One day in the late 1970s, when I was around eight, I was walking up University Road with my Dad and younger brother after a trip to the Aladdin’s Cave that was the children’s section of George’s Bookshop (later much smaller and a branch of Blackwells, now a branch of a restaurant chain).
Back then book and record shops seemed to march unstoppably up Park Street – as well as George’s there was Chapter & Verse, SPCK and, most excitingly of all for me, the tightly packed shelves of Forever People, which groaned with sci-fi and fantasy books, fantasy art from the likes of Roger Dean and Rodney Matthews, 2000 AD, DC, Marvel and other comics, magazines like Starburst and Fangoria, Star Wars merchandise, Tolkien calendars, maps and other paraphernalia, Dungeons & Dragons figures, games, dice – an eye-widening selection of wondrous stuff.
In between the bookshops – it seemed – most of the other shops were record stores, leading ever upwards until the Triangle and Revolver. Sadly these days Park Street seems diminished, with homogenous bars and coffee shops filling the spaces where these brimming repositories of culture and counter-culture once stood.
Anyway, I was lucky as at that time, all this was still there. On that day, on the way back to the car we passed the side entrance of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, for some reason my brother and I decided to knock on one of the imposing wooden doors set into the wall on the right. To our surprise a man in a kind of brown lab coat answered. He turned out to be a museum curator and was working in the storerooms.
With a reluctant, but secretly delighted Dad in tow, we were given a brief glimpse behind the scenes at the museum – to nick a phrase from Kate Atkinson. We saw stuffed animals in antique glass cases, stacked Victorian paintings of landscapes and domestic scenes, boxes of fossils and curious small relics of Egyptian and unknown origin. After a few minutes we thanked the man and stepped back out into the student filled streets. Ever since this encounter, and probably from earlier in life, I’ve made an effort to get inside and have a nose at buildings and sites not normally accessible to the public.
London’s Open House and the various equivalent days in other places such as Bristol’s Doors Open Day, give people an official, but limited opportunity to take a peek inside buildings and behind doors normally closed to the public. These events are great, if you can take the queuing – but always a little frustrating. Nothing can beat the frisson of getting in somewhere you wouldn’t normally be by other means – blagging and stumbling I’d suggest, rather than going equipped – but now, if you’re interested in Bristol, there’s another option.
Launched this month, Bristol Opening Doors let’s you “go behind the scenes …revealing the secrets of the city’s best buildings through photographs, films and stories.” Featured buildings include: 29 Queen Square, Bristol Old Vic, Wills Memorial Building, All Saint’s Church, The Exchange, Old Council House, Horizon House, Colston’s Almshouses, Bristol Heart Institute and St James Priory.
The site and app can be found here: http://bristolopeningdoors.org/#
Thanks to the Bristol Culture blog for bringing it to my attention.