Portishead is a large port town in Somerset with a population of about 25,000 (2018). Historically a fishing port, it underwent rapid expansion during the 19th century when it became a hub for chemical industry. It has since fallen prey to gentrification, and little remains of its rich heritage today. Modern Portishead is a residential coastal resort town in the shadow of the Portbury container port.
Portishead is just south of the mouth of the river Avon in the Bristol Channel, west of the Royal Portbury Dock which is an important container terminal surrounded by vast asphalted open air parking lots used for storage of imported cars. Fortunately the sea wall and Ashlands obscure most of this eyesore. Portisheads residential areas are undergoing rapid expansion to satisfy housing demands from nearby Bristol, despite the absence of a direct rail link between the two cities.
The Portishead area has been inhabited since Roman times, and some flint axe heads have been found indicating evidence of a prehistoric settlement as well. Its urbanisation started in the 17th century with the construction of a fort on Battery Point hill. It played an important role during the English Civil War when the fishing town supported the Royalist side. The City of Bristol purchased properties in Portishead aiming to improve access to the Bristol Channel. The Royal Hotel, constructed in a Tudor Gothic style in 1830, was intended as accommodation where passengers arriving on steam vessels could spend the night before continuing their journey to Bristol by train. Although the vision of legendary architect and engineer Isambard Brunel to develop Portishead as a transatlantic port never came true, it paved the road for Portishead to evolve towards a seaside resort town in the 19th century.
A public wharf was built in 1814. In the 1860s at the height of the iron and steel era, it was expanded with a pier and a deep water dock to accommodate cargo vessels that were too large to reach the Bristol Harbour. A chemical works was built on the western side of the deep water dock, and a coal-fired power station was built on its eastern side. The coal-fired power station operated from 1926 until the early 1980s, and the coal ash resulting from the combustion of coal was dumped behind the station. Its composition resulted in the unique biome known today as the Portbury Ashlands. The power station was demolished in 1992. The chemical works received phosphate rock from overseas and processec it into red and white phosphorus using electric arc furnaces powered by electricity from the power station. It was closed and was demolished. Its former location is now occupied by the Portishead Volunteer Coastguard.
After closure of the power station and chemical works, the Port of Bristol Authority closed the dock in 1992. As expansion of Bristol put pressure on the real estate market, Portishead filled some of the housing demand with new residential developments. Land area increased in value, and the sites of the phosphate processing works and power plant were remediated before being redeveloped as residential areas with new low-rise flats. The deep water dock was redeveloped as a marina with 250 pontoons.
Only the marina and pier remain as silent witnesses of the rich industrial heritage of Portishead and the wealth that came with their development. Not even the railways survived,; the line to Weston-super-Mare and Clevedon closed just before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1940, and was dismantled to recover materials for the war effort. A naval gun battery was erected at Battery Point to defend the Bristol Channel against naval invasion by Axis forces. The other railway line, connecting Portishead to Bristol, closed in 1964. Its closure finally put an end to Brunel's dream.
Getting to Portishead by train directly is no longer possible, as the last railway station of Portishead closed permanently in 1964. The nearest station is 1 Avonmouth which is about 40 minutes away from Portishead by bicycle or 2 hours by foot. There are plans to reopen the disused railway track between Pill and Portishead for passenger services, but so far none of these initiatives have materialised.
A viable alternative is taking the train to 2 Bristol Temple Meads station which has direct connections to all major cities in England and Wales. From there, rent a bike to get to Portishead (or take your own bicycle on the train). Travel time is about 90 minutes.
Portishead is well connected by the National Cycle Network, with route Bristol there are 2 routes. The scenic starts at the floating harbour lock and follows the Avon Gorge along the river Avon, passing through Pill. At the M5 intersection, change to to get into Portishead. This route follows the river and is mostly flat, although it's a gravel path so a mountain bike is nonetheless recommended. The alternative is route which shortcuts through Mulberry Farm. It is shorter in distance but most of the route uses roads shared with motorised traffic making it less attractive option than the Avon Gorge route.leading to the centre of the town. From
From Clevedon there is a nearly car free route following 3 Clevedon Lane until 4 Clapton in Gordano and going north from there. This route passes through the beautiful Gordano Valley which is a National Nature Reserve and worth a visit on its own. Travel time is ca. 1 hour.
From the north, take route Cheltenham and Gloucester until Portbury and change to there. Route crosses the Severn river from Wales just north of Severn Beach where it intersects with . It crosses the impressive 1 Avonmouth Bridge which is worth a stop and a panoramic picture.from
Portishead is fairly small and can be easily explored by foot. The Lake Grounds, Battery Point hill, and marina are pleasant walks and free of motorised traffic. To explore the Ashlands or venture into the Gordano Valley, renting a bicycle is recommended.
- 2 Portishead Marina, Newfoundland Way, Portishead, BS20 7DF, ☏ . 24/7. Marina in the re-purposed dock of a coal terminal linked to electric power plants demolished in the early 1980s. Nowadays an example of gentrification, nothing is left of its industrial heritage and the marina is surrounded by low rise residential housing blocks. Free.
- 28 public art works around the marina and Ashlands development.
- 3 Portbury Ashlands. 24/7. Nature reserve between Portishead and the Royal Portbury Dock. The reserve is the result of redevelopment of the area where coal fired electric power stations dumped coal ash for about 50 years, starting in 1929. After power generation seized and the power stations were demolished in the early 1980s, the ashes were flattened and nature gradually reclaimed the area. The ashes create a unique biome, which is managed by the Avon Wildlife Trust. It is nowadays a have for water birds, as well as otters and grass snakes. Free.
