diamond geezer

 Friday, April 05, 2013

One of the best reasons to visit Bristol lies two miles to the west of the city centre, where the houses suddenly stop and the land drops away. Here the River Avon has carved a deep gorge through the limestone, 300 feet down, forming a formidable natural barrier. And here Victorian society responded by engineering one of the finest bridges ever built. Mostly pointless, but enduringly lovely. The Clifton Suspension Bridge.

In 1829 a competition was launched to design a bridge to cross the Avon Gorge. 22 designers submitted entries, but head judge Thomas Telford rejected all but five of these before declaring that his own blueprint was the winner. Telford's solution was a multi-span suspension bridge, requiring tall towers to be built up from the valley floor, because he didn't believe the 700 foot chasm could be crossed in one go. Isambard Kingdom Brunel thought otherwise and proposed a cheaper single-span affair, which the awarding committee were eventually persuaded to accept. Two abutments were built, one on either bank, but the money ran out before the two towers could be joined across the river. Funding continued to prove a problem, and construction was delayed for so long that Brunel eventually died in 1859 without seeing his scheme completed.

The Institution of Civil Engineers then stepped in, reviving the plans in tribute to Brunel. They recycled chains from London's Hungerford Bridge - an IKB design recently decommissioned - and gradually threaded these across the gorge from one tower to the other. Vertical rods hung from the gaps in the chain provided the support for a roadway, which was deemed safe enough to support horses and pedestrians, and the bridge was finally opened to the public in 1864. Watch out for the 150th anniversary celebrations next December.

The Clifton Suspension Bridge is a mighty impressive sight, whether you pass underneath or approach from the clifftop. Two features combine to amaze - the span and the height - set against the natural beauty of the Avon Gorge. One of the best views is from the Lookout, a small promontory on the eastern side alongside the Avon Gorge Hotel. They own the Clifton Rocks Railway, a defunct funicular, no longer an alternative to the steep zigzag footpath alongside. An even better view is to be found a little further to the north, either from the top of the Camera Obscura or from the grassy slopes atop St Vincent's Cliffs. Now the bridge is below you, with Leigh Woods and then the plains of North Somerset beyond. The gorge's microclimate makes this the ideal habitat for rare flora and fauna, including two species of whitebeam found nowhere else.

But enough of the looking, let's get aboard. A toll booth guards the entrance on the Clifton side where the cables plunge down into the rock. Cars have to pay a toll of 50p, paid in silver coinage only, while the notional 5p charge for pedestrians and cyclists is always waived. Walk through past the barriers where vehicles pause, and past a sign advertising The Samaritans posted at the foot of the tower. I'd probably have felt more secure stepping onto the bridge proper had I not just been reminded this was a favoured suicide spot. A sturdy barrier runs to one side, with no risk of accidental slippage, but open enough to expose pedestrians fully to the elements. Facing ahead all looks 100% safe - it's only if you stop to consider that the road is a thin mid-air strip that you might get all quivery.

Or look down. It is a very long way down, first to the A4 which hugs the edge of the river on its way to terminate at the Bristol Channel. Next comes the Avon itself, still tidal at this stage so the amount of water below is variable. To the south perch the most fortunate houses in Clifton, before the gorge falls away and Bristol's Floating Harbour begins. The northern vista is far less developed, with National Trust woodland on one bank and exposed sheer rock on the other. Or look up. The cables swoop down to the centre of the bridge then rise up again to the tower on the far side. It's a shame that Brunel never got to experience the thrill, but a thrill it truly is.

On the far side is a Visitor Information Centre, which sounds far grander than it really is - a prefab with a small exhibition and sales of souvenirs inside. Not without interest, although it is hoped to replace this with a more permanent building in time for the upcoming sesquicentennial. And beyond that, a few houses, a lot of countryside and the road to Portishead. That'll be by why car traffic on the bridge is light - it links a city to nowhere much, and there's a modern toll-free crossing not far away at river height. And that's excellent news for those of us on two wheels or on foot. A triumph of the Engineering Age, Brunel's posthumous masterpiece, is ours to enjoy. [10 sunny bridge-y photos]


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