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A Day Out on the Matthew
Friday 30th July 2004

About the Matthew

In 1497, John Cabot set out from Bristol, under the patronage of King Henry VII, sailing the Matthew to the mainland of North America. The new Matthew was built as a replica, so is a 15th century square rigged caravel. She marked the quincentenary of Cabot's original journey by travelling from Bristol to Newfoundland in May and June 1997. There is an excellent book "The Voyage of the Matthew" by Peter Firstbrook which was published in 1997 by the BBC to accompany their TV programme of that journey. Her permanent base is at the Great Western Dockyard in Bristol, next to the famous SS Great Britain designed and built by the greatest British engineer of all time , Isambard Kingdom Brunel, whose suspension bridge our journey would take us under.

There are no pictures of the original Matthew, but the size, tonnage and number of crew were known. The ship would have been suitable for the journey to North America - so could hold provisions for 6 months as well as other necessary equipment. She would be strong, and good at sailing to windward. She would carry the largest sail area practicable. Subject to these constraints, the new Matthew was designed with an overall length of just over 60 feet and a beam of 20 feet. The hull shape was influenced by the hull of the Marie Rose, and the choice of square rig enabled her to carry plenty of sail. The main sail carries two bonnets, which could be taken off to reduce sail area. The wood used for the new Matthew was African opepe for the keel, oak for the frames and Douglas fir planking. Modern oak trees are not large enough to make the keel. The hull is carvel construction where planking is laid edge to edge and a small gap between each plank is caulked. The new Matthew took more than a dozen skilled shipwrights 2 years to complete, even using modern tools. The keel was laid in May 1994 and on 9 September 1995 she was ready for the water. Lead ballast and an external keel were added to make the stability adequate, and an engine was installed. This essential modern addition enabled the Matthew to travel between venues under power, and between March and December 1996 the engine logged 800 hours.


The Matthew was going to be moored at Portishead, so we went down the previous evening to see where she was, and to check for parking. Finding her was easy. She is a distinct unique sailing vessel, and happened to be moored next to an even larger sailing ship, the Earl of Pembroke. The Earl of Pembroke is a three-masted barque. . She was originally a schooner that traded timber in the Baltic and along the British coast. Built in 1945, she is one of three sailing experience boats operated by Square Sail. The others are Phoenix and Kaskelot. Kaskelot is also a three-masted barque; she once supplied remote Greenland settlements and then worked as a fisheries support vessel. Like on the Matthew, passengers are considered as voyage crew and asked to help with the sailing. Both the Earl of Pembroke and Kaskelot were also heading from Portishead to Bristol for the Festival.

Having introduced ourselves to the crew, we asked for advice on eating places and Roger, the Mate on board, suggested we eat at a pub called the Windmill. It was not easy to find; we did an interesting tour of narrow roads and woods on the Point near the lock before finding a local who sent us in the correct direction. We were totally unprepared for the magnificent views from the Windmill, over the Bristol Channel. Known until the year 2000 as the Hole in One due to its location next to a golf course, the name was changed to reflect the history of the building. The earliest part of the pub is the round stone tower, all that remains of Portishead's windmill which was finished in 1832, one of the last to be built in Somerset. It was runner up in the CAMRA Bristol Area Pub of the Year 2004 . We enjoyed an enormous Mixed Grill, and there was a good choice of beer on handpumps. An excellent pub. We ate indoors, but the rear garden would be perfect during the day. It started raining as we left.

Overnight we stayed at Days Inn on the M5 Gordano Service area. It is not actually on the motorway but on the junction roundabout, and was just 3 miles drive from Portishead.

Portishead dates back to Roman times but it was during the 19th century that it became an important dock. Now there is an impressive Crest Nicholson marina, and lots of trendy waterfront houses and apartments. Building work is still in progress. In the early morning we found lots of possibilities for parking on the road by the Matthew; the houses have their own garages or undercover car parks.

Accommodation and catering

We had not seen the area below decks while she was in Bristol, so it was a surprise to see how well she was organised. There were three hatches for access. The forward hatch was just crew access and contained all sorts of chandlery items - a small outboard for the dingy, lots of fenders and ropes. The central hatch led down to the accommodation and two heads. It was a surprise to find 3 neat rows of sheeted bunks, along port and starboard sides, and down the central aisle. The aft hatch led directly into the kitchen and saloon, and the steps down were even steeper than at the central hatch.

There was a good galley with an enormous 240volt fridge and freezer. It was essential to run the engine to keep them both cold.

Catering was good with unlimited (instant) coffee and tea available all day. There were bacon butties early in the morning, then muffins mid-morning. We had a sit down lunch - sausage casserole, rice and veggies followed by trifle. A surprise Champagne celebration of two birthdays while going down the Avon Gorge. Finally, on arrival in Bristol we were offered a selection of sandwiches and cakes.

The itinerary

At 0600 we were the first passengers to arrive on board. Eventually there were 12 passengers, plus the Master Nigel, Mate Roger and 6 crew. It had been arranged that we enter the Portishead Marina lock at just after 0700. We were alone, nevertheless everyone was very careful with the use of large fixed and roving fenders.

