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Today, this location is a prime spot for both tourists and Bristol natives alike to relax and enjoy. I’m standing between the M Shed, which might more self-explanatorily be named the Museum of Bristol, and the SS Great Britain, one of Bristol’s headline historic tourist attractions. Between these two lie an occasionally operational steam railway, several more historic museum ships, a historic steam crane, and needless to say, plenty of food and drink options.
Indeed, the recently completed Wapping Wharf development, with its local organic fair trade delis and bakeries, and cargo-container smorgasbord of global cuisine, yoga and bike-repair ‘pop-ups’ could hardly be more zeitgeisty. I hesitate to use words like millennial, or hipster, because they’re so clouded with judgemental overtones, but I think it’s fair to say by the fashionable standards of the current era, this is a very successful piece of regeneration.
It could have been very different. In the words of Jim Bowen, here’s a look at what we could have won.
This map is the most infamous depiction of the urban motorway hellscape that we could have ended up with. If this map had become reality, this very area would be a tangled web of elevated highways and slip roads. In this video, I’ll look back at where these plans came from, why they never happened, and what we ended up with instead. I have to warn you, this one is a bit long. I considered splitting it up into multiple videos but decided to roll with the long-form style. Let me know in the comments if you like videos this long, or if you’d rather I broke things up into a series of shorter episodes.
As mentioned in my previous video on the history of Bristol’s rivers, the port’s position several miles from the sea up the narrow, highly tidal Avon gorge was proving a constriction as far back as the 18th century. The great works to create the Floating Harbour in the early 1800s ultimately only postponed the port’s demise. The advent of containerisation essentially finished it off. In June 1963, 80 ships docked in Bristol, by October 1969, only 28. So by the mid-1960s the City Council, who owned the docks, were already planning for their closure, and weighing up how they should be repurposed.
It should be noted they were not merely sitting back in passive acceptance of their imminent obsolescence. In fact, the council’s plans for a post-industrial harbour area were predicated on the development of a new port, capable of handling modern container ships, at the mouth of the Avon - outside the city but still under the council's ownership. This was duly approved in 1970 and we know it today as the Royal Portbury Dock. Given the forthcoming story of car-centric regeneration in the old city docks, I’m not sure if it’s ironic or the complete opposite of ironic that it’s best known as one of the UK’s biggest places for importing cars, handling over half a million vehicles a year.
The council’s 1969 proposal to close the city docks to commercial traffic was defeated, and in the end some regular freight traffic limped on until 1991 (delivering sand). Likewise, although the last Bristol-built ship launched in 1976, the industry did not entirely vanish as they expected at the time: smaller-scale boat building continues to this day.
But in the bigger picture, these holdouts arguably made little difference. The vast majority of the commercial docks did close, leaving an awful lot of waterfront real estate in need of re-invention.
Needless to say the idealists and planners drawing up visions and schemes in the 1960s were rather fixated on improving things for cars rather than people. In particular, their plans for an Outer Circuit Road are relevant here. An idea that had been knocking around since 1952, by the time of the 1966 Bristol City Centre Policy Report the proposals had been “upgraded” to motorway standard, three lane and fully grade-separated to handle high volumes of long-distance rather than just local traffic needs.
What’s interesting is that looking at these 1966 maps from the Council’s Civic Life publication, the road goes straight across Spike Island without any sort of junction here. There’s a junction on the north side of the harbour, although somewhat incredibly, the outer circuit road sails right over it without connecting to it - further reaffirming the notion this road was to serve traffic passing through, not people actually travelling within the city.
On this map, any junction immediately south of the New Cut is also conspicuous by its absence, with the interchange being considerably further south into Bedminster.
This map, which seems to be showing a 1969 iteration of the plans, does show an interchange with Coronation Road. Finally there’s this map, possibly from a local newspaper, which does show a junction here on Spike Island.
Adding to the murkiness of what was actually planned, speculative plans in 1969 also discussed draining large sections of the harbour, perhaps even running roads along the ex-riverbed. It seems this was never technically feasible, and the council subsequently backtracked, claiming the piece had only been intended to “generate discussion”.
For “discussion”, read “opposition”. Even the council admitted they may have blundered in proposing such extreme reclamation of the harbour. The return of the SS Great Britain to Bristol in 1970 generated huge public interest, and can be seen as a turning point in a new wave of appreciation and pride for the city’s maritime heritage. If you’re not aware, the SS GB was built in Bristol to the design of famed engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, launched in 1843 and was at the time easily the biggest ship in the world, making it kind of a big deal in historic ship circles.
