Resorts and a seafaring city on the Severn estuary
Abnormal tides sweep up and down the lower reaches of the River Severn’s broad estuary, racing over acres of soft, glistening mud which gives way to sandy beaches near Weston-super-Mare. The tide can rise and fall more than 50 ft under the Severn Bridge. Bristol, though no longer a great port, retains many links with the days when it was one of Britain’s main ‘gateways’ to Africa and the Americas.
Reaching the sea at low tide involves a walk of more than 1 mile, but Weston-super-Mare’s sandy beach more than compensates for the mud-and-shingle shoreline which runs up the coast to the Severn Bridge. Flanked by Brean Down and the wooded ridge of Worlebury Hill, which was fortified during the Iron Age, Weston Bay also provides safe swimming at high water, except at its southern edge, where there are strong currents at the mouth of the River Axe.
Like many other resorts, Weston was little more than a fishing village until the seaside was ‘discovered’ at the end of the 18th century. It expanded rapidly after 1841, when the railway arrived, and emphasised its holiday-town status by building two piers between 1867 and 1904. Both have survived, adding a dash of Victorian and Edwardian character to the atmosphere of a lively, modern resort.
As well as the pier and a full range of seaside attractions, Weston has a museum, an art gallery, and an aquarium. There are two markets on Sunday, a fair in June and a carnival in July or August. There are riding stables, boat trips and motor boats for hire, fishing trips and fishing from he shore, and facilities for water-skiing and sailing.
TWO ISLAND NATURE RESERVES Nature reserves occupy two islands in the Bristol Channel. Steep Holm, once a refuge of Viking raiders, belongs to a trust set up in memory of the author and naturalist Kenneth Allsop. It can be visited on Saturdays and Bank Holiday Mondays in summer by boat from Weston-super-Mare. A 2 mile nature trail takes in the sights of the island, including the only wild clumps in Britain of the Mediterranean peony, introduced by monks in the 12th or 13th century. Flat Holm can be visited only by arrangement with South Glamorgan County Council.
A long, low, shrub-covered bank, backed by caravan sites and a holiday camp, overlooks this popular beach where the tide retreats for more than 1 mile. Most of the shore is sandy, but there are patches of mud and expanses of sea-washed turf at the northern end. There are good views from Middle Hope, a headland owned by the National Trust.
At the southern end of the bay, a wooded toll road skirts Worlebury Hill and leads to Weston-super-Mare.
The medieval priory church had been used as a farmhouse for more than 400 years when it was bought as a joint venture by the Landmark Trust and National Trust in 1969. The restored building, together with other parts of the priory that are not open to visitors, stands in tranquil surroundings at the end of a narrow lane. It is seen at its best in late spring and early summer, when the apple trees are heavy with blossom.
The priory was founded in 1210 by William de Courtenay, whose grandfather was one of the assassins of Thomas Becket in 1170.
Georgian, Regency and many Victorian buildings illustrate some of the stages by which Clevedon developed from a fishing village to a small, fashionable resort during the 19th century. Its gradual expansion owed much to the Elton family of Clevedon Court, a manor house built by Sir John de Clevedon in the 14th century and now owned by the National Trust. Sir Abraham Elton, a wealthy Bristol merchant, acquired the Court estate in 1709. Open to the public on certain days in summer, Clevedon Court has a collection of Nailsea glass and Elton-ware, and there are rare shrubs in the terraced gardens. At Moor Lane, not far from Clevedon Court, there is a craft centre. Clevedon is proud of its sedate, Victorian atmosphere – typified by the town’s famous bowling greens – and of links with such literary figures as the novelist William Thackeray and the poets Samuel Taylor
Coleridge and Lord Tennyson, whose poem In Memoriani refers to St Andrew’s Church. A pier built in 1869 flanks the main beach, where mud mingles with shingle and expanses of flat rock. A footpath known as Lovers’ Walk starts at the top of Marine Parade, passes Ladye Bay, where steps lead down to a shore of shingle and seaweed-draped rocks, and follows the coast to Portishead.
There are seaside entertainments, a museum, rowing boats for hire on a marine lake, sea fishing, boat trips and sailing.
A delightful park, complete with cricket ground, slopes gently down to Portishead’s beach, where a narrow strip of shingle gives way to dangerously soft mud. It is unsafe to bathe, or to venture out beyond the shingle, but there are good views across the mouth of the River Severn to Denny Island and the Welsh coast near Newport.
Looking north-east from the seafront on a clear day, the lengthy span of the Severn Bridge may be seen, and views inland are dominated by a wooded slope running down to Portishead’s Dock and now closed power station. Ships sail close to Battery Point, where Royalist supporters established a fort during the Civil War. The road from Portishead to Clevedon runs above a shore of mud and rocks draped with seaweed.
