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THE CLIFTON SUSPENSION BRIDGE
A brief tour.
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The bridge during the initial part of construction - about 1840.
The Bridge about 1880. The slipway in the foreground was the only other way to cross the river without a long detour - by rowing boat at high tide and boats and a gangplank tied together at low tide. this was not for the faint hearted and hence a bridge was a popular idea. A competition was held and Brunel, although a young man submitted the winning entry, beating other well known engineers who came up with some ridiculous and impossible designs, one of which by Telford, a leading canal engineer included two slender towers rising the full height of the Gorge. Given the winds and the unstable ground, this design would have been a disaster. Naturally for a young man to win where older and more experienced engineers had failed did not endear Brunel to the profession but it certainly did to the people of Bristol.
This bridge was designed in 1830 by
Isambard Kingdom Brunel ( 1806 - 1859 )
Construction began in 1836 but was interrupted in 1845 through lack of funds. It was not until 1864, five years after Brunel's death that the bridge was completed as a monument to his fame. The chains used being those from the Hungerford Bridge designed and erected by him in 1843.
The Clifton Suspension Bridge is World famous and one of the essential things to see in the West Country. It is breathtaking to drive along the A4 to Bristol on a sunny day , turn a corner and see the white structure spanning the Gorge. People in Bristol tend to ignore it but the Bridge is a beautiful piece of engineering lovingly maintained by the Trustees and in better condition now than it was when built! However the bridge is NOT as Brunel originally designed it. His original scheme was far more ornate with stone lions and mock Egyptian features. Brunel's design was also narrower than the finished structure, the increased width resulting from a local land-owner who wished to drive his carriage to Bristol without having to walk or negotiate the steep roads on both sides of the Gorge. He paid for the modifications and had a free lifetime pass for his family and household! Without this essential widening the Bridge would never have been able to cater for modern traffic. Today it costs just 50p to cross in a light vehicle and the bridge takes on average £1500 per day in tolls. Pedestrians are not charged. The speed limit has recently been raised to 25 mph.
William Farvis was working in Bristol when construction of the Bridge first began. When it restarted in 1868 he was in a substantial way of business. It is extremely likely that Farvis components were used on the original structure as this type of engineering was the firms line of business and William had worked extensively on the GWR, for which Brunel was engineer. Family folklore says that he was involved, but most Bristol families like to claim some link to the great engineer, although this one is rather stronger than many.
click here for a full width panorama
Two different vistas - on the left looking down the Avon towards the sea, photographed from the Leigh tower. On the right, looking towards Bristol and the lock gates of the City Docks, photographed from the centre of the bridge..
and another famous Bristol landmark, the 'Camera Obscura' . A moving mirror in the top reflects images of Bristol onto a large circular screen. People on the 'Downs', an area of parkland covering a huge area of the western border of the City are blissfully unaware that they are being watched! The 'Giants Caves' are reached through a tunnel below the tower. Photographed from the Somerset side of the Bridge.
The two towers - Clifton on the left is built on Rock, but the Somerset side needed a massive brick buttress before work could start. Note that the towers are NOT completely identical in construction. Brunel's original design had Egyptian style decorations and sphinx heads, popular at the time, but horribly out of keeping and very expensive. The later engineers who finished the project perhaps wisely, left them off! While the towers are generally similar in size, Clifton has cut outs in the sides and the Leigh tower has more pointed arches. The top of the towers are roofed - with rather tatty corrugated iron sheeting!
The Clifton Tower.
It's a long way across. Before the bridge was completed a wrought iron bar was placed across the gap to the right of the bridge and brave Victorians would PAY to be pulled across in a basket. It was the done thing to propose to your loved one in the basket on the way over! On the day work began, there was a formal ceremony to lay the first block, celebrated in true Victorian fashion with a fair. As the time for the ceremony approached, the bar slipped and fell. Right up to the last minute frantic hammering could be heard as it was straightened out ( it was wrought iron remember - no thought of testing and certification in those days!) The bar was repaired just in time but always had a kink which tended to snag the rope as the basket crossed. Some time later the rope pulling the basket broke in mid travel - and the stranded travellers were rescued after a lengthy wait, supposedly by Brunel himself, who moneyed out along the bar with a new length! The bar remained in position for many years and continued to take passengers even while work was halted on the structure.
The road tunnel was put in place in the 1980's to prevent 'objects' that fell from the Bridge landing on the road. The guard rails are recent additions to prevent people climbing over the railings. From time to time people throw things from the bridge, including items of furniture it seems and they also parachute and bungee jump. This is of course illegal and hugely disruptive as the main A4 road below has to be closed, as does the Bridge, causing gridlock in the City. Some time ago as a Christmas prank, three students attempted to abseil from the bridge to a waiting boat in the river. It was dark and the rope knotted but this was not seen until one of them got stuck half way down. The 'Reindeer' and 'Father Christmas' made it to the waiting boat, but the 'Christmas Tree' was eventually retrieved by a team of very angry policemen who had the dubious pleasure of hauling the victim over 50 metres back to the bridge deck becoming more annoyed with each heave on the rope. The Police maintained communication with the 'Christmas Tree' using a megaphone and most of the communication seemed to involve repeated use of the words 'hang on a bit longer'. It made a memorable event!
