The History of Clifton Suspension Bridge

The Clifton Suspension Bridge weighs a whopping 1,500 tonnes, is 702 feet long, and stands 245 feet above the water at high tide. It spans the Avon Gorge and River Avon, linking Clifton to Leigh Woods, and is one of the most prominent pieces of structural engineering in the South West. While it was originally designed to cater to horse-drawn traffic, it now serves in excess of four million motor vehicles per year.

The Beginning

The idea for the bridge was born in 1754, when a local wine merchant named William Vick left £1,000 in his will to go towards the development of a stone bridge across the Avon Gorge. Plans, however, didn’t begin until 1829, when a competition was conducted with the aim of finding a designer. The then 23 year old Isambard Kingdom Brunel was appointed project engineer.

The First Designs

Originally, Brunel made plans to build the towers in an Egyptian style with two sphinxes on each of them. However, when the building work commenced they soon realised that decorating the peak of the towers would be impossible; therefore, the idea was scrapped. Additionally, Sir Marc Isambard Brunel (father) recommended including a central support system as he didn’t believe that a single span bridge was possible. His advice was ignored.

The Construction Process

The building of the Clifton Suspension Bridge began on 21st June 1831. Within days, however, the construction was halted due to the Bristol Riots. Five hundred young men took part and Brunel was drafted in as a special constable. Due to the shattering of commercial confidence in Bristol, investments were cancelled and further development was halted. Work couldn’t resume for another five years. However, even then the subsequent investment wasn’t enough and development was halted again in 1837.

Hawkshaw and Barlow

Unfortunately, Brunel died in 1859 at the age of 53. He never did see the final Clifton Suspension Bridge as it wasn’t completed until five years after his death on 8th December 1864. Financial aid was then awarded by the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) and work resumed in 1862 under Sir John Hawkshaw and William Henry Barlow. The original plan was modified by increasing both the width and amount of suspension chains, and then two years later it opened for the first time. The extent of the changes made by Hawkshaw and Barlow were extensive. Many believe that they deserve more credit than Brunel for the final design.

The Grand Opening and Beyond

When the Clifton Suspension Bridge opened, an estimated 150,000 people packed the streets of the city to watch the procession, which began in Queen Square at 9.30am. This included the military, the police, the fire department, and various representatives from local industries. The Clifton Suspension Bridge went on to host many cultural events, including the first bungee jump (1979) the last Concorde flight (2003) and the Olympic Torch relay (2012). It is now a grade 1 listed building.


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