BLOG - BRISTOL IN FOCUS: Bitter-sweet reminder of Bristol's chocolate heritage
EARLIER this week I was treated to a sneak preview of the M Shed's new exhibition, the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin "Chocolate!"
It's clear that visitors to the exhibition, which opens on Saturday, are in for a real treat – a nostalgic trip through countless bygone chocolate bar wrappers, boxes, Easter eggs and advertising boards.
For enthusiastic chocolate-lovers like myself, you can't underestimate the role these tempting confections played in our childhoods – and given that they had such an important allure to our young minds (and for that matter, many continue to tempt me from a nearby illuminated snack dispenser even as I write) – it's easy to see how they can have such a nostalgic charm.
Catherine Littlejohns, the M Shed's senior collection officer of public history, told me that Bristol's numerous connections to the chocolate industry made this exhibition an inevitability, which had been planned since the early days of Harbourside museum.
Indeed, three years ago an idea for a museum devoted entirely to chocolate was mooted for an empty building on the other side of the Floating Harbour at Bordeaux Quay – but without the necessary financial backers, the dream of local businessman Laurence Trackman – the dubiously titled "Chocolate Harbour" museum – never came to fruition.
Mr Trackman had planned to open his attraction in the summer of 2011, to coincide with the unveiling of the M Shed, which as he told me back in 2010, he had imagined would be a "Mother-Ship for the tourist industry in Bristol", with his private chocolate museum acting as an ancillary attraction – a sort of heritage parasite. But the £2.5m he needed to make his dream a reality was never found.
Nonetheless, the "mother ship" itself has taken the idea on board, and from tomorrow, visitors to the M Shed will be able to pay an extra £5 for entry into the top floor exhibition – which promises to be both an indulgent nostalgia trip for chocolate lovers, but also an illuminating look at the role Bristol has played over the years for the chocolate industry.
Sadly these days Fry's, Cadbury's, Packer's, Elizabeth Shaw and Carson's are all just names consigned to the history books when it comes to their local ties. Apart from a few hardy survivors, such as Guilbert's and a handful of other artisan chocolatiers, there is very little left of the industry that once dominated the city.
Today's generation of Bristolians will grow up in a world where the names Greenbank and Somerdale will have no connection to great sprawling factories – churning out chocolates at a demonic pace each day.
But a visit to the M Shed between now and May, will give them the chance to see what life was like for the generations of Bristolians who spent their working lives in these factories. The exhibition will include not only the original "clocking on" clock from Somerdale, but also a full-sized recreation of a working factory production line.
To see such things in a museum environment is a chilling reminder of how swiftly our seemingly familiar world is destined to become the stuff of history.
It may be a bitter pill to swallow, especially for those with happy memories of working in the factories – but there will be a special M Shed chocolate for each visitor as they leave to sweeten the poignancy.
Feature writer David Clensy writes The Post's daily Focus features