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Space Cadet: On Bristol’s Hidden Zen Zones

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Mary finds places in Bristol to hide and relax.

I thought I could share my personal experience of how I found space to unwind during exam season through cafés, bikes and boats.

How do you get a student to relax in the middle of exams?

Sounds like the beginning to a bad joke, right?

Exam season is like Open Season where every teenager in the land is fair game to be shot at by angry farmers disguised as teachers. Where procrastination is in abundance and stress is served by the bucketful, one deadline at a time…

So, I thought I could share my personal experience of how I found space to unwind during exam season through cafés, bikes and boats.

I found as tension built in the months leading to my exams and even the most revision-savvy friends cracked, I wondered how long it had been since I’d caught up over a coffee with one of my best friends. I had neglected what was once nothing short of a weekly habit, meeting with my mate on Stokes Croft for a coffee.

These weekly catch ups meant far more than a chit chat with a coffee in my hands, they meant I was properly, truly happy. Stokes Croft is a petri dish of culture and art where we could easily talk for hours. It was a shoulder-dropping-stress-busting release from a braindead week of revision and freak outs.

Over exam season Café Kino, akin to a calm doctor’s office, turned into a suitably medicating safe space. As a café where I have often had revelations over feminism, culture, people, society, it made sense to use this space to distract myself from the overbearing anxiety of that one subject whatever it was, that I just didn’t have the energy to face.

The biggest piece of my soul I sold to exams was the freedom to go cycling.

It provided a space for me to think, when there were thoughts I didn’t want to be left alone with. These cafés provide a seat opposite me for a friend to settle in as I indulged in the conversation environment we’d created. Without that space, my head would become foggy and hungover with stale arguments. If you struggle to relax at home for any, reason, a café can be a great way to spend your time being passively social. You’re out of your room, you can watch the world go by, and you can create a space where you can relax and unwind.

The biggest piece of my soul I sold to exams was the freedom to go cycling.

The benefits of having a bike in Bristol are endless. Not only is it great exercise, but it can help clear your head in a matter of minutes. For me, it’s a snail shell on my back that takes with it a unique headspace that whispers in my ear loudly, ‘you can cycle anywhere’.

Sure, usually I cycle to ASDA and back, which, though exciting in its own way, hardly makes me John Cabot. But it’s those days where I feel hurt, and I need to get out of the house, that I need that bike. I remember one night my dad and me had a huge fight over nothing. I ran to my room, dragging my bike by the handle bars and kicking doors open with my spare foot just to get out.

It was only as I pushed a final pedal over the top of Park Street, my face frozen with cold and my body damp from rain, that I was able to calm down and feel less like shouting with my poor dad about who used his toothbrush. On nights like that I cycle to face up to how I feel. Unlike in cosy cafés, which safety blanket my worries with layers of tea, cycling forces me to look how I feel dead in the eye and face it. My bike gives me the space I need in order to merrily embrace feeling crap. Cycling keeps me sane. Without the space my bike gives me, I would be a far angrier version of myself.

I found as my exams piled up over June, I had more stress and less time to spare.

The final place that helped me during exams is the feature of Bristol I mention most to European pals and American mates. It is, of course, the docks. There is no sight more summoning, more sunny, more scenic than the sight of hundreds of cider-pumped Bristolians lining the waterside like a flock of hipster pigeons. As someone who has lived in Bristol since day one and is taller than necessary, it was inevitable that I join a rowing club, which I did about two-and-a-half years ago. I row in the old gig boats which are essentially the Nokia bricks of the boat world. They are heavy, wooden, worn boats and I love them.

There is a unique feeling when I go rowing that is sort of like going to visit your grandparents. You aren’t hyped about it before you go, you start to make excuses not to go, but you know you’ll feel bad if you don’t show up, and nine times out of ten you’re glad you went and have more fun than you expected.

But for me, changing my environment and exercising helped.

I found as my exams piled up over June, I had more stress and less time to spare. This lead to me abandoning the beautiful sunny rowing seshes in exchange for isolated, long revision days. I wasn’t happy with this. It really taught me how dangerous not having a ‘space’ could be as my mental health deteriorated along with my social life, exercise and diet. The black hole of exams was seeping into every little space, leaving me suffocated. What exams taught me was simple. Mitochondria and auxins are not very important to know about, and space keeps me sane.

So how do you find a space to relax in exams? I don’t know.

But for me, changing my environment and exercising helped.

These are things anyone can apply to their routine.

What I do know is that without a space of your own, you can quickly lose who you are, so if you find a healthy space you should grab it with both hands, because you probably need it more than you think.

If you’ve got any more questions about mental health, you can find out more from Off The Record on The Rife Guide