“ The Clifton Suspension Bridge is a suspension bridge, spanning the Avon Gorge and linking Clifton in Bristol to Leigh Woods in North Somerset, UK. Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, it is a distinctive landmark that is often used as a symbol of Bristol. It is a grade I listed building. The bridge has long had a reputation as a suicide spot. Because of this, dedicated telephones with a direct line to The Samaritans were placed beside the bridge. However, the phones have since been vandalised and there are now only wires dangling from where the phones once hung. In 1885, a 22 year old woman called Sarah Ann Henley survived a jump from the bridge when her billowing skirts acted as a parachute, and subsequently lived into her eighties. „
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This review is of the Bristol bridge, the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which has become a local tourist attraction.
For some time a bridge was planned to cross the Avon river, and after some funds were obtained, in 1830 a competition for designers was held to design the bridge crossing. Isambard Kingdom Brunel submitted three different designs, but all of his designs, and that of all the other entrants were rejected by the judge, Thomas Telford. Telford himself put forward an alternative design plan, but this was rejected due to controversy over the whole judging procedure.
The bridge as it currently stands is primarily a design of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the great engineer who designed much of the Great Western Railway network, designed ships, bridges and is recognised as one of the country's greatest ever engineers. Brunel didn't live long enough to see the completion of his bridge, as he died in 1859. The bridge therefore wasn't finished in 1864, and funding was helped by The Institution of Civil Engineers who wanted the bridge to be completed as a memorial to Brunel's work.
When I visited the bridge for the first time, it was at night, and the entire bridge is illuminated, so it looks a remarkable sight for whichever direction you approach it. We stopped at a small car park at one end of the bridge and walked across the large structure, which has a footpath on either side of the bridge, with a one lane road in each direction in the middle of the bridge.
I hadn't expected the bridge to be quite so high above the Avon Gorge, and one look over the side showed just how enormous a challenge it was to build this bridge. If you dare look over the edge, you will see well below you the River Avon and the road built alongside it. Unfortunately, the bridge did become a suicide area given the height and the near certain death for those who made the jump. Fortunately the number of suicides has been reduced recently following the construction of large fences on either side of the bridge, and there are also Samaritans signs on the two towers.
It's only when I got close that I could see that Brunel had tried to design the bridge to be in an Egyptian style, with the two large towers at each end. There were also meant to be two sphnix type statues at each end on the two towers, but lack of funds meant that this vision wasn't in the end translated into the design of the bridge. It is though, in my opinion, an attractive looking bridge which has certainly stood the test of time.
A few years ago, a discovery was made that the towers of the bridge weren't actually solid pieces of rock construction, but had twelve large voids in them. Specialist teams were able to get into these chambers through a small hole, and explore their way through them. The chambers hadn't been entered since the bridge's construction, and it was thought that the bridge was solid as when tests were made, by chance they went through the solid parts of the bridge.
It is free for pedestrians and cyclists to cross the bridge, although the Act of Parliament which details the tolls and charges allow for a charge to be made in theory. Cars are charged, 50p each way, more for larger vehicles. Locals, or anyone else who uses the bridge frequently, can buy bulk credits which make it cheaper per crossing.
Unfortunately it was closed when I went to visit the bridge, but there is an exhibition centre at the Leigh Woods side of the bridge. This is open from 9am to 5pm every day and I've been told that it is a great introduction to the bridge, its history, and more history of how engineering was developing at the time.
If you are in the Bristol area, I'd definitely suggest taking a look at this bridge, it's an impressive landmark and a great feat of engineering. Given the times when the bridge was built, and the difficulties faced, it is even more amazing that only two people died in the bridge's construction. Definitely worth a look and a walk along the pedestrian pathways, but probably not to be advised for those who really struggle with heights.
For more information, the bridge has an official web-site which can be found at http://www.clifton-suspension-bridge.org.uk/.
My husband was born in Cork but grew up in Clifton, Bristol, a stone's throw away from the Suspension Bridge. Having visited his family in the area several times as we dated and then after we married, I only very recently actually walked across the Suspension Bridge. I had seen it several times before, of course, from the balcony of the Clifton Hotel and as we drove along the parkway, but for whatever reason, we had never had any occasion to walk or even drive across it. Finding nothing to do on a particularly sunny October Saturday when we were down, we decided to try it out.