There are seaside entertainments, sea fishing, boat trips, rowing boats for hire on a lake and a sailing club.
The village green runs down to a steep-sided creek where small boats rest on the mud at low tide. Pilot cutters which guided ships in and out of Bristol were based at Pill in the 19th century. Nature trails and other paths explore the Forestry Commission woodlands at Stoke Leigh, and there are fine views over the Avon Gorge to Clifton. The Avon Walkway starts in Pill and follows the river inland for nearly 30 miles.
Sugar, rum, slaves and tobacco combined to make Bristol one of the world’s greatest ports in the 17th and 18th centuries. The impressive Floating Harbour, completed in 1809, has not been used commercially since the 1970s, but it still forms the heart of a fascinating city whose seafaring traditions have been kept alive by imaginative restoration and preservation schemes. A dry dock on the south side of the Floating Harbour is the home of Isambard Kingdom Brunei’s steamship Great Britain, launched in 1843.
Bristol’s history as a port goes back to Saxon times, but it was John Cabot who really set the city on course for prosperity when he discovered Newfoundland in 1497. Ancient links with the sea are symbolised by a statue of Neptune at the head of the Floating Harbour’s western arm. It towers above a memorial to Samuel Plimsoll, the Bristol-born MP whose Merchant Shipping Act of 1876 introduced the ‘Plimsoll Line’ to indicate how much cargo a vessel could take in safety.
King Street, a 2 minute walk from the statue, is paved with cobbles and flanked by quaint old buildings which recapture the atmosphere of Bristol’s seafaring heyday. King Street and many other places of interest are visited on the Bristol Heritage Walk, which takes about 2 hours to complete.
Clifton, high above the city, has a wealth of elegant 18th-century buildings built by merchants and shipowners when Bristol’s fortunes were at their peak. There are dramatic views of the Avon Gorge and its suspension bridge.
Bristol has five museums, and an art gallery and arts centre. Markets include a fish market every weekday except Monday, and an antiques and craft market on Thursday and Friday.
Docks opened in 1877 have enabled Avon-mouth to replace Bristol, 6 miles inland up the spectacular Avon Gorge, as one of Britain’s busiest ports. Backed by extensive industrial estates, the docks can take ships of up to 70,000 tons and handle cargoes ranging from cocoa beans to chemicals. On the opposite side of the river mouth is the Royal Portbury Dock, opened in 1977.
During the summer, Avonmouth is a base for cruises by Waverley, the world’s last seagoing paddle-steamer. She visits such places as Penarth, llfracombe and Minehead.
Walkers and cyclists make the most of the sea-wall which protects Severn Beach and looks out over mud and shingle to the coast of South Wales. Low tide reveals the English Stones reef, where a party of Roundheads were drowned during the Civil War; after being told by a Royalist ferryman that they had reached Wales, they left their boat and were caught by the tide. Britain’s longest railway tunnel runs under the reef. Just over 4 miles from end to end, it was built between 1873 and 1886, and lined with more than 76 million bricks.
Now a sleepy little place, bright with flowers in summer, Aust was a major landmark for travellers until the Severn Bridge was opened in 1966. As many as 25,000 cars passed through the village every month on their way to and from Old Passage, where three ferries operated. Reeds now spring up through the derelict jetty, but a footpath provides impressive views of the bridge.
A main span of 3,240 ft, slung between towers 443 ft high, makes this Britain’s third longest suspension bridge, after those spanning the Humber and the Firth of Forth. It was opened by the Queen in 1966.
The tides which send water the colour of drinking chocolate foaming under the bridge are exceeded only by those of the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia, Canada. Spring tides have an average rise and fall of almost 41 ft – nearly three times greater than the average figure for the British Isles-and have been known to exceed 50 ft.
The bridge’s graceful lines and majestic scale can be appreciated from a viewpoint at the Aust service area on the M4.
BRISTOL, SEAFARING CITY
THAT PAVED NEW WAYS
TO THE NEW WORLD
Though 6 miles from the sea, Bristol was England’s busiest west coast port for hundreds of years. Before the Normans came, Saxons were trading from Bricgstoc, ‘the place of the bridge’, and in the Middle Ages it became a major cloth-exporting port, with wine the principal import. In the 15th century John Cabot and his son Sebastian sailed west from Bristol to seek new lands, and they and other explorers opened up new markets which were exploited by the Society of Merchant Venturers of Bristol, which was granted a royal charter in 1552. Bristol flourished in its trade with the newly discovered lands, and the tidal Avon became a busy waterway with ships sailing through the twisting Avon Gorge to the docks tucked away inland. The Bristol-based ships became known for their smartness and efficiency – hence the saying ‘shipshape and Bristol fashion’.