And because the road proposals intended to demolish historic Georgian pubs and swathes of Victorian housing, it wasn’t just maritime heritage fans, boat clubs and other harbour-centric voices in opposition, either, but a generous cross section of conservationists and residents. Still, none of this opposition stopped Parliament passing a Bill in 1971 empowering the Council to close the Harbour, and reclaim parts of it including Temple Back and the Feeder Canal.
The Council then appointed Casson Conder architects to create a study of the Harbour and how to best redevelop it - what would today perhaps be labelled masterplanning. The eponymous Sir Hugh Casson was famed for overseeing the architecture of the 1951 Festival of Britain, which saw International Modernist concrete deployed enthusiastically, so he was hardly a stuck-in-the-mud traditionalist or opponent of progress, but his report on Bristol Docks came to a firmly conservationist conclusion.
It is from his report of 1972 that our terrifying red spaghetti map originates. In it, he warned that “The proposals for the Outer Circuit Road crossing the Floating Harbour and the multi-level junction on the south bank should most seriously be reconsidered. [The area] cannot accommodate an Urban motorway of this scale without very great disturbance to its unique character”.
It would be nice to continue this story with “and then everybody realised he was right, a bloody great urban motorway would be horrible and totally ruin the area, so they decided not to do that, here, or indeed anywhere” - a feelgood story where reason prevails because people are reasonable.
In reality there are a couple of less wholesome explanations why this road never ruined this area.
In 1972 Parliament passed the Local Government Act, under the terms of which the County of Avon came into force in 1974. Avon consisted of what is today the city and county of Bristol plus the local government districts of North Somerset, Bath and North East Somerset and South Gloucestershire. Crucially, this new authority was given power over Transport and Highways, and many of the personnel responsible for the existing plans transferred accordingly. The new planners appointed for the City of Bristol no longer had long-distance highways in their remit, and this combined with a natural degree of “them versus us” jealousy, rivalry and politicking between the two authorities meant that the City was more predisposed to side against the intrusive motorway schemes being “imposed” by the County.
Perhaps the most important, if undramatic reason why the road scheme never happened was economic. The 1970s, with the oil crisis and all, was not a good time for Bristol, or the UK in general. Investment and property development was essentially nonexistent.
By the time any money appeared, prevailing trends in planning no longer favoured urban motorways. By 1992 the notion that building bigger roads just created bigger traffic jams was widespread, and the council’s plan flatly stated that they “believe that in general major new road construction is unlikely to address the city's current traffic problems”.
That’s not to say the 80s was free of car-dependent thinking, mind you. Far from it. The first phase of residential redevelopment at the eastern end of Spike Island, next to Bathurst Basin, was completed in 1982. Assessed by today’s standards, it’s very…. not great, not terrible. Heritage wise, the main facade of the Robinsons warehouse was preserved, although the rest of it…. was not, and perhaps more could have been saved. Architecturally, the harbour-facing housing does a not-great, not-terrible job of vaguely mimicking the traditional Georgian terraces. The general proportions are sort of there, but the execution is a bit… 80s. Density-wise, we have something reasonably urban rather than suburban, befitting such a central location in the city: we have terraces not semi-detached or detached, and three or four stories not two.
If you’re into urbanism youtube, you probably already know the concept of the ‘15 minute city’, where people no longer need or even want a car for daily life because everything they need is within 15 minutes’ walk or cycle. In terms of walkability, residents here kind of enjoy that by default, since the prime location puts most of the city centre’s established amenities in that range, but as a development in itself, it provides essentially nothing toward that. I think it originally featured some office space which has since also become residential, but I might be wrong. It certainly doesn’t offer any sort of active frontages - no retail, no food and drink. So despite it being reasonably dense, it ultimately feels rather suburban-dormitory, more akin to something you’d find in a dozy commuter village than near the epicentre of a major city. Away from the quayside, it’s all a bit cul-de-sac with one-if-not-two cars outside every home.
Much the same story, perhaps even more so, can be seen at the Baltic Wharf development completed in 1986. On paper, yes, it’s actually three or four storey blocks of reasonable density, not a bunch of two storey semis in a village, but head round the back and architecturally, it ain’t half desperately trying to look like the latter.
Look, I really want to avoid coming across as that dreaded ‘sneering metropolitan elitist’ sort, but this mock tudor stuff - I’m sorry, but I think it’s naff, it’s always been naff, it will always be naff. And even if I put on my ‘all tastes are equally valid’ hat and pretend that it can be totally cool and classy when it’s done well -- that isn’t done well.