We had walked across the Golden Gate Bridge whilst in San Francisco, and though I am desperately afraid of heights, I had felt no fear then, and had assumed that this instance would be similarly unproblematic. This assumption, unfortunately, was wrong! I think it's because the bridge is so narrow - where the GGB had very wide lanes plus very wide footpaths on either side, the Suspension Bridge is very narrow, with just enough room for two people to walk side by side. Being so small, every vibration of every passing car is felt - being surrounded on either side by mud and water is less than encouraging. I spent both ways clutching on to his side, keeping my eyes locked in front of me.
Once on firm ground, however, I enjoyed the view of the Bridge as much as I always had. I've enjoyed quite a few drinks in the White Lion, and always admired the view of the Bridge at night from there (though the river is liable to smell a bit!).
It's a great sight to see in Bristol...though I might recommend that those fearful of heights stay on the ground to see it!
The suspension bridge is an iconic piece of bristol that is definitely worth a visit. The bridge stretches across the Avon Gorge linking Clifton/Redlands area to Leigh Woods/Ashton Court Estate. The bridge was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and was a ground breaking construction when it was built and today is as good as the day it was built.
The bridge has traffic and pedestrian crossings, there is a toll for cars but pedestrain access is free. The pedestrian crossing has breath-taking views along the gorge towards the Severn Estuary and Cumberland Basin/South Bristol. There is extensive CCTV and anti climb wire fencing, this is to prevent potential suicides as this seems to be a strangely popular place to do such things. It is also quite common to see rockclimbers ascend up the gorge side and base of one of the sides of the bridge as it is a popular 'unofficial' climbing route.
There is a small museum and gift shop on the Ashton Courtside of the bridge. It has the history of the design and building of the bridge, including the controversial design selection process.
The bridge can be very windy but the views are incredible and the bridge is a must if you are visiting Bristol. The best time to go is during the Balloon Festival in August so you can see the balloons passing overhead, then go for a drink at the Avon Gorge Hotel for a beautiful view of the Bridge from the Clifton-side.
Those of you who know me well, or who have long memories, will know that I have two heroes in life, both Engineers. One was a family member, my Great Uncle Bill, the other Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Both as it happens were engineers.
I had, very much wanted to be in Bristol on the weekend of April 8th / 9th 2006, in order to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Brunel's birth. Due to circumstances beyond my control, this just was not possible. I was at the time fortunate enough to get hold of the excellent set of Royal mail commemorative stamps from our local post office, the 60p one of which shows a period print of the very subject of this review.
Many cities had various celebrations marking the anniversary, but, being the site of his most visible achievements, Bristol has been host to the year long "Brunel 200" festivities.
THE IDEA IS HATCHED
When Brunel launched the Great Britain from its current home, in July 1843, the Avon Gorge was without a bridge, although in a sense it had already been in the "planning stage" since 1754. A wine trader by the name of William Vick, who had made his fortune in Bristol, died in that year, leaving £1000 in trust, intending that when it had grown to £10,000 it would fund a stone bridge, crossing the Avon Gorge from Clifton Down to Leigh Woods.
The mystery is quite why Mr Vick should want to see such crossing built. At the time of his death, Clifton Down amounted to a couple of houses, an ancient church and farmland. Leigh Woods was just that - woodland.
Fifty years later and Clifton's fortunes were on the up. Clifton had become THE fashionable place to live, terraces rivalling those in Bath were being built, and wealthy Bristol residents were moving out of the grimy city centre and docks area and to the gentrified surroundings of Clifton on top of the hill, overlooking the southern end of the Avon Gorge.
Periodically Mr Vicks' idea was aired, most famously when a man by the laughably appropriate name of William Bridges proposed the building of a colossal arched building, five stories high on each side. This he suggested would provide housing, a pub, granary and even a chapel. Looking at the geography of the site, one wonders if he had ever actually visited Bristol before drawing this incredible (in the true sense of the word) bridge.
BRISTOL NEEDS A BRIDGE, ANY IDEAS?
In the early 1820's, bridge building had become something of a British pre-occupation, spurred on by Thomas Telford bridging both the Menai and Conway Straights. Bristol, being a very important and prosperous city, did not want to be left behind. Apart from which, there were by now several thousand pounds burning a hole in their pockets, thanks to Mr Vicks trust fund.
A bridge committee was set up, headed by Bristol's mayor, in order to consider the options with regards to designing, funding and building a bridge at Clifton. In 1829 a competition was launched to design the bridge, a 100 guinea prize was to be awarded to the successful designer. This captured the imagination of architects and engineers all over the country. Mr Vicks had been very specific in that the bridge should be of stone, which naturally lead the majority to design traditional, if massive stone bridges.
One by one, once costed, all of the stone bridge proposals had to be rejected. Built from stone, it was estimated that a bridge would cost £90,000 - the trust fund value stood at £8000!
