A fast growing town on the Severn Estuary near Bristol, Portishead is an old fishing and deep-water port that has gone through a big transformation since the 2000s.
The deep-water port and accompanying industry has disappeared, to be replaced by a swish residential development at the Portishead Marina.
Whopping container ships now pass Portishead by at high tide, on their way to Royal Portbury Dock and the Port of Bristol, a few miles east.
And even if Portishead isn’t a beach destination, there’s a treasured community-owned outdoor pool, a rugged promontory with a working lighthouse, an esplanade, an Edwardian boating lake and park, and National Trust houses.
1. Portishead Marina
The population of Portishead has more than doubled in the last 30 years, and continues to rise steeply as the town attracts commuters working in Bristol.
One of the projects responsible for the recent population spike is the redevelopment of the town’s old deep-water docks, starting in the 1990s.
This is now a 250-berth modern marina (awarded 5 Gold Anchors), flanked by apartment blocks several storeys high and quayside walks dotted with modern sculpture.
You can amble along the quaysides, admiring the snazzy yachts and gazing up the estuary to the Severn Bridge and Royal Portbury Dock from the pier beyond the tidal lock.
Facing the water are pubs, restaurants, a handful of shops and a branch of Costa Coffee.
2. Portishead Open Air Pool
Portishead has a beach, but this isn’t used for bathing because of the high tidal range, close water traffic and dangerously strong currents.
The 33-metre lido near Battery Point opened in 1962, and although it was a much-loved amenity in its first few decades, was threatened with closure in the early 2000s.
The town came together though, and formed the Portishead Pool Community Trust, and the lido has bounced back, experiencing its busiest ever season in 2018. Heated using renewable energy, the pool is open from April to the end of October (reduced timetable at either end of the season), and has a pool for toddlers and the community-run Café Lido, serving Fairtrade coffee and home-baked cakes.
3. Portishead Lake Grounds
Next to the lido is Portishead’s main park, laid out around an artificial lake at the start of the 20th century.
The Portishead Lake Grounds are skirted to the west by the Esplanade, for vistas of the estuary and the lake itself.
The park is very well appointed, with pedal boats, a few amusements for smaller children, lakeside cafe, neat lawns, a rose garden, lots of specimen trees, a cricket pitch, bowling club and tennis courts.
You can bring something for the ducks (oats or corn instead of bread), and laze on the lawns with a picnic.
4. Battery Point
At the north end of Portishead is Eastwood, on a limestone ridge covered in dense broadleaf woodland.
This opens out onto a strip of grass flanked by scrub swooping down to Battery Point (also known as Portishead Point). From here you can park yourself on a bench and look back at the town and over the Severn Estuary to the Welsh coastline.
On the promontory here, at the end of a raised walkway, is the working Portishead Lighthouse, built in 1931 and standing nine metres tall.
Ships pass closer to the mainland here than at any other point on the UK’s coastline.
The name Battery Point comes from the headland’s historic defensive role during Elizabethan times, the Civil War, the Victorian period and in the First and Second World Wars.
5. Tyntesfield House
The Victorian guano magnate William Gibbs bought this house, then a symmetrical Georgian mansion, in the mid-19th century and gave it the beguiling Gothic Revival redesign that greets you today.
Outside the house is an endearing jumble of turreted chimneys and gables, with carvings of heraldic Medieval beasts, animals and foliate patterns.
Inside Gibbs hired the prominent interior decorator John Gregory Crace, who enriched Tyntesfield’s principal rooms with gilded panelling, carvings and moulding.
The house, acquired by the National Trust in 2002, has a massive inventory of more than 50,000 pieces, including a painting by Zambrano and the largest Victorian library collection in the hands of the trust.
Outside are 150 acres of parkland, with a kitchen garden, rose garden, sawmill, Grade II* orangery and the Home Farm Visitor Centre, which has a plant centre, crafts area and a farm-themed play area for kids.
6. Clevedon Court
Another National Trust property, Clevedon Court is a Medieval manor house, the earliest parts of which date back to the early 14th century.
Among the original spaces is the stunning great hall, still the largest room in the house, and the first floor chapel, which has held onto its fabulous Decorated Gothic reticulated tracery, visible on the south facade.
As you make your way through the house you can admire collections of Nailsea glass and portraits of the Elton family, who have resided here since 1709. Also on show is Eltonware, a kind of glazed pottery invented by Sir Edmund Elton, 8th Baronet (1846-1920).The gardens at Clevedon Court are Grade II* listed and cut from the hillside in a flight of terraces, shining in spring and early summer when the peonies, alliums and beautiful magnolias are in bloom.
You can visit on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays from April to the end of September.
7. Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm
In the last 20 years this large-scale zoo has evolved from what was once a working farm a few minutes away in Wraxall.
Now the largest zoo in the West of England, Noah’s Ark has children’s favourites like lions, African elephants, giraffes, tigers and white rhinos, but also stays in touch with its farming roots with animals like Tamworth pigs, alpacas, Highland cattle and sheep (lambs in spring!). Along with the many animal enclosures there are lots more opportunities for fun, at the largest hedge maze in the UK, as well as indoor and outdoor play areas, from a play barn to a bounce park, splash pool and digger area.
