work, relationships, oneself – would cease completely for a short while. This was enhanced by the fact that on a dive boat no-one cares about who you are or what you do, but rather they are interested in where you have dived and what you have seen: a perfect antidote to the status conscious and hierarchical academic environment. It didn’t hurt that the majority of diving I did was in hot and sunny locations either…

A lack of focus on status and hierarchy is something that also characterised my twenties. I took a rather circuitous route to academia, via some failed A levels, dropping out of my first degree and some time working in a bingo hall, amongst other things. Most of the time between leaving home and successfully committing to university the second time around, was spent very happily in Bristol. I didn’t have much money, I certainly didn’t have a career or clear idea of what I wanted to achieve, and I often had 2/3 jobs on the go – temping, bar work etc., but my memory of that time is that it was a carefree time, full of possibilities. This is not entirely an artefact of nostalgia – Bristol has been regularly identified as one of and often the best place to live in the UK (

What makes Bristol so great? There are many things that are wonderful about it, but a few key ones for me include the climate, the architecture (I still like to visit Clifton Suspension Bridge every time I go there, like a pilgrimage), the green spaces and the waterfront, the fact that Bristol had a green, sustainable ethos before it was fashionable, the resulting alternative lifestyle that is so popular, the sense of optimism and possibility that pervades the city, the fact that the Bristol of today is a collection of distinct districts such as Redland, Southville,  Totterdown, Gloucester Road, each with their own vibe. I could wax lyrical about the city. It is inextricably linked for me with a period of life that is also associated (if one is lucky) with a sense of excitement about the future, which brings me to the nostalgia aspect of this post.


Clifton Suspension Bridge

I miss Bristol – for all the reasons mentioned above and many more besides. But as well as missing the city, I miss aspects of the life I used to live there. I miss the spontaneity that is natural when you have endless options on your doorstep – dozens of great bars, restaurants, walks, parks, galleries, shops, cinemas, cafes, activities. When the weather is likely to be fine in the summer and everywhere is easily accessible by foot, bicycle, car and the excellent public transport system. I miss the carefree feeling I associate with that time, which I am sure is a retrospective illusion and does not capture how I always felt, but I can see now how little concerned I was by rules, hierarchies and politics. I also miss the ‘me’ that Bristol would bring forth, a bit more bohemian and informal than I am every day.

I don’t really want to go back in time, many aspects were less than ideal and I am very happy with my career, my partner, my friends and myself today, but I would like to try and recapture some of that sense of joie de vivre, that sense that something exciting is just around the corner. I have been so focused for the past couple of years on getting promoted and planning the next stage of my career that I have forgotten to play enough, to be spontaneous and have fun. It’s impossible to recreate the environment of a city like Bristol but I need to find a way to re-balance my life a bit – to access the less formal part of me and allow her to come back to life.


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