Thursday, 17 September 2015

Ship shape and Bristol fashion

"...the tidal range of the river Avon being so high that at low tide boats lie on the mud in the harbour. All must be stowed neatly to avoid damage to ship or cargo..." 

Over the summer we spent a couple of days visiting Bristol. We mainly followed a walk by the Bristol Ramblers group called Brunel’s footsteps.

Starting off on the Clifton Downs, we headed first to one of Bristol's most recognisable landmarks, Brunel's suspension bridge. Hanging over the river Avon across the gorge it is an iconic structure. It took 33 years to complete and Brunel himself died before it was finished.
 

The Clifton Suspension bridge
 
We strolled across it looking down at the water below and explored the new visitors centre. Having enjoyed the views we headed back across the bridge.
 
A zigzag path leads down steeply to the Cumberland basin below. Traffic rushes past, and over, the river and the lock gates which were once filled with ships. These are the waters which were plied by the Bristol pilot cutters. The speed and seaworthiness for which they are so well known and loved was essential in their work on the river and in the challenging waters of the Bristol channel.
 

River Avon

After managing to cross the very busy road we were at the water side by the lock. Crossing up and down the footbridges we were one minute high above the water and roads and at the next back down amongst the exhaust fumes.

Brunel designed many bridges through his life. In Bristol his 'second bridge' is often overlooked. This is a tubular swivel bridge which spanned the water at the newly dug lock which was also his design. This created a locked, floating harbour. Trade to the city was increased as ships no longer needed to lie on the mud at low tide. Older than the more famous suspension bridge, it is currently rusting away quietly underneath the Plimsoll Bridge (yes, Samuel Plimsoll was a Bristolian too). Listed as a grade 2 building, a working group are currently trying to restore and save it.



Looking along the swivel bridge with the suspension bridge behind
 
Carrying on along the water side we walked round the outer basin where ships jostled for space in Bristol's hey day. There has been a harbour in the city for over a thousand years. 

It is a harbor with a long ship building tradition. Of the many famous ships built and launched in Bristol, the SS Great Britain may be one of the best known. She is another of IK Brunel's designs - he was a very busy man. Amongst Bristolians of a certain age, the question 'Where were you when Great Britain was towed back up the river' is likely to set off some interesting reminiscences'. She is a boat with her roots deep in the history of the city. We stood across the river from her, eating ice cream to cool ourselves down as summer had decided to make an appearance that day.
 

The SS Great Britain
 
Bristol is a fascinating place where old and new collide around the harbour.  Over the years as ships got bigger it was the river itself that led to the changes in the docks. The huge tidal range and the bends of the meandering river stopped larger ships from reaching further up. As the demand for more sea freight grew, the docks became unreachable and new ports were built at the mouth of the river where it joins the Severn Estuary. More recently the docks have been undergoing regeneration and are now buzzing with leisure activities, water sports, new housing and new shops and restaurants.
 
We carried on around the harbour, crossing St Augustines Reach over Pero's bridge. This horned lifting bridge was named in honour of a man who was born, lived and died a slave.
 
Looking towards the town centre
 
It is only right to recognize Bristols part in the so-called triangular trade. Bristol became very rich from the trade of the harbour. Merchants prospered through this dark part of the cities history and there are many large houses in the wealthy areas of Clifton built by the proceeds of trafficking in humans. The legacy of this trade is also seen in many road names in the city.  
 
A plaque by the harbour acknowledging Bristol's past 
 
 
The industrial heritage of the docks
 
There is also lots of celebration of the old working life of the docks. M Shed is a museum built in one of the old warehouses on the waterside and has loads of information about Bristol and interactive stuff which kept the whole crew amused for long time on our second day in the city. Outside there are working boats, steam trains and cranes. We do have a slight vested interest in the museum as one of our support group and occasional rope-handler is a volunteer skipper, guard and crane person.
 

 



Alongside the quay lies a replica of The Matthew which we took the chance to stop and look at. We even got to scramble down the ladder into the living quarters. The explorer Giovanni Caboto is better known to Bristolians as John Cabot. He sailed from Bristol in 1497 on his ship the Matthew hoping to find Asia. Instead he found the Americas, naming the bit he landed on Newfoundland. His next expedition was not so successful as he set sail in 1498 and was never heard of again.
 
 

The deckhands exploring a replica of the Matthew


As we carried on around the water we were firmly in familiar territory. There is a marina here with a large number of house boats and close to this is the spot where Tarquilla was put back together and launched after being brought by lorry in two halves from the garden she was built in.
 

There are several yards still working including the Underfall yard. I am told that it has a Bristol Patent slipway which was built in 1890 and is one of only a few of that age still working in the country. It is also where the fire boat Pyronaut was hauled out to start her journey to London to take part in the queens jubilee pageant on the Thames.
 

Many adventures have started here
 
As well as smaller dockyards there is still the Great Western Dockyard where the SS Great Britain lies in dry dock. Another of Brunel's projects, this is where the worlds first great ocean liner was built. It is also here that Aardman animations have their headquarters. A small detour meant that we saw a Shaun the Sheep outside and all the tiny figures displayed in the windows from Morph to Wallace and Grommit.

Gateway to the Great Western Dockyard
 
By now with weary legs it was time to head back up-hill to the car parked high up on the Downs. This also involved a long and complicated conversation about Downs being up. It is a lovely area and you can almost imagine the coaches trotting around the roads and past generations promenading in the sun.

An avenue on Clifton Downs
 
It was a nice trip to the city and a lovely couple of days. Maybe one day we will take that trip up the Bristol Channel, up the Avon, through the lock gates and back to the harbour with Tarquilla.




 

 

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