Has Bristol, The U.K.’s Most Exciting City, Finally Got The Festival It Deserves?

More than London at the moment, Bristol seems to encapsulate the contradictions, energy and frustrations of the British nation. This city, which straddles the River Avon, is small (the population was just under 500,000 in 2019) but it punches well above its weight when it comes to politics and art. When a group of activists threw the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol harbour in June 2020, it focussed attention on Britain’s historic role in the slave trade. (Colston, who had endowed schools, almshouses and hospitals in Bristol had, in the 17th century, been instrumental in the transportation of at least 84,000 enslaved people during his involvement with the Royal African Company). Nowhere in Britain voted more fervently to remain in Europe (62 per cent versus 38 per cent voting to leave).

The street artist Banksy produced his earliest works in Bristol in the mid 1990s. (The artist also produced t-shirts as a way of raising money to pay legal fees for the four people accused of vandalizing Colston’s statue.) Through works that are still on display, the artist still has a powerful connection with the city. These include the early Mild Mild West at Stokes Croft. Bridge Farm Primary School has Girl with a Stick, which appeared after the school named a building after the artist and there is also Girl with A Pierced Ear Drum. Banksy’s The Grim Reaper is now in Bristol’s M-Shed museum, along with the defaced statue of Edward Colston.

Bristol’s food scene is extremely strong, with restaurants like Bulrush and the 14-cover Box-E, housed in a shipping container but also street food at Harbourside Quay and Temple Quay Market; a reminder that Bristol’s harbor was utterly instrumental to the city’s fortune.

Music too; in the 1990s, Bristol pioneered the street-art adjacent trip hop scene as well as producing Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky. Bristol Beacon, one of the city’s oldest venues, which first opened in 1867, reopens this November. It used to be called Colston Hall. And there is a strong student population which keeps Bristol’s energy and activism levels high and fills clubs such as Motion and Lakota.

However, Bristol hasn’t had a festival that had the same mix of energy. However, on September 1 and 2, Forwards returns to Bristol Downs, a green space just outside the city, for the second time. Forwards aims to reinvent the metropolitan festival. Music is of course important; there are performances from Arlo Parks, Erykah Badu, Primal Scream, Aphex Twin and Bonobo plus Goldie as a special guest. But so is talk. Speakers and conversations will include historian David Olusoga, artist Jeremy Deller and Sports Banger as well as housing activist Vicky Spratt. It is a partnership between Team Love and AEG Presents.

Sustainability is the third prong to Forwards. Catering is being provided by Team Canteen which works towards tackling food insecurity in the Bristol area. There is no parking; only cyclists, people coming on foot and those on public transport, Voi e-bikes and scooters or shuttle buses. Tickets cost £40 a day.

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