FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Above, below and inside Clifton Suspension Bridge

Posted in Bristol, England by folkestonejack on June 8, 2019

The iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol is one of the engineering marvels of the nineteenth century that has gone on to become one of the most recognisable symbols of the city. It was a daring project at its conception and yet despite the passage of time has still managed to surprise and impress us all over again in the 21st century, as we discovered on a visit today…

The Clifton Suspension Bridge

The idea of bridging the Avon Gorge had been cherished for nearly a century, encouraged by a bequest from a Bristol merchant by the name of William Vick in 1753. The will specified that when the interest on the initial bequest had reached £10,000 it should be used to build a stone bridge across the 91 metre tall Avon Gorge from Clifton Downs to Leigh Woods. It was not to prove a straightforward exercise.

A competition held in 1829 to design a viable stone bridge failed to produced a design that everyone was satisfied with on the grounds of cost, appearance or feasibility. Among the entries were four ambitious designs from a 23 year old engineering apprentice looking to make his mark on the world – Isambard Kingdom Brunel. In the end the highly respected competition judge, Thomas Telford, produced his own design for a suspension bridge and the committee sought approval to change the terms of Vick’s bequest to allow it to be built.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was not to be deterred, proposing an alternative to Telford’s design which picked up much public support. The ensuing arguments and debate prompted a change of plan, leading to the announcement of a second competition in October 1830. The winner on this occasion was a design by Smith and Hawkes of the Eagle Foundry in Birmingham, but Brunel somehow managed to persuade the lead judge to change his mind at a private meeting.

The foundation stone was laid in 1836 but progress with the construction was exceedingly slow. The two abutments were completed by 1840 followed soon after by the towers. Although most of the ironwork had been manufactured, the money to finish the job had run out. A decade of proposals and alternative thinking could not find a way to complete the bridge. Some wanted to see the abutments demolished to remove the stigma of failure, but in time the Clifton abutment took on a new life as a viewing platform.

Brunel died in 1859 without seeing his ‘first love’ completed. However, the death of the great engineer galvanised his peers and led to a renewed effort to complete the bridge as a fitting monument. The money was raised in a surprisingly short time and the bridge eventually opened on 8th December 1864. It is now hard to imagine Bristol without the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which has taken on a life way beyond the hopes of its initiator, William Vicks.

The bridge is indeed a great monument to Brunel and to the foresight of Vicks (wonderfully remembered in the playful latin inscription on the bridge ‘Suspensa Vix Via Fit’).

Looking down into the Avon Gorge

Our reason for visiting the bridge today was to take a look at one of the most surprising discoveries from its more recent history. It had been long assumed that the Leigh Woods abutment was solid but as the plans from the early phases of construction had not survived no one could say that with any certainty. In 2002 a worker replacing the paving slabs above the Clifton abutment discovered a small void and repeated the exercise on the Leigh Woods side out of curiosity, discovering a much deeper void.

The experts lowered in by rope discovered an amazing double-deck arrangement of 12 vaults connected by small tunnels. The surprises didn’t end there. The vaults were surprisingly well finished for a space that no-one would ever have been expected to see again and despite traces of the construction scaffolding it was pretty clear that everything must have been removed through the access shafts at the end of the job. No mean feat in itself.

In the last few years the Clifton Suspension Bridge Trust has opened up two of the larger chambers (vaults 4 and 5) to members of the public on hour long hard hat tours and we eagerly snapped up a couple of tickets at the second time of trying (it’s well worth subscribing to their updates by email to get notification of the next batch of tours on offer).

After a quick orientation exercise on the bridge we made our way down, descending a caged vertical ladder to a new entrance that has been bored into the side of the abutment. No matter how many photos I had seen of the newly discovered space I found stepping into the first vault to be a real wow moment, exceeded only by passing into the larger cathedral-like vault.

The dimensions take some believing – the walls are two metres wide at their thinnest and the height of the chamber we had entered was equivalent to three double decker buses. It is a little hard to comprehend that an equally tall chamber lies underneath your feet, accessible by ladder. Quite extraordinary.

Inside the first vault

An hour passed incredibly quickly as we absorbed the fascinating story and the sights of the chambers on our wonderful volunteer led tour. It also has to be said that the trust have done a terrific job in telling the history of the bridge in the permanent exhibition on display in their visitor centre. It was fascinating to see the alternative designs for the bridge and consider what might have been.

We combined our visit to the bridge with a visit to the Clifton Observatory which offers an unusual perspective on the bridge through the 360 degree camera obscura installed in the roof of the tower. The museum in the tower is also well worth a look, particularly the displays that explain the early adoption of photography here. The historic Clifton Rocks Railway site is also located nearby, though this is currently only open a few days a year.

Gallery

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