Once again, though, the bigger criticisms are about what isn’t part of this scheme, not what is. This time, the residents were bestowed with a token chain corner shop, but somehow that only serves to make the development even more like something dreamed up for a village, not a prime city centre location. Otherwise, while the development is technically permeable, there are no shops, no cafes, no schools or whatever else to give anyone reason to permeate. The sculptures provided on the waterfront are a positive contribution, but stepping through these arches is very much flipping a lightswitch from historic, civic, public space, to nondescript backstreet.
Getting back to the vague theme of this video, it’s also particularly relevant that we do see huge amounts of space allocated to parking, and what we don’t see is any real public transport offering. This is particularly bewildering and frustrating because from here on Vauxhall Bridge we can glance over from our mock-tudor gable ends and observe we are literally adjacent to a railway line.
This is a remnant of the industrial Bristol Harbour Railway, which ran the full length of Spike Island and beyond. At some point I want to do a full video on the Harbour Railway, so I’ll try and force myself not to lengthily detail the route and history. For now, just know that as of the early 80s, most of the route didn’t even really need restoring or rebuilding. It was literally right here, operational and carrying passengers already - the heritage railway began running in 1978. Throughout the 80s tourists were shuffled between the M Shed and SS Great Britain on heritage stock, and from 1987 these jaunts extended down here.
Although that first housing scheme near Bathurst Basin had done an unfortunately excellent job of making it pretty impossible to restore the historic link onwards to Temple Meads through the tunnel under Redcliffe, there were still many prospects for a scheme to extend somewhere useful at relatively low cost. .At the western end, the Harbour Railway historically looped around the north side and ran all the way back to Canon’s Marsh, although this track had also been built over by an early-80s scheme. There was also a ready-made crossing of the New Cut in place, so it would have been fairly simple to extend services to loop back through Parson Street and Bedminster, or send them out to Bristol’s economic satellite towns like Portishead and Weston-super-Mare. Alternatively, buying street-running trams could have opened up umpteen possibilities to extend the nucleus provided by the Harbour Railway into a wider rapid transport solution for the broader city.
When I started making this video, I struggled to understand why nobody seriously proposed a light rail scheme of this nature. After all, this was the 1980s; the same era when London’s docklands were likewise undergoing regeneration, docklands which like Bristol found themselves with a bunch of leftover industrial railway. This was duly converted into the Docklands Light Railway, which became an enormous success, so it’s not like this sort of vision was way ahead of its time. It turns out, there was exactly such a scheme, the Avon Metro. Actually, that vision was somewhat ahead of its time, because while most other metro schemes of the era aimed to provide transport for people without cars, Bristol had one of the highest rates of car ownership in the country; it explicitly aimed, therefore, to take modal share away from cars, for environmental and social reasons.
So why did it never happen?
Well, I’ve already mentioned the standard scapegoat: London. Internet debate about UK transport is almost guaranteed to result in one particularly loud (but misinformed) segment claiming, to paraphrase, that “obviously the DLR was approved while Bristol’s was not, because nasty meanie greedy Londoners love to splurge on luxury transport systems for themselves while refusing even scraps for any other British city”.
Even ignoring the fact that 89% of MPs are elected by and for the 87% of population outside London, proponents of this line of thinking might struggle to explain how, if London was inherently opposed to approving or funding regional projects to convert old industrial rail for post-industrial transit, the Tyne and Wear metro opened in 1980, 70% funded by central government. They may also have a tough time rationalising the fact that Parliament cheerfully approved the Avon Light Rail Transit Bill of 1989 which dealt with an initial line from Portishead to Wapping Wharf, but, as Wikipedia summarises, the project was ultimately shot down by “objections from the Port of Bristol and Bristol South MP Dawn Primarolo”.
It seems we will need to look closer to home to explain the non-existence of Avon Metro.
The first clue is in the name - Avon Metro, not Bristol Metro. The second clue is in the scheme’s originator - Richard Cottrell, who was neither a Bristol city councillor nor Avon County Councillor, but rather the region’s Member of European Parliament.
I don’t think it’s being unduly cynical to identify an element of “Not Invented Here” syndrome - the councils didn’t support the plan, because it wasn’t their plan. It is a bit more complicated than that, to be fair. So complicated, in fact, I found an entire Master’s Thesis about it. As thesis author Gary Parsons points out, Avon County Council were far from huge supporters of rail - they “only allocated £40,000 to renovate the main commuter rail route into the city, the Severn Beach Line, yet also proceeded with the construction of the Avon Ring Road at a cost of £43 million”.
