Friday, 7 August 2009

To Portishead on Two Wheels

Let’s start from the Arnolfini. Cross the Prince Street bridge and head along the far side of the floating harbour, under the old cranes, following the railway track away from the water and under the bridge to the south. From here the old railway path leads along the New Cut to the Create Centre, where the aged but still serviceable bridge takes you across to the meadows on the far bank.

That’s the hard bit done, navigation-wise. From here you’re following both the river and the route markers put up by Sustrans so you have to try quite hard to get lost.

The meadows opposite Cumberland Lock seem a rather featureless stretch of municipal grassland these days, dominated by the road system overhead, but there’s rich history here. At low tide the ramps used by passengers on the old Rownham Ferry can be seen in the glistening mud, while the footbridge over the railway track to the west is a remnant of the railway station that used to stand where the police now keep dogs and horses.

Railway tracks still follow the route of the river and are used to bring freight in from Royal Portbury Dock, but anyone hoping to catch the train home from Portishead will have to wait decades at least. The Beeching Axe cut Portishead off from the railway network in the 1960s and to reconnect this rapidly growing town seems a political impossibility.

Our path long predates Beeching and even the original building of the railways. As you ride along, under the Suspension Bridge with the water on your right, you’re following a towpath used for centuries to pull ships up and down the river. Until steam tugs ended their monopoly in the nineteenth century it was the Pill Hobblers who controlled this lucrative business. Men or horses dragged boats laden with cargo up a tidal river even the best sailors struggled to navigate.

If you ride often along this stretch of river, with the gorge rising on either side, you get a powerful sense of the Avon’s shifting beauty and treacherous character. At the still point of high tide you can be looking across a calm and silvery expanse of water but a couple of hours later the scene is transformed and the river is rushing headlong towards the sea. At low tide it seems impossible that any ship ever came up this way, as the silvery water is replaced by steep banks of silvery mud.

The path too has its moments. Sometimes you find yourself high above the river and in the absence of guard rails some caution is necessary, particularly at busy times. The next minute you’re hurtling downhill towards a huge mud puddle. For a mile or so after the Suspension Bridge you’re riding along the bottom end of Leigh Woods, with paths leading up from the bank into the trees. Some of these are easily passable, but one or two are steep and rocky; to get into the woods the best access point is the turn-off marked with a Sustrans sign, heading towards Paradise Bottom.

Now we leave the gorge and the overhanging trees and ride in a long curve through open country. This is the notorious Horseshoe Bend, scene of numerous shipwrecks. Here the current swirls unpredictably and a vessel only has to lose its position a fraction to be turned sideways and stranded, as happened most infamously to the Demerara in the 1850s. For the cyclist, however, this is a peaceful, rural section of the ride. Herons nesting in the woods on the far bank can often be seen fishing at low tide along with other waterbirds such as oystercatchers and tufted ducks.

Also on the far bank is the Powder House, once an essential feature of Bristol’s maritime life. Here all incoming vessels were obliged to moor and offload their (explosive) powder, although many would have stopped here anyway, taking advantage of the secure anchorage at Hung Road, just downstream of Horseshoe Bend, to unload or await the tide.

From here the path leaves the river bank, taking you along back lanes to Pill. This is an odd region, with an ancient pond followed by modern landscaping and some bizarre public art that includes an artificial mound you have to ride around. What the point of it is one can only guess, but now the path goes gently downhill into Pill proper, around the tiny but historically important harbour and on through the backstreets.

Thanks to Sustrans the route is clearly marked as you negotiate street and path, taking care to follow the path under the motorway bridge rather than onto it. From here the last few miles are a study in contrast. First, a series of giant warehouses and car parks, in which rows and rows of new cars and vans wait for their useful lives to begin. Then, just as you begin to think the car parks must stretch all the way to Portishead, you emerge into the old, genteel village of Portbury. Beyond it lies the last patch of undeveloped land in this area. Known as Sheepway, this fragment of ancient countryside is the true destination of this ride; if you stop on the bridge you can look down on the abandoned railway and over to Portishead, which seems a little closer each time I come.

Excerpted from an article in The Bristol Magazine

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