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Discover the Fascinating History of Bristol's Floating Harbour

No one is quite sure when the first settlers arrived in Bristol. We know that the Romans used the city as a port and that Bristol has been inhabited since then. Right up to the Middle Ages, waterways were a much better form of transport than roads and so the docks maintained their importance for the city. Over time, Bristol Harbour became an important gateway for goods entering the country. Trading began within Europe, and then later products such as sugar and tobacco were traded across the Atlantic. This brought great wealth to the city but regrettably was also responsible for the city’s long history of trading enslaved people.

However, the docks faced a major problem as the size of ships visiting the harbour increased. Bristol docks had a large tidal range, which meant that ships could only enter the city at high tide. Ships that remained in the harbour as the tide went out were left resting on the muddy banks of the river. Any ships visiting Bristol needed to be strong enough to stay intact whilst in this tilted position. This is where many believe the phrase ‘ship shape and Bristol fashion’ originated from. Ships that were tilted were also difficult to load and unload, which wasted time and money. This made other port cities more profitable than Bristol.


To resolve this problem, Canal Engineer William Jessop was tasked with designing a solution. He came up with a Floating Harbour, which opened in 1809. He had a new channel dug out to bypass the docks and prevent the river Avon from flowing into them. The water inside the docks was then controlled by a dam with lock gates to allow ships through at high tide. This meant the water level in the harbour was always at high tide level, hence the name ‘The floating harbour’.


Although the Avon had been diverted, the River Frome was still able to flow into the Floating Harbour, which created a new problem: sand and silt deposits that could potentially accumulate in the harbour. To deal with this second problem, underground tunnels were built to link the Floating Harbour to River Avon. These tunnels were called the Underfall. The pressure of the water in the harbour pulls the silt through the tunnels. This system was so effective that it is still in use today.


Nowadays, the Floating Harbour is a popular tourist attraction and offers a glimpse into Bristol's rich maritime history. You can explore the harbour on our Bristol self-guided walking tour, where you will learn about the harbour's history, the impact of trade on the city, and the fascinating engineering behind the Floating Harbour. Don't miss out on this chance to experience the best of Bristol's history and culture!



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