Page last updated 14 December 2019
Gordano Civic Society
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A Short History of Portishead By Sandy Tebbutt
Portishead (affectionately known as “Posset”) has always been much admired for its scenery and the wide reaching views of the River Severn. Its proximity to Bristol has meant that large swathes of its acreage has been owned by the Corporation from as early as the 1600s but long before this a mention of Portishead in the Domesday Book of 1086 is only brief. It was part of the Portbury Hundred at that time, with Portbury itself being the largest and most populated as well as the chief town of the Hundred. Portishead was its poor neighbour, there weren’t many animals or men to tend them. Most important at that time though was the mill which probably stood near to the site of the White Lion in the High Street, itself a tidal mill until 1810. The White Lion stands at what was the head of the old pill (or creek) which meandered in for about half a mile from the River Severn right up to the northern tip of the High Street.
The early population of Portishead made their homes on the rising ground that had a water supply and was sheltered from most winds on the rectangle of land between Church Road North and Church Road South. Next to the fine St Peter’s Parish Church with its traditional North Somerset tower lies Courthouse Farm, which has its origins in the Tudor period and was once the manor house for this part of Portishead. It is a strikingly beautiful building together with its brick and stone tower from which, once the steps have been climbed, it is still possible to see the marina in spite of the extensive building there. There are many other fine old houses in this area, sadly, some such as the Victorian Gothic Rectory was demolished in the 1960s, but one other delight is Church House which could have a history going back to the medieval period.
Portishead is fortunate to have 37 listed buildings in its vicinity, among them the aptly named Bird Tree Cottage with its topiared wrens in the front garden and just a little further down the High Street, the Grange which is believed to have been the manor house for North Weston. The Grange has a very important roof structure that had smoke louvres that are an indication of its early medieval origins. Around the corner is St Mary’s Road, another old by-way, where the thatched Quakers’ Meeting House which dates from the mid-1600s is situated. At the top of this road, Capenor Court, Portishead’s third manor house stood from probably late medieval times till the 1960s, when this fine old house was also demolished.
An ancient way (Battery Lane) ran from the High Street out to Battery Point just above the most northerly of the Somerset Levels called Rodmoor. This was dug out by the unemployed of Bristol in 1910 to form the Lake Grounds, now considered to be the jewel in Portishead’s crown. Previous to this in the mid-1890s, an esplanade had been built along the seashore from Battery Point to Beach Hill that enclosed the old marshland, springs can still be seen seeping along the edge of the lake.
Battery Point itself has had many makeovers to its fortifications because of its far-reaching views. Almost certainly it was used by raiding parties during the Iron Age, there is a hill fort of that period in the neighbouring Eastwood. The Romans also arrived at some point. It was fortified during Elizabethan times but there is an excellent account of a skirmish in the Civil War period. Local men loyal to the King were holding the Point against the Parliamentarians who had been detailed by General Fairfax to take this strategically important fort. As the local men were soundly outnumbered by Fairfax’s men, they surrendered and were made to promise that they wouldn’t take up arms against the Parliamentarians again and to return home and stay there. As Battery Point was so strategically important, for many years during the 20th century it was out-of-bounds to the general public and remained under the control of the War Department until the 1950s.
The wide street that became the High Street (formerly known as Mill Street and Duck Street) was once lined with apple and pear orchards. From the 1860s onwards, when Portishead’s first shop, Wedmore’s, opened on a site facing up to the parish church, the street gradually filled with a variety of shops, mostly built in Victorian times with some Edwardian additions and an assortment of 20th century builds. It is possible to appreciate some of the Victorian architecture if you raise your eyes to the first storey level. (See Posset Pieces No 14 on Portishead High Street).
The topography of Portishead helped to disguise the industry that was coming to the dock area from the mid-19th century from the tourists that were also arriving but to admire the scenery and views. The old pill was converted into a dock: two railways arrived – the GWR branch line from Temple Meads and the Weston, Clevedon and Portishead Light Railway (access to which was through the archway of the White Lion pub) and a pier was built just along from the Royal Pier Hotel. This hotel was built by Bristol Corporation in 1830 on some of its land and was quickly followed by the Saltings which took water from the River Severn and filtered it for the benefit of its upper class bathing clientele. The Saltings also offered a reading room and nearby on Eastwood, visitors could admire the views from the Broad Walk or take donkey rides to go a little further afield. By this time, Battery Point was in a period of calm, so Mrs Laverick was using the old fort to offer tea and refreshment to those admiring visitors.
During the latter part of the 20th century and now in the 21st century, Portishead has grown rapidly. The industry on the dock area and beyond (e.g. the Power Stations, Phosphorus plant, and Petroleum industry) has completely disappeared and the huge brown field site has become an area of considerably varied housing. It is hard now to believe that the agricultural and fishing community of 1801 numbered just about 300. By the time that building is completed on the old ashlands area it is thought the population will number around the 30,000 mark. The nearby hamlet of North Weston along the Clevedon Road has been part of Portishead for a number of years and the wooden holiday homes at Redcliffe Bay have been in most cases demolished and large houses built on the original plots in Heaven’s field and the surrounding area.
Portishead is still visited and admired not only for its views and spectacular sunsets, but for the Lakegrounds, Eastwood, Battery Point and the varied architecture. Community spirit abounds and residents and visitors alike enjoy annual events such as the Christmas Victorian Evening under the magically lit High Street, the Carnival in June and the Flower Show in July. Another crowd-puller is the amazing impact of the carousels and tubs which are planted up for both the winter and summer by the Portishead in Bloom team. The group has won gold awards in the South-West in Bloom competition for Portishead ever since 2008.