Bridges can be beautiful, especially those that span rivers, creating reflections and vistas for travellers to admire. The most spectacular bridges, in my opinion, are those that cross chasms and gorges, like the Clifton Suspension Bridge.
The River Avon cuts through limestone to form this amazing gorge that lies west of the city of Bristol. At 1.5 miles long, it hosts a history of human activity involving Iron Age forts, quartz crystal quarries, mines, the grazing land on The Downs above, and even windmills for making snuff out of the tobacco imported into the docks. (Bristol was a major port that thrived due to the slave trade). In the Industrial Age, Clifton became a booming residential area for the wealthy, which it still is today.
A bridge was needed to cross the gorge as the city centre ones were some distance away. The proposal was made in 1754. However the suspension bridge wasn’t completed until 1864.
Why so long in the making? There were plenty of designs to choose from. William Bridges (apt name) proposed in 1793 a stone bridge containing factories to pay for the bridge’s upkeep. An almost fantastical design that allowed ships to sail under its arch. The French wars put paid to plans as trade dropped.
In 1829 a competition was held for a prize of 100 guineas. Twenty-two designers submitted ideas, including four by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Brunel (1806-1859) was a prolific engineer, who designed ships, bridges and tunnels. The plans were judged by another great engineer of the time, Thomas Telford, who himself submitted a plan. The problem was cost. The designers were not aware of the budget and the lack of sufficient funds for their grand schemes, so most were rejected. Brunel came up with a cheaper proposal, others did too. By 1931, another competition was held. Telford’s design, which used chains, was rejected as still too expensive and Brunel won.
Brunel’s design was a suspension bridge with Egyptian themed towers and lots of iron. But money continued to be an issue. Investors went broke, funds were exhausted and work stopped in 1843. The ironwork was sold and used to construct another Brunel bridge – Royal Albert (railway) Bridge. Those brave enough to cross the gorge used a basket suspended between the two stone towers using the 300 metre iron bar which spanned the gorge and transported materials across.
Brunel died in 1859, his bridge unfinished. A memorial fund was set up to raise money to complete it. Another one of Brunel’s bridges, Hungerford in London, was demolished to make way for a railway bridge. The chains were bought and used for Clifton’s. A new design enhanced Brunel’s original plans, making the bridge wider, and 111 years after conception, Clifton Suspension Bridge was finally finished.
It is stunning, iconic, and grand in scale at 75m above the river and 412m long, but perhaps flawed by limited traffic – it never did really connect major residential areas. Also known as the Suicide Bridge, there are Samaritan plaques on the towers for those in need. Extra barriers were introduced to protect those at risk after 127 people fell to deaths between 1974 and 1993, and these measures have reduced suicides from 8 to 4 a year.
As for the toll, its a pound, and 5p for cyclist and pedestrians. The latter though is never collected. So far no-one has rioted over the cost of maintaining this marvellous construction.