The United Kingdom’s growth during the Industrial Revolution - in the early 19th Century - fuelled major engineering projects. Large bridges were at this time, as they are today, major projects. Railways too can be considered as such.
London to Bristol Rail Link
One of these projects was the Great Eastern Railway. It was to link London and Bristol by train. Rivers, valleys and hills peppered the distance between the two cities. The Avon Gorge, through which the River Avon flows near Bristol, had to be conquered.
The man for the job was Isambard Kingdom Brunel. His answer to the Avon Gorge was the Clifton Suspension Bridge in 1830. The passage of time has not overcome its beauty and originality.
Brunel was often called a genius, for his prodigious output and advanced designs. He was unaccustomed to failure brushing aside any obstacle that Mother Nature threw at him.
Sadly, the bridge would only be completed in 1864. This was five years after I. K. Brunel died. Yet, he could see it in his dreams. He affectionately called it my first child and or, my darling.
Architecture and Design
Suspension bridge, in this case, means that two towers on each end serve as an anchor for the chains or cables holding the deck (roadway). The bridge stands 76 metres (250 feet) above the river. Its span measures over 213 metres (700 feet) in length. The original design had some Egyptian stylistic debts.
The Struggles of Building the Bridge
Painful struggles seem always to surround major engineering feats. It is as though fate whispers doom to human daring. The Clifton Suspension Bridge would be no exception.
Brunel was 24 years old when he won the commission to build it in 1830. Yet, the idea of it goes back to 1754. It was then that William Vick, a wine merchant, left funds in his will for a bridge between Clifton and Leigh Woods. These small towns are inextricably joined today by this architectural wonder.
When the money dried up in 1843, only the two towers were finished. This meant its construction was then abandoned but, not forgotten about.
Part of its ironwork was sold in 1851. This was used in the Royal Albert Bridge between Plymouth and Saltash.
The Completion of Brunel's Dream
Later that century William Barlow and John Hawkshaw wanted to complete the bridge. In 1860 they resurrected Brunel’s designs. They modified the design by incorporating a higher deck and using triple instead of double chains to suspend it. Construction was restarted in 1862 and ended successfully two years later.
Trivia about Clifton Suspension Bridge
- An act of Parliament made it a toll bridge to recoup costs.
- Tolls are only levied on vehicles not people.
- The last Concorde flight flew over it in 2003.
- The Bristol Riots of 1831 stopped construction for 5 years.