But Avon County Council was hamstrung in this regard by its status as a non-metropolitan county. For those unfamiliar with English local government, metropolitan counties are essentially ones which are entirely urbanised - they cover a metro area. Tyne and Wear, including the towns and cities of Newcastle, Gateshead, Sunderland, North and South Shields, etc, was a metropolitan county, but Avon, containing Bristol, Bath, Portishead, Weston-super-Mare etc, was not. This wasn’t an unreasonable choice on the face of it - vast amounts of the county of Avon looked like this (and still do). Tyne and Wear was a near-continuous urban agglomeration in a way that Avon definitely was not. But it meant Bristol ended up being the biggest English city without metropolitan status, and this had all sorts of ramifications in terms of what grants counties could or could not apply for, whether or not they had Passenger Transport Authorities, and accordingly how much power they had for integrated transport planning.
In a sense, then we can’t really blame Bristol or Avon authorities for failing to replicate the results seen in Newcastle, Manchester or elsewhere, because even if they had tried their hardest to build the Avon Metro, they lacked equivalent structures and powers. Unfortunately, the same fractious two-tier local government system that had helped save Spike Island from the 60s motorway plans, also helped block the 80s light rail plans. Since Westminster had determined this two-tier system when reconfiguring counties in 1972, perhaps the finger of blame swerves back to national government after all.
But, it is clearly not the case that Bristol or Avon did try their hardest to build the Avon Metro. In fact, they refused to even fund a feasibility study. They had various objections, but mostly they simply didn’t see where the money was supposed to come from.
Cottrell was not easily deterred, however, and in a remarkable, thesis-worthy move, he decided that if none of the tiers of local government would support his vision for a local transport network, he’d just bypass them entirely and build it without them. As such, he founded a private company in November 1986 called Advanced Transport for Avon. Influenced by the neoliberal economics of the time, he came to believe the system could be financed entirely by the private sector, both built and operated without any taxpayer, council or government funding at all, describing it as a “free gift for Bristol”.
To cheerfully oversimplify the economics, the idea was that the developers of residential or commercial schemes near the route would contribute in-line with the uplift in land and property value the Metro system would provide, known as “planning gain”. For example, without a Metro, you might consider it suitable to build, ooh, let’s say, some three storey mock tudor houses, which you could rent for, say, a million pounds. Whereas, with a Metro, you could reasonably build twenty stories of grade A office space and attract a swathe of rich commercial tenants netting you, say, ten million pounds. Thus, as a land-owner, it was a no brainer for you to give ATA a million pounds to build the metro, you’d still be eight mill richer.
To be clear, I have completely made up and doubtless vastly exaggerated those numbers for the purposes of illustration. I don’t know exactly what sort of land value boost or return on investment ATA forecast. In fact, reading Hansard records of Parliament debating the Bill, one of Dawn Primarolo’s main lines of argument against it was that it failed to provide nearly enough detail on the nitty gritty of how the funding would work.
Given that she, like most of Bristol council at the time, were from the left-wing of the Labour party, it is probably fair to say they resisted the scheme for ideological reasons. That is to say, even if ATA had come up with irrefutably detailed proof that the numbers did add up, they would not have liked the notion of a privately-owned company wielding so much influence on the city without their having any control over it. They also feared it would only build profitable routes serving wealthy commuters, and ignore poorer constituents in the city.
As a fervent supporter of public transport, but also a fervent sceptic of neoliberal rhetoric and privatisation of public services in practice, it’s hard to know where my natural sympathies lie on this one. I try to be self-aware of my biases, but in this case they are pulling me in both directions. In hindsight, it’s incredibly frustrating that local authorities at this time seemed to lack the vision and/or ambition and/or ability to build a metro on their own terms, and were too stubborn to even attempt doing it on anybody else’s. But the same hindsight suggests they may have had some pretty good points. Planning gain capture of this nature is today often achieved through special local levies or taxation, but as a private company ATA could not impose new taxes. Would the private sector really have fully funded this thing, up-front, fully voluntarily?
Take this footbridge for example: a rather modest looking structure. Yet the City council had found the developers of Merchant’s Quay unwilling to pay for even this small piece of infrastructure. It looks like it was built from random bits of steel tube discarded by industry, because it had been designed to be built from random bits of steel tube discarded by industry, to save money, because the developers were being that stingy. With this negotiation in recent memory, no wonder the council were sceptical private sector property developers would stump up the exponentially greater sums required to do things like build a rail/tram swing bridge to link the Harbour line at Wapping Wharf into the city. At least, not the kind of property developers the council wanted to work with…
Compare, again, with London’s docklands transport - this was partially bankrolled by “planning gain” style concepts; major contributions came from companies like Olympia and York, who had put up One Canada Square, and its successor Canary Wharf Group who proceeded to build further huge office skyscrapers to tempt financial services firms to relocate from the overcrowded City of London. Speculative office developers, in other words.
