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Gloucester Docks: Spotlight on the past, present and future of the city's waterfront

PUBLISHED: 09:45 10 May 2019 | UPDATED: 09:45 10 May 2019

Gloucester Docks at dusk (c) JJFarquitectos / Getty Images

Gloucester Docks at dusk (c) JJFarquitectos / Getty Images

JJFarquitectos

As 200,000 visitors are expected at the flagship Gloucester Tall Ships and Adventure Festival this month, Corrie Bond-French charts the glorious past and present and future of the city's waterfront

On visiting Gloucester in the latter years of the Victorian age, Charles Dickens - himself a dockyard boy - was sufficiently enchanted by the sights and sounds of the city's bustling waterfront to write: "You will see, suddenly appearing, as if in a dream, long ranges of warehouses with cranes attached, endless intricacies of dock, miles of tramroad, wildernesses of timber in stacks, and huge, three-masted ships, wedged into little canals, floating with no apparent means of propulsion, and without a sail to bless themselves with."

Within a century of his visit, the final commercial load of oil that left Gloucester Docks in the 1980s signalled an end to both the heyday of thriving industry and maritime charms that had buoyed Dickens's spirit and to a near 400-year commercial history.

The most inland port in the country, some 40 miles from the coast, Gloucester Docks provided a gateway for international trade. The main basin is the terminus of the 16-mile long Gloucester to Sharpness canal, opened in 1827 to allow sea going ships to bypass a tortuous winding stretch of the River Severn and to offload their cargoes onto barges. It would have been continually busy with steam ships, narrowboats and sailing boats. Timber and grain were the main imports, and saw and corn mills thrived alongside workshops, chandlers, sail and rope makers.

Dockers at Gloucester Docks. Courtesy GHURCHDockers at Gloucester Docks. Courtesy GHURCH

All of life was here, and it's no coincidence that characters such as the pirate Blackbeard have Gloucestershire connections. JMW Turner sketched and painted here prior to the Victorian developments. Robert Louis Stevenson based his most famous character, Long John Silver in Treasure Island, on poet, critic and former Cryptian William Ernest Henley. A larger than life character with a wooden leg and gregarious nature, Henley grew up within a stone's throw of the dock's cobbles and watering holes. His most famous poem, Invictus, was credited by Nelson Mandela as his inspiration.

Through later decades of the 20th century, neglect set in. Pleasure boats operated, a few restaurants and an antiques centre opened, the docks featured in films and TV series such as The Onedin Line. But it was a far cry from the hustle and bustle of a working dockside, where tall ships came from as far as the Americas and the Black Sea.

Occasionally, ideas were mooted, hopes raised, but Gloucester's waterfront lay uncherished, the unsung hero of a city's vibrant maritime heritage. Under the celestial heights of Gloucester Cathedral, this former hub of industry, creaking masts, shanties and nautical know-how became the ghost of Gloucester's glories past.

Ships in the main basin, Gloucester Docks, 1883. Picture courtesy GHURCHShips in the main basin, Gloucester Docks, 1883. Picture courtesy GHURCH

But as the saying goes; good things come to those who wait. This year will see Gloucester's remarkable waterfront renaissance celebrate a 10-year anniversary. The heritage of the Docks will be marked by the award-winning bi-ennial Tall Ships and Adventure Festival, a weekend of hearty indulgence in all things nautical and nice, and Gloucester Quays celebrates the first decade since doors opened in May 2009.

With visitor numbers more than double the predicted 3 million to just shy of 7 million, the waterfront has been given a huge, new lease of life, with a mixture of museums, cinema, bars, cafes, restaurants, designer outlet shopping. The Gloucester Quays masterplan doesn't stop there, with further developments in partnership with Crest Nicholson, creating 411 new canal side homes and 94 McCarthy Stone retirement complex on the horizon. We have also seen the regeneration of Bakers Quay and the Llanthony Secunda Priory.

