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The Clifton Suspension Bridge was designed by the prolific Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel and first opened to the public over 150 years ago, after a long period of construction. In 1829 a competition was opened to design a bridge to cross the river Avon and gorge, funded by the Society of Merchant Venturers from an initial bequest from William Vick, a Bristol wine merchant in the year 1753. The first round of entries saw all the designs rejected, including that from a 23 year old Brunel. One year later the competition re-opened and Brunel’s design won. 

Construction of the bridge

Work on the bridge began in 1831, but it was hindered by cold weather, riots and financial issues; at one point the project was abandoned completely before restarting and The Times reported that Bristolians must have felt its completion was “an unattainable ideal- a sort of phantom project that haunted the shores of the Avon…” These issues meant that when Brunel died in 1859 he never saw the bridge completed. William Henry Barlow and John Hawkshaw took over the venture upon Brunel’s death and the bridge was finally opened to a jubilant crowd of 150,000 people on 8 December 1864. At the time it was the longest and highest chain bridge in the world (The Times, 9 December 1864).

The construction of the Leigh Tower in Somerset and the Clifton Tower in Gloucestershire. Brunel’s original plans included sphinxes atop the towers, but these were never built. Copyright Clifton Suspension Bridge Trust.

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 Opening of the bridge, The Illustrated London News, 17 December 1864, Vol. 45, No. 1292, p. 597.

From The Illustrated London News Historical Archive, 1842-2003.

Legacy

Today, the bridge is an icon of the City of Bristol and is crossed daily by around 11,000 vehicles. It is managed by the Clifton Suspension Bridge Trust and is grade I listed.

Opening times/ access:

The Observatory Hill in Clifton offers fantastic views of the bridge. The Visitor’s Centre, on the Leigh Woods side of the bridge, is free and opens from 10:00 – 17:00 every day. Free tours of the bridge are on Saturdays at 3 pm. 

There is a £1 toll to cross the bridge in a vehicle under 4 tonnes, but pedestrians and cyclists can cross for free. 

Pre-booked historical tours also run to the Leigh Woods Vaults, a series of vaulted chambers under the Leigh Tower. These are limited and can be booked via cliftonbridge.org.uk.

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