8. Black Nore Lighthouse
Starting from the Lake Grounds you could set off on a scenic walk west in search of this Victorian lighthouse, built by Trinity House (the 500-year-old lighthouse authority). A metallic structure painted white, the Black Nore Lighthouse was raised in 1894, guiding shipping in and out of Bristol Harbour until it was decommissioned in 2010. Architecturally it’s an interesting sight, as an example of a Victorian prefabricated building, fuelled by gas in its early years and using a winding mechanism until as late as 2000. Not much has been changed on the outside since it went up more than 125 years ago, and the lighthouse is now a Grade II listed building.
9. Oakham Treasures
This museum in nearby Portbury shows off the immense collections of a local farmer, who has been gathering vintage farm equipment, 20th-century shop paraphernalia and fashion since the 1960s.
The tractor and farm museum now boasts more than 150 tractors, the oldest a Fordson dating back to 1918. This is matched with a host of oil and gas-powered farm engines, as well as a straw elevator, cider press, potato harvester and sheep shearers.
As for retail, you can step into a mid-20th century high street, browsing a hardware store, haberdashery, tobacconist, grocery store, off licence, chemist and sweet shop, all brimming with authentic signage and packaging.
10. Prior’s Wood
Formerly on the Tyntesfield Estate, Prior’s Wood is spread over the steep limestone ridge inland from Portishead.
Some of the woodland here dates back to the 17th century, as you’ll tell from the soaring sweet chestnuts, as well as gnarled oaks, hazel and lime trees.
The main event in Prior’s Wood calendar falls in April and May when the enchanting carpet of bluebells pulls in walkers from far and wide.
Bluebells reproduce slowly, so when you see them in large numbers, it’s an indication that the surrounding woodland has been undisturbed for hundreds of years.
Go slowly and you may spot a chiffchaff, garden warbler or even a buzzard.
11. Clevedon Coast Path
A lovely way to spend a summer’s afternoon is on the path to Clevedon, five miles west along the estuary.
The Clevedon Coast Path, renewed by North Somerset Council in 2018, guides you past beaches and over sandstone cliffs, with constant views of Wales across the estuary.
The walk begins at Portishead Lake Grounds, and just before you arrive in Clevedon you’ll pass the 17th-century Walton Castle.
Clevedon has a few things to keep you in town, not least its elegant Grade I pier, a marine lake and the Salthouse Park with a miniature railway for little ones.
From Clevedon you can turn back and walk the trail again or catch the 88 or X5 BUS.
12. Portbury Wharf Nature Reserve
Sixty years ago, this peaceful wetland site to the east of Portishead would have been very different.
In what was known as the Ashlands, this was a dumping ground for waste from two coal-fired power stations.
Nothing remains from that time, in this area of ponds, hay meadows, grazing marsh, scrubby woodland and hedgerows.
Three of the larger pools have bird hides where you can look out for the many migratory birds that stop at the Severn Estuary on their long flights.
These might be curlews, red shanks, spoonbills and bitterns, while a wealth of wildfowl spends winter at the reserve, like water rails, shovelers, lapwings, wigeons, snipes and water rails.
13. Black Horse Pub
A mile out of Portishead proper, on Clevedon Lane is an exceptionally old pub in a whitewashed building.
The Black Horse has a history that can be traced back to the 1300s, and has all the hallmarks of a Medieval tavern, with stone-flagged floors, exposed beams in the ceilings and roaring fireplaces.
There’s also lots of centuries-old furniture in the traditional settles (high-backed benches) and pews that have come from St Michael’s Church, a little way down the lane.
The pub was built beside a coal mine, and is most likely named for the ponies and horses that hauled the coal to docks in Portishead.
14. Court House Farm
This gorgeous complex of Medieval and Tudor farm buildings belonged to Gertie Gale, much-loved in the Portishead community.
After she passed away in the early 2000s the farm started to fall into disrepair and has only recently been taken over and renovated.
At the time of writing Court House Farm was still being restored, but some rooms are rented out as accommodation and as a wedding venue.
Outside, the gardens can be visited in spring and summer, and there are regular gardening events, workshops and markets on weekends.
In 2019 some of the garden’s highlights were a meadow maze, sweetcorn circle, a wigwam plantation of climbing plants, beautiful ribbon planting.
15. Boat Trips
Based at Portishead Marina, Channel Explorer Charters arranges cruises and fishing trips aboard its swift blue and white catamaran.
If you’re in the mood for some fishing the boat goes out almost every day of the year, for expeditions of up to 12 hours.
The fish in the Bristol Channel change by the season, but typically rays, dogfish, conger eels and also cod from autumn to spring.
Rod hire and bait are also available with advance notice.
You might prefer to enjoy the scenery in the Bristol Channel, and the skipper Chris will take you in for a better look at the mighty Severn Bridge and fill you in about the history of the estuary, the comings and goings at Bristol Harbour and the natural wealth of the Channel.