We visit an almost deserted Wapping Wharf where footfall has ‘massively reduced’ since Gaol Ferry Bridge closure

‘There’s certainly people from south Bristol we just don’t see anymore’

Just before midday on a crisp and sunny autumn Saturday and Cargo at Wapping Wharf is quieter than I can remember it in the five years since it opened.

Since 2017, this exciting development of converted shipping containers has grown into Bristol’s main food and drink hub, as well as home to several local independent retail businesses. But since the closure of the Gaol Ferry foot and cycle bridge at the end of August, footfall is down considerably and businesses are worried about the winter ahead.

The bridge was the main route for pedestrians and cyclists travelling and commuting from south Bristol to the harbourside. Before it closed, there would be a daily flood of people walking and cycling through Wapping Wharf but now it’s just a trickle.

Gaol Ferry Steps at Wapping Wharf was almost deserted when we visited on Saturday lunchtime

The closure is to carry out essential repairs and although the initial estimate was for it to take around nine months, many business owners are worried it will take longer and maybe even through to the end of summer 2023.

People living in Southville and Bedminster now have to use Vauxhall Bridge or Bedminster Bridge, but either way it adds 15-20 minutes to the journey and many simply aren’t bothering. Businesses on Gaol Ferry Steps are finding it especially tough.

The Better Food Company is located on the corner facing the bridge and when I visited late Saturday morning, there were three members of staff and not a single customer. It’s usually busy with people buying loaves of bread and baskets of organic fruit and vegetables.

Ben Rodgers, manager of Chopbox barbers at Cargo

Nearby Little Victories coffee shop wasn’t quite so empty but I could still get a table inside, which I rarely manage to do because it’s usually so packed.

The manager of one Cargo food outlet, who didn’t want to be identified, told me sales were 30% down. Another who wished to remain anonymous said the bridge closure had meant that many people south of the river now had to pass the huge Asda in Bedminster so simply save the extra walk by getting their food there instead of Wapping Wharf.

Ben Rodgers, manager of Chopbox, a tiny barbers occupying a single shipping container, told me it was ‘a lot quieter’ than it was, especially in the mornings, but because he relied more on bookings, rather than passing trade, it wasn’t having as big an impact as it has on cafes and other retail outlets.

“Some of the cafes are quieter as there used to be hundreds of people walking through in the mornings, getting their coffees on the way to work or college.

“This is quite a seasonal place anyway and quite weather dependent so it’s a bit of a worry that winter will be even quieter. I know a lot of people from Southville aren’t coming this way now.”

Fran Oliver’s ice cream parlour in Cargo 2 is located at the back of the M-Shed. She says things are quieter since the bridge closed. “Our regulars are coming less often as they don’t want to do the extra 20 minute walk but we still get tourists and people from the other side of town.”

Meg Evans works at house plant shop Bush Bristol

Meg Evans works at Bush Bristol, a house plant shop that changed ownership two months ago. Meg worked here prior to the new owners taking over and she has noticed the reduced footfall since the bridge closed.

“We definitely have days when it’s a lot quieter than it was. We still get people from the city centre but there’s certainly people from south Bristol we just don’t see anymore.

“A lot of people just don’t want to make the extra journey, especially if they have a pushchair, it’s more difficult to get to. The most worrying thing is that we don’t know when it will reopen and I think it will be a much quieter Christmas than before.”

Kate Seymour is the owner of retro vintage clothing shop Something Elsie in Museum Street, behind the M-Shed. She opened here three and half years and says business in September was a lot quieter than the same month last year but it wasn’t quite as bad as she expected.

“We all braced ourselves for the bridge closure, and we were all very worried, but who knows how much of the dip in business is down to the bridge when there’s so much going on with cost of living crisis and everything else in the news! But it does feel quieter down here and the footfall seems less so you would have to put that down to the bridge.

Kate Seymour has run her Something Elsie vintage shop at Wapping Wharf since 2019

“Luckily, we do get a lot of tourists and people in Bristol for day trips so we’re in a better location than the businesses around Gaol Ferry Steps because that has become a dead end since the bridge closed.”

Not that Kate isn’t preparing for all outcomes this winter. Her new autumn range of one-off vintage clothes are now on the rails but she can’t rely on footfall so already has a Plan B.

“I am preparing for the winter, which is always quieter down here, by increasing my online presence, that’s my fallback if things go quiet. I’ll just put items on Depop and Instagram to reach more people rather than rely on the footfall down here, I have to have something to fall back on.”

Gaol Ferry Bridge closed in August for essential repairs which will continue well into 2023

Dominic Harman is the co-owner of Cork’s at Cargo, a specialist drinks shop. He says the impact of the bridge has been ‘substantial in a negative way’ but it’s not the only reason his business is quieter than it was and restaurants selling wine and food to takeaway hasn’t helped either.

“Footfall has definitely massively reduced but it is difficult for us to put it all down to the bridge closure as all restaurants are allowed off-sales which has been a bad thing for us. Covid regulations allowed for all restaurants to do takeaway food and drink and this was supposed to stop in September but has been extended until next year.”

For Tess Lidstone of award-winning restaurant Box-E, the fact that diners book well in advance for a meal means her and chef husband Elliott don’t have to rely so much on passing trade.

She says: “We are fortunate in that guests are still making bookings and coming to us, despite the detours some will now have to make, and we are grateful for that.

“Wapping Wharf is a collective though and its strength is a thriving community. Without the footfall from the bridge many businesses are suffering, which is especially tricky on top of rising costs and consumers with less money to spend.

“We need a much more fixed timescale of works for the bridge, that is stuck to, and we need the option of half of the bridge to be reopened as soon as possible to be explored seriously.”