Leaving the lock, she turned, heading west with the tide past Portishead. We could just identify the Windmill pub with the golf course next door. Then we cruised onwards past Clevedon. In the distance we could see the 'heritage' seafront which has the only operational Grade I Listed Pier in the Country. It was built in 1869 and is the first Pier built using mathematical principles, to offer a strong and elegant structure to withstand the 12 metre tide - the second highest tide in the world. Tide was going to be a real challenge for us today compared with our usual sailing in New Zealand.

The channel was marked with red and green buoys as well as cardinal marks to show sandbanks. We needed to be careful because the Bristol Channel is shallow with shifting sandbanks and going aground would be tedious. At North Elbow buoy we turned towards Flat Holm and Steep Holm. Flat Holm has a distinctive lighthouse and a ruined cholera isolation hospital, as well as fortifications from Victorian times and WWII. It is perhaps most famous for receiving the first ever radio message across water sent by Marconi in 1897. Flat Holm is now a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Local Nature Reserve. Leaving Flat Holm behind, we turned towards Steep Holm. It was fortified in Victorian times and the cannons remain on or near their original batteries - two of the cannon are scheduled ancient monuments. In WWII Bristol and Cardiff Docks and the various aircraft factories in the west were major targets for enemy bombing. As a consequence, hundreds of soldiers were drafted on to the island to build and man coastal gun emplacements & searchlight posts. The Kenneth Allsop Memorial Trust took over the charitable administration of Steep Holm during the period 1974/5 in memory of the well-known broadcaster and naturalist.

We sailed around Steep Holm, admiring the fortifications, and then it was time to set the mainsail and head back towards Bristol. For sailing a medieval ship the wind was best on the quarter or from behind, and the Matthew is the same. The wind would now be in our favour, although the tide was still going to be against us for the next hour or two. It was a slow process to raise and lower the sail, involving the lowering of the spar to the decks, dealing with the heavy sailcloth and raising it all back up. Then with just a pull of the line the sail fell free. Sailors needed to be fit in the 15th century !

We glimpsed another sailing ship. It was the Kaskelot, sitting at anchor off the coast of Wales, waiting for the right time to also start for Bristol.

Steering back towards Bristol gave the opportunity to sit with the crew and read the chart and see progress. The Matthew has 2.2m draft and at times we were only in depths of 5 or 6 m on the edge of the main channel. Reluctantly the sail came down opposite Clevedon, and after much thumping into shape was tied securely and hoisted back up the mast.

Nigel did not want to sail into the Avon Gorge. Entering the River Avon at 1520, and recording less than 5m depth, it was important to keep strictly to the centre of the channel.

We continued slowly under the M5 motorway bridge then past Pill and its yacht haven. Then on the right we saw the unusual 'Adam and Eve' occulting light.

Around the next bend, on the left we passed the Old Powder Store. It was not allowed to take gunpowder into the city of Bristol, and so it had to be left here.

Further on we approached the picturesque and notorious Horseshoe Bend, a scene of many groundings in the past, including the paddle steamer the Waverley in 1998.

Onwards we continued until we saw the remains the Roman docks now known as Sea Mills. The round fronted building was a signal station. Despite being closed down now the Dockmaster should be aware of your approach, and your speed, because there is CCTV.

The walls of the Clifton Gorge tower above us and we saw climbers scrambling up one of the faces. Ahead we glimpsed the Clifton Suspension Bridge. There is a plaque which states "This bridge was designed in 1830 by Isambard Kingdom Brunel ( 1806 - 1859 ). Construction began in 1836 but was interrupted in 1845 through lack of funds. It was not until 1864, five years after Brunel's death that the bridge was completed as a monument to his fame. The chains used being those from the Hungerford Bridge (in London) designed and erected by him in 1843."

We knew from radio contact with the lock keeper that we would have to wait for the lock to be ready for us. When we arrived it was full, with boats descending. Also four small boats were waiting to go up. We went in first, then the others came alongside and behind. There were lots of fenders everywhere.

Immediately after the lock is Plimsoll Swing Bridge. It is a serious road bridge and has to be swung to allow sailing boats to leave the lock and wait in the Cumberland Basin. One idea had been to wait in Cumberland Basin until the Earl of Pembroke and Kaskelot joined us. But there was no sign of them, and it was very congested with lots of boats milling around, so we decided to continue into Bristol. We passed straight through Junction Lock, and then through the swing bridge next to the Pump House.

The Earl of Pembroke and Kaskelot eventually entered Bristol together. We saw them in the lock from our bus as we headed back to Portishead.

Reserved mooring for the Matthew was outside the Lloyds building, and except for a lack of suitable mooring rings, it was a good central spot. We settled down to our sandwiches and cake before saying our goodbyes and leaving. It was just 1730. The arrival of the Matthew marked the start of the weekend festivities for the Bristol Harbour festival. Originally we planned to spend the evening in Bristol, but everwhere was so crowded, with a mixture of Friday evening office drinkers and boaters, and we were tired from our long day. We set off towards our favourite Smiles Brewery Tap in Colston Street, but decided to give up and head back to our hotel. It had been an excellent day out, and we would recommend it. We certainly intend to do it again.

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Content revised: 24th July, 2020