To date, Peel Group have invested more than £300 million and created nearly 3,500 jobs. Managing Director of Lifestyle Outlets, part of Peel Land and Property, Jason Pullen says that, ironically, neglect and lack of development in the eighties helped to ensure the future of Gloucester's historic, warehouse gems.

Gloucester Quays Food Festival (c) Lifestyle OutletsGloucester Quays Food Festival (c) Lifestyle Outlets

"As a regeneration area this was really hard fought because it's a conservation area and we wanted to make sure it retained the character. I think the docks are fantastic, second to none, and it's not been celebrated actually. It's a remarkable place.

"It was completely run-down. What actually has saved the warehouses is that we actually had a holistic plan, we've been able to masterplan it all. I think it's a rare occurrence, but actually it's because it wasn't touched in the seventies and eighties so they didn't get ruined.

"You can see the whole of the docks has been revitalised. The key catalyst for us was getting the outlet centre to work and driving the vitality into the centre in terms of making it a visitor destination, using the waterfront to best effect. This was about us trying to absorb the spirit of the place and do it in a sympathetic way and then driving it forward. I do think it's quite unique. There are just under three million visitors who visit the outlet then walk up and back, Gloucester is a really walkable city. It's so important because people want somewhere to work and live and the day of the car is changing."

Gloucester Tall Ships FestivalGloucester Tall Ships Festival

Jason concedes that things haven't all been plain sailing: "There's still so much more to do. You're only ever a steward of somewhere but back in 2010 when I came in, we'd built this first phase shopping centre, things were very tough and lots of the retailers had gone into administration or pulled out, and we'd built this great big centre that was empty and everybody in the city was saying 'it's a white elephant, you wait, we'll end up with Poundland and we were promised an outlet centre'.

"But that was rightly so because they were disappointed, and there were very good reasons for that, so that's made me much prouder of the journey, and now I think if you come here on a Saturday night the whole docks are buzzing, it's vibrant, full of people, I'm proud that people are really beginning to enjoy the docks here."

Leader of Gloucester City Council councillor Paul James has long been involved in the area's regeneration, and recognises that the development has much to celebrate after such difficult start

Gloucester Tall Ships FestivalGloucester Tall Ships Festival

"We had a very deep and difficult recession, and Gloucester Quays opened in the middle of it… It's Jason Pullen's vision, persistence and business skills that have made it such a success. He wants the whole city to succeed and he recognises that Gloucester Quays will only reach its potential when the rest of the city is a success."

With Gloucester City Council vacating their dockside offices after three decades, times are changing in Gloucester.

"I'd be very keen to see a good hotel there so that would be a good opportunity, and pushing on I want the city to be a single cohesive destination, so people don't look at the Docks and Quays and the city centre as two different places."

Gloucester Tall Ships FestivalGloucester Tall Ships Festival

A slap of water against the dock edge and screech of a seagull can still conjure the ghosts of Gloucester's glories past, but the Gloucester Tall Ships and Adventure Festival, a weekend's celebration of beautiful vessels and nautical memories, is a real highlight, where you might also catch the cackle of a pirate on the wind. With the award-winning event taking place once again between May 25 and 27, it's clear that there's much to celebrate, and Gloucester's dockside waterway is now championed again as the city's restorative elixir.

Canal and River Trust heritage adviser David Viner agrees: "It's been a fantastic change, and it's so full of interest, and what's great is it's still a working dock. Gloucester has the best collection of Victorian and Georgian warehouses in the country, it is absolutely unique."

Maritime delights...

- Gloucester Tall Ships and Adventure Festival takes place from Saturday, May 25 to Monday, May 27

- Visitors will be able to sample a slice of maritime life climbing aboard the vintage vessels

- For the more adventurous, there will be the chance to zip wire across Gloucester Docks or take in one of the Gravity Jet Suit displays

- Schoolchildren and other performers will take to different stages across the festival on Saturday, May 25 as part of the prestigious Water City Music event

- There will also be a wakeboarding competition, food and drink stalls and much more

- Admission is £10, with under-12s getting in free

- For tickets visit gloucestertallships.co.uk

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