In Bristol, however, policy was firmly against letting speculative office developers run amok on the harbourside. Their declared priorities were residential and cultural or leisure uses, not office, and the insistence that all developments be contextually suitable with the Conservation Area character discouraged the sort of large floor plates and glass curtain wall architecture that major office developments favoured, anyway. In fact, the council’s policy was sufficiently discouraging of large offices that it took some creative justification in 1987 to approve the Lloyds Bank HQ across the harbour at Canon’s Marsh. This, you see, wasn’t speculative office development because Lloyds were building it for Lloyds to move into.
Still, it is an interesting hypothetical question: what if Bristol council had taken a fully Canary Wharf approach to the Harbour’s regeneration? If the site of those mock tudor houses had been turned into huge, impermeable, un-contextual, shiny glass skyscrapers full of bankers, which had paid for an equally shiny rapid transit system, would Bristol really be a better place? Even as a non-car owning massive fan of public transport, and an aesthetic/photographic fan of massive shiny skyscrapers, and a sneering hater of mock tudor houses, come to that - I find it difficult to declare that it would. I can imagine long term Bristolians would be even less keen to accept the bounty of a DLR-type network if it came at the expense of the harbour’s unique character being stamped beneath 40 stories of internationally-generic glass-and-steel willy-waving.
As it happened, the recession of the late 80s and early 90s put paid to hopes of plentiful “planning gain”, and ATA instead started fishing for government grants - unsuccessfully. Meanwhile, their plans for phase 2, now requiring street running trams rather than an underground tunnel, to save money, provoked far bigger local opposition than phase 1. Motorists and cyclists found themselves unlikely allies against the metro, as the tram sought reclaim space from both busy roads and a disused railway line that charity Sustrans had only recently converted to its flagship cycle route. Heritage-minded groups like the Bristol Civic Society who had helped defeat the motorways also turned against the metro. In the end, ATA fell apart with debts as the council turned to the cheaper and less controversial prospect of partly-guided buses as its solution for its “metro”.
Indeed, some quarter of a century later, a descendant of the guided buses scheme is what we got. Chunks of the Harbour railway at the bridge across the New Cut were lifted, curtailing even the heritage operations, in order to install a few hundred metres of a guided bus lane. Not long later, a bit of the road nearby collapsed into the river and they ended up having to send the fancy new buses down the normal gridlocked roads anyway. No, I’m not making this up. Yes, this is really the state of public transport in 2020s Bristol. But no, this rant doesn’t belong in this video… another time...
Where was I? Ah yes, the regeneration of Spike Island, circa 1992, with the Avon Metro abandoned.
Policy may have called for more leisure and cultural offerings in the reborn Harbourside, but these were mostly intended for Canon’s Marsh, and Spike Island development in the 90s and early 2000s remained resolutely residential.
Architecturally speaking, I personally prefer this block of apartments, with its crisp if somewhat bland modernist massing enlivened with splashes of colour, to this one’s relative fussiness, but from a more urbanist perspective they are all fairly interchangeable. Although a bit denser, they're arguably not even much different from our mock-Tudor or mock-Georgian housing developments that we saw earlier, in that they similarly assume that most of the residents here (15 minutes walk from the city centre, remember) will be wanting a car, and nobody saw anything wrong with cheerfully obliterating a former trackbed of the railway in order to give them somewhere to park.
This view pretty much says it all as far as Bristol public transport ambition and vision is concerned. This could have been a tram or light rail line speeding people to the shops, workplace, or the airport… or it could have been a cycle path, giving two-wheeled commuters a smooth bypass of all the troublesome cobbles, old railway lines and dithering tourists on the main quayside. Or perhaps a pocket park, on an island almost devoid of green space. But no - instead, a dead-end, barely used PRIVATE ROAD lined with one-storey garages was deemed to be the best use of space.
And, just like the 80s schemes, they similarly offer pedestrian permeability between their buildings and across their site, but do so in a way that feels begrudging, almost passive-aggressive. There’s no shops or cafes at ground floor level to invite public engagement; on the contrary, you have to duck through archways and around blind corners, past signs saying things like “Private Land”, feeling like a trespasser. Rather than knit the island into a cohesive active district, they discourage a casually exploring pedestrian from venturing into the interior, keeping all public activity and interest to the quayside fringes.
