Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article Bristol Beckons is the copyright of Jim Shead - The voyage from Bath to Bristol Docks. First published in Waterways World June 2002.
Having arrived by boat in Bath I always feel the urge to go on to Bristol, and on the one occasion when, through lack of time, this was not possible it seemed to me a voyage cut short. The Kennet & Avon Canal continues down the River Avon to Hanham Lock (Lock 1 on the K&A) where British Waterways authority over the River Avon ends. A further 6½ miles takes us down the semi-tidal Avon and through to the end of Bristol Docks.
Compared to the magnificence of the scene below Pulteney Bridge most of the Avon through Bath is a disappointment, especially when contrasted with the canal's entrance to the city through some of Bath's most elegant architecture. The free moorings, near Churchill Road Bridges, are opposite some impressive warehouses but most of the river front displays the work-a-day commerce that is found in every city. A short walk down the towpath from these moorings is a Sainsbury's supermarket, situated by the disused Green Park Railway Station. Across the bridge is a d. i. y. store with attractive riverside gardens and an interesting sculpture of huge nails, which can be seen from the river.
Two miles from Bath Bottom Lock we come to Weston Lock, the first of the six on the River Avon section of the K&A. Some guidebooks perpetuate the myth that there's a water point here, but there's not. After the lock we start to get out into the countryside with hills bordering the river on both sides. The next lock is Kelston and beside it is a long weir, above which are both Saltford Marina and the Riverside Inn. Kelston Lock is the nearest point to Saltford village but the next lock, Saltford, is less than a mile away and cuts through the garden of the Jolly Sailor pub. Below the lock the rim of the weir has a channel cut into it, which produces a strong eddy, a delight for canoeists but it can make the approach to the lock a little tricky when going up river.
In the next reach we pass an Elsan disposal and water point landing stage on the left bank before arriving at Swineford Lock, which like the previous two locks is situated beside the weir. This looks like an attractive place but we must pass by, as there are no suitable moorings here. The river continues through pleasant rural views and passes the Avon Valley Country Park. On the outskirts of Keynsham we pass an old works which is now the centre of much boating activity with all types of craft afloat and ashore. We make a sharp turn to the right to enter Keynsham Lock cut, passing the Marina entrance and the unassuming Lock Keeper pub just before the lock. There are moorings by the pub, although this is not the prettiest spot on the river. A notice at the lock tells us that the river is tidal from this point. Can this be right, surely there is a weir at Hanham Lock? Yes there is and another weir at Netham, before Bristol, however, spring tides come up over both of these weirs so mooring between here and the entrance to Bristol Docks needs some care.
The river heads north-east then, meeting the steep sides of the Avon Valley, turns north-west and then south-west before taking a sharp sixty degree bend towards Hanham Lock. There are moorings above the lock and two pubs. Should you decide to stop make sure you leave enough slack on your ropes to allow for any tide that may be expected. Although we are on the outskirts of Bristol here there is no hint of this from the river, which retains its bucolic character almost to the entrance of the docks. The wooded banks below the lock give a feeling of seclusion and we pass a row of cottages that look as if they are miles from anywhere.
Eventually we pass some new housing and signs of industry and it is not far before the road bridge and weir beyond come into view signalling the entrance to the Dock Feeder Canal. This branches off on the right before the road bridge and Netham Lock marks its start and controls the water levels in the docks. The lock is usually open at both ends but when high tides are expected the gates are closed and it can be worked as a normal lock. The first mile of the feeder canal is fairly straight and runs alongside the road until the navigation turns sharp right and through a narrow opening that marks the end of the Feeder Canal. We are now on wider waters and are soon beneath the massive brick arches that take the tracks into Bristol Temple Meads railway station.
We are now in what is called the Floating Harbour, although it is not the harbour that floats but the ships in it. The term derives from the history of the port of Bristol, which before the beginning of the 19th century was a place where ships sat on the mud at every low tide. From as early as 1788 William Jessop and John Smeaton had proposed various schemes to dam the River Avon to provide a "floating harbour", but it was Jessop who was to build the present docks. The construction started in 1803 and on 1 May 1809 the entire scheme was certified as complete. In essence the work consisted of damming the Avon below the city and constructing a ship lock to give access to the tidal Avon, constructing a new weir at Netham and providing the New Cut channel as a by-pass for the tidal Avon to the south of the harbour.
As we go from Temple Meads to the city centre we travel the old course of the Avon, rendered tide-less by Jessop. If, at low tide, you look at the New Cut or the river below the docks you will see the great banks of mud, demonstrating the problems of Bristol before the Floating Harbour. In place of the commercial traffic, which once crowded these quays we now find pleasure craft of all types; cruisers, barges, floating restaurants, sailing vessels, catamarans and the ubiquitous narrowboat. Bristol Bridge is the last fixed bridge we pass on our journey through the docks and marks our entrance into the city centre. The next bridge, Redcliffe Bascule Bridge, is only raised by prior arrangement with the Harbour Master, but very few craft need to worry about that as the clearance beneath the bridge is 3.6 metres. Prince Street Bridge is a swing bridge and looks very low as we approach but to some extent this is an optical illusion due to the width of the channel here, in fact the clearance is 2.2 metres so narrowboats can easily pass under the bridge without it being opened. For craft with a greater air draught the bridge is normally opened once an hour, on the hour, if it is required.
After passing Prince Street Bridge a long arm of the harbour on the right takes us up to the city centre, although there are no visitor moorings at the end. This arm was once the centre of the port of Bristol, built at a point where the River Frome joined the Avon. Also adjacent to Prince Street Bridge is Cannons Marsh, a massive modern building with amphitheatre in front. There are visitor moorings here although some moorings are by high stone walls rather than on pontoons. Opposite there are more visitor moorings and the Industrial Museum. Before mooring you may like to cruise the rest of the harbour down to the swing bridges that lead to ship lock, a short but interesting trip. We encounter more craft along the quays and on the right a steep hill rises, from which vantage point the houses of Hotwells look down on the docks, and what a view they must have for appearing on our left are the masts of the SS Great Britain. Brunel's ship, currently being restored, is billed as the world's first great ocean liner and is well worth a visit. Purchase of an entrance ticket also admits you to the Maritime Heritage Centre and the Matthew. This is a replica of John Cabot's small ship, which he sailed from Bristol in 1497, with a crew of 18 men, to land on the Canadian coast.
At the end of the harbour are some sevices for the modern navigator. Next to the lock channel entrance is Anglo Welsh offering wide and narrowboats for hire and all the usual boatyard facilities and tucked into the left hand corner is the Harbour Master's Office where you are expected to call to pay for your visitor permit. This permit covers navigation and mooring and, for our 57-foot narrowboat, cost us £23.63 for 48 hours. We also picked up the useful Information for Boat Owners booklet here. Nearby is the Cottage Inn, which faces the waterside and is one of the many points around the harbour served by the ferryboats that run regular services. There are also many trip boats, including a narrow boat, that take visitors round the docks at top speed.
Apart from the many attractions around the harbour, Bristol has a lot to offer; an excellent shopping centre, a cathedral, the Bristol Old Vic and all the facilities you would expect of a large city. If you are looking for a place to eat a walk up Park Street, a steep hill climbing up from the cathedral, will supply a good choice of restaurants. So don't miss out on this city whose name has for centuries been synonymous with navigation.
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