Crossing the Avon Gorge and linking the towns of Clifton in Bristol and Leigh Woods in North Somerset the Clifton Suspension Bridge is not only a thing of great beauty – but has also stood the test of time and an example of an engineering marvel based on the original design by one of the greatest design minds in Britain’s history – Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Although the final design was not Brunel’s (in fact it was the result of a collaboration between William Henry Barlow and John Hawkshaw) it was still heavily influenced by the design which was first proposed. In fact, Brunel’s design would see work start of the first of the bridges in 1831. This work, however, was brought to a halt by the Bristol Riots.
When Barlow and Hawkshaw provided their new design it was different from that proposed by Brunel is several ways. The bridge was to both higher and wider than proposed in the original design. It was also to be much stronger and feature triple chains instead of the double chains that Brunel had proposed.
After Brunel shuffled off this mortal coil in 1859 work began on what was to be the final wrought iron structure. The bridge finally opened in 1864.
Today the bridge is managed by a charitable trust that purchased a final lot of shares from the Clifton Bridge Company in 1949. This trust now uses tolls which are charged to maintain the bridge.
Interestingly it was only in the 1920’s that this maintenance was finally made possible on an ongoing basis. This was due to the increasing number of cars on British motorways. Prior to this, the bridge saw very little traffic.
The bridge is an iconic symbol of Bristol. Images of it can be found in television advertising, tourism brochures, postcards and on tourism websites that focus on the region. Lovers of film can also see the bridge appear in many British productions. Interestingly the bridge was also the scene of the first bungee jump which occurred in 1979. The jump was organised by members of the ‘University of Oxford Dangerous Sports Club.
Today the bridge is part and parcel of Bristol life – and could, in fact, be seen as one of the most iconic architectural achievements in Britain. This has been recognised by awarding it grade I listed building status. The bridge now also boasts a 2 million pound visitors centre which allows those visiting the bridge to gain an insight into the planning and engineering that went into the erection of this magnificent structure. The building of the visitor’s centre was aided in part by 595,000 pounds worth of funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The Bristol Bridge will continue to delight visitors to the Bristol area for generations. It is not an iconic bridge, but a salute to both British ingenuity and engineering prowess. Even though it was built 111 years after the original design was proposed visitors to the bridge will agree that it was certainly worth the wait.