Eating on the dock of the bay – Wapping Wharf, Bristol

Bristol’s Wapping Wharf is being revamped into a new food hub for the city, echoing the area’s historic past with a bustling new street plus a restaurant yard made of shipping containers. Teodora Lyubomirova reports.

Bristol’s vibrant food and drink scene has become a vital part of the city’s cultural makeup. The city, which was recently described as a “gastronomic boom- town” by The Sunday Times, is renowned for its strong focus on sustainable food and passionate independent retailers.

Bolstering this reputation is Alec French Architects’ mixed-use scheme in Wapping Wharf, which is already making waves as it includes the latest ‘gastro hub’ in Bristol harbour.

The Bristol-based architects’ extensive masterplan will see the last undeveloped area in the city centre transformed into a mix of residential buildings, offices, a hotel and retail units, with a clear objective to become a new food and drink destination on the south side of the harbour.

Tough beginnings

The scheme, which has been over a decade in the making, was the brainchild of Stuart Hatton, managing director and founder of developer Umberslade, which in a joint venture with Muse Developments is bring- ing Wapping Wharf to life.

Umberslade bought the largely vacant site, located at the eastern end of Wapping Wharf between Floating Harbour and Avon New Cut, in 2003, and the scheme was given the go-ahead in 2006.

However, start on site was delayed until 2014 due to funding difficulties fuelled by the financial crisis.

“No one wanted to lend me money,” Hatton explains drily to ADF at a table in Mokoko, one of the cafes at the site.

It was only after collaborating with the local council and securing Section 106 funding for the provision of housing – one of the residential buildings in the development, Chandlers House, was sold to Sovereign Living, a shared ownership and market rent provider – that the scheme could take off.

“To be honest with you, I will sing the council’s praises because they really wanted to happen,” Hatton adds.

In the meantime, Alec French Architects were fine-tuning the masterplan, which had to go through rigorous consultation with local councillors and concerned residents before being approved. Mark Osborne, director of Alec French, explains:

“We had some very successful public consultations – although there were local residents who were very cautious about overdevelopment and the nature of the scheme as a whole; they were worried about heights, for example.”

There was general consensus that the area’s heritage had to be preserved, and the architects were tasked with creating a devel- opment that was sympathetic to the gritty character of Bristol’s harbourside.

Osborne, however, argued that his prac- tice had little to reflect on when deciding on the scheme’s overall design. He comments:

“Surprisingly, not much has been done to form this ‘dock’ character. So I wanted to see something more of the character of a ‘wharf’, with steep roofs and a mix of mate- rials, particularly on the retail units where we have incorporated corten steel in between the glazing and some stone plinths, as well as some steel sections for the signage on the side.”

This resulted in the architects specifying materials that contributed to the area’s makeup, acknowledging its industrial past but also the modern appetite for rugged yet refined finishes.

Site specifics

Wapping Wharf, as the development is aptly named, is being carried out as a three- stage project regenerating a harbourside conservation area with rich history. The site was previously occupied by Bristol’s 19th century New Gaol prison and the architects had to masterplan around some of the remaining structures, including the pitch- roof stone stables that are now transformed into a pizza restaurant. Railway tracks, a legacy of the Great Western Railway’s oper- ations in the early 20th century, are retained to the north end of the site.

Phase 1 of the development, which commenced in 2014, saw the creation of multi-storey residential buildings clad in what the architects refer to as a “burnt stock” type brick’. Those house a number of glass-fronted retail units at ground level, alongside a new pedestrian route – Gaol Ferry Steps – that connects the Southville area across the river to the south with Museum Street to the north.

Once residents had got used to the new access following Phase 1’s completion in 2016, it didn’t take long for Wapping Wharf to catch on as a food and drink destination. Says Osborne:

“One of the secrets of the success of this little street is the fact that it is an incredibly busy thoroughfare – cross the bridge over there and you’re into a mixed neighbourhood , and the people who live there pass through here.”

Gaol Ferry Steps is designed as a ramp with level terraces relating to the buildings rising with the ground, with trees planted at podium level. There are retail units along the whole length of the route – including a beer shop, two cafes and an organic food supermarket, as well as a pizza restaurant housed in the former stables at the top.

The sloping nature of the street has its pros and cons – the external landscaping had to be as non-slip as possible as well as durable and low maintenance. Osborne praises the landscaping design by interna- tionally renowned landscape designers Gillespies including Pennant stone hard paving which he says was completed to an “exceptionally high standard.”

Indie at heart

Osborne explains how the design of the street was conceived to offer distinctive frontages to independent retailers, aided by the gradient:

“Stuart’s idea was about small individual units which can be adapted for local traders rather than international brands and we designed a series of shopfronts and part of walls in between – because you can’t just have glazing.” He adds: “The units are nice and tall and as you go down there are double heights, so right at the end you’ve got a mezzanine, or a potential for one at least.”

The idea of encouraging independent retailers to bring bespoke food and drink offerings has been one of the main objectives for Umberslade, a company which is itself in essence a family business.

“We are completely unlike the vast majority of developers,” declares Stuart Hatton, explaining that even though independent retailers may not have the track record of established market giants, his firm was still willing to take a gamble for one simple reason: “I wanted Wapping Wharf to become a food hub, and independent retailers do food best.”

Hatton insists it was vital for the development to get the right mix of businesses that could be complementary and serve the local community as well as draw people to the wharf from across the city.

“You’ve got to buy into the community,” says Hatton, who personally sieved through and inter- viewed the candidates for the units. “When you get the chance to chat to these people, you understand whether they get it or not.”

With individuality being key to the development, he was able to take a selective approach:

“If we wanted, we could have put nine coffee shops in here – that’s how many people approached us.”

