The Sesh forms the cornerstone of every night out, during which lifelong friendships are forged, hearts broken and legends made. And Bristol knows a thing or two about The Sesh. The city’s nightlife culture is enticing and seductive, offering something for everyone, from swampy raves where BPMs accelerate quicker than a Beamer on the autobahn to cutting-edge techno parties where the future of electronic music is mapped out on the dancefloor.
And there are few nights out in central Bristol that don’t involve Turbo Island, a not-so-Temporary Autonomous Zone that is an emblem for the city’s love and cherishment of The Sesh and everything it represents. It’s here, on a wonky square of ground that acts as the gateway to artsy Stokes Croft, where Sesh adventures begin and end and all sorts of impromptu parties and shenanigans happen in between. Think street beers, makeshift tekno soundsystems, burning mattresses and dancing like only this IG account is watching.
You walk past Turbo Island to get to Blue Mountain, Love Inn, Crofters Rights and Lakota, four venues of varying degrees of infamy within 100 metres of each other. The patch of, erm, earth (it definitely used to be grassy) is opposite The Best, a 24-hour corner shop and another Bristol treasure. Turbo Island sits in the middle of this seshy orbit, an improbably perfect location for wonky rendezvous. It’s also surrounded by clear markers of the ever creeping gentrification – a mezcal bar here, an evicted squat there – that has blighted Stokes Croft since the turn of the decade. But this unassuming plot of land serves as a reminder of the old Bristol and individuals who refuse to be bought off.
Before it was destroyed during a Blitz raid in 1940, the patch of land was home to The Shoe Warehouse, a local shoe shop that served the area. As the residents scrambled to rapidly rebuild after World War II, the local council decided to keep the land clear, giving drivers on the busy road through the centre of Bristol a clear view east and west. Now it belongs to an advertising company which keeps a billboard there while the land remains free (it’s technically called a sloap, a piece of land left over after development) and unofficially open for community use, from art workshops for the homeless to regular impromptu raves. And because it’s technically private land, the local council can’t really do much to stop these gatherings.
“I first went to Bristol when I played a gig there in 2010-211ish. Someone showed me the sights and Turbo Island was specifically a big deal. I remember once hearing a gabba remix of Bonnie Tyler’s ‘I Need A Hero’ being blasted out,” says Turbo regular and warehouse manager Andy Stead. It’s important to note that there are absolutely no genre rules, no constraints or expectations on Turbo Island – the clubs down the road are for that. “What I loved most were the bootlegs and mashups that used to get played there, I even heard a Thomas The Tank Engine d’n’b mix. Whoever was privileged enough to DJ there used to smash it with mind-bending remixes.” It’s liberating to be in a space with no rules where anyone who walks past is welcome. During Rave On Avon and St Paul’s Carnival, Turbo Island comes alive. It hosts its own soundsystem, manages to fit over 150 people on it and pelts out the craziest remixes anyone has ever created. A donk remix of Manu Chao’s ‘Bongo Bong’ anyone?
Aside from music, it's also a place where moves are made and hearts could be broken. I spoke to a recent graduate, who wishes not to be named for chirpsing reasons, about their experiences of the space. “It used to just be a thoroughfare to Slix [the chicken shop a few shops down beloved of Eats Everything and this illustrator] for me but I remember waiting for this guy I liked after a night out and it really clicked what went on there. Someone bought a small mini rig and was blaring out psytrance and there were all sorts of people laughing and dancing along. I’m not sure if any of them actually liked the music but they all seemed to get along in a genuine way, something you don’t see during the day.” Under the darkness of night, people from Bristol’s many walks of life were co-existing. No spenny ticket prices or overpriced Peronis needed.
It’s not all k holes, donk and lipsin’ though, especially during the week. Homeless people make up a significant population of those who use Turbo Island, one of the last remaining spaces in Bristol that gives down-and-out people a chance to publicly affirm their humanity. Local electrician Keyon Bayandor, another Turbo Regular, shared their insightful views on the rapidly changing area. “There’s a misunderstanding of the history – it’s not necessarily for ‘everyone’. There’s an informal appropriation and domination of the space. It’s where homeless people can exist for free: eat, drink and snooze. You don’t find that anywhere else.” Down from Turbo Island is the huge Victorian building Carriageworks that is reportedly being redeveloped into flats for £20 million and Hamilton House, a beloved community hub that is to be redeveloped into flats. Even the city’s beloved Lakota is, you guessed it, being turned into flats. But local activists who operate under the name The People’s Republic of Stokes Croft have advocated for keeping community spaces for the community, even trying to buy Turbo Island outright.
It is this energy and free spiritedness that attracts uptight young people who are in desperate need of releasing their stushness and getting loose. It’s all giggles and bumps until the sun rises. And intertwined with this is the bleak vulnerability of those who need Turbo Island. Falling asleep can be dangerous for the homeless, it’s when they are most susceptible to crime and the disdain of the public. But as long as the party is going on Turbo Island, they are somewhat safe, protected by the hubbub of a Big Night Out in Bristol.
Turbo Island welcomes you with open arms. It’s forever cemented in the hearts of the new residents and the OGs, a place where our faith in humanity is restored and the people are put first. It should be a national heritage site but until then, we must protect it with everything we have.
Yewande Adeniran is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter