The other Avon Gorge

The River Avon at Keynsham. It was in the fields on the right where the Duke of Monmouth confronted James II in 1685 in one of several skirmishes during the Pitchfork Rebellion.

We are all familiar with the Avon Gorge through which the River Avon cuts its way through a deep channel between Bristol and the Severn Estuary. Probably the most famous view of the gorge is taken from Cumberland Basin towards Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, a view synonymous with Bristol, but south east of Bristol, on its route from Bath, the River Avon cuts through another less known gorge sometimes referred to as Hannah Gorge. It is not as impressive as its famous neighbour and rather than bounded by cliffs on either side, this gorge is more steeply wooded with just the occasional cliff outcrop. Hanham Gorge makes an idea winter’s walk and so earlier this month I set off on a nine mile ramble to walk the entire length of the gorge.

Missing the Bristol rush hour it’s going to be a later start than usual and parking in the suburbs of Bristol I make my way to Bristol Temple Meads Station to catch the train one stop to Keynsham.
I time it just nicely for the train to Keynsham by which time it is 11am when I alight. I am going to follow the Avon Valley Walkway back to Bristol but to reach it I need to walk a short section of the A4175 northeast to cross the River Avon where I doubled around to join the river side path. By now the frost has almost melted making the path very slippery and muddy and so I have to tread cautiously. It was in the pastures here that in June 1685 the Duke of Monmouth confronted James II in one of many skirmishes during what was known as the Pitchfork Rebellion, but this particular clash resulted in an inconclusive outcome. A field path runs north with the former Fry’s Somerdale Factory on the opposite bank. It was here that my grandfather made the first chocolate bar when the factory originally opened around 1935. Today the premises have been converted to apartments.

The former Fry’s Somerdale Factory. Built as a state of the art factory and opened in 1935 the factory was taken over by Cadbury’s then by Kraft Foods and finally closed in 2011. Production then moved to Poland. The whole site is now being turned into apartments.

The Chequers Public House at Hanham Mills, a popular riverside spot to visit at the weekend.

I follow a path which is muddy in parts to take me towards the popular riverside Chequers Public House at Hanham Mills and on the way I stop for my morning break in the pleasant winter sunshine. Beyond the Chequers Public House, the River Avon runs through the wooded Hanham Gorge. The gorge looked very different centuries ago and the area was once home to much heavy industry. Prior to the weir being built at Netham, the River Avon was tidal to about this point, and with the abundance of coal measures in the vicinity it became an area for heavy industry. Copper and zinc was imported from Cornwall for processing as long ago as the 17th century and hence the area developed as an important early industrial powerhouse in the West Country although few traces of this can be seen today but waste slag was compressed into building blocks can be still seen today in local riverside walls. During Victorian times, the hillsides were quarried for Pennant Sandstone and coupled with the supply of nearby Bath Stone the two types of stone were extensively used as stone for much house building in the area. The Bath Stone was used around windows and doors whilst the Pennant Sandstone in filled the rest of the building and this is almost a building trademark around the Bristol area.

The Hanham Gorge sees very little sunshine in mid winter. The riverside path is good in this area but its popularity  has made it rather muddy during the winter months.

The wooded Hanham Gorge looks so different now to a century ago. A sandstone cliff outcrop can be just seen above the river on the right.

The wooded gorge now narrows for a couple of miles and the valley was used by Brunel for the route of the railway which carves it ways through a couple of ornate tunnels on the opposite bank.
Being mid winter, much of this section of the gorge is in the shade and on the way I pass the point where the Conham Ferry carries passengers in season over to Beese’sTea Rooms on the opposite bank. These premises have been going since 1846, and are popular as a spot where Bristolian’s can escape to a haven of tranquillity for awhile. The woods in the area were the scene where persecuted Baptists once held secret meetings but on more than one occasion the meetings were met with violence. This area also had heavy industry with the Butler Tar Works on one side of the river and the Board Mills on the other. I soon emerge back into the winter sunshine and at the Conham River Park I decide it’s a good spot to stop for lunch as there were a few picnic benches.

A old boat house opposite the Conham River Park, one of many along this stretch of the river.

Setting off, I have to follow the Conham Road the short distance to Crew’s Hole before joining a surfaced riverside path. The derelict sites of heavy industry have now been replaced by riverside dwellings as I head downstream but there is still much evidence of old riverside wharves. As I near Netham, light industry is still much in evidence but only on a small scale. As a child I remember this area being very run down and very polluted as the area was originally dominated by the Netham Chemical Works which backed onto both the River Avon and the Feeder Canal. The waste products from these works were dumped in what is now known as Netham Park. In the 1800’s steam cranes could unload barges, a ton at a time and the whole site was a sea of wooden buildings, tramways and rickety chimneys. The chief import was pyrites from Spain which was broken up to supply the hundred or so kilns on site for the manufacture of sulphuric acid along with the manufacture of washing soda as the other big industry. The spoil from the vast works was dumped nearby to form a moon like landscape which was locally known as ‘The Brillos’. Today much of the area has been landscaped but modern industry now occupies part of the area.

Netham Lock is the lowest lock on the River Avon and the river below here is tidal. Here the river splits in two with the ‘New Cut’ becoming a tidal river running through the south side of the City. It is hard to imagine the man hours that went into building this artificial river between the years 1804-1809. For most of its 1.8 mile length the waterway has been cut through Redcliffe Sandstone to form a gorge like channel. The original course of the River Avon runs through what is known as the Floating Harbour which passes through the centre of Bristol. In its heyday, Bristol was one of the most important ports in the country but became very overcrowded and prior to the Floating Harbour being built ships were grounded in the river at low tide and goods had to stowed safely and quaysides had to be of a sturdy construction and hence the phrase ‘Ship shape and Bristol fashion’. The River Avon has one of the highest tidal ranges in the world.

I continue through Netham Park pausing at information boards before crossing the stretch of water known as The Feeder. Now this is where the path become unclear and I head off through industrial units to fine a very uninviting path between high security fences. Reaching the River Avon (New Cut) beneath the old railway viaduct I set out along the river bank. The place is strewn with rubbish and the path often blocked with fallen trees and after a short distance I decide to back track as the route beyond drops down almost to the river mud and looks decisively dangerous to proceed any further.

My entry into Bristol is via the busy industrial Feeder Road to reach a busy road crossing point close to Temple Meads Station. I continue along Clarence Road passing the end of Somerset Road where once my ancestors lived over a hundred years ago. The area has changed vastly with the lines of terraced houses now replaced with high rise flats and apartments. Finally I cross the river by way of a yellow footbridge locally known as Banana Bridge due to its shape and paintwork. A walk across Victoria Park leads me back to where I have parked the car.