Address: Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol BS8 3PJ, UK

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Phone: +44 (0) 1179 744664

 

Clifton Suspension Bridge History

The Clifton Suspension bridge is a Grade 1 listed structure spanning the River Avon between Leigh Woods and Clifton, near Bristol.

Whilst the idea was probably discussed for many years, it wasn’t taken seriously until 1753 when Bristol wine merchant William Vick left £1,000 in his will towards a stone bridge. This was to be built once the fund reached £10,000. By 1829 the fund had reached £8,000, but it was then calculated that over £80,000 was needed. At this point an Act of Parliament was passed to allow an iron bridge to be built with tolls charged to fund the project.

It was decided to invite designs for the new bridge and eminent engineer Thomas Telford was recruited to select the best entry. He rejected them all and suggested a design of his own which incorporated what at the time were believed to be unfeasibly tall Gothic towers. A second competition was set and judged by others. It was won by 24 year old Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Due to his age there was a degree of consternation amongst his fellow competitors, but the people of Bristol took him to their hearts. His design incorporated Egyptian features which were popular at the time.

Construction started in 1831 but was delayed by the Bristol Riots in the same year, only resuming in 1836. The project proved costly and with resources running out, work was abandoned in 1843 with only the towers built. The ironwork was sold on and used in building the Royal Albert bridge in Plymouth. The Avon was left with two riverbank towers.

Brunel died in 1859 and his fellow engineers decided a fitting tribute to him would be to complete his bridge. Funds were arranged and engineers William Henry Barlow and Sir John Hawksworth were put in charge, and in completing the project, they changed certain features. They made the design sturdier, used triple chains on each side and disregarded Brunel’s Egyptian features. Work started in 1862 and was completed in 1864.

When Brunel’s Hungerford bridge was demolished in 1860, the chains were acquired for the Clifton project. They were draped over ‘saddles’ in the towers and secured 30 metres into the rock on each side.

Arguably the most important change to the design came about when a local landowner asked for the bridge to be widened so as to be able to drive his wide carriage across. He paid for the alterations and was given a toll-free pass for the lifetime of his family. It’s due to this feature that the bridge is currently able to carry 10,000 cars a day on a design that was built to carry horse and carts.

The bridge currently has a small toll charge for motorists, but the previous charge for cyclists and pedestrians has been abolished.

In 2003, local festivals saw enormous crowds crossing the bridge together and such was the concern at the time that it was decided to close the bridge when future festivals take place.

 

Clifton Suspension Bridge Visit

As with most landmarks, it’s good to do your homework and find out what went on all those years ago. The place is easy to get to, just down the road from Bristol Zoo and it’s an easy excursion if you’re planning a visit there… or vice versa.

It’s not the colossal structure of some bridges today, eg the Severn Bridge (that’s not too far away), but, in its time, it was the longest bridge of its type. The fact that it was built about 70 years before cars were invented puts things into perspective.

The bridge is a nice size to walk across too. It’s not miles long, you can be across it in a couple of minutes and this allows time to take in the views and detail on offer. If  you just want a quick look, you could simply drive across it. If you want something a lot more detailed, guides and tours etc are on offer – contact the visitor centre for information.

Today, it’s a busy bridge with about four million cars passing over each year, as well as numerous cyclists, runners and walkers. For these bridge-users it may simply be mundane travel over an historic landmark. Victorian steelwork detail can be lost on someone late for work!