Clifton Suspension BridgeHISTORIC SPAN OVER THE AVON GORGE
BUILT OVER A 30-YEAR PERIOD FROM 1831 TO 1864, THE BRIDGE EPITOMISES THE THRUST AND ENDEAVOUR OF BRITAIN'S INDUSTRIAL AGE, AND, OF COURSE, THAT OF ITS ARCHITECT, ISAMBARD KINGDOM BRUNEL. THIS MAN, WHOSE VERY NAME HAS A HINT OF THE ELEGIAC, HOLDS AN ALMOST MYTHICAL STATUS IN THIS COUNTRY'S ENGINEERING HISTORY.
It is morning in Bristol during early December; for a number of days, a thick blanket of fog has unfurled itself over the south of England. Today, the dense mist that has curled from the sprawling moorland of Clifton Downs, down through the graffitied alleyways of Stokes Croft to the bustling dockland of the Harbourside has lifted, somewhat torpidly, leaving the city in soft, murky light. Leaves, only recently proud and vibrant with autumn colour, lie drenched and swollen along the cobbled streets as I trudge up Queen’s Road in the direction of Clifton Village. The weak sunlight caresses the sandstone of this terraced hillside neighbourhood, drawing faint outlines on the façades and cornices of the Georgian houses of Victoria Square.
I pass through the pastel avenues of Princess Victoria Street and West Mall, a noticeable lull hanging in the air as the locals rise to begin their day. While my inclination is to dive into one of the many local cafés, install myself next to the heater, and wolf down some hot, buttered toast, I stamp my feet and press on to my destination. I round the corner of Gloucester Row and catch my first glimpse of Brunel’s suspension bridge, its twin buttresses rising austerely out of the fading haar. The bridge spans the Avon Gorge, a deep limestone crevice cutting across the western boundary of the city. This ancient riverbed formed 350 million years ago during the last ice age, the southern edge of the glaciation cleaving away the steep-edged valley of today.
Built over a 30-year period from 1831 to 1864, the bridge epitomises the thrust and endeavour of Britain’s industrial age, and, of course, that of its architect, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. This man, whose very name has a hint of the elegiac, holds an almost mythical status in this country’s engineering history. Born in 1806 to Marc Brunel – also a giant of engineering – Isambard showed an early aptitude for mechanical drawing and was sent to college in France and then went on to complete his apprenticeship there. By the age of 20, he was working on a number of large projects including a series of tunnels under the Thames. After being injured in a tunnel collapse, he was sent to Clifton to convalesce. Here, he caught wind of a local competition to design a bridge to open trading routes between Bristol and Somerset, lying on the other side of the gorge. He beat off stiff competition from a number of older and more prestigious engineers and his design was accepted by the trustees.
Unfortunately, he did not live to see the bridge completed as financial difficulties and rotten borough riots dogged the building process. Today, a memorial plaque on the bridge’s east tower marks the contribution he made to one of the great monuments of the industrial revolution.
From the observatory at the top of the gorge, I turn back to look down on Isambard’s bridge, the clean, curving lines of its wrought iron structure outlined against the gloomy grandeur of Leigh Woods. I imagine Brunel gazing out over the same vista, calculating and measuring, cigar clamped between his teeth, slacks muddied and a crumpled top hat perched on his flaxen hair. Despite inevitable maintenance over the years, it is testament to his design that the bridge has remained virtually untouched since opening almost a century and a half ago. I make my way back to central Bristol, visible in the hazy distance, and ponder the legacy of this engineer. Though at first glance his vocation bears little of the romance of the fine arts, his work remains eulogised to this day. The historian Henry Petroski sums up Brunel’s achievements appropriately:
‘He achieved in iron what great artists achieved in oils, great poets in words, and great statesmen in deeds.’
- Words & Photos: Robbie Lawrence