Monday, 7 September 2009

Discovering Harbourside: Excerpt


John Cabot must have returned to Bristol on an August day much like this one, following a similar route, with a similar caution; though the topography of the Avon’s mouth has changed out of all recognition, the tide and the wind remain the same. Admittedly he had come from further afield than Portishead, but we’re only after a taste, a frisson of the Caboto experience.

Where the rivers meet, tidal currents compete to drag us north up the Severn and east towards Bristol, and skipper Rob Salvidge goes about his business of getting the Matthew home with the same sharp eyes and feel for the vessel’s motion, the same gestures even as the generations of sailors who have navigated this particular corner of the world’s oceans for a thousand years and more.

As we motor safely into the Avon we are passed by a pilot’s boat – a gleaming vessel bristling with antennae and businesslike intent - which reminds Salvidge of a modern nautical experience. In training for his Boat Master’s Licence he spent time with the pilots, and vividly recalls going out late at night to meet a container ship.

As the pilot’s boat approached, he said, the giant ship turned so that it formed a barricade against the wind, then a hatch opened twenty feet above in the steel cliff of its hull and a rope ladder came rattling down. He and the pilot climbed up this ladder, to be welcomed by the Asian crew – a crew, it has to be said, far smaller than the seventeen sailors Cabot took to find America. Up on the bridge a steward served them tiny Malaysian cakes as the ship made its way up the Bristol Channel.

In 1500 there were no containers bigger than a barrel, no Avonmouth, no motorway bridge, just farmland and woods crowding down to the water’s edge, while the river itself twisted and turned, taking the anxious mariner deeper and deeper into the unfamiliar land.

Even now it’s rather exciting. Beyond the motorway bridge buildings cluster round a tiny harbour at the mouth of a muddy creek. This is the village of Pill, famous – according to John Wesley – for its ‘stupid, brutal, abandoned wickedness’, but for centuries the guardian of the Avon and its shipping. It was Pill that provided umpteen generations of pilots, not to mention the towboat men and hobblers who pulled craft, either from rowboats or from the bank, up the river.

Between stories Salvidge is keeping a keen ear on the radio, which tells us that another vessel familiar to Bristolians is heading downstream towards us. As we approach the ancient anchorage of Hung Road, the Balmoral comes racing round the bend and flies past; the passengers lining the rail respond enthusiastically to a call over the tannoy for ‘Three cheers for the Matthew!’, and then we’re alone again on the river, bobbing in the pleasure boat’s wake.

Now we’re approaching Horseshoe Bend, a delightful stretch if you’re cycling along the path, but for mariners an age-old hazard. The shape of the bend and the sheer volume of water can turn the slightest miscalculation into a fatal error. How many captains have watched in horror as the deep water is sucked away, leaving only a narrow channel between steep, glistening banks of mud, on which their craft lies broken or rudely upended?

Constructed in the Bristol shipyards of William Patterson, builder of the Great Western and the Great Britain, the Demerara was launched with great ceremony on 10 November 1851. But an anxious tug captain, his eye on the clock and the state of the tide, approached Horseshoe Bend too fast and the Demerara ran aground. She was successfully refloated, but by now the tide was going out fast and the newly launched ship was dragged sideways across the river. As the water receded, the famous shipbuilder watched his ship and his career slowly break apart, with the sound of thousands of shiny new bolts snapping one by one.

Thankfully, we’re cruising gently around Horseshoe Bend on the most mild-mannered of neap tides. As Avon Gorge rises on either side I’m again trying to imagine what a sailor of Cabot’s time must have made of this singular passage upriver. The gorge then was wilder, the rock face on the Clifton side much closer to the water, but you can still sense the grandeur of the setting in the crags and steep forested valleys of the Somerset bank.

One imagines Odysseus and his crew approaching some magical isle, and yet this was Bristol, the country’s second or third most important port after London. No wonder the city and its waterways have attracted so many artists, with this fabulous contrast of mythic landscape and mercantile bustle. Today the artists are in the ascendant, but what would John Cabot make of it all, I wonder, as we cruise under the Suspension Bridge? Would he recognise anything?

This excerpt was first published in the 'Bristol Review of Books'. Photography by Stephen Morris.

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