The Clifton Suspension Bridge stretches across the Avon Gorge to form one of Bristol’s most well-known symbols. I’ve stood here before, gazing through 76 metres of air to the churning river below. I’ve also driven across its narrow, delicate frame, as one of the 11 000 or so vehicles that shudder from one hulk of dry land to the other each day.
Incredibly, this bridge was designed over 150 years ago for horses and carts, not impatient commuters. A wealthy wine merchant funded a competition through his will, inviting engineers to submit their plans for crossing the gorge. Years of political squabbling followed until a 24 year old man convinced the judges that a suspension bridge would be possible. His name was Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a genius who would go on to design much of the Great Western Railway and the first steamship to cross the Atlantic.
This was Brunel’s first major commission and the foundation stone was laid later that year. However, bureaucracy and administrative headaches frustrated progress and the city abandoned the scheme. Brunel moved onto bigger and better things, creating a legacy of his own. After his death, Bristol regrouped and construction began again. Clifton Suspension Bridge opened in 1864 and has been functional ever since.
An ‘Interpretation Centre’ is open most days at the Leigh Wood end, although parking can be difficult. A stroll along the riverbank gives the best views of the bridge, flanked by rows of coloured houses and showing those 76 metres of air.