Bristol thrived on the slave trade, and in the first half of the 18th century thousands of black slaves were transported to America, in vile conditions, to be exchanged for cargoes of rum, sugar and tobacco to meet the needs of the city’s expanding industries. War with America in 1775-81 and the abolition of the slave trade in 1833 were serious setbacks for the port, but it also faced a threat from the port of Liverpool whose hinterland provided the stage for the Industrial Revolution. Liverpool had docks unaffected by the tides, and although the Avon had been diverted and a ‘floating harbour’ created in 1809, Bristol could not handle the same amount of traffic as its competitor. The Bristol Dock Company, in 1832, engaged Isambard Kingdom Brunei to improve the docks. In 1837 Brunei’s steamship Great Western, at 236 ft long the largest steamship built up to that time, left Bristol to become the world’s first transatlantic liner, but the crippling dock charges imposed by the Bristol Dock Company forced the Great Western Steamship Company to operate from the port’s rival – Liverpool.
With a span of more than 702 ft and soaring 245 ft above the Avon Gorge, the Clifton Suspension Bridge was opened in 1864. Its designer, Isambard Brunei, called it ‘my first child, my darling’.
NEW FOUND LAND A Venetian navigator named John Cabot came to Bristol in the 15th century in search of adventure, an ambition soon realised with the help of Bristol merchants who equipped him for a voyage to discover new lands. About May 20, 1497, Cabot sailed in the Matthew, and 35 days later he raised the English flag on an unknown soil, claiming this ‘Neio Found Land’ for Henry VU. Bristol remembers him by the Cabot Tozoer erected on Brandon Hill in 1898.
MEMORIAL OF SHAME This tombstone of a negro servant in Henbunj churchyard is a reminder of Bristol’s days as a slave-trading port. It is said that the Earl of Suffolk released Scipio from slavery and treated him like a son.
BRUNEI – THE ‘LITTLE GIANT OF VICTORIAN ENGINEERING
In 1831 the 25-year-old engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunei won a competition for the design of a bridge to span the Avon Gorge -the first of many projects that were to make the name Brunei synonymous with Bristol. In 1833 Brunei was appointed Engineer of the newly formed Great Western Railway Company, which proposed to build a line from London to Bristol. He gave them a railway that became renowned for its speed, efficiency and safety. Before the first rail had been laid he was making plans for a steamship that would effectively extend the line to New York. The Great Western, a paddle-steamer of 1,340 tons, was launched in 1837, and six years later it was joined by the SS Great Britain, the world’s first ocean-going ship to be built of iron and the first large ship to be driven by a screw propeller.
Brunei had an enormous capacity for work, and during the building of the Great Western Railway would often roll up his sleeves and wield pick and shovel alongside his navvies, who affectionately nicknamed him the ‘little giant’. He was truly a giant in his ideas, most of which have survived. The most spectacular of them is the Clifton Suspension Bridge, beset by financial troubles during Brunei’s lifetime and completed five years after his death as a memorial to him.
PIRATES’ INN The handsome, half-timbered Llandoger Trow in King Street was renowned as a meeting place for pirates and smugglers in the 18th century, and it is probable that the old inn was the ‘Spyglass Inn’ of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and that the Hispaniola of the story set sail from the quayside oiily a few yards away. The Llandoger Trow may also have been where Daniel Defoe met Alexander Selkirk, the desert-island castaway whose true adventures were the basis of Robinson Crusoe. Built in 1664, originally as three houses, the inn takes its name from a type of Welsh coastal vessel often see}I in Bristol.
The SS Great Britain, salvaged from the Falkland Islands in 1970, is back in the dock in which she was built and is being restored to her former glory by the SS Great Britain Project. In restoring her, modern plastics have been used for such features as her figurehead, the Royal Coat of Arms, and the flanking trail-boards depicting the arts, industry and sciences.
PAYING ON THE NAIL Before Bristol’s Corn Exchange was built, business was’ conducted in the street, and merchants completed their money transactions on four flat-topped bronze pillars called ‘nails’. From this tradition arose the expression ‘paying on the nail head’, or more commonly, ‘paying on the nail’, meaning to pay cash at the moment a deal is made. The pillars, the earliest dating from the late 16th century, still stand in Com Street, outside the 18th-century Corn Exchange which was built by John Wood the Elder, the architect of Bath.