Traders who heavily rely on footfall from Bristol’s Gaol Ferry Bridge say plans to close the walkway for most of the year will cut off and ‘devastate’ their businesses just as they’re emerging from the financial tolls of the pandemic.
The bridge, which has connected Bedminster and Southville to the Harbourside area for almost a century, is used by thousands of people who pass through Wapping Wharf into central Bristol and back each day.
But Bristol City Council say the ornate suspension bridge will need to close completely from April until the end of 2022 while essential repair and safety works take place.
Gaol Ferry Bridge is one of only two pedestrianised bridges over the Avon New Cut and commuters face alternative routes which bypass Wapping Wharf or add up to 32 minutes onto their journey time.
It means that the dozens of independent businesses throughout Wapping Wharf will miss out on thousands of people stopping off to buy something to eat or browse the shops lining the trendy development.
‘Closing off the bridge and the communities here will be devastating’
Darran McLaughlin, manager at bookshop Bookhaus, said businesses hadn’t been given proper notice of the closure, with most finding out about it from local media.
He said: “This is going to have a pretty devastating impact on the businesses round here.
“Thousands of people cross Gaol Ferry Bridge every day and use the shops and services in Wapping Wharf as they pass.
“As a bookshop, I don’t think it will impact us as badly as the coffee shops and bakeries who rely on the every day custom.
“But I still think closing off the bridge and the many communities here will be devastating.
“This is coming off the back of two years of difficult conditions and a downturn in trade.
“ We were just starting to emerge from Covid and it’s disappointing that we were given any advance warning of it.
“I don’t understand why they can’t build a temporary structure in the meantime or do the work in shifts allowing people to use the bridge at certain times of the day.”
Ben Nash, business partner and head chef at Squeezed, said: “Nothing like this has happened before and it could be devastating at a time when we need to capitalise on big footfall and being busy.
“We have a lot of little places that do coffee and pastries for the morning trade and they rely a lot on that footfall from the bridge.
“I’m concerned about how this will affect potentially a booming summer as people come outside and restrictions lift.”
Concerns shoppers will turn to North Street instead
Mr Nash was also concerned that Wapping Wharf would suffer as Bedminster and Southville residents stuck to North Street instead.
He said: “North Street is really up and coming. Are people going to take the extra commute to Wapping Wharf when all that stuff is available on their doorstep?
“I thought the council would do this at a quieter time or prevent it from happening in the first place.”
Thomas Sanchis, supervisor at Better Food, said staff were ‘worried’ about the bridge closure.
The health food shop lies only a 500 metre distance from the bridge and customers often stop on their way home to pick up items.
He said: “We’re going to be affected pretty badly.
“The trade will drop for sure. We’re going to lose the benefit of being 500 metres away from the bridge and people stopping by to buy our stuff.”
Gene Joyner, managing director of Better Food, said: “We do, of course, support any investment necessary to keep Bristol’s travel infrastructure working smoothly and safely.
“However, it is clear that the closure will have an impact on the many vibrant cafes, restaurants and shops in the area.
“We are concerned that local people and businesses who will be impacted by the closure have not been consulted prior to restoration work being planned.
“We are also interested to learn more about why the works are scheduled to take six months, which seems like an unduly long period of closure.
“We know that many people will want reassurance that bicycles and pedestrians receive the same level of prioritisation as other forms of transport in Bristol.”
Wapping Wharf developer reacts to the closure
Stuart Hatton, managing director of Umberslade, the developer behind Wapping Wharf, told BristolWorld last year that the site had been created with Gaol Ferry Bridge in mind due to it being such a well-used route.
Mr Hatton said that while he understood the need to carry out the essential works, he was concerned about the impact of the bridge’s closure on the community of independent businesses at Wapping Wharf, particularly after a challenging two years in retail and hospitality.
He added: “Gaol Ferry Bridge is a key route connecting people from south Bristol to the city centre and we ask that alternative solutions are explored to ensure access, for example a temporary bridge for the duration of the works.”
Council: ‘We need to carry out these essential works before issues arise’
In his latest blog post mayor Marvin Rees accepted that work to the bridge, along with planned work to five other bridges over the Avon New Cut, would ‘cause inconvenience for people’, but said they were all in need of repair.
He added: “We will do everything we can to minimise the impact to people’s day-to-day lives, but there is no alternative for these busy and well-used routes.”
In announcing the repair work and closure to Gaol Ferry Bridge, Councillor Don Alexander, cabinet member for transport, said: “We need to carry out these essential works to ensure it remains safe to use now and for many years to come.
“This work is one part of a wider investment in the Harbourside estate aimed at protecting the infrastructure and environment already in place and making the most of the area as a whole.”
£15million of highways’ maintenance funding will also be used to repair Vauxhall Bridge, Langton Street Bridge, Sparke Evans Park Bridge, Bedminster Bridge and Bath Bridge.
Councillor Alexander added: “This is about taking a long-term view of the work needed and making the investment now before issues arise.
“Our approach also supports our aim to get more people walking and cycling to ease congestion and reduce air pollution in the city. All six bridges are busy strategic routes into the city centre, used by thousands of people each day, and so it’s vital we maintain them properly.”