Bristol’s Floating Harbour doesn’t float, so why is it called that? It takes a bit of explaining, but to understand what the Floating Harbour is will help to explain why Bristol’s maritime history was so important to the city for so long.
The port developed approximately 8 miles from the mouth of the River Avon during the 11th century, which at the time would have had the distinct advantage of being in a very sheltered location. Not only that, the River Severn has one of the highest tidal ranges in the world, which meant that the fast-flowing tide could bring ships swiftly up the Severn and the Avon to the protection of Bristol’s inland harbour.
For centuries it worked well, but as the ships got bigger things became a bit more complicated. Anyone who has witnessed the ebb and flow of these rivers will know only too well how quickly the tide can go out as well as come in, and the bigger the ships became, the more often they got stuck in the mud – and there’s plenty of that here.
The City Fathers decided that something had to be done, and in the early 19th century they decided to construct a non-tidal Floating Harbour. In this context it was meant that the ships would be able to stay afloat even if the tide was out.
William Jessop, a Plymouth engineer, was the winner of the contract, and in 1804 work started on constructing a dam and lock at Hotwells creating a holding facility for ships before they entered the Floating Harbour. Known as Cumberland Basin, it’s probably better known these days for its road network over and around it, rather than the basin itself.
At the same time as the Cumberland Basin was constructed a ‘New Cut’ was built to divert the tidal river away from the basin and around the outside of the Floating Harbour and City Docks. The two met up at Totterdown Lock where it met the original natural river course.
A bit further upstream at Netham Lock, a weir was built to ensure that the Floating Harbour didn’t get too much water from a swollen river in extreme weather, and between the river at Netham and the Floating Harbour a ‘Feeder’ canal was built to ensure that it was topped up when there wasn’t enough.
I did say that it needed a bit of explaining, but in simple terms it meant that the City Docks could provide moorings for ships whatever the state of the tide.
The City Docks closed down in the 1970s and redevelopment has been ongoing ever since, with many of the former warehouses being converted into bars, restaurants and cultural attractions.
A great way of making sense of the Floating Harbour is to take the Bristol Ferry Boats Service which runs between Temple Meads railway station and the Nova Scotia Hotel at Cumberland Basin. There are several stops along the way and a day ticket will allow you to use it like a Hop on Hop off service – and at £6.60 for a full price adult ticket, I think it represents decent value for money too (Jan 2019).