Bristol harbourside, a panoplex of sights, sounds and smells; music, bars, art and of course boats. Now we all know the big attractions, but as you are venue hopping for Bristol HarbourFest, via foot or ferry, here are 10 historical gems you may never have known or noticed.

Bristol Harbourside Festival 2015 Map

1) Starting at Castle park landing stage and looking back way back, back to the Norman period. The settlement of Bristol was pretty much an island, fenced in by the Avon and the Frome. The Normans (probably Robert of Gloucester) set about doing what they did best and built a Castle to defend the burgeoning settlement, planting it where the town was missing the natural defences that the river afforded. To further secure this those wiley Normans created a channel to connect the two rivers and the town was then completely encircled by water. Today if you wander down to the riverside beneath Castle Park you can still see the entrance to the moat that protected the castle, which still travels underground to eventually connect to the Frome.


moat 2

2) Skimming down the river under Bristol Bridge and through Redcliffe and Welsh backs and my next destination is the Thekla to rave with the kids…….Change of plan I wanna get to the Ostrich at the base of Redcliffe Parade (once known as the Addercliffe).


Ford From Thekla
Ford From Thekla

Looking at this little slope, it’s a slipway right?




Before 1809, when the city damned up the river down at Cumberland Basin, the whole of the harbourside was tidal. Indeed it was home to the second biggest tidal range in the world, the river rising up then all but vanishing. So this is actually the remains of a tidal ford, where twice a day as the river fell inhabitants and visitors could scurry across the slippery path over to the other side. (There may even be  a few ghostly cobbles that survived the subsequent dredging lurking in the silty layers below the water).

3) These big tides they allowed people (and animals) to cross the river and meant that large boats could meander their way into the city docks…… but also meant that they thudded their way down onto the river bed with a bit of a thwack onto the rocky river bed. So if your cargo wasn’t strapped in proper, tough luck, that was a wasted trip and you lost your cargo and if your boat wasn’t solid good luck trying to patch it up before the next tide. But what we did get from that was the phrase ‘Shipshape and Bristol Fashion’. If you can survive here you can survive anywhere ;).

Or, if you had the cash you could pay for your boat to be moored at the Mud Dock, for a slightly softer (and squelchier) landing.


4) Moving on, and turning away from the river to, what I think is one of the most interesting areas in Bristol, but I will keep it brief and save the rest for a latter date. Looking left there is Guinea Street, the street where Bristol’s ultimate bad boy, Edward Teach (aka BLACKBEARD) is supposed to have lived.

Circa 1715, Captain Edward Teach (1680 - 1718), better known as Blackbeard, a pirate who plundered the coasts of the West Indies, North Carolina and Virginia. His hair is woven with flaming fuses to increase his fearsome appearance. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Circa 1715, Captain Edward Teach (1680 – 1718), better known as Blackbeard, a pirate who plundered the coasts of the West Indies, North Carolina and Virginia. His hair is woven with flaming fuses to increase his fearsome appearance. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

5) Looking right and there is Bathurst Basin and there is a nod to Bristol’s more shameful past. Named after 19th century Bristol MP Charles Bathurst this chap was a mover and shaker and a man about town ……. and a vocal anti abolitionist when it came to slavery. Just a thought for a moments remembrance next time you pass through.


6) Continuing down the path and down the theme of wrong doings we continue to the Louisiana and across the road to Wapping Wharf (the home of this year’s new ‘Jazz Quarter’ at the HarbourFest).


Whapping Wharf, way before it began to be a car park and the site of some new luxury housing, was the site of pasture, ship building and then Wapping Wharf Gaol. Built between 1816 and 1820 the gaol was built to replace the Newgate prison just to the North of Bristol Castle. In was a centre point during the riots of 1831 after a group broke away from the main mob in Queens Square and with battering rams and torches breached the prison, allowing around 170 prisoners to join in with the rioting.


Closed by 1883 and since 1898 all that survives is pretty much what we see today.

7) In the 1831 riots, one of the special constables was Isambard Kingdom Brunel (and what list would this be without a quick nod to the man). Rushing past the big metal ship and we firstly reach Underfall Yard.


As already mentioned the harbour was dammed to maintain a constant level of water in the harbour, so the ships were perpetually afloat, no longer at the mercy of the mammoth tides (ie. Bristol’s ‘Floating Harbour’). However, this was not just as simple as building a wall to keep the water in. First off William Jessop created a weir system at the Underfall – known as the Overfall to allow water out. However by the 1830’s the Harbour was suffering from extreme silting and it was ol’ Isambard who conjured up the solution through constructing a sluicing system between the harbour and the New Cut. (visit the

One of the original sluice paddles
One of the original sluice paddles
Sluice Paddle in action (not one from the Underfall but the opposite side of the New Cut)
Sluice Paddle in action (not one from the Underfall but the opposite bank of the New Cut)

Although modified, impressively this still consists as a part of today’s system.


8) Looking down the river and the skyline is dominated by the iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge. But before we get there, how about giving a thought to ‘Brunel’s Other Bridge’. Nestling under the modern Plimsoll bridge this iron swivel bridge (though started later) is actually older than its more famous counterpart. Currently disused, though there is a project to restore is and reinstate is as an alternative pedestrian and cycle route. (


9) Having reached the tranquil end of the harbour and crossing the river it’s definitely time to dash back into the thick of the festival. 1st stop College Green and the Cathedral. But did you know that this has only been the city’s Cathedral since 1542 after Henry VIII reformation? (Rather fitting then that this was one of the key locations used for the filming of Wolf Hall). Before Henry wanted to get his way with Anne Boleyn and fundamentally altered England’s religious structure the Cathedral was actually St Augustine’s Abbey, one of the ring of religious houses that surrounded the city and the reason why my last stop is named St Augustines reach.

054_edited-1 056

10) Cascade steps and the fountains. The site of many a child frolicking in the gurgling water. But what you may not realise is that underneath the river Frome still flows. Moreover this section of the river was one of the busiest quayside sections in the city, a forest of masts lining either side.


Finally off to Queen’s Square – Enjoy the weekend! 🙂

References and useful links

Bristol Harbourside Festival,

BARAS, (Whapping Wharf Excavations)

Underfall Boatyard,

Brunel’s Other Bridge,

4 thoughts on “Bristol Harbourside – 10 Things

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