One of the delights of coastal walking is coming across places that seem, initially, not to be worth a second look; but which turn out, on closer inspection, to have a unique and special history. Such a place is Miles Dock.
At first, this small indentation in the riverbank looks as though it could be the natural outlet of the stream coming down the hillside. However, there are a enough signs of stonework to indicate that this was once part of a man-made structure, a small harbour.
Why would anyone build a harbour here, seemingly in the middle of nowhere?
Although now silted up, Miles Dock has a varied and fascinating history. It takes its name from the Miles family, who made their fortune during the eighteenth century, importing sugar into Bristol from the West Indies. In the 1790s, William Miles was one of the largest importers of sugar in England, a position sadly built on the transatlantic slave trade. In 1812, his son, Philip Miles, commissioned the re-building of Leigh Court, a mansion high on the east bank of the river, above Leigh Woods. The original Leigh Court, dating from 1558, was demolished and replaced by a much larger Palladian structure. Miles Dock was constructed to receive the the large quantities of Bath Stone needed for its construction.
A small kiln (above) was also built near to the dock, which was fired by anthracite brought by barge from South Wales. Leigh Court was completed in 1814. It would remain the Miles’ family home until 1917, but now it is a conference centre and wedding venue.
In 1829, a competition was held to design a bridge to span the River Avon at Clifton. Two years later, work on Brunel’s Clifton suspension bridge began. Red sandstone from the Leigh Court estate was used to build the two great piers at either end of the bridge. Miles Dock was used to ferry this stone down the river to the construction sites.
Following the building of the supporting pillars, construction of the bridge was halted in 1843 due to funding difficulties. The bridge was not completed until 1864, five years after Brunel’s death. Miles Dock, meanwhile, fell into disrepair. It must have seemed unlikely that this little dock would ever be used again.
That changed in 1880, however, when Henry Miles began to mine celestine on his estate.
Celestine is a form of strontium. During the last century, the main use of strontium was in the refining of sugar beet. For a few years at the end of the nineteenth century, Leigh Court was an important international supplier of celestine, all of which was exported through Miles Dock. A tramline was built from the quarries in Leigh Woods to the dock, and it is still possible to trace the incline down which it ran.
With the development of radiography and cathode ray tubes (both of which use strontium) in the early twentieth century, the demand for celestine increased and larger producers – notably the Bristol Mineral and Land Company – began to dominate the industry. Production at Leigh Court was abandoned in 1912, and Miles Dock has not been used since. Other mines in south Gloucestershire, however, continued to supply 90% of the world’s strontium until the Second World War.
Mies Dock is a few minutes walk from the National Trust car park at Leigh Woods. Leigh Woods is a great destination for a day out, and contains some lovely forest trails. The woods stretch southwards as far as Clifton suspension bridge, and include Stokeleigh Camp, an Iron age fort. So much of historical interest in such a small area!
Miles Dock also lies on the River Avon Trail, which runs for 23 miles from Pill (near the mouth of the river) to Pulteney Bridge in Bath. This is a excellent trail, and fairly easy to complete in stages thanks to good bus services (services X39/338/339). We walked it in one go, but it could easily be split at Bristol, Keynsham and Saltford.
A interesting circular walk is to follow the River Avon north to the Avonmouth motorway bridge. A footway and cyclepath crosses the river adjacent to the motorway, and footpaths follow the river south on the opposite bank. Crossing the river via the Clifton suspension bridge, or continuing to Bristol, give an 11 or 14 mile circular walk. Highlights include the historic village of Pill and the remains of a Roman harbour near Sea Mills.