Bristol is a city dominated by water. It has two rivers — the Avon and the Frome — flowing through the centre. The Frome feeds into the Avon, which continues westwards into the Bristol Channel, leading to the Atlantic. (Then there's the copious rain that falls from the sky, although the dubious honour of wettest city in Britain belongs to Manchester, or so I'm led to believe.) The Frome used to form the northern city defence, whilst the Avon acted as both a southern defensive barrier and as the primary means of transport, particularly for trade, into and out of the city. The Frome is no longer visible, as it now runs beneath the streets, but the Avon remains a major feature of the city.

This geographical fortune has allowed for Bristol's economic and mercantile success and expansion throughout the ages. In the Middle Ages, Bristol dominated the import market for wine from France, having fostered strong links with Bordeaux. In 1496 John Cabot set sail for the New World from Bristol. This attempt was abortive, but his 1497 expedition was successful, which opened trade routes with the Americas. This of course led to Bristol's involvement in the slave and tobacco trades, allowing it to rise in status to Britain's second city in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Port of Bristol remains a major trade hub, with Avonmouth and the Royal Portbury Dock a few miles west of the centre, where the Avon meets the Bristol Channel. Avonmouth is used primarily for fresh produce, whilst the Royal Portbury Dock sees in the majority of the UK's car imports.

However, for all Bristol's Georgian and Regency economic might and mercantile dominance, her harbour, which lay in the heart of the city, was a medieval shambles of wharves, jetties, and quays. The Avon is a tidal river, which meant that at low tide ships could be listing at perilous angles, rendering them unusable, and that docking and setting sail had to take place within incredibly tight windows of time. By 1800 Bristol's merchants had to develop a new system in order to preserve her status as Britain's pre-eminent port. In particular, they had to devise something that could compete with Liverpool's wet docks, which were attracting not just trade, but tourists, and making Bristol look amateur.

In truth, the City of Bristol Corporation and the Merchant Venturers had known this would happen. A wet dock had been constructed in Sea Mills, to the north of the city, in 1712. But it was abandoned in 1770 because it was economically inefficient: goods brought in there still had to be transported to the city harbour, and thus remained at the mercy of the tides. Instead, another wet dock was constructed slightly lower down the river from the city centre, at Rownham Meads. Financed by William Champion, it became known as Merchant's Dock, and was hugely successful. It served as a pointed indication of the necessity to remedy the city harbour situation.

The solution was obvious, but expensive: the harbour needed to be permanently flooded at high water.

The engineer William Jessop was invited to survey the situation in 1801; his plan was accepted, and construction of the New Cut began on 1 May 1804. Effectively, the Avon was to be diverted south of the city, between Totterdown in the east and Rownham Ferry in the west, thereby taking the tidal flow of the river. In order to maintain the high water level of the newly flooded harbour — which then became known as the Floating Harbour — two locks were to be installed, one on the freshly dug Cumberland Basin in the Hotwells area (to the west), and the other on the Bathurst Basin, in the more easterly Bedminster area. There would also be the Feeder Canal connecting the Floating Harbour to the Avon further upstream.

The New Cut was dug almost entirely by hand. Gunpowder was used to blast through the deepest sandstone rock faces, but it was essentially a task of brute force carried out by teams of British and Irish navvies. Little mention is made of these men who hewed the stone — almost certainly in conditions of personal endangerment and for measly pay — except for when they got themselves into trouble drinking too much in the pubs of Bedminster and Hotwells. Given the lack of police in Bristol at the time, it fell to the Press Gang to maintain decorum.

Whatever was cut out of the new river course was put to use elsewhere. Stone might have been used to line the new river bed, or turned into lime mortar. Soil was used to dry out the marshy ground on the south bank, which is now the Southville area of Bristol. Despite this recycling, the project ran massively over budget: £600,000, in nineteenth century money. So, yeah, in 21st century terms, you'd be looking at somewhere around a cool £26 million.

This remarkable project was completed in 1809. The navvies were treated to a feast, got drunk, and the Press Gang had to put in another appearance. The Cumberland Basin wasn't quite complete, so the Bathurst Basin was the Floating Harbour's primary means of entry and exit. And Jessop's design hadn't quite taken into account the necessity for sewage disposal; this inconvenience was resolved by none other than Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Sounds like a fairly typical civil engineering project to me.

The New Cut and the Floating Harbour were a resounding success, and allowed Bristol to compete successfully with Liverpool for transatlantic trade. However, as both ships and the city of Bristol grew in size, the Avon and the Floating Harbour became less disposed to merchant traffic, and Avonmouth and the Royal Portbury Dock, with their deepwater berths — and later still their direct links to the M5 motorway — superseded it, whilst Liverpool won the affections of the passenger liners. The Floating Harbour remains at the heart of a vibrant city today, but in a fashion rather removed from that of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Even now, the New Cut and Floating Harbour present Bristol with a different set of problems. There are limited crossing points over both watercourses, leading to traffic chaos, pedestrian congestion, and cycle-rage at peak times. The New Cut has four dedicated pedestrian crossings, one of which is actually a disused railway line, and three bridges suitable for cars. Seeing as it is the major demarkation between the north and south of the city, I sometimes wonder if this is a deliberate attempt at segregation. As with London — and probably other British cities with rivers running through them — those who live south of the river are eyed with weary suspicion by those resident in the north. I admit, it took me nearly four years to venture southwards, and even then, I was pretty much dragged, kicking and screaming, by ascorbic. Something must have got to me, though: soon after, I moved down here, and my flat is a stone's throw from the river.

The New Cut has enjoyed a few moments of fame and infamy, too. When the citizens of Bristol rioted in 1831 (something for which they seem to have had a proclivity), the prisoners incarcerated in the gaol ripped the gallows from the roof of the prison and tossed them into the river. Now you are more likely to find traffic cones and shopping trolleys stranded in the mud at low tide, and messages from local anarchist groups chalked onto the walkway of the Gaol Ferry Bridge. It was on the Gaol Ferry Bridge where the climax of the first series of the Channel Four production Teachers was filmed, but it had twinkling lights for that. Nevertheless, the bridge was repainted to celebrate the bicentenary of the New Cut, along with the birthday party organised by some rather enthusiastic members of the Southville Residents Association. We were all invited to make paper boats and watch them float out to sea on the high tide. I missed high tide that day, so ascorbic and I played pooh sticks with our boats a few days later, and watched them bob along on the current, and drift off to the Atlantic, like so many boats before them.

We are sailing:

  • Aughton, P: Bristol: A People's History, Carnegie, 2003.
  • The rather useful leaflet given to me by the enthusiastic members of the Southville Residents Association

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