I deliberately kept my previous article about Bristol’s Floating Harbour short and sweet for two reasons: The first one being that I didn’t want people to immediately lose interest in a topic that is important to the city’s heritage, and the second one is because my name isn’t Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
All the same, I’ve decided to include some information about the Cumberland Basin for anybody who would like to know a bit more about how this important part of the system operates.
The Floating Harbour project was awarded to William Jessop, an engineer from Devonport, who started work on the scheme in 1804. It took 5 years to build and was officially opened on the 1st May 1809.
For the Cumberland Basin, his plans included two entrance locks from the river into the holding basin, and a junction lock between the basin and the Floating Harbour. Why it was called Cumberland Basin I’ve no idea, but it was used as a lock when there were a lot of ships sailing in and out of the harbour.
It seems as though the new system worked well to start with, but by the 1830s improvements needed to be made. Silting up of the harbour was becoming a problem and the need for a wider entrance into the basin to cater for the new breed of larger ships was also becoming an issue.
The Bristol Docks Company turned to Isambard Kingdom Brunel for assistance, and in 1832 he came up with a plan to ease the silting problem at Underfall Yard and a design for enlarging the entrance lock.
Unfortunately, neither of his plans were implemented straight away, and even his own ship, the S.S. Great Britain got stuck in the old entrance lock before his plans were realised.
It was 1849 before his enlarged South Entrance Lock with its manually operated Swivel Bridge became fully operational.
Both Jessop’s North Entrance Lock and Brunel’s South Entrance Lock became obsolete when a completely new North Lock was constructed by Thomas Howard in 1874.
Brunel’s Swivel bridge from the old lock was used to traverse Howard’s new one and, as daft as it might sound, a replica bridge was installed across Brunel’s old lock in 1876, and is still here today.
Nothing much else changed until the 1960s when the Cumberland Basin flyover road system was built, which also included the new Plimsoll Swing Bridge. This meant of course, that Brunel’s old bridge wasn’t needed anymore and it was just left to rot next to the new bridge. It’s still lying here, but at least it’s been recognised as having historical importance and is on Historic England’s ‘At Risk’ register. A small local volunteer group is trying to raise funds together to get it back into some sort of shape, and even to put it to some practical use. They’ve called it Brunel’s Other Bridge (BOB to his friends) and just a short distance away is one of the best views you can get of the engineer’s famous Clifton Suspension Bridge.
Nothing stays the same forever, and I’ve recently been reading that the Cumberland Basin flyover, including the Plimsoll Bridge, could be the next for the chop, but it’s early days yet. In the meantime, Howard’s North Lock is the only entrance into Cumberland Basin and Junction Lock still allows boats in and out of the Floating Harbour: You’ll notice I said boats and not ships because the larger ships now operate out of Avonmouth and Portbury at the mouth of the Avon and bigger boats (ships) are a rarity.
The Cumberland Basin would appear to be surplus to requirements where the movement of marine traffic is concerned nowadays, but it’s done its job that it was meant to do, and as the old City Docks have proved, there could still be a new lease of life in the old basin yet. If the plans to demolish the flyover system materialise, and a tunnel can be built under the river, or even a good-looking bridge over it, then the waterside location can become an asset rather than a wasted opportunity which it has become for far too long.