Came down ‘ere about a fortnight ago, following the line of the river through town. Wasn’t having much luck until then, it was all shopping malls and traffic wardens. None of them wants you around, see. There was the occasional park and that, but they gets trouble up there in the night, so it wasn’t much use. Anyways, I ‘eard about the dockyard from some swanky magazine, believe it or not. Found a copy lying on the street someplace and had a read of it in a quiet doorway. Said the place had managed to ‘retain its historic character’, which I took to mean, it hadn’t all been turned into flats and restaurants like every other blinkin’ place I’s come across. So I followed the course of the water as best I could, and I see’s its already started; people spillin’ out to the water’s edge with cappuccinos and what ‘ave you. But there’s an old train line running through, with moss and spring flowers all mixing in. So, I started following the tracks as they curved downriver; like a highway of old it was, all crusty sleepers and rusted iron. Eventually led me ‘ere. There’s not a lot around, but that’s what I like about it. You can always find yourself a proper little nook where no one’ll bother you. Feel like I got friends in the cracks, y’know, and the peeling paint. And that water’s always running, churning through them old gates as sure as times passin’. Makes me think, if it all goes to pot, I’ll just find myself a nice bit of driftwood and float on out of ‘ere.
I feel like a proper adventurer as I emerge from the scrub following my conquest of the tunnel.
The sun breaks out again and I hot-wheel it down the pavement, the bridge flickering through the trees above. The end of the gorge is in sight now, rock giving way to Hotwells and the unsightly tangle of the Cumberland Basin octopus junction.
But its not over yet. This place still has a few surprises and the next one is perhaps the most surprising of them all. Set into the cliffs like a lost temple to transport is Clifton Rocks Railway, a Victorian construction that once saw a funicular train carry people up inside the rock to the top of gorge. The last I heard, there were attempts to get it running again, but as I cross the road for a closer look, there are no signs that this is the case. In fact, there’s not really much to look at apart from the bath-stone carved exterior and a gate, through which a glimpse of a tunnel is shortly consumed by darkness.
In case you’re wondering why so much effort went into ferrying people from bottom to top and back again, an answer lies in the adjacent buildings of the Colonnade and Pump Room, part of the Hotwell Spa that once existed here. They are a grand set of buildings, and at one time would have attracted a very grand class of clientele who came to benefit from the water’s health-giving properties. But much like the railway, they are largely ignored these days, except by the occasional rambling tourist or some commuters who happen to get stuck alongside during a traffic jam.
Opposite, is an old landing pier for steam boats that once graced the river and dropped off out-of-towners to the spa. It’s now rotting away in spectacular fashion, with great bows of wood bending or broken and gradually sinking in the merciless mud. It runs for 50 metres or so until a newer, concrete version replaces it, before the Brunel locks open out and the New Cut begins.
Looking across from 200ft up are the houses on The Paragon, majestically clinging to the very ends of the gorge. Then the rest of the neighbourhood sweeps down into Lower Clifton and beyond. I turn off here and negotiate the obstacle course-of-a-cycle route that cuts across a bridge and two locks, seeking out that waterside pint.
I make a quick stop at the viewpoint on the Downs and join the tourists and lunchtime strollers as they gaze into the hollow of the mighty Avon Gorge. It’s an epic sight, not least because of the majestic limestone cliffs and wooded banks that rear up from the riverside, but also due to its location right around the corner from Bristol city centre. In fact, I’m fairly sure that within ten minutes of passing under the Clifton Suspension Bridge that hangs across the mouth, it’s possible to find yourself in a pub with a nice harbourside view.
I keep that thought in mind as I ride off, turning down Seawalls Road into the genteel neighbourhood of Sneyd Park. Here is a land of pristine hedgerows and perfect driveways and more than a few properties that border on the castle variety. There also seems to be a distinct lack of traffic, which might have something to do with there being no obvious way to the river and I follow any road leading downwards in the hope of eventually finding it.
Then all of a sudden, secluded wealth is swept aside and replaced by gritty 1960’s housing before the Portway makes itself known; a fast and furious carriageway that runs/ruins the entire length of the gorge. Being a Sunday, however, the traffic is relatively calm and I’m able to get to the other side unscathed where a cycleway runs adjacent to the river.
I start riding and find the pavement wide enough (just) for two cyclists to pass each other without getting sucked into the tailwind of a freight lorry or toppling over the fence and into the mud, but it’s no less a humbling experience. Everything about the surroundings makes me feel small, from the huge expanse of water flowing past to the banks of trees that start to rise up on either side.
Nevertheless, there’s nothing particularly eye-catching on this initial stretch until my urban decay radar picks up something across the road. A rusted fence lies half-collapsed and mangled, opening the way to what appears to be an abandoned sports ground.
I chain up my bike and make a dash across the road. There is a barrier that stands between a gate and the fence, but I easily push it aside and squeeze through. A ramp leads down to an area of bare concrete where some long-extinguished fireworks waste away in the sun. To my right is a stripped out hut full of rubbish while to the left are two basketball courts. In the first, masonry lies strewn about like broken slabs of chocolate while the second is empty all but for a sorry-looking bike ramp made of chipboard. The only thing keeping the place alive seems to be the fresh-looking graffiti that decorates the walls.