From an urbanist youtuber perspective this feels like an enormous waste, but perhaps this is a good thing. I can well imagine someone watching this video and thinking “well I know I’d rather live in a nice quiet street than have a hundred thousand tourists traipse past my flat all day and night. For the residents’ sake, thank goodness the architects and planners had the good sense to design them in this discouraging way!”
And you know what… I can’t really argue with that in many ways. I totally understand the appeal of living somewhere that you can drive up your quiet cul-de-sac and park up, safe in the knowledge that nobody except your neighbours is likely to pass through -- I grew up in exactly that sort of housing estate myself. So I don’t want to sound like I’m sneering at that lifestyle. But let’s be blunt... the UK is not exactly short of housing developments catering to that taste. In fact, that seems to describe 90% of houses built in 90% of villages, small towns and suburbs in the last 50 years or more - but there is only one historic epicentre of maritime Bristol, and with no disrespect to the residents here, I can’t be the only one to find it slightly underwhelming to build chunks of that typology here.
It would almost make more sense to me if the entire island had been designated as a tranquil dormitory sort of suburb, but as I say, the plans specifically called for a vibrant, cultural, mixed-use sort of vibe. And to be fair, while the individual developments of the 80s may not have been terribly mixed-use, the island as a whole certainly turned out that way.
Creative industries are so often the vanguard of regeneration (or gentrification) in post-industrial areas, for the rather prosaic reason that creative types are often happy to set up shop in a borderline-derelict warehouse providing it’s cheap. Spike Island certainly saw a bit of this phenomenon.
Just across from our mock tudor corner shop, we find an eponymous arts centre, Spike Island. Originally founded as Artspace in the mid-1970s, they moved to this former tea-packing warehouse in 1992. It provides space for both public galleries and exhibitions, and studios and offices for over 70 artists and creative small businesses.
And what story of Bristol’s creative industries would be complete without a mention of these guys? Aardman Animation have been based on Spike Island for decades, during which time they have brought us masterpieces like Wallace & Gromit, Shaun the Sheep and Chicken Run. Their current studio was built in the 2000s.
Unfortunately, their website makes plain that you have no chance of a studio tour, owing to the confidentiality of their ongoing projects. I’ve always thought it’s quite a shame there’s no Aardman Museum or Visitor Centre here. Being next to SS Great Britain, there’s no shortage of passing tourists, and there is surely no shortage of Wallace & Gromit or Shaun fans who would cough up to see an exhibition of sets, models and paraphernalia. I know I would. So I actually decided to be a bit cheeky and email Aardman to ask if they’d ever considered doing anything like that, and if not, why not? (Although I tried to be a bit more diplomatic than that, obviously.) And they said… well, they didn’t reply at all, but I’ll let them off. They were probably too busy making Oscar-winning films.
While we’re dropping famous names, Banksy also stopped by this neck of the woods to give us his take on Girl with a Pearl Earring.
If we fast-forward to the most recently completed scheme, at Wapping Wharf, we see many of the grumbles I had about the exclusively residential nature of earlier schemes have been addressed. Here we see the urban planning buzzwords of the 2000s and 2010s getting ticked off and then some. Frontages are decidedly active. Uses are decidedly mixed. Movement throughout the site is decidedly interconnected with surrounding desire corridors. Et cetera, et cetera.
Furthermore, no tedious national chains were allowed to take up the commercial space - local entrepreneurs, restaurateurs and pop-ups were prioritised. It even has its very own connection to Bristol’s shiny new rapid transit system, assuming you think a bus stop relating to those ‘special’ buses that run along the aforementioned bus lane that fell in the river qualifies as a rapid transit system, which you shouldn’t.
It is, somebody has no doubt claimed in some marketing copy somewhere, not just somewhere to live, but a ‘destination’, a 'lifestyle', blah blah blah, sorry. I’m not good with this PR stuff but you get the idea. As someone who lives near here but not here here, I appreciate having several new cuisines within walking reach, and I appreciate, more prosaically but frequently, having a direct route from Gaol Ferry Bridge through to the city centre, but having seen how busy this corridor is at various hours of the day and night, I find myself with another one of those awkward thought experiments: all else being equal, would I actually choose to live in a flat overlooking this, or would I rather live in one of the blocks where the frontages are tad less… activated?
Personally speaking, I think the architecture of the permanent parts of this scheme is pretty decent. It has a warehouse-y, harbour-y aesthetic without being complete pastiche, and the materials are high quality, high on brick and wood, reflecting the historic use of this location as the timber wharf, and low on the naff plasticky stuff that so many new blocks are clad with.
