Features / Western Harbour

Could collapse of Cumberland Road wall mean rethink of Western Harbour plans?

By martin booth, Monday Jan 27, 2020

Close to Vauxhall Bridge on Coronation Road, there are steps down to the New Cut which in recent days have been taken by more people than probably ever before.

Turn left at the bottom of the steps for an unobstructed view of the landslip which has caused part of the Cumberland Road wall and the chocolate path above it to collapse into the water.

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“This is an absolute disgrace,” a 60-something man wearing a Bristol Bears wooly hat said as he checked out the damage on his way to watch the rugby Ashton Gate on Saturday afternoon.

“And it’s going to get much worse than this. There’s a spring tide on the way,” he added, pointing to a few snowdrops appearing out of the ground.

As investigations continue, there are already a number of theories about the cause of the collapse as well as anger that repairs were not done sooner.

Despite the chocolate path being closed since December 2017, Cumberland Road remained open and is part of the new metrobus route from Long Ashton park & ride to Temple Meads.

If the chocolate path were a busy road used by cars, rather than a busy path used by cyclists, would it have remained closed for so long?

That’s an impossible question to answer but what is known is that Bristol’s cabinet had already committed £9m to repair the chocolate path – a sum of money that could rise significantly following what happened on Thursday evening.

“I told you so,” tweeted former cabinet member Mhairi Threlfall on Friday morning when news of the landslip was revealed.

In 2018, she said that “we need to take action now” so that important historical landmarks around Bristol’s waterways such as the chocolate path could be protected.

The chocolate path in happier times in 2014, although some subsidence can already be seen – photo by Jon Usher

The New Cut was dug as part of the scheme to create the Floating Harbour between 1804 and 1809, with its role to create a tidal bypass for smaller vessels, allowing the main locks at Cumberland Basin to handle larger ships.

More than 1000 men were employed in digging it, with the labour force largely composed of English and Irish navvies who had an almighty brawl once the work was done following the distribution of free beer to celebrate the New Cut’s construction.

The waterside walkway between the New Cut and Cumberland Road, now known as the chocolate path due to the shape of its tiles, was built when the Bristol Harbour Railway linked Ashton Bridge with Wapping Wharf in 1906.

According to Simon Hickman, principal historic buildings inspector for Historic England in the South West region, this particular section of the cut “has always been dodgy”.

“When Wapping Wharf was a coal depot in the 70s and 80s, loaded trains from the main line were only allowed along the New Cut Branch at high tide when the water was buttressing the walls,” he said.

The New Cut as seen from Vauxhall Bridge – photo by Martin Booth

A popular refrain from Bristol mayor Marvin Rees is that his proposals for the Western Harbour development are “more Wapping Wharf than Canary Wharf”, yet the naysayers may well have been proven right that this corner of the city should not be built on due to its geology and a risk of flooding.

The council’s own housing company, Goram Homes, is set to build its first development on land currently occupied by the Baltic Wharf caravan site, whose entrance on Cumberland Road is directly opposite the collapsed part of the wall.

In a statement on Friday, Kye Dudd, cabinet member for transport, said: “We are a harbour city, with some walls that date back over a century.

“We’ve had concerns about the stability of the path for some time which is why the decision to close it was taken in 2017. Since then we’ve undertaken in-depth reviews of the path, surrounding infrastructure, tidal and harbour have been assessed.

“Cabinet has agreed over £9m of funding to reinstate the wall, the path and the heritage railway that runs alongside it.

“Plans were already being drawn up for these repairs and potential contractors were in touch about taking on the job. It’s too early to say what impact these events will have on the planned repairs but we are looking at all options.

“Our first priority is to make the area is safe and understand what the long term impact is with all the information to hand before any further decisions are made.”

Cumberland Road looks likely to remain closed for some time – photo by Martin Booth

Main photo by Martin Booth

Read more: Rees faces public for first time to discuss Western Harbour plans

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