Plan of Lansbury ‘Live Architecture’ Exhibition, Poplar
The Agony and Ecstasy of Cumberland Basin
Cumberland Basin sits in the south-west corner of Bristol’s complex system of waterways. The River Avon flows into the city under the iconic suspension bridge and here it divides into the Floating Harbour, kept behind lock and quay and the ‘New Cut’ which carries the tidal flow under the belly of the city’s docks until they both meet up again the other side of Temple Meads.
In the 1960s Bristol’s civic planners had a grand idea to solve traffic gridlock in the city centre. A huge ring-road was envisaged encircling the centre of the city and forming the inner most of several concentric circles. The proposed road cut through swathes of Hotwells and Canon’s Marsh and clipped the back of the city centre going along Park Row and round to Redcliffe and Bedminster. As with most of the grand civic plans of the 60s it was cut short by the conservationist and environmentalist movements of the late 70s and 80s. Evidence of the partial implementation of the plan can be seen across the city today. St James’ Barton Roundabout (aka the Bear Pit), the underpasses at Temple Way and the Parkway are all perhaps dubious testament to what was actually achieved.
A glimpse of the overall vision can be seen at Cumberland Basin, here the scheme as planned was completed fully and it’s quite a sight if you’re paying attention. The roads here criss-cross over three bridges, across locks and basins and in between fitting snugly onto islands that seperate the serene Floating Harbour and the muddy Avon. Coming from the city along Hotwells Road you come from a standard urban trunk road onto a miniature motorway with overhead signs pointing to such exotic locations as Taunton, Bristol Airport and Portishead. The one way system takes you over, around and under the bridges and slip roads before you come out either heading under the Suspension Bridge or out to the next concentric circle, the Avon Ring Road.
This is the pinch point for Bristol’s edgelands. The steep hills heading out of the city here constrict urban development, Leigh Woods and Ashton Court roll over the undulations and built-up Clifton perches opposite. There’s no smooth transition from grand Georgian terraces to rolling farmland. It’s all very jilting. This also means that Cumberland Basin is where the outer ring road is squeezed into the inner ring road bringing a great deal of traffic hurtling toward what was, until the 1960s a singular bridge.
I find in the system glimpses of the architect’s sketches I’ve seen in planning documents of the time. The pedestrian entrances have spiral staircases that lead to inelegant perspex and concrete bus shelters. The control tower seems to be taken straight out of the Festival of Britain, it perches atop a slender pole looking down over the Plimsoll Swing Bridge. One of the slip roads curves salaciously leaving a circular patch of grass on which I found daffodils and a UWE student reclining. Underneath some of the many on-ramps Bristol City Council has utilised the dead space by squeezing a depot and offices into the voids.
Further along the road curves off southward and is lifted off the ground by slender struts, a cycle path runs underneath and the surrounding area is green and lush and surprisingly quiet. Sustrans have had a hand here in recent years, criss-crossing the area with cycle paths and pedestrian routes. Spike Island on which the entire road system is sat has two large tobacco warehouses one of which houses a very millennial creative arts centre and record office.
As you look back at the concrete bridges and waves of traffic you can see why someone who hurtles across in 20 seconds might think nothing of the system. Looking from the stately suspension bridge down onto the Ballardian bridges you can see why without thought someone might brand it ugly and monstrous. Not me though, I can see the intent here and it’s honourable, the pedestrian isn’t left to run across roads or dive into dank subways, they are given grassy walkways, spiral staircases and protection from the elements. Drivers are eased onward, swept up from the ring road and taken along the river, up into Clifton or down into suburbia.
I’m not saying we should have demolished massive parts of Jacob’s Wells Road to join up the dots of this ambitious scheme. I just wanted to consider the scheme in context and perhaps imagine how Bristol would have looked if the ‘66 civic plan had gone ahead.