1. Built environment
October 25, 2019updated 29 Jul 2021 12:42pm

“It's a very friendly space and healing space”: the rise, fall and rise of Bristol’s waterways

By Daniel Curtis

Bristol is a city that’s rightly very proud of its history. Look around and you’ll find larger-than-life statues of Bristol’s very own Wallace and Gromit, original Banksy artworks scattered around, and the SS Great Britain towering over the water.

It’s that very water that makes up a critical part of its history. Nestled neatly on the Avon, Bristol is a city that has been defined by trade and ship-building. 

To the modern eye, however, Bristol’s harbour is largely divorced from the heritage of trade that Bristol was built upon. 

“Students who come to my university now come down to Bristol for the first time, look at the floating harbour and think it’s the river,” says Steve Poole, historian at the University of the West of England. “Which of course it isn’t.”

Alright, a brief history lesson. In 1809, the part of the river Avon that runs through the heart of the city was cut off from the river itself, to become what’s known as a floating harbour – or as Steve Poole jokingly refers to it, “a septic tank” – in which the level of the water remains constant, regardless of the level in the river. The idea was that this would help the ships who came into port, so that they wouldn’t buffeted by the tides when they docked. 

Central Bristol. The floating harbour is to the north of the River Avon. Image: Google Maps.

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And it worked. Bristol enjoyed well over a century of good trade on the floating harbour as it sought to battle the northern powerhouse of Liverpool for dock supremacy.

But by the 1970s, trade in Bristol was winding down, facing the same death of industry as much of the country in that period. The floating harbour was set to be basically shuttered, leading to an existential crisis for the city and its waterways.  Alternative propositions went as far as to even propose a new road system in place of the harbour. 

But Bristolians fought back, preventing any such plans from coming to fruition.

Confuse them for nimbys at your peril. Their very civil form of protest was designed to demonstrate that keeping the harbour open was not only valid, but actually an essential part of Bristol’s culture.

A group of volunteers, motivated by this desire to protect what they saw as a core part of the spirit of Bristol, established the first Bristol Water Festival in 1971. It was essentially a showcase of leisureboats down the harbour, and was a roaring success. About 90 boats participated. Think Dunkirk, but with fewer explosions.

These festivals continued annually until 1978 when it became the council-run Bristol Regatta. By that time the point was already long proven to those in power. The harbour was indispensable.

By 1978, the SS Great Britain was in situ, mid-restoration, and the harbour was protected. As we see it now is how it was during its 1800s heyday.

This new status quo led to a new opportunity for trade on the water: the tourism trade. 

A private company, set up in 1977, provided a waterboat service around the harbour, becoming a beloved part of the harbour atmosphere. When that company went into liquidation in 2012, Bristolians were on hand once more to save the day, this time raising the funds to buy the boats and the remaining assets. They divided it into shares and sold it to the community. 

Now Bristol Community Ferry Boats is a proud not-for-profit co-op, set up by the people for the people. They’re not the only ferry provider on the water, but they’re the only co-op, and the only company with ties to that miniature revolution of the ‘70s.

When I first speak to Roisin Tobin, the company’s managing director, she calmly and cheerfully tells me that a window has just come out of one of the boats. We hastily reschedule.

When we finally speak properly a few days later, she tells me that those sorts of emergencies have been part and parcel of the business since she’s been managing director. They are, however, part of the joy of the job. “It’s hard not to get on a boat and get excited about it,” she says.

“It’s a very friendly space and healing space, the water,” she goes on. “You’d be amazed at how you sit on a bus and no-one’s talking to each other, but you get on a ferry everybody wants to wave and have a chat.”

Part of that dialogue is about the lineage of the docks, embracing the industrial history of the floating harbour.

“Because it was just the heritage docks weekend,” Tobin tells me, “we just did a public show which is for adults really but it was done in part with Aardman Animations and there’s a lot of resources around the harbour between the likes of M-Shed [a Bristol museum] in capturing the voices and the stories of dockers back then. 

That history creates a unique atmosphere on the water in Bristol, Tobin believes. “It’s exciting to see how much people love the ferries and love the history of them and the symbolism of what they stand for the city. That is really palpable.

“People are really passionate about working on the harbour. There’s a lot of love and devotion here, that’s for sure.”

As with any community, there is a plurality of voices that have different views on the harbour.

Steve Poole from UWE mourns the loss of the tides of the Avon, and feels that, in losing its ties to the river, it has lost a lot of its unique waterborne history. Bristol’s legacy, he argues, pre-dates, not begins with, the Victorians. But he agrees that it’s become a core part of the city. 

“Since it’s become just a place for leisurely activity, of course it’s nice,” he says. “I’m not going to pretend that it isn’t. You walk around the floating harbour – the central part of it – that area on a summer evening where there’s hundreds of people sitting outside having a quiet drink just lapping up the atmosphere, it’s fantastic.

“I think in some ways the rejuvenation of the harbour was done pretty successfully because it hasn’t created a dead zone. Industry left it – traditional port commerce left it – and it could have become just a dead zone of old warehouses, but there are places for people to live down there, there are places to eat and drink. It’s a very lively hub.”

Since the revamp, the comparison to Liverpool has faded, to instead be replaced by another northern city. “Sometimes in the evenings it’s very lively in a way that Salford Quays is not,” Poole says. “Salford Quays is bloody dead after 5 o’clock.”

However, he feels that rejuvenation has come with a cost. 

“I do think it’s been successful,” he says, “but I do think it’s hard for people to get a sense of what dock life was like in the city for hundreds of years because the floating harbour has skewed that.

“They didn’t actually stop using it commercially until 1974. There was still tonnage coming in and out.”

That said, he points to the markers of history that are still alive and kicking on the harbour.

“There’s still some boat building going on in the harbour,” he explains, “and if you walk to the Cumberland Basin end it does still have the sense of being a working shipyard down there. It’s not just become a leisure resort, it’s much more than that.”

This year, Bristol City Council is starting a wide-ranging Harbour consultation which will assess the life and role of the floating harbour and how that will adapt and evolve in the future. Its first phase was completed in September, but the process as a whole will continue until next year. 

That could strike fear into the hearts of those who love the harbour – and it’s already attracted a bit of negative feedback.

But then, change is nothing new for the harbourside. It’s come through worse.

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