Amongst the many designs submitted, several had proposed the use of a much lighter, modern and cheaper material - wrought iron. Whilst it still would far exceed the cost of £8000 to build, the Bristol luminaries considered that by charging travellers to cross the bridge they could recoup the building costs over a reasonable period of time. The competition remit was narrowed down to the design of a wrought iron suspension bridge.
THANK YOU THOMAS TELFORD, JUST WHAT WE NEED!
By all accounts, at this stage, the competition turned into something of a fiasco. The committee decided to commission famous engineer, and renowned bridge builder, Thomas Telford, to judge the competition. He was by this time 70 years old and not 100% au-fait with modern materials such as wrought iron. On one ground or another, he rejected every design, including the one produced by I.K. Brunel.
Telford at the last moment proposed his own design, which the committee accepted and put forward in January 1830 to Parliament in a Bill for approval. The people of Bristol, hearing about this, were up in arms about it, calling foul play.
In May 1830 the parliamentary Bill was approved, at which time the committee were still £22,000 short of the cost estimated to build Telford's bridge. Diplomatically, they dropped his proposal on grounds of insufficient funding and considered four other designs, one of which was Brunel's.
A VERY PERSUASIVE MAN, ISAMBARD KINGDOM BRUNEL
Initially the committee had decided on a rival design by a Mr W. Hawks, which Brunel contested. He went to the committee with his own plans, which he literally brow beat them into accepting. Quite what Mr hawks reaction to this was is not recorded, nor do we know if he was awarded the 100 guineas as victorious designer of the bridge.
Brunel had actually designed four similar bridges with differing span and abutment arrangements. One that he entitled the "Egyptian thing" was unanimously accepted by the committee.
And so, in a slightly different form, the Clifton suspension Bridge, as it now stands, was born. The "piers" (pillars or towers as you may also read them referred to as) from which the cables hang at either end of the bridge were designed with Egyptian themes and with paired sphinxes mounted on top. Due, presumably to cost considerations, these details failed to materialise on the bridge once built.
To Brunel, this bridge project was the pinnacle of his career "My first child, my darling" he was known to call it. Having won the design competition, the additional prestige of being awarded the position of Civil Engineer to the project, cemented Brunel's lifelong association with Bristol.
His ships, the railway from London, even the design of Temple Meads Station, I.K. Brunel left an ever lasting mark on this city.
A PAINFUL AND PROTRACTED BIRTH
The life of an early Victorian engineer was far from an easy one. Apart from the bridge, Brunel had many other projects all over the country to oversee. He was a remarkable workaholic, sleeping only a few hours per night, and often on the move in his carriage at that. He had to struggle with pioneering techniques involving new materials and a labour force that had no experience in anything that they were doing - almost all of it was virgin territory.
In many cases only Brunels' sheer drive and enthusiasm saw projects through to completion. He battled on, against the odds, taking at times huge personal risks; he was not the kind of man to direct operations from the drawing office. By attending and supervising his sites on a regular basis, he inspired great loyalty in his workforce. He also had an outstanding reputation for never stinting on quality, a characteristic trait that put him in very good stead with the wealthy Bristol merchants.
In 1838 his first Bristol steam built ship, the Great Western, left Bristol bound for New York, five years later the revolutionary, iron hulled Great Britain did the same thing. Neither passed under the bridge - only the foundation stone, laid in August 1837. This was the start of a long, long building period, which at several stages looked in danger of being abandoned altogether.
In 1843, the year that the Great Britain sailed, she would have passed a completed Leigh Woods abutment, complete with pier standing on top; the Clifton pier too was built. The building costs so far had amounted to £45,000. The money had run out!
RAISE £30,000 OR DEMOLISH IT?
Ten years later, in May 1853 time too had run out. The parliamentary Bill had expired and there was no work taking place on the bridge. Several vital parts ordered and stored for bridge erection, principally the chains from which the roadway was to hang, had been sold off, in order to pay debts, for use on other projects. It looked increasingly unlikely that the bridge would ever be completed.
15th SEPTEMBER 1859, 53 YEAR OLD I.K. BRUNEL DIES
Apathy towards the Clifton Suspension Bridge project turned to anger at this news. Bristol's adopted engineer had gone to his grave with his greatest work shamefully abandoned. The powerful (this was the Victorian era!) Institution of Civil Engineers publicly expressed their regret that this great project had not been completed and further suggested that it would make a fitting tribute to their much admired colleague Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
A VICTORIAN RECYCLING PROJECT
In 1862, The Old Hungerford Bridge which crossed the Thames at Charing Cross was being dismantled to make way for a new railway bridge. This too was a suspension bridge, which Brunel had built in 1845. Sir John Hawkshaw, Hungerford's designer, carried out a feasibility study and brought the conclusion to the Clifton trustees, i.e. the chains that had been hanging the London bridge would be perfectly adequate for re-use at Clifton.