- 4 Portishead Point lighthouse (Battery Point Lighthouse), High St. 24/7. Lighthouse designed by the Chance Brothers of Smethwick, built as a 9 m tall black pyramid on a concrete base in 1931 overlooking the marshes. It was originally equipped with a 2000 kg fog bell cast by Gillet & Johnston of Croydon in 1938, but the bell was removed in 1998 because of structural concerns and is now installed in Wyndham Way Close very near to High St. Free.
- 5 Battery Point. 24/7. Grassland covering a limestone ridge that was the location of a coastal gun battery during the Second World War to protect the Severn estuary from naval invasion by axis forces. The fossils, folds and faults in the area are of geological interest. Free.
- 6 Gordano Valley. 24/7. A valley on reclaimed land from the Severn estuary, only slightly above sea level, that is a designated National Nature Reserve. The 161 ha valley is of geological and biological importance, with over 130 species of flowering plants including 3 wild orchids. It is connected to the Severn estuary through the Portbury Ashlands, and a fantastic place for walks and hikes. Free.
- 7 Black Nore. 24/7. A section of the Portishead Pier made of up alluvial sandstone, rich in fossils of marine lifeforms dating back to the Carboniferous Period of geological history. Free.
- 8 Court House, Church Road South. Farmhouse dating back to Medieval periods but remodelled in the 17th and 19th century.
- 9 St. Peter's Church, Church Road South. Church built in 1320 and subsequently rebuilt in the 14th and 15th centuries in a Gothic style. It has a garden and churchyard hosting the war graves of 3 Royal Navy sailors and an airman who died during the Second World War. With its 29 m tall four-stage tower and set back buttresses and a pierced parapet, the church is a prominent landmark. Free.
- 10 Black Nore lighthouse. 24/7. White painted lighthouse built in 1894 as a navigation aid for the Severn estuary. It was originally gas powered, and connected to the municipal gas network. The drive mechanism was rewound manually once a day, to ensure the lighthouse would flash with a 5 Hz interval. Although it was electrified during the Second World War, the manual mechanism was only replaced by electric motors in 2000. It is no longer used for navigation and preserved as a Grade II listed building. Free.
- 11 Portishead Pier. 24/7. Concrete pier stretching ca. 100 m into the Severn. Free.
- 12 National Nautical School Chapel.
Portishead is the scene of many festivals and events, particularly during the summer months. A free but fun activity for children is searching for fossils of shells on the beach, which are plentiful in limestone and relatively easy to find.
- 1 Open Air Swimming Pool, Esplanade Rd, Portishead, BS20 7HD, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. Apr-Oct Mo-F 13:00-17:00, Sa-Su 9:00-19:00. Open air heated swimming pool kept at a comfortable 28°C. Only open during summer months. Closed for the 2020 season because of the coronavirus pandemic. Adults £5, children £3.50.
- 2 Portishead Beach. 24/7. Pebble and grass beach surrounded by a salt marsh, with views on the Welsh coastline. Free.
- 3 Lake Grounds. 24/7. The largest park in Portishead, with at is centre a century old artificial lake. It also hosts the Portishead cricket club. Free.
- 4 Sea Cave. 24/7. A 42 m long cave at sea level. Free.
- 5 Noahs Ark Zoo Farm, Clevedon Road, BS48 1PG, ☏ . 10:30 - 17:00 daily. Farm zoo with over 100 different animal species including the largest African elephant exhibit in northern Europe. The zoo is somewhat controversial for its promotion of creationism in information signs displayed at some of the exhibits, but still a great day out if the weather allows. £19.95, students and elderly £17.75.
There is a large Waitrose Supermarket, plus a large shopping centre with all the usual chain stores including Argos and Homebase.
- 1 Corner Cafe, 166 High Street, BS20 6PY, ☏ . Old-fashioned cafe serving simple food and full English breakfast.
- 2 Pizza Picante, 113 Avon Way, BS20 6LT, ☏ . Pizzeria and fish & chips.
- 3 Spicy Aroma, Clarence House High Street, BS20 6PY, ☏ , ✉ Spicyaroma1@hotmail.com. Su-Th noon-14:30, 17:30-23:00, F-Sa noon-14:30, 17:30-23:00. Indian food. Starters from £3.50, mains from £7.95.
- 4 Ghandi Tandoori, 57 High Street, BS20 6AG, ☏ . 12:00-14:00, 17:30-23:00 daily. Upscale oriental cuisine.
- 5 Venga, 24 High Street, BS20 6EN, ☏ . Cocktails and tapas bar.
- 6 La Marina, Lockside, BS20 7AH, ☏ . Pizzeria and Italian cuisine overlooking the impressive marina lock gate, which is worth a visit on its own. Has indoor and outdoor seating. starters from £4.95, mains from £9.95.
- 7 The White Hart, Clevedon Road, Weston-in-Gordano, BS20 8PU, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Gastro-pub in Weston-in-Gordano. 2 course lunch for £15 or 3 courses for £18.
- 8 Antonio's, 18 High Street, BS20 6EW, ☏ . Italian restaurant and pizzeria.
- 1 The Royal Inn, Pier Steps, BS20 7HG, ☏ . M-Sa 11AM-11PM; Su noon-10:30PM. Built in 1830 by the Bristol city council to promote Portishead as a seaside resort town, then known as the Royal Hotel. It served Brunel's railway line between Bristol and Portishead.
- 2 The Black Horse, Clevedon Ln, Clapton-in-Gordano, BS20 7RH, ☏ . Mo-Sa 11:00-23:00; Su noon-21:30. Authentic and cosy white-painted pub with an open fire and beer garden. Simple but quality food served around lunchtime.
|Routes through Portishead|
|Bristol ←||N S||→ Weston-super-Mare → Bridgwater|
|END ←||' 'E||→ Clevedon → Cheddar|