RIVER AVON TRAIL
Stage 1: Pill to Bristol
Sunday, August 7, 2016
I walked this short first stage of the River Avon Trail on a sunny Sunday evening after walking along the coast from Clevedon to Portishead and then skirting around the massive Royal Portbury Docks to reach the ancient harbour village of Pill.
Pill, originally called Crockerne Pill (meaning "pottery wharf"), was a busy port in the 12th and 13th centuries, exporting pottery made in nearby Ham Green to destinations all over Europe. For many centuries, Pill was also well-known for its pilots, who were skilled at guiding ships from the Bristol Channel into the Avon, a perilous task due to treacherous currents and the twelve-metre tidal range, the second highest in the world. Today, Pill is a large village that stands almost in the shadow of the Avonmouth Bridge, which carries the M5 over the River Avon (picture 1).
The River Avon Trail begins by an information board on the west side of the small inlet of Pill's harbour, near the spot where a ferry crossed the river to neighbouring Shirehampton from medieval times until 1974. As I had arrived on the falling tide, the harbour was devoid of water (picture 2).
The Trail heads off along the edge of the harbour and across a grassy area between the back of the harbour and the viaduct of the former Portishead Railway to cross Watchouse Road (picture 3). A surfaced path to the right of the rightmost house snakes uphill into the Watchouse Hill Open Space (picture 4), where the path soon runs parallel to the railway line.
Like many of Britain's branch lines, the Portishead Railway was closed to passengers in 1964 and eventually closed completely in 1981. In 2002, the line was partially reopened to provide freight services from the Royal Portbury Docks. At the time of writing there are proposals to reopen the line to Portishead.
On top of the hill, the path passes a playing field then skirts around a grassy, conical mound before continuing along an avenue of trees to meet Hart Close by the entrance of the Eden Office Park in Ham Green. On the little green by the junction, a National Cycle Network sign (picture 5) reveals that part of NCN Route 41 coincides with the River Avon Trail.
The route continues ahead briefly on Hart Close then bears left on Chapel Pill Lane, which descends beside the long, narrow Ham Green Lake (picture 6). The lane bends around the end of the lake to find a gate at the start of an enclosed path just below a small pasture. The path soon bends around to the left to pass the little inlet of Chapel Pill and return to the banks of the Avon.
The path now sticks close to the bank of the river -- almost empty at low-tide -- around a long right-hand bend. When the river finally begins to bend the other way (picture 7), the riverside path enters the large Leigh Woods National Nature Reserve, though the tranquility is rather disturbed by the busy A4, which runs along the opposite bank for the rest of the way to Bristol. The railway line to Portbury is now close to the riverbank and in several places the railway embankment and viaducts can be seen beside the path (picture 8).
A little further ahead, the river bends right again to pass through the high-sided Avon Gorge (picture 9) and gradually the magnificent Clifton Suspension Bridge comes into view, spanning the far end of the gorge, seventy-five metres above the River Avon (picture 10). The bridge was designed by the great Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel to link the Bristol suburb of Clifton with Leigh Woods. Construction began in 1831 but was halted by the Bristol Riots later that year and was subsequently beset by financial problems which delayed completion of the project until 1864.
The path continues along the riverbank to the end of Leigh Woods. Across the river are the lock gates of Bristol's Floating Harbour, built between 1804 and 1810 to ensure a constantly navigable depth of water in the centre of Bristol. As I was passing at low-tide, the height of the walls and lock gates emphasised the large tidal range here.
The Trail follows the Avon a little further, heading under the A3029 Brunel Way to reach a small park. At the far end of the park the Trail takes the Ashton Avenue Swing Bridge across the river to Spike Island, which separates the river from the Floating Harbour. Unfortunately at the time of my visit the swing bridge was closed for refurbishment, so I had to take a diversion up onto Brunel Way and across the river to the edge of the Cumberland Basin (picture 11), the first part of the Floating Harbour. From there, I followed the edge of the Floating Harbour through the Underfall Yard to Baltic Wharf (picture 12), where I rejoined the regular route of the River Avon Trail.
The Trail follows the old wharf past modern housing that has replaced the old wharf buildings. Beyond these the path leaves the edge of the Floating Harbour to skirt around the Baltic Wharf Marina and behind the dry-dock occupied by Brunel's famous SS Great Britain, returning to the harbourside at Wapping Wharf. From here there are good views across the water to Brandon Hill (picture 13), one of Bristol's best green spaces, which is topped by the Cabot Tower, a superb viewpoint that I visited a couple of days before this walk.
Along the length of Wapping Wharf are the tracks of part of the Bristol Harbour Railway (picture 14). Opened in 1872, the railway initially connected the Floating Harbour to the mainline at Bristol Temple Meads Station. The section along Wapping Wharf was added in 1876 and a further extension to join the Portishead Railway was added in 1904. It was for this extension that the Ashton Avenue Swing Bridge was built. The link to Temple Meads closed in 1964 and the link to the Portishead Railway closed in 1987, leaving the Bristol Harbour Railway marooned from the rest of the railway network.
The Trail continues along the wharf, passing the M Shed Museum of Bristol (picture 15) then turning left on a rickety bridge to cross to the north side of the Floating Harbour. About 100 metres ahead from the end of the bridge, the Trail turns right on Royal Oak Avenue to run along the south side of Queen Square (picture 16). I left the River Avon Trail here, having covered 10.9 kilometres from Pill.