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Bristol's Historic Harbour

Home > Bristol > Family | Outdoor | Unusual Things to do | Views | Walks
by Tom Fieldhouse (subscribe)
I am a freelance writer, living in Bath with my wife and son. I love my city, and love to live here. I write about Bath a lot, and sometimes about travels in Ireland and France.
Published July 26th 2020
Explore the awesome history of the docks
Cranes at Wapping Wharf, used until the 1960's

Bristol's historic harbour, also known as Wapping Wharf, is teeming with local, national and international history. It is a melting pot of Industrial design, cultural heritage and contemporary life. 5 will get you a whole day's parking on several sites just behind the wharf, and allow you to experience the riverside of Bristol. Whether you are a history buff or just want to escape into a vibrant and fascinating place for a few hours, there is something for everyone.

With COVID 19 still rearing its ugly head, this place offers wonderfully refreshing, socially distanced walking and discovering. All businesses and attractions that we visited today were exemplary in their uses of track and trace, hand sanitisation and general safeguarding. Go Bristol!

John Cabot's ship 'The Matthew', with pennants flying

A faithful replica of adventurer John Cabot's ship 'The Matthew' is moored at Wapping, and you can have a guided tour for free (though any donations are very much welcomed). The original ship sailed from Bristol to Newfoundland in 1497, and this replica has already made the same voyage, with the identical number of crew. Today, there are many knowledgeable volunteers aboard to tell you all about the ship, and its 600-year legacy.

Reminders of the gigantic Industry of the Wharf's past

Wapping now only launches tourist experiences and harbour tours, but it was once one of the most important harbours in the wharf. The phrase 'Ship shape and Bristol fashion' was coined here, denoting an ocean-going vessel that was in peak condition. Even the briefest glance around reveals all manner of hoists, cranes, winches and storage buildings that once served this trading hub. Iron cables and railway lines still run along the wharf walkways, and many of the shops and bars that now ply their trades are housed in erstwhile merchant warehouses and shipyards.

A large steam ship, now a house boat

The luxurious harbourside penthouses and brightly coloured Georgian houses on the hill may draw your eye, but equally interesting are the many different types of houseboat that are now moored to the harbour walls. From converted tugs and barges to floating panel-lined river cruisers, Bristolians continue to live and work on the river, and make it look very inviting! Some of the larger vessels are ships for hire or nightclubs, but many are owned and run by the superb 'Bristol Packet Ship Company', that have run harbour tours for locals and visitors for decades.

The oldest tug in the world

All manner of famous and infamous craft call Wapping their home. One of my favourites is the very Industrial-looking 'Mayflower', which is the world's oldest tug boat. Despite her 127 years of service, she still takes visitors on a tour of the harbour every Summer (although not this one, due to logistics complicated by the COVID 19 pandemic). Bristol is proud of its history, and if you look carefully, you will see all manner of notices, boards and plaques on the boats. All have a worthy story to tell.

Aboard the 'Weather Deck' of the Matthew

My favourite view of this area is from the back deck of 'The Matthew'. I think that the harbour looks magnificent when viewed from the water, amongst flying pennants. Another marvellous view is from the SS Great Britain. You have to pay to gain access to this wonderful ship, but a ticket gives you unlimited visits to the ship for a whole year, so our visit today was free, as we have been once before.

The harbour train tracks, which are still in use for visitors

Time your visit with the opening hours of the 'M Shed' museum, and you could hitch a ride on a steam train, which runs along the docks. Although the locomotive is not currently running, you can see all manner of railway paraphernalia on a stroll around Wapping.

'Treasure' from the harbour's past

Have a lookout for many anchors, now permanent features of the harbour. A great deal of massive ships once called Wapping their temporary or permanent home, and now only their anchors remain.

A pictorial guide of the return of the S S Great Britain

The SS Great Britain is celebrating its 50th year anniversary in 2020. Built as a cargo and passenger ship running between England and Australia, this magnificent feat of engineering has been lovingly restored and maintained in Wapping. Left to rot in the Falkland Islands, she was transported(by raft) from Argentina to the UK in July 1970 and is now one of Bristol's most visited, and well-loved, attractions.

'Cargo Shed' shipping container businesses

The brisk river air may whip up your appetite, and this can be slaked and satisfied in many places at Wapping. There is all manner of development and gentrification underway at the moment, but there are all manner of pubs, bars, restaurants and shops selling food and drink. Should you wish to buy clothes, coffee or sundry items made of bamboo, then you will also be very satisfied!

Urban Street Art, with a maritime theme

One final aspect to enjoy is the huge array of art and street graffiti in Wapping. Everything from huge murals to tiny stencil art is represented here. There are faithful renderings of ships, anarchic homages to Disney and even a couple of Banksy works if you look out for them. So popular is this area, that new works are appearing every week.

'Banksyesque' wall art

I thoroughly recommend a good hour or more to walk around this fascinating area. Handily, you can see the whole length of Wapping if you start at the M Shed (which has free entry), have a tour of The Matthew, and then end up at SS Great Britain. You will find so much more to see and experience between these three attractions, though. I envy you all because I would love to discover and experience them all again, myself. Enjoy!

The massive iron hull of Brunel's SS Great Britain
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Why? World class and worldwide historic dockside area
When: All year round, but best on a sunny day (little indoor cover)!
Phone: 44 (0)117 946 2200
Where: Right at the heart of Bristol, on the banks of the river.
Cost: Free to access the docks. Parking is 5 for all day.
Your Comment
Fascinating article and photos Tom. I love looking at English coastal scenery, be it greenery or historic items. Neil.
by Neil Follett (score: 3|4259) 745 days ago
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