Bristol is the home of a fierce cross-city rivalry between two sides formed in the Victorian era. Despite this longevity, deep in rugby country, these clubs have never won major silverware as far as football is concerned – with the solitary exception of the Welsh Cup.
Of the two, Bristol Rovers are the oldest, Bristol City the most successful, reflected in their regular higher league status than The Pirates. When City, The Robins, were reclaiming their place back in the Championship by winning League One in 2015, Rovers were scrambling through an ignominious season in the non-league Conference, only regaining full league status on penalties.
City, Welsh Cup winners in 1934, are the only one of the two to have attained top-flight status and reach an FA Cup final. But Rovers, forced to play a 40-minute drive away in Bath for ten years, are still able to attract a Conference record 47,000 crowd for a play-off final at Wembley. And now, with Jordanian billionaires the Al-Qadi family as majority shareholders, The Pirates have plans for a new stadium in Frenchay.
The move would keep Rovers in its heartland of north Bristol, site of the club’s revered, long-term home of Eastville. Set alongside a gasworks whose smells drifted over the ground, Eastville hosted Rovers for 90 years until 1986, home fans gathered at the legendary Tote End. Also staging greyhound racing and speedway, Eastville gave rise to the club’s alternative nickname of The Gas, first used derogatively by City fans.
While Rovers have their fan base in north and east Bristol, City reside across the River Avon, on the south side of town. In fact, the club was founded as Bristol South End in 1894, merging with nearby Bedminster FC in 1900 when the new club moved into City’s current home of Ashton Gate.
Today based at the former home of Bristol Rugby – who moved to Ashton Gate in 2014 – Rovers began life as the Black Arabs, an attempt to kick-start a local football team in a morass of rugby clubs. One such was The Arabs, hence the Purdown-based football club founded in 1883.
Unable to arrange local fixtures, the Black Arabs became Eastville Rovers, then Bristol Rovers in 1899. First competing in the Gloucestershire Cup – soon set aside for an annual Rovers-City clash alone – The Pirates worked their way up from the Southern League to take up near permanent status in the Third Division for decades.
A rare spell in the Second coincided with City’s last stint in the top flight, in the late 1970s. With hooliganism at its height, any meeting of the two sparked trouble. Months after The Pirates beat The Robins 3-0 in a winner-takes-all promotion clash in May 1990, City fans snuck into Rovers’ then home of Twerton Park to set fire to the main stand.
Even though their last league fixture came in 2001, and the Gloucestershire Cup was stopped in 1996, a meaningless cup fixture in 2013 led to several injuries and arrests.
While Rovers’ Memorial Stadium is looking its age, modernisation of Ashton Gate was completed before the 2016-17 season. A 27,000-capacity all-seater, City’s stadium has also staged two England under-21 internationals.
Previous speculation about Ashton Gate and long-term doubt over Rovers’ future home has long prompted critical debate. Why can the city made famous by Isambard Kingdom Brunel not build anything?
But now with wherewithal to match the will, a deserving solid fan base, and two promotions in as many seasons, Rovers must surely be looking at a brighter future than the dismal days of the 1980s.
Now a major budget hub, Bristol Airport is 13km (8 miles) south-west of town. The Bristol Flyer bus (£7 single/£11 return) runs every 10-15min to stop 8/9 at Bristol Temple Meads train station (journey time 20min), Bristol bus station and the city centre. The bus station is tucked away up a steep slope close to the city centre.
Bristol has two train stations: Temple Meads and Bristol Parkway. Temple Meads is closer to town and Bristol City, Parkway closer to Bristol Rovers.
There are regular trains from London Paddington and Birmingham New Street (for each, 1hr 30-40min journey time, online singles from £25-£30). Some trains from Manchester Piccadilly require a change at Birmingham, direct service 3hrs.
Several local bus companies serve Bristol. Travelwest has details of routes and tickets, including the cross-company £4.50 BristolRider day pass.
All the major international chains are now in town. Two are halfway between Temple Meads station and Ashton Gate. Mercure Bristol Holland House is a four-star spa hotel with gym and conference facilities – sister hotel the Mercure Brigstow overlooks the waterfront close to the bar quarter in town.
Close to Mercure Holland House, the DoubleTree by Hilton is another upscale chain with a restaurant to match.
Round the corner, the ibis is a convenient favourite on room-booking sites.
Also close to the bar quarter and waterfront, the Premier Inn is handy and affordable.
Right in the city centre, the Marriott Royal is arguably the most prestigious lodging in town, with a pool, spa, cocktail bar and upscale restaurant. Partner hotel the Marriott City Centre offers more than its grey façade would suggest, with a pool and gym.
Over the water from the Royal, the Radisson Blu has a more contemporary, urban feel – plus great views of the city from its waterfront setting.
For character, the centrally located Grand has the stately appearance of a 150-year-old hotel, with a pool, bar and restaurant.
Finally, to stay way up in the north of town close to Bristol Rovers, newly refurbished gastropub The Wellington contains eight boutique-style bedrooms – though you feel demand from sports events may have dropped since Bristol Rugby moved over to Ashton Gate.
Pubs and bars line the Waterfront behind Bristol Bridge and nearby streets around St Nicholas market. These include the elegantly traditional Old Fish Market, with quality food and TV sport, homely Seamus O’Donnell’s and The Crown round the corner, with TV football and 20,000 tunes on the jukebox.
Just behind, now a gastro spot with craft beers and gins, the Famous Royal Navy Volunteer has gone gastro (with craft beers and gins), but isn’t so posh that it can’t broadcast matches. Party-centric Molloy’s has DJs at weekends.
The other side of the market on Corn Street, Pranj’s Bar is a prominent sport-gawping spot, with daytime meal deals during the week.
In the same vicinity but slightly closer to the city centre, the Drawbridge is a friendly local where TV sport counts. More contemporary, The Greenhouse attracts a lively clientele with its post-work twofer deals and live-game coverage.
Near Bristol bus station, the White Hart is an old-school watering hole with seats outside in summer and TV sport inside all year round. Sunday roasts are a speciality.
Nearby, the Bay Horse is another sport-centric spot with a range of rarer ales.
Finally, tucked in near Temple Meads station, The Knights Templar is a convenient Wetherspoons with all the usual drinks and meal deals.