I’m a tad cynical about the whole ‘repurposed shipping containers’ thing, however. I think it’s supposed to be cool because for one thing, it re-uses old shipping containers, and re-using things is like recycling but even better, very eco-friendly, and for another thing, it’s so historically and aesthetically contextual, isn't it, a throwback to the days when this was a working port…. except… no. Absolute cobblers.
If you were paying any sort of attention at the start of the video, you may remember this redevelopment literally happened in the first place because Bristol city docks were never capable of handling containers. I’m also highly sceptical that the containers used for these architectural projects are really ‘repurposed’ from actual cargo service. I rather suspect all these container projects could be built equally well, if not better in terms of insulation and energy efficiency and so on, with any number of other, less trendy prefab construction methods, and the whole shipping container schtick is, well… just schtick.
Such cynicism aside, there’s no denying the footfall it has achieved. Which is probably why the next batch of projects continue the trend, looking a lot more like Wapping Wharf than they do any of its predecessors.
Here at MacArthur’s Yard for example, this vacant site will soon become a warehouse-style block of flats with space for retail and food and drink on the ground floor. This time corten steel and zinc cladding are used to add to the industrial aesthetic.
Down at Baltic Wharf, the council have proposed to replace what is currently a caravan site with this scheme. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then I think the team behind Wapping Wharf should be very flattered, because it looks to me like much the same recipe. Pretty much the same height, same shape, same aspiration for ground floor cafes and delis.
Which is why I’m slightly baffled that much of the reaction to these plans has been so negative. Apparently they are far too tall, despite the fact pretty much every development I’ve shown you in this video has been somewhere around 4, 6, 7 storeys, the same as this one. Apparently this makes them out of scale with the historic surroundings, despite the fact there are several enormous 10 storey warehouses right over there. And apparently the commercial provision is completely unnecessary because the Cottage Inn already exists; yet several cafes already existed near the M Shed before Wapping Wharf was built, and all those cargo containers found ample punters nonetheless.
And apparently something more like Baltic Wharf phase one, aka our mock tudor boxes, would be far more appropriate - which I suppose just confirms, despite all my best attempts not to be, I must be one of those sneering metropolitan elitists grossly out of touch with popular taste.
To be clear, I don’t mean to diminish public concerns about the proposals here; people are rightly sensitive as it’s next door to Underfall Yard, which is arguably the most important chunk of the historic fabric of the city docks, largely surviving and still operational. This was where the hydraulic power to move the harbour’s cranes, locks and sluices was generated, and is still the base for both the harbour master and various boatbuilding industries.
The generally historically-intact nature of Underfall Yard makes it thoroughly worthy of a future video of its own, and less worthy of further detail in a video that's about repurposing and rebuilding. So I’ll swiftly move on… and west of Underfall Yard, this video comes full circle.
Alas, those shots of tangled slip-roads blighting the landscape which I used to illustrate what could have happened near Wapping Wharf, but thankfully didn’t, were not just random stock footage. They are shots of what did happen to the western tip of Spike Island.
The Cumberland Basin road scheme was built from 1963 to 1965. It’s one of those road schemes where history contrived to add insult to injury. The injury being not just the visual pollution, noise pollution and pollution pollution created by this high capacity, grade-separated road system, but the simple fact that it takes up so much damn space, leaving no room for homes, museums, shops, schools, et cetera.
The insult being that all this blight was for practically no benefit at all. This is an interchange fit for a reasonably high rate of traffic, but it doesn’t get that rate of traffic because it doesn’t connect to a correspondingly big road or a big destination. This was filmed in rush hour and you can see for yourself how busy it isn’t. The only real purpose it serves is an alternative route when the main swing bridge is open, but drivers tend to simply wait in a queue for 15 minutes rather than use it anyway.
It’s not even that the road it was meant to connect to was never built. As far as I can tell, that unbuilt urban motorway we were looking at further east, was actually planned to swerve off the island back across the New Cut, before it gets here. So why this junction was so overbuilt, I can’t actually figure out.
The good folks at the Sabre forums, the society for road enthusiasts, know much more about roads than I, and some of them even visited local records offices to go digging through the paper archives from the 60s and 70s, and even they were left completely stumped as to how the Cumberland Basin GSJ’s (that’s grade-separated junctions) were ever intended to connect to the Outer Circuit. The good-slash-bad news is that these mid-1960s structures are approaching their end of life. Good news, as this presents an opportunity, or really a necessity, to get rid of this mess and hopefully replace it with something nicer. Bad news, in that this is a pretty difficult situation, and it seems unlikely the replacement will really please most people.