At a stroke, the cost of completing the bridge had been slashed. Under Hawkshaw a new bridge company was formed. Decisions to modify Brunel's design were made, primarily the widening of the deck from 24 to 30 ft (7.3m to 9.2m) and a raising of the deck to 245 ft, from 230 ft (75m / 71m) above high tide mark.
In June 1862 work re-started in preparation for the arrival of the Hungerford chains. Mathematical calculations showed that an extra 500 tons of chain would be required, this was put on order. In June 1863 a wire was passed between the two towers, for the first time there was a permanent connection between them.
Huge caverns had been dug under the cliffs on both sides into which the chains and anchorage were sunk into a 20 ft bed of concrete. Once the chains had been linked together the rods from which the deck (or roadway as we would now call it) is suspended could be hung.
After the long drawn out initial stages, completion of the bridge came swiftly.
A VERY GRAND OPENING
On 8th December 1864, the pride and delight of the population of Bristol showed. A long procession started out from Bristol city centre at 10.00am, headed by representatives of five army regiments and the Royal Navy. There were some sixteen bands, both military and civil, accompanying this procession. The route to Clifton was thronged with crowds.
Following the first ceremonial crossing, six field guns fired a salute from the Leigh Woods side, the procession returned to Clifton, where in front of a grandstand many local dignitaries addressed the crowds.
142 YEARS LATER, RICHADA & PARTY CROSS THE BRIDGE
Well, to be honest I have done this before!
My initial associations with The Clifton Suspension Bridge were strictly from a safe distance. I do not like to use the dreaded "a" word, but awesome, in appearance, is what this magnificent structure is. When approaching Bristol, we always take the long way round; M4 / M5 then A4 so as to pass through the Avon Gorge and under the Bridge. However many times I see it, I still get excited as we round the bend and its full span comes into view for the first time.
About ten years ago, whilst on a photographic sortie in Bristol, I plucked up courage to actually step onto the bridge for the first time. Feeling it "spring" as a van passed me was enough, I am not good with heights, add movement as well to a structure like this and I'm gone!
There is a four ton weight limit which is strictly enforced; you have to drive over a weighbridge set in the road at each end before crossing the bridge.
However age and wisdom tell me that my hero did not design this bridge to fall down with me on it. It has stood here for well over a century, and holding my (then) fiancee's hand, I managed to walk the full length of it and back. To this day, Mrs R and I have real affection for this bridge and have visited it many times since, often taking visitors with us.
THE BRIDGE AS A TOURIST ATTRACTION
Being Bristol's most enduring landmark, it is not surprising that to this day, The Clifton suspension Bridge continues to attract hundreds of visitors every day. In engineering terms it is a creation of sheer functional beauty. Look at it from any angle, either end, underneath or above - all actually possible here without resorting to a helicopter - the shape and symmetry are perfect.
As a tourist you probably have little need to actually drive across it, although many locals commute into the city via the bridge each day. Currently by car the toll is 30p, pedestrians and bikes go fee. The charity that run the bridge have requested a toll of 50p per car, this has caused some local outcry and is now the subject of a public enquiry.
For those of you not familiar with this bridge, I can tell you that on a fine day the views from it are stunning. Due to the hill on which Clifton is situated it is not possible to see over the city of Bristol itself, nor the city dock system. You are able however to see the outer dock, Bristol suburbs to the south and the Mendip Hills beyond in the distance. To the north is the best view of the Avon Gorge available from any point.
The bridge crosses not only the River Avon, but also the main A4 and a single track railway on the Leigh Woods side. Obviously the A4 is a busy main road, but to this day there is a surprising amount of river traffic to observe, especially at high tide. At low tide the Avon appears little more than a muddy puddle.
Whilst on this occasion we were not in Bristol in the evening to see the bridge illuminations, on previous visits we have marvelled at the site - the Suspension Bridge really comes alive at night - it has recently had the lighting renewed too. At twilight it takes on an extra romantic aspect. On days of celebration there have been fireworks launched from the bridge, again framed by the illuminated chains there is no more spectacular a setting for such celebrations.
WHO LOOKS AFTER THE BRIDGE?
