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The game-changing county of Bristol.

The only thing I knew about Bristol, prior to my visit to Horfield, was that it was famous for devising the globally-recognised “Bristol Stool Chart”. It is, of course, a ranking system which doesn’t specialise in the categorising of foot rests. This ostensibly useful medical aid was produced by researchers at the Bristol Royal Infirmary, which incidentally is a hospital also welcoming commoners both infirm and those with a most robust constitution, as well as those in between.

If one wishes to undertake one’s own anatomical research of one’s innards, one simply needs to study the deposits of the rear end. It is largely advisable we should do this once in a while. Like daily, if not regularly. One “wins” if one ranks between three or four. Anything else is less than desirable. A score of one is indicative of what is best described as system inertia. At the opposing end of the scale, a score of seven indicates one’s regulations shift with unedifying swift velocity. Speed kills. At least that’s what the road signs often caution.

Perhaps what is most astonishing, at least to me, was learning that Bristol is not only a city but also a county. Even more astonishingly it always has been, except for those periods of time that it wasn’t. This occurred twice. The first period of uncountyfication took locals from early settlement, way back in yonder year, from hamlet to village, and then all the way through town status, bestowed in 1155 whereupon King Edward III conferred upon the town the esteemed status of county in 1373, well before it was even declared a city.

The second occasion occurred between 1974 to 1996. This period had, via an Act of Parliament, Bristol subsumed into the more-artificial-than-the-usual-man-made boundary into the county of Avon for reason of, well, politics. “Avon” is still sometimes listed as a county on a company’s drop down address menu: an oversight largely attributed to the phenomenon best described as “system inertia” whereby the technology has yet to recognise the new geo-political landscape.

That Bristol is not in Avon, and that Avon no longer exists, comes as news to many - even to some Bristolians, according to the very-challenging-to-read-online Bristol Post. The eponymous local newspaper is the county’s premier source of news production, or would be if one could navigate through a bombardment of bouncing over-sized advertisements, ever-expanding across, if not outright demolishing, the already screen-dominating imagery that accompanies each article. Allegedly. Intact sentences are particularly difficult to locate. Navigating the website, let alone successfully clicking upon anything that one might deem ‘noteworthy’, is a game within itself. I can only liken it to an activity that is slightly more frustrating than playing Frogger upside down whilst simultaneously trying to worm the cat.

Still, eventually, and after much effort, I didn’t discover exactly how many Bristolians had county lines issues. What I have learnt, from other sources, is that it was established as a county exactly 169 years before it was denoted a city. For the unknowing, a city can only be a city when the reigning monarch decides it is so. Bristol much pleased Henry VIII in 1542. Prior to that it was a town, and we know it was a town because it had a market, which is what separates a town from a village in this land of Eng. The demarcation between the two has nothing to do with population-size. Bewildering.

There are, I have since learnt, no perks to being a city over a town, although town councillors, mayors and other dignitaries of lofty purpose beg to differ. Nonetheless, at every royal commemoration or jubilee, a competition is opened to elect Britain’s Next City. It’s like X-factor but for local civil servants. And in this particular competition King Charles III is Simon Cowell. At least this was the case at the time of writing. Mind you, at the time of writing Britain was on its third Prime Minister in four months. The last two were not actually voted in by the electorate, but rather chosen by the governing party members - a somewhat elite group. Needless to say, any information here may already be obsolete as British governmental leadership seems also to change hands at an unedifying swift velocity.

Tradition would have it that a town must have a diocesan cathedral in order to qualify as a city-elect, and indeed until 1889, this was a fundamental requirement. The investiture of the cathedral-less Birmingham in 1889 still causes carnage in many a modern pub quiz. Following that monument act of apple cart upsetting, the obligation upon wannabe city candidates became more specific until it was finally fossilised in 1907 in a secret agreement between Edward VII and the Home Office. That unratified edict stipulated a town to have a population of 300,000; a record of good local government, and a local ‘metropolitan character’, whatever that might mean. Back to that elusive ‘X’ factor, which I presumed to be largely contrived in the eye of the business beholder. And still, the ruling monarch is not required to pay any heed to this, and so usually doesn’t. Thank God for England’s ruling classes, otherwise, things would be clear, efficient and comprehensible, and we’d possibly all expire from boredom.

In other matters useful for pub quizzes: every county, including Bristol, is headed up by a Lord-Lieutenant. This is an individual chosen by the incumbent monarch, who acts, just like a current monarch, as a powerless, but yet obscurely powerful, unelected leader of the county. Their roles include organising royal visits to the region and nominating individuals for royal honours. That way there’s always friends in high places to be consulting on when baffling decisions are to be made.

Bristol’s Lord-lieutenant is the American, Peaches Golding. She is to be lauded for being the first black woman to hold the position. “Naturally,” women couldn’t do so prior to 1975, when an Act of Parliament saw changes to women’s ability to mobilise themselves socially, economically and politically.

Born in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Bristol’s Lord-lieutenant comes from a long-line of game-changers: her father was arrested for refusing to move to the back of the bus as the then southern-states’ Jim Crow laws obliged him to do. Seven years before Rosa Parks was arrested for the very same act. He had already discovered federal law over-rode the racist mandate when travelling across state lines. He sued and was awarded $2,000 compensation, with which he sensibly bought a car and thus avoided all buses in future, an event that possibly, but probably not, coined the term ‘social mobility’. Future generations might one day call this act environmental terrorism. Still, by taking on a corrupt and prejudicial system, he had the courts agree that his arrest for sitting where he damned well pleased was unconstitutional. I wonder if Charles III would rent out his throne from time to time?

Bristol's other contributions to a more egalitarian society is notable: their university was the first to accept women on an equal footing to men back in 1876. Having also opened in 1876, it really was quite exceptional. Elsewhere, the Bristolian company, Fry’s, arguably made the greatest contribution ever to women’s wellbeing by designing the first mouldings that enabled commercialisation of the chocolate bar. Prior to this, chocolate offerings largely scored at the high or low end of the Bristol Stool Chart, but Fry’s mastered the “winning formula” of producing it at grade three/four. I wish to posit that their contributions have been successfully alleviating menstrual tension since in 1847 just as effectively. I note they are also very helpful for soothing menopausal mania, although further research is still being vigorously undertaken.

Bristol was the birthplace of America’s first recognised woman MD: Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, who emigrated aged 11 to New York in 1847. Later, on a return visit to these fair isles, she met with Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, and inspired her to become Britain’s first fully-trained doctor. Together they were a compelling force whose impact on women’s education, not exclusive to medical progression, cannot be done justice here. Her fighting educational policies which are still riddled with system inertia is an inspiration to all who follow her.

As for other matters that demolish the games of the day. Bristol is actually Britain’s smallest county. Not Rutland nor the Isle White (when the tide is in) because according to my calculations, Bristol is a county of forty square miles. Rutland is a gargantuan three-hundred and eighty-one square miles, and the Isle of White, which I didn’t realise was a county until today, is three-hundred and eighty-ish square miles depending on the hour.

There’s a lot for Bristol to be proud of. Not sure Horfield is the jewel in its crown though.

Next stop: a quick detour and ferry to The Isle of White.

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