History of the Line
I K Brunel’s GWR main line from London to Bristol was opened in June 1841 followed shortly afterwards by the Bristol & Exeter Railway which was also engineered by Brunel. These lines were built to his broad gauge of 7ft 0¼”. In July 1847 a broad gauge branch was opened from Yatton to Clevedon. Brunel had proposed a pier at Portishead linked by a railway to Bristol as long ago as 1839, but he died before the line was built. The population of Portishead in 1861 was only 1201, so a pier to link with Channel shipping was an essential part of the project.
The Bristol & Portishead Pier & Railway Company opened the single line broad gauge branch to Portishead from Bristol (Ashton) on 18 April 1867, about 3 years after Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge opened. It took less than 3 years to build (including 3 tunnels). It was operated by the Bristol & Exeter Railway. Initially there were stations at Clifton Bridge (0.5 mile south of bridge), Pill, Portbury and Portishead. The main station in Portishead (top photo) originally stood about where the new Primary School in Station Road now stands. At the end of the line there was also a station (possibly for freight only) by the pier, whose main redbrick building was at the foot of the steps leading down from the Royal Hotel (second photo). This building was demolished in 2014 to make way for a new RNLI lifeboat station which opened in 2015. The pier came into use in 1868, with steamers running to Cardiff, Newport and Ilfracombe. Portishead docks opened in 1879, two years after its rival at Avonmouth.
When it was later decided to convert all broad gauge lines to the standard 4ft 8½” gauge, the Portishead branch was amazingly converted between 24 and 27 January 1880! It became part of the GWR in 1884. Ashton Gate station opened in 1906, and Portbury shipyard station opened in 1918 to serve a shipyard being built during WW1. The shipyard was never completed and the shipyard station closed in 1923. Ham Green halt opened in 1926 to serve the hospital, and Nightingale Valley halt just north of the bridge opened in 1928, though it closed in 1932.
The Weston Clevedon & Portishead Railway (Portishead’s other railway!) originally opened from Weston to Clevedon in 1897 then was extended to Portishead in 1907 as a standard gauge light railway, with a link line connecting to the GWR branch. Its terminus station location is now covered by Wyndham Way. The WC&PR closed in 1940.
The main GWR station was demolished in 1954 to enable access to the new Portishead B Power Station, and a modern terminus station was built where the Waitrose petrol station stands today. The new station opened on 4 January 1954, but didn’t have a very long life, because the branch line was closed to passengers on 7 September 1964 and to normal goods on 1 May 1967. See ‘Lost Railway Stations’ blog. Fortunately, the line was not taken up because it remained open for private freight from the docks until 1981. Photo Copyright John Thorn. See also more historic photos.
The line continued to be used for football specials until 1977, but only the short distance to Ashton Gate. Then in 1985 the line was used for the GWR150 celebrations, for which a run-round loop was built in Portishead. There had been many attempts over the years to reopen the line but without success. Even in 1966, Portishead Town Council were pressing for the line to be reopened!
However, once the Royal Portbury Dock (opened in 1978) became fully established, it became viable to open the branch line again to enable cars to be transported from the docks. At a cost of £21m the line reopened in 2002 but only as far as the Portbury docks and for freight only. The remaining old track (just 3.3 miles) still exists into Portishead and surely one day must be reopened.
In the new housing development, near the old pier station, there is a length of rail and the words “Bristol & Portishead Pier & Railway Company 1867” carved in some new paving. The bottom photo is of the last train to leave Portishead on 7 Sept 1964 - photo Copyright D.E.Hockin, B.A. (Hons) LBIPP
Click photos to enlarge
For further details see the book Reflections on the Portishead Branch by Mike Vincent published by Oxford Publishing Co. ISBN: 0860931900(No longer in print).
Also: Branch Lines to Clevedon and Portishead including the WCPR and the Bristol Harbour Lines. By Vic Mitchell and Keith Smith. Published 2003 by Middleton Press. ISBN 978 1 904474 18 0. May be purchased from WC&P Railway Group here.
For an example of an historic timetable see the Old Timetables & Tickets page.
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