The Clifton Suspension Bridge is registered as a charitable trust. As such, under the management of thirteen trustees, it employs a Bridge Master, who is on-call 24 hours a day. Under his supervision are a team of toll keepers and four maintenance staff.
Every six months a team of consulting engineers carries out safety checks on the structure of the bridge.
AN ODD STORY OR TWO .
Obviously with such a long and illustrious history, the Clifton Suspension Bridge (if able to speak) could tell a tale or two.
This year (2006), on 29th August at 1.50pm, the first recorded birth took place actually on the bridge. A gentleman rushing his wife to hospital, by car, from their home in Portishead, realised that he was not going to make it, when her waters broke as they reached the toll barrier at Leigh Woods. Unable to stop actually on the bridge, the new father carried on driving until clearing the Clifton end, where he stopped. By that time it was all over. The ambulance crew arrived in time for the cord to be cut and to take mother and newborn baby into hospital.
In 1885, an unhappy young lady, Sarah Renley jumped from the bridge in a suicide attempt. Thanks to the fashion of the day, her skirt billowed in the wind acting as a parachute. She had a safe landing in the mud at the side of the river. Apparently Sarah went on to live a happy life, and died at the age of 84 in 1948.
Returning momentarily to that 60p Royal Mail stamp, issued in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Brunel's birth, I wonder how many looked at it closely enough to realise that the bridge shown is NOT the Clifton Suspension bridge, but one of his earlier proposed designs for the site? The Leigh Woods abutment is clearly missing.
The now famous picture of Concorde flying low over the Clifton suspension Bridge was taken on the very last flight of that magnificent aircraft. On Wednesday 26th November 2003 at 12.55pm, the last flying Concorde landed at Filton (near Bristol) to be put on display where all these aircraft were built.
It has been forbidden to fly aircraft UNDER the bridge since 1911, when a Frenchman, M. Tetard pulled such a stunt in one of the very first aeroplanes. In 1957 Flying Officer J.G. Crossley of 501 squadron, based at Filton, flew an RAF Vampire at 450mph beneath the bridge. Having done so, he crashed into the Gorge and was killed in the ensuing explosion.
Looking at the two piers from which the chains are hung, you may notice that the designs are actually quite different. It is not known why this should be, or exactly who decided that they should be.
This is a bridge, a working one at that. Facilities in the broader sense are therefore somewhat limited; there are no toilets, restaurants, cafes or funfairs here. You will however find provided the Samaritans telephone number.
The excellent little museum that used to be in nearby Sion Place in Clifton has now sadly closed. A new, but much smaller, temporary 'Visitor Centre' has recently opened on top of the Leigh Woods abutment, opposite the toll keeper's office. Regrettably this was closed on our visit. However, the toll keeper handed me a leaflet about guided bridge tours, which are free and start at 3.00pm from the Clifton Toll on Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays between 27th May and 10th September. The tour lasts 45 minutes.
Not strictly connected with the Clifton Suspension Bridge - pre-dating it - is the Observatory, a circular building on top of Clifton Down overlooking the bridge and southern end of the Gorge. This is currently being renovated, but is usually open to the public. The walk up the steep path leading to the Observatory is a rewarding one, as it offers probably the best view of all. There are also large grassy areas in front of the Observatory overlooking the bridge that offer an ideal picnic site.
THE BALD STATISTICS
Height Above High Tide: 245ft (75m)
Span of Chains: 702ft (214m)
Span Between Piers: 627ft (191m)
Height of Piers: 86ft (26.2m)
Width of Deck: 30ft (9.1m)
Weight of Bridge Structure: 1,500 tons
Tested Load Bearing Capability: 7,000 tons
Total Links in Chains: 4,200
Estimated Cost: £52,000
Actual Cost: £100,000+
Building Period: July 1831 to December 1864
HOW TO GET THERE WITHOUT A CAR
From Brunel's Bristol Temple Meads railway station, you can catch a No 8 or 8A bus. They run every few minutes during the day. (Do not take the 9 or 9A in this direction). The 8/8A route travels through the city centre. At the Centre Promenade the bus stop is opposite the Hippodrome theatre, near the 'Sails' structure and statue of Neptune. Get off the 8/8A bus at Clifton Village or Christ Church, Clifton. The Bridge is a short level walk from either of these bus stops. Taxis are always available at BTM and on the Centre Promenade.
Clifton Suspension Bridge Trust
The visitor centre is open from 10.00am to 5.00pm daily - admission is free, but donations are welcome.
For guided tours (Tel) : 0117 974 4664
General Enquiries (Fax) : 0117 974 5255