Features / Bristol Harbour

Sector spotlight: Bristol Port and the Floating Harbour

By aphra evans, Friday Sep 1, 2017


  • 25% of Heathrow’s aviation fuel arrives by a pipeline constructed in WWII that’s connected to Bristol Port
  • Historically, 90% of all concentrated orange juice in the UK came via the European Juice Terminal (EJT) at Bristol Port
  • 24 million bottles of wine are imported from South Africa to Bristol Port every year
  • In 2016, Bristol Port handled 150,000 containers, 200,000 vehicles for export, and 500,000 vehicles for import, adding more than £1bn to UK GDP overall

Sea Mills was once a 1st century AD Roman trading post that exported as far as Europe. From then through to 1977 when the Queen opened the Royal Portbury docks, and into the present day, the area has been a mainstay in Bristol’s lengthy shipping industry.

Bristol Port Company currently employs 604 people and a total of 7,500 work on the estate. But a further 10,000 jobs in the South West and 19,100 overall in the UK are in some way dependent on Bristol Port, some as far as away as Glasgow where workers unload imported vehicles from freight trains.

Scrap metal is loaded at Bristol Port

Imports form an exotic list, featuring Brazilian juice, Spanish steel, aluminium ingots from Mozambique, and animal feed from South America, while grain, cars, airplane and wind turbine parts, and military tanks are all exported. White ticket items come in, while scrap metal – 800,000 tonnes of it last year – goes out, in a cursory nod to the circular economy.

Opportunities for future expansion come in many forms for the already-huge operations of Bristol Port. The company is negotiating the purchase of 50 acres of nearby farmland, and has received Government permission for a deep sea container terminal that, while yet to be built, would make it one of three UK ports capable of accommodating the world’s largest container vessels.

Paper is stored at Bristol Port

Its M4 road links mean it could have a role to play in projects like Crossrail 2, while increasing numbers of passengers are leaving on cruises from Avonmouth for the far-flung sights of the Amazon or the Northern Lights, as inbound tourists, particularly from Germany, come to enjoy daytrips.

As for that other, more widely-felt uncertainty, Bristol Port Company is playing the same waiting game as every other British business.

“We benefitted from entry into Europe and we’re well-placed geographically within it, but Brexit is a matter for the government to decide,” says John Chaplin of Bristol Port Company, adding that they trade comparatively little with Europe compared to weekly exports to USA and dealings with the Far and Middle East.

Car manufacturing, Bristol Port

There are bigger concerns to be dealing with. As the Government takes aim at its environmental targets, dwindling demand for two of the port’s cornerstones, fossil-fuel cars (the sale of which will be banned by 2040) and coal (the last plants will close by 2025), will leave a sizeable gap that is being filled for now by a 3 year-long programme for Hinkley Point C.

Much of the port relies on the car industry, but when one of the port’s main vehicle exporters, UK-based manufacturer JLR, announced it would be manufacturing its electric vehicles in the country, it was a sign that the historic port may soon be evolving with the times.



Nova Scotia Place is a fairly unassuming road, except for the pub, until you turn the corner and are presented by a bustling micro-peninsular of shipbuilders, dock engineers, and the harbour master. The sound of hammering echoes out over the water where canoers dip their paddles, watched over by visitors sipping coffee at Pickle café.

Many of its listed buildings have been there since 1809, and the area is designated a scheduled ancient monument like Stonehenge. But Underfall Yard is fully operational – in fact, alongside the dry docks where the SS Great Britain is, it’s one of few working areas around the city harbour that still services boats – the rest gradually becoming restaurants or residential buildings.

A boat under construction at Underfall Yard

Tenants include a water activities company where you can rent kayaks, a scuba diving club house, and Bristol Maritime Academy, a training centre offering courses that cover everything from marine first aid and how to use a VHF radio to advanced powerboat manoeuvring. Another business, Independent Composites, is a specialist manufacturing company that helped develop what became the world’s fastest sailing boat in 2012, exceeding 65 knots over a 500 metre stretch of the Namibian coastline.

But one of the joys of exploring Underfall Yard is that many of the businesses busying themselves offer the same kinds of services that its original tenants would have –  like shipbuilding, rigging, and blacksmithing – in the same historic warehouses. In more than one, the original tools that those mariners and shipbuilders would have used in the 1800s can be found, mementos of the yard’s maritime heritage.

An old map of Bristol’s Floating Harbour



Further upstream, and the cosmopolitan city centre couldn’t be further from Bristol Port’s sprawling network of industry. The cultural hub in the heart of Bristol that is the harbourside is home to an ever-evolving and expanding concentration of restaurants, shops and cultural institutions.

Floating businesses have seen the surrounding area transform recent years, especially the Apple, a cider boat and Bristol institution which celebrates its eleventh birthday this September.

The Apple cider boat

“King Street is like the new Park Street, isn’t it?” says Tim Hatcher, general manager. “You’ve got the King Street Brewhouse and loads of small bars that are relatively new all along the street. On Fridays and Saturdays, it’s rammed around here.”

The opening of King Street Brewhouse, plus Bristol institutions like the Old Duke which is celebrating its fiftieth birthday this year, show how popular the area has become as a watering hole.

Since it transcended its label as a working-class drink, cider has become a big draw for visitors to Bristol, so Hatcher sees everyone come through the doors from American, Spanish and French tourists to older people, students and stag dos.

Events like the Old Duke’s jazz festival and Love Saves The Day all bring in more punters, but the Apple’s biggest weekend of the year is easily the Harbour Festival. It brought double the usual number of punters last year, and no doubt helped them towards their new record: 100,000 Old Bristolians sold in a year.




There’s one harbourside company doesn’t see much of a lift during the Harbour Festival, however, simply because they’re so busy every other day of the year.

Now owned by 871 local shareholders and comprising five boats that service seventeen stops from Temple Meads to the Cumberland Basin, Bristol Ferry Boats are familiar sites on Bristol’s waterways. They only take one day off annually which is perhaps why.

Bristol Ferry Boats celebrate their fortieth anniversary

The company wasn’t always so busy, though, as it went bust in 2012 and nearly disappeared from the rivers. “Everybody realised Bristol Harbour would be without the yellow and blue boats. It was a big thing,” says Philippa Bungard, one of the original owners.

It was at this stage that she and her husband, Ian, got back at the helm, by buying the boats back and making a share offer to the community.

“Every day there were piles of cheques coming through the letterbox and people knocking on the door. A woman arrived with a baby on her hip and thrust this cheque at me. It was made out for £20,000!” she laughs.

Now, the company is hugely profitable with a large customer base, and they’ve branched out by partnering with Spike Island for art installations, with local Darkstuff Productions for immersive theatre shows, and they even offer commuter routes as part of the Low Carbon South West initiative (which hasn’t really taken off).

While perhaps not a viable route to work, a smile comes to Bungard’s face as she considers how much redevelopment and improvement the the city centre docks have seen in recent years.

“When Ian started here in 1977, it was just a desolate wasteland, an industrial place,” she recalls. “Then I can remember coming back after living in Spain and thinking, ‘Oh my God, Bristol has suddenly discovered the joys of sitting outside cafés and putting chairs on the street.’”

Read more: Sector spotlight: Sustainability

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