The Leigh Woods Tower from the Clifton side - the huge abutment is made of bricks and was a massive job for the Victorian engineers without power tools. It has chambers inside it the 'size of a church'. These have only recently been re-discovered but they were actually known about in the 1960's although the information was then lost. Test borings to see if the pier was solid all missed the chambers and went through the solid bricks, so everyone assumed the abutment was solid - it isn't. This also demonstrates how little is actually known about the original design and construction.
The three following pictures show the chains that support the deck. These are regularly tested and replaced when necessary and there is huge redundancy in the structure. The chains are actually second hand, having been used firstly on Brunel's Hungerford Bridge in London. When this was demolished they were re-used on the Clifton Bridge!
Everything is on a massive scale - but it has stood the test of time. These bolts secure the chain links.
The black wires are the lights that illuminate the outline at night. At first there were numerous failures - seagulls were stripping off the insulation for nesting material!
The chains are anchored approximately 30 metres underground inside rock tunnels at each end of the bridge.
Roadway and hangers. From time to time these are checked and temporally replaced with wire hawsers - not a pleasant site as you cross! The actual deck - is wooden. The bridge walkway has drain holes and these drain water into mid air. Being hit by a dollop of water from the Bridge was no joke, but this is now prevented by the 'new' road tunnel.
The deck locating points. There is one at each end under the plate. The bridge moves with traffic and in winds and these joints take up the movement. The deck can be seen moving in a gentle breeze and in a high wind can be seen to flex several inches. Alarmingly it also moves each time a car crosses the joint. Most of the thermal expansion is taken up by the curve of the roadway and not by the joints. The deck is located so that it can move in and out but not sideways. During the 1990 hurricane, one of the bridge engineers was driving over the bridge when it was hit by a mini tornado. He claims that his car was airborne and that 'he didn't leave the bridge, it left him'. Another witness claims that the deck jumped out of the guides at this moment and then crashed back again. Checks were made immediately but no damage was found, a testament to the construction, maintenance and the design of this 150 year old structure.
Under the deck - you won't see this as you can't get there, - but a camera can. The right hand side is the edge of the stone pier, and the left hand side is the deck of the bridge. This is the Clifton side. Looks like it could use some rust proofer! Picture taken June 2003.
Suspension bridges hang on their chains and flex with different loads and winds. Like an aircraft wing, they are designed to flex and if they didn't they would collapse. However the movement has to be controlled so that the suspension chains can move but the stonework doesn't. Masonry is very good at supporting weight, in compression, but it can't take any sideways movement or tension as this will crack the joints and it will quickly break up. Without something to prevent this movement reaching the tower, the bridge would have fallen down within months, so inside the top of the towers are special saddles to support the chains. These carry the weight of the structure and allow the chains to move back and forth over the top, like a set of giant rollers, so that the dynamic forces pass through the tower without moving it. Although total movement is only about 1mm this is essential to prevent collapse - hence it is very important to ensure that they are kept in working order and don't seize up! There are saddles at each point where the chains change direction and two more are located where they go underground.
The chains continue underground to the approximate position of the manhole on the right of the picture! The Bridge now has sophisticated systems to prevent overweight vehicles from crossing. HGV drivers regularly try to make a shortcut and are stopped by flashing lights, sirens and locked barriers. They face the embarrassment of having to back up several hundred metres to the nearest turning point as there is no room to turn at the entrance to the Bridge! This is regarded as a natural punishment by the authorities as it is hugely disruptive and difficult.
What a view!
comparative view - 1960 - 2000 click here
We hope you have enjoyed this mini tour. The photographs were taken on a perfect Summer evening in June 2001 and information came from the Bridge master and local historians and residents. If you are ever in Bristol, it really is worth a visit. There is now a Visitor Centre nearby on the Clifton side that is signposted from the approach road.
........and yes, we have supplied the Suspension Bridge Trust with maintenance equipment!
They got up early in those days!
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click here for a close up of the details on the plaque
The 'lookout' plinth - positioned at a natural vantage point it gives brief details of the structure and history.
- there is a magic to the Bridge - any time - any season - any year -
A spring day - about 1910
..from an postcard - Glen Avon with a full load heading down the Avon - about 1938
Summer evening - PS Ravenswood approaching Bristol - 1948
An autumn morning in 1978
A cold spring morning - April 2009
A summer morning - timeless
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Link to Clifton Suspension Bridge web site. History, facts and pictures!
All photographs copyright W.J. Farvis & Sons Ltd 2003. Text and photographs may be downloaded for educational ( homework !! ) and private use only without charge. Please acknowledge source and provide a link.