To make matters simpler for tenants completing the fit-outs, the architects made some interventions to the empty units.

“We designed them as shells and they were all the same type of specification,” explains Mark, adding, “One thing was to ensure the acoustic insulation was in place for residents above , so we put a deep concrete slab above the ceilings of the retail units and a floor zone above that, which is also quite dense.”

To maintain a rhythm across the street, the team fitted the external glazing to all units and also installed the floor insulation and the ductwork.

The former prison stables that was turned into a pizza restaurant at the top end of Gaol Ferry Steps, was deemed “worthy of retention” in the masterplan, but the architects faced a challenge in supporting it structurally and extra care was needed while shelling around it.

Mitigating problems

A key consideration during construction and given the variety of businesses that were sought as tenants, was setting out the purpose of use of each unit as far in advance as possible in order to design the services appropriately. At times, the team behind Wapping Wharf had to take a ‘best guess,’ installing for example bigger extract ductwork in units likely to be let out to larger eateries or bars. This was not possible for all units due to planning conditions.

There were also practical issues around access to the back of the retail units, and a workaround was identified in the form of a route through the car park at the rear to combine space for delivery and an efficient refuse collection system shared by each two units. A potential issue around kitchen odours from ground floor units affecting the residential part of the development had to also be considered, with the architects opting to specify horizontal ventilation on Phase 1; they are however tending towards vertical ventilation for future phases in a bid to further minimise the restaurants’ impact on clean air across the flats.

“The trouble with that of course is running a flue vertically through the residential dwellings – we were trying to avoid that in Phase 1 as it requires the chimney to go way above the roof to control smells and extraction,” explains Mark Osbourne.

Low carbon technology was also implemented across the site to minimise the carbon footprint, with the architects specifying a combined heat and power plant that will be able to power future phases, as well as photovoltaic panels on the rooftops of the residential buildings.

Containing a new idea

Wapping Wharf’s appeal as a smart, hip new food destination packing a strong mix of independent businesses has been bolstered by the quirky addition of Cargo – two two-storey buildings constructed from steel shipping containers adapted to the needs of nine businesses – five eateries, a barber shop, a cider shop, a wine shop and a florist. Outside, the front of the green- painted structures is extensively glazed, while a modest staircase leads to the upper, terraced deck.

Bristol is not new to the idea of using steel containers to create spaces – the city’s Engine Shed project, designed by Childs+Sulzmann Architects, combined 20 containers to provides workspace for local businesses near Temple Meads in 2015.

Cargo’s developer Umberslade however claims it is the first ‘retail yard’ made from shipping containers in the city. The idea for it was sparked across the pond in New York’s meat packing district, where a holi- daying Stuart Hatton was inspired by eateries operating from fishing containers.

He comments:

“We already had a good mix of operators in the main retail units, but I thought, how can we improve on that?” The area at the bottom of Gaol Ferry Steps was vacant, so there was enough space to accommodate a similar container- made structure. “That piece of land was completely flat, so it seemed the obvious thing to do was to animate it so we squeezed 18 containers onto it, which I divided into nine retailers.”

Initially the team considered stacking the containers vertically as their main structural holding points were in the corners, but Stuart wanted to create a first-floor terrace, and he says:

“as soon as you offset them, you have to create additional structural elements to put the balance back.” Naturally, space was limited and had to be carefully balanced in order to foster an intimate atmosphere within each eatery. Mark Osborne admitted such challenges can be a blessing in disguise for architects. “It stops you from being formulaic,” he argued, adding, “The key to us was to get the proportions right – make them too wide and they can become desert-like and uncomfortable.” He concluded: “The successful thing with this masterplan was that it’s very compact and manages to create that buzz and intensity.”

Alec French had to tweak the drafts for Cargo on multiple occasions, with tenants wanting to borrow valuable inches of space.

“It’s quite easy to do this,” assured Mark, “It’s just a matter of planning amendments, of which there were quite a few,” he laughed.

The plans were then sent to Lions Construction, the containers supplier who delivered the parts and weld the structure together on site.

These ‘boxy’ types of catering developments have had their critics, who claim they are too space-constrained to be pleasant for diners, but Mark counters: “You can join a few together, or cut them to the desired size – it’s all very flexible.” Hatton adds,

“It’s like you’re in someone’s dining room. Take Lovett Pies – it’s 8 ft wide and 20 ft long, a single container, but it’s brilliant, so beauti- fully designed, because they’ve thought about how to use each square inch of space. create a very intimate atmosphere, and creative people have seized on that to create something very special.”

As with the main units in Gaol Ferry Steps, the developers have put the basics in place to help the tenants moving in – ply- lined the containers, installed insulation, drainage and ductwork in addition to the striking glazed shopfronts.

Following on Cargo’s success, Umberslade is already stacking more containers – 38, to be precise – that will accommodate 17 businesses at the back of M Shed, the existing museum at the site.

With Gaol Ferry Steps and Cargo fully let and running, Phase 2 of Wapping Wharf’s regeneration is set to commence this year. This will see a number of timber-clad residential dwellings erected to the east of the site, along with retail units, a new street and the renovation of the Grade II listed remnants of the prison. More food retailers may also be invited to the area, providing plenty more varied and tempting offerings for Bristolian foodies along the city’s harbourside.


Dry lining to the soffits: Knauf
Blockwork (rear sidewalls): Masterblock
External landscaping: Forest of Dean Stone & Gillespies
Brickwork: Ibstock
Corten steel: E C L Contracts

Retail doors to the rear of the units: Ascot Doors
Flooring/insulation: Kingspan Thermafloor TF70
Glazing: Alucraft