Thekla: A Floating Cornerstone of Bristol’s Cultural Scene

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Nestled in the heart of Bristol’s Floating Harbour, Thekla stands as a testament to the city’s vibrant and ever-evolving cultural landscape. This iconic vessel, once a rusting trading ship owned by a pair of creative eccentrics, has undergone a remarkable transformation, becoming a cornerstone of Bristol’s artistic community.

In 1984, the ship was sailed up the River Avon and into Bristol Docks, captained by a young Sydney Longfellow, who was just 20 years old at the time. “”The moment of our arrival, as we sailed beneath the Clifton Suspension Bridge, was unlike anything I had ever experienced in my life. It was just just magical,” she recalls.

Under the guidance of American novelist Ki Longfellow-Stanshall and her husband, musician Vivian Stanshall, the ship was transformed into the Old Profanity Showboat, a hub for live music, theatre, and comedy. “Such unlikely people would come and participate in things that I don’t think they ever expected to do, like doing an improv play at lunchtime over a pint,” says Sydney, Ki’s daughter.

The venue’s rich history is a testament to the resilience and creativity of those who have called Thekla home. From the ship’s early days as a coastal trading vessel to its current status as a beloved cultural institution, the stories that have unfolded within its walls are nothing short of extraordinary.

As Thekla celebrates its 40th anniversary, the current general manager, Alex Black, reflects on the venue’s significance. “There’s very few venues around the country – even the world – where you can enjoy live music or a club night on a boat,” he says. “It’s a great achievement for any business to get to a 40-year mark, but in this industry and in this current climate it’s something we’re especially proud of.”

The anniversary celebrations will feature a diverse lineup of artists, from Bristol dance producers and former club night residents to punk-rock duos and space-rockers. This eclectic mix of performers is a testament to Thekla’s enduring appeal, which has drawn in a wide range of talent over the decades.

One of the venue’s most iconic moments came in 2005, when the anonymous Bristol street artist Banksy painted his famous “Grim Reaper” mural on the ship’s hull. This image, which was later removed and preserved in the city’s M-Shed museum, has become a symbol of Thekla’s enduring legacy.

As Thekla continues to evolve, it remains a vital part of Bristol’s cultural fabric. Whether hosting legendary performers or providing a stage for up-and-coming artists, this floating venue has become a beloved institution, a place where creativity, community, and a love of music converge.

The ship’s history is rich and multifaceted, with stories that span decades. In the 1990s, the vessel was even used as a broadcast location for the legendary pirate radio station, Radio Caroline. “We approached the Thekla and they welcomed us with open arms,” recalls Steve Satan, who worked as a DJ and engineer for the station.

Thekla has also played host to a diverse array of musical acts over the years, from Massive Attack and Roni Size to Stormzy and Lewis Capaldi. “My favourite thing about working here is definitely the live music,” says Alex Black. “One of my highlights is The Pretenders playing on Thekla last year as part of Independent Venue Week, which was a huge show unlikely to be repeated.”

Despite the challenges faced by independent music venues in recent years, Thekla has managed to weather the storm, remaining a vibrant and beloved part of Bristol’s cultural landscape. “We’ve seen recently with the closure of Moles in Bath just how easy it is for a well-established gig venue to go under, so it’s not something we take for granted, but it is nice to step back and smell the roses,” says Alex.

As Thekla celebrates its 40th anniversary, it stands as a testament to the enduring power of community, creativity, and a shared love of music. From its humble beginnings as a rusting trading vessel to its current status as a cultural cornerstone, this floating venue has captured the hearts and imaginations of countless Bristolians and visitors alike.

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