A tunnel is not feasible - sending the Portway downhill into a tunnel portal is kind of a bad idea, since it already floods on the level it’s at. Immediately to the east is the historic Underfall Yard, so no options there. Immediately to the west is perhaps Bristol’s most iconic view, the Clifton Suspension Bridge soaring across the Avon Gorge, which, oh, by the way, hosts a number of rare or even completely unique endemic species and as such is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest for both biological and geological reasons, and a Special Area of Conservation…. so you can imagine swerving a dual carriageway across here isn’t really a popular option either. So as far as the main road goes, it’s hard to see how they can avoid a more-or-less equally sized and located replacement.
As far as the details of the slip-roads, layout of junctions, and what to do with the freed-up land, well… the council published various options a couple of years ago, but I will refrain from digging through them and critiquing in detail for a couple of reasons. Firstly, this video is already far too long, and secondly, public reaction was generally so negative that the council professed to go ‘back to the drawing board’.
Even the council’s name for the scheme, “Western Harbour”, provoked some opposition. "Why the contrived rebrand, what is wrong with the traditional 'Cumberland Basin' name?", people demanded. I quite agreed with this, which was why I was slightly abashed to discover during my research that the term “Harbourside”, which as a 21st century transplant to Bristol I’ve always considered normal, and have used freely, was in itself the result of a concerted marketing campaign, an equally contrived rebrand of what would probably previously have been called the City Docks.
Anyway, perhaps when the next iteration of Western Harbour proposals are released I might do a video reacting to them in full. For now, I’ll sum marise in broad brush-strokes. Most options involve removing this jumble of elevated slip-roads, which I think is good, and I think most people would agree. In doing so, most options would also see some drivers find themselves waiting at lights where previously a free-flow route existed. As a non-car owner, it’s easy for me to declare this a sacrifice well worth making, but perhaps others are less keen.
All the options involve filling the reclaimed land with fairly dense, Wapping Wharf style residential-led but mixed-use development. As at Baltic Wharf, this is where my opinion perhaps tends to diverge from the majority. Or are they more of a vocal minority? I don’t know, but there seems to be a prevailing sentiment that this sort of 6-7 storey apartment block will somehow defile the historic character of the area. As you’ve probably gathered from this video already, my personal opinion - and it is just my personal opinion, please don’t abuse me in the comments if you disagree - is that architecturally speaking, Wapping Wharf integrates much better in terms of “feel”, than Baltic Wharf (phase one) does. It’s not like I rank this style of architecture as particularly amazing or praise-worthy, per se, but it certainly doesn’t offend me like it seemingly does many. And honestly, buildings of that massing and texture are far more akin to what used to be here than a weirdly 80s-PoMo take on mock-tudor could ever dream of being. If you don’t like taller buildings, fair enough, but looking at this it’s pretty clear which is the more comparable with the historic context.
On the other hand, another major source of objection to large scale development here is the fact that it’s an exceptionally flood-prone location, and that’s not a subjective issue. Recent tragic events in Germany, for example, should illustrate that in an age of climate change, huge, destructive floods are not an abstract threat. Does it really make sense to build thousands of new homes exactly where a major tidal river would be likely to flood?
In fact, I should rephrase that - exactly where a major tidal river will flood, and already does flood. Not putting too fine a point on it, we’ve seen how today’s Avon, without accounting for future climate change, is already powerful enough here to, y’know, make bits of bus lane fall in the river. OK, OK, technically, the bus lane didn’t fall in the river, the path next to it did, and anyway my own flat is in a flood risk area so I probably shouldn’t be joking about this at all.
But perhaps, with only a teeny tiny hint of sarcasm, I might make a suggestion. Borrow a trick from this 80s block at Merchant’s Landing, where hidden behind these cute fishies cut out from the ground floor facade, lies a parking garage. All the new buildings at the Cumberland Basin should have one, maybe two, or even three storeys of parking garage like this. That way, all the future residents’ homes can remain unscathed above the floods. And everybody gets somewhere to park their car, which unfortunately will forever remain a necessity on this island, being as it was sadly cursed with only several kilometres of fully operational standard gauge railway track, bridges and platforms, and thus completely impossible to provide with any rapid transport provision whatsoever, except for a little bit of bus lane which fell in the river already.
OK, that’s way too negative a note to end the video on. I’ll try again.
Let’s hope that the future of Cumberland Basin draws upon all the best practices of 21st century architecture and urban planning to create a historically respectful yet environmentally forward-looking paradise where man and nature live together, happily ever after.
Well, that's all for this video. Thanks for watching. And as always, thanks to all of the people whose work I've built upon in the making of this video. Wikipedia authors, thesis authors, photographers, map-makers, etc. Please do like and subscribe and maybe I'll make some more. Cheers.