Gillian Thomas explores the city which is to host the International Festival of the Sea
The largest armada of ships ever to converge on a British port will moor in Bristol from May 24 to 27 for the city's International Festival of the Sea. Three miles of quayside will be converted into a vast exhibition area where crafts and skills of the sea such as rope-making, rigging and brass-founding will be demonstrated.
Promising to be the UK's biggest event of the Bank Holiday, the Festival marks the start of "Cabot 97" which will commemorate the 500th anniversary of John Cabot's discovery of "New Founde Land".
A replica of his ship, the Matthew, currently being built on the quayside, will be dedicated during the Festival. Next year on the anniversary of Cabot's departure from the city in May, it will set sail for America.
A ferry ride around the Historic Harbour, which continued to be a port until 1975, provides the best introduction to the city. Schools can book an hour's trip with the Bristol Ferry Boat Company for up to 58 pupils for Pounds 45 (tel: 0117 927 3416).
The first question that comes to mind is how Bristol managed to become Britain's second most important port as it was seven miles up the winding Avon from the Bristol Channel. Navigation was further complicated by the tide which has the second biggest rise and fall in the world. The answer is that when pirates ruled the waves, a port hidden away from the open sea had a positive advantage. Moreover, its shipbuilders soon won fame for their skill as every vessel had to be strong enough to withstand being grounded twice a day by the tide - hence the term "ship-shape and Bristol fashion".
The city first began to grow during the 14th century as the wool trade to Ireland developed, particularly through the export of bedding, which made one of its citizens, Thomas Blanket, a household name. Subsequently its Society of Merchant Venturers financed Cabot's voyage.
Soon ships crossing the Atlantic with clothes, tools and other goods for Britain's American colonies were bringing back sugar, tobacco, cotton and timber. By the 17th century, a triangular route had developed, going via Africa to collect slaves. It was a Bristolian, Samuel Plimsoll, who fought to abolish "coffin ships" and led to the Plimsoll Line loading mark being made compulsory in 1876.
Pride of the harbour today, installed for posterity at the quayside after being towed back from the Falklands in 1970, is the "SS Great Britain", the world's first iron-hulled ship. Launched in 1843, she was the work of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who had already built the Clifton suspension bridge (his first major engineering project) and brought the Great Western Railway into the city.
On school visits, which should be pre-booked (tel: 0117 926 0680, admission Pounds 1.50 per child), a 12-minute video explains the history of the ship which was built as a 360-passenger liner for the New York crossing. Walking on the lower deck you can peer down into the massive hull and see a model of how the original steam engines worked. The smart first-class dining area has been recreated (now used as a restaurant) in its original style and the rest of the ship is being restored as fast as funds permit.
Next to the "SS Great Britain", a small exhibition at the Maritime Heritage Centre provides a potted history of ship building in the city. In 1804, work began on a "floating harbour" to prevent ships being marooned by the tide. This involved cutting a two-mile overflow canal and building lock gates across the Avon to keep the water level constant.
It was a huge engineering success - one that is still impressive today - but less so commercially as the cost forced up port dues. Worse, as ships got bigger, they had difficulty in navigating the river's bends. Finally in the 1870s, new docks were built at the mouth of the Avon.
The Bristol Industrial Museum on the quayside covers all forms of locally-made transport through models, photographs and relics including a 125-year-old steam crane which could lift 35 tons - and still works. Its historic vehicles range from a coal-fired steam carriage to the world's first holiday caravan, an elaborate horse-drawn cart made in 1883.
The aircraft section has a full-size nose and flight deck of Concorde, displayed alongside models of 50 planes built at Filton including the huge Brabazon which was abandoned as a commercial failure in 1953.
School visits to the museum, booked through the city's Museum Education Service (tel: 0117 922 3623), are free and can include a visit to the City Docks where the original maintenance workshop for repairs to the gates is still in use.
The city's original railway terminus is now a hands-on science centre, the Exploratory, demonstrating the basic principles of everything from pulleys and structures to light and sound; admission children Pounds 3.25 (tel: 0117 925 2008).
Three hundred species of animals, including many that are endangered in the wild, can be seen at Bristol Zoo Gardens where a new invertebrate house opens at Easter. Imaginative cross-curricular "Experiences" - rain-forest, water, polar, African and mini-beasts - are available for schools. Sessions cost Pounds 7.50 per group, plus Pounds 2.70 admission per child (tel: 0117 970 6176).
The Bristol Region Education Visits Guide, available from Alison Brimble at Bristol Tourism, St Nicholas Street, Bristol BS1 1UE. Tel:0117 925 2748), includes a summary of how the various attractions can be linked to the national curriculum.
It also gives details of the Youth Hostel on Narrow Quay. Tel: 0117 922 1659 and its facilities for schools * The International Festival of the Sea will be open from 10am to 2am; entrance Pounds 20 (Pounds 15 in advance) for one adult and two under-16s, children's groups Pounds 5 a